Orr on Engineering: The Engineering Life: Worth Living

Aug. 7, 2008
My friend and colleague Steve Wolfe once wrote an editorial titled, “Mommas don’t let your sons be engineers!”

Edited by Leslie Gordon

It was a well-written and argued piece, the thrust of which was that engineering is not highly paid and engineers get far less respect than doctors and lawyers. Worse yet, engineers are forced to develop into specialists, making them unfit for more general jobs should their employers fold.

Notwithstanding what my friend and others believe, I still encourage my grandchildren to pursue engineering careers. In fact, I believe engineering is the new liberal arts. Getting a B.S. in it prepares students for many professions besides engineering such as medicine, law, teaching, science, the arts, finance, and entrepreneurial business.

Such an education gives students tools and a respect for tools. It bridges the esoteric and the earthy, the theoretical and the practical. An engineering education teaches students to think as well as to respect the thoughts and arguments of others. It focuses on quantitative aspects of human endeavors, without overlooking the qualitative. It instills planning discipline, systems thinking, decision science, and a healthy skepticism. What future pursuits could possibly not be enhanced by these skills?

Granted, engineering is a tough major. The American Society of Engineering Educators is researching ways to help students scared off by the math and science get past that first shock and see just how much engineering has to offer. That said, I encourage students to take more English classes than the curriculum requires. Success in any profession requires good writing and speaking skills.

I also strongly suggest taking an interest in what I call “meta-engineering” topics. These might include the history of technology and engineering, biographies of famous engineers, accounts of engineering projects, and so on. Look up the writings of Henry Petroski on Amazon.com for some great references. Add James Newman’s The World of Mathematics. And consider Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Doug Hofstadter as a good foundation. Finally, find the free PDF of Kevin Kelly’s Out of Control on the Web.

After all my enthusiasm, you will probably be surprised to find out that I am not an engineer. My academic education was in math. However, I’ve been a fan, student, and booster of engineering for my entire consulting career. Were I to restart college today, I’d surely get an engineering degree.

Why? Mostly because I am fascinated by design. The notion of bringing something into being that did not exist before, whether from scratch or on the foundation of an existing design, is fascinating. Could there be a headier pursuit than participating in creation itself?

Still, an engineering degree by no means guarantees a bed of roses. In fact, students may need to step outside of the engineering job market to find their destiny, as did dropouts Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Dean Kamen. Or students might discover their destiny on the way to an advanced degree, as did Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google, and Jerry Yang and David Filo, the founders of Yahoo. Students might even find their bliss on the way into space as did astronaut and inventor Ellen Ochoa.

Regardless, engineering has magic and power. It provides an opportunity to make a difference in the world. Our future might often seem to be in the hands of economists and politicians, but engineers too will play a big part.

— Joel Orr

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