A Call To Arms for Engineers

Engineers make magic.  We are the only ones who create things from nothing: cars, televisions, bridges, buildings, machine tools, molecules, software… (You get the idea.)  Politicians can’t do it, lawyers can’t do it, MBAs can’t do it. Only engineers.

And the stuff we create is the foundation of sustainable economies.  We create things, our companies sell them for a profit, and that profit creates wealth and fuels our economies – a tight causal chain.  Said another way: no engineers, no products, no profits, no wealth, no economy.  The end.

Engineers used to be valued for our magic.  In medieval times we were given high status for our art, for making stuff that mattered: swords, trebuchets, armor, castles… (You get the idea.)  And the best of us were given a special title (wizard) and special consideration (if not reverence) for our work. These folks were given a wide berth, and for good reason.  Piss them off and they’d turn someone into a toad, or worse yet, stop making the stuff that mattered.

In the industrial revolution we were valued for our magic, for making stuff that mattered. This time it was the machines that made machines and weapons: water powered factories, gun drills, lathes, grinding machines, honing machines… (You get the idea.)  Politicians used our magic to advance their causes and industrialists got rich on our magic, and our status was diminished.

Since then we’ve made more magic than ever: cars, televisions, bridges, buildings, machine tools, molecules, software… (You get the idea.)  We still make magic yet have little influence over our how our companies do things. How did we let this happen? We forgot that we make magic.

We forgot our magic is valuable and powerful (and scary). We forgot that without our magic the wheels fall off.  No magic, no profit, no economy.

Engineers – A call to arms!  It’s time recognize our magic is still as powerful as Merlin’s and it’s time to behave that way again. Watch out politicians, lawyers, and MBAs or we’ll turn you into toads.

9 Responses to “A Call To Arms for Engineers”

  • Aaron Harper:

    I am afraid I must disagree, at least in part. First of all, the wizards (engineers) of the Middle Ages still had someone providing them with a place to sleep, food to eat, and a place to work their magic. I this sense, nothing has changed. Convince someone with money why they need to fund your research and you are on your way.

    However, the MBAs with the help of some politicians and lawyers actually have figured out how to create wealth. They do it by creating the “appearance” of wealth. P.T. Barnum said you can fool all of the people some of the time and all of the people some of the time. These schemers have succeeded in fooling enough of the masses enough of the time that they have usurped, at least some, of the status that engineers used to enjoy. These new paths to great wealth and power don’t require actually doing or making anything real, just good timing and the ability to entice investors (I use this in a very general sense, here) by presenting the appearance of something real. Remember Enron and the numerous other real estate or investment schemes that were nothing more than a metaphorical “house of cards”.

    I don’t believe we will ever be able to completely retake our place near the top of the food chain. However, if we can find some amongst ourselves that have an artistic flair, perhaps we can revamp our image into something more “appealing” to our children so they will want to follow in their parents shoes once again. Right now, all they see is us working ourselves to death for a gradually decreasing percentage of the pie.

    Other thoughts?

  • Aaron Harper:

    Forgive me. I made an error in my P.T. Barnum quote. You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time.

    Apologies.

  • Ryan McGavock:

    Mike, as a new graduate just starting my engineering career, I find your posts very inspiring, especially this one. I’m going to go work some magic!

    Just thought I should comment since I’ve been reading for a while now. Keep up the writing!

  • […] save costs’ to ‘designing cost out of the product’. His second one, a post titled A Call to Arms for Engineers, focuses on the relative prestige lost by engineers over time… albeit in a unique way. […]

  • Mike:

    From Ryan “Mike, as a new graduate just starting my engineering career, I find your posts very inspiring, especially this one. I’m going to go work some magic!”

    Ryan, thank you for your feedback. Quite possibly, the most meaningful I’ve ever received. Make good magic. Mike

  • Mike:

    From Aaron, “However, the MBAs with the help of some politicians and lawyers actually have figured out how to create wealth. They do it by creating the “appearance” of wealth.”

    Aaron, I prefer to create “actual” wealth – the kind created when you sell products for most than the cost to make them. Mike

  • Scott:

    Careful Mike,

    I agree with your assessment that “engineers make magic”, but the implied arrogance is cause for concern. I agree that “you’ve made more magic than ever”, but also agree with the previous post that not all of it is “good magic”. I’ve worked with engineers for decades and enjoyed withing WITH THEM to ensure the products will meet the needs of the market and be successful, but sometimes the arrogance I see in this note results in building “3 wheel Ferrari’s” (a potentially great product that will not sell because it’s not complete or misses the market) out of a belief that working with others will diminish your status. As more great products come to market the bar for “getting it right” just gets higher, increasing the need for collaboration with sales, marketing, finance et al.

    So, keep creating your magic, but let’s get over the “we’ll turn you into toads” nonsense and be a team player shall we?

    From an Engineering AND MBA graduate (who also know how often you use patent lawyers to stifle competition, so be nice to them too…)

  • Gus:

    For background: I’m a hardware/software engineer and do like to think about what we do as magic. Heinlein said “One man’s magic is another man’s engineering.” Asimov’s Foundation was a great representation of how the engineers could become the “priest class” in a culture that relied upon technology but became ignorant of its operation.

    That being said, I believe that the term engineer applies far more broadly than this post seems to give it credit for. I believe that the MBAs running companies are engineering/designing a business plan/model and executing on that plan. This model is derived from theory and experience and analysis. I believe that a teacher engineers a series of courses for her students. I believe that doctor engineers a treatment for her patients. A politician engineers and executes on an image and message in order to achieve social change and/or power over others. These are all creative acts involving analysis, design, and manufacturing/implementation.

    In all these cases, the members of these professions are creating “things from nothing,” so to speak.

    But even that isn’t the case. No one creates something from nothing. The first law of thermodynamics says that that doesn’t happen. All creations are derived. 🙂

  • Asking questions are in fact good thing if you are not understanding something fully, except this article provides good understanding yet.

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