We just do it
I’d like to talk about my profession, one that’s quietly in the background, just doing its job: engineering.
We read a lot about what lawyers do and achieve. The newspapers seem full of them. But nothing about engineers’ contribution to society. Yet the society we live in today would not exist if it weren’t for engineers. Everything around you, from the zip on your pants to the magical, barely 16-year-old iPhone, to the highway to get you to work, all were designed and built by engineers. There’s virtually nothing that makes up this modern world that wasn’t created by engineers. In fact, I can’t think of anything. So time to give them a little credit, don’t you think?
Engineers are a queer breed of people. They tend to be rather insular. The driving force in an engineer’s brain is to get things done in the most efficient, simple manner. According to “Applied Minds: How Engineers Think” by Guru Madhavan, a senior director of programs at the US National Academy of Engineering, “Engineers tend to be the left-brained type, using math, science, logic, and visualization to fully understand the constructability and feasibility of a design. Engineers use a unique mode of thinking based on seeing everything as a system. They see structures that aren’t apparent to the layperson, they know how to design under constraints, and they understand trade-offs.”
A US-based research group added to that:
“Engineers think differently than conventional thinkers in many different ways. First of all, they welcome complex problems because solving them often leads to innovation. Conventional thinkers prefer simplicity and want to avoid thinking deeply about steps in the problem-solving process.”
Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, then you don’t understand it well enough.” Engineers rely on their analytical thinking skills to break complex problems down into simpler parts. This way of thinking helps them to avoid making costly assumptions. Engineers think creatively. Instead of getting stuck on problems and quitting them, engineers think outside the box to solve them. Even create a new box. They don’t hesitate to ask how something works, why it was designed that way, and what they can do to simplify it. Engineers think economically. Finding cheaper ways to design things without compromising quality is the key to successful engineering. Engineers think persistently. If they are confronted with what seems to be an impossible problem, engineers keep searching until they find a solution.
Let me rattle a few names off for you: Nikola Tesla, who developed AC current (the ubiquitous electricity we use today); Thomas Edison, the light bulb to use that electricity; Gottlieb Daimler, the motor car; Nikolaus Otto, the four-stroke engine for that motor car; Henry Ford to mass produce it, so we all could afford one (mass production makes everything today); Charles Babbage, the first mechanical computer; Alan Turing to electrify it and give us our smartphones today (he broke the German Enigma code with it, saving thousands of Allied lives in World War II); Wilbur and Orville Wright, the airplane that shrank our world; Alexander Graham Bell, his mother, and wife were deaf, so he invented the telephone. The list goes on and on. You can throw Archimedes in there, Leonardo da Vinci too. Even Elon Musk who took the private sector into space and electrified the motor car. Our world’s creators.
But there are the little guys, too, that just quietly behind the scenes fix it all, keep everything running. Or build it to the inventor’s design so it will work. There are 7,000 engineers you’ve never heard of in Meralco to ensure you have 24/7 power. Or get it back quickly if you don’t.
One of the earliest examples of an engineer at work was whoever came up with the idea to use logs as simple wheels to roll huge limestone blocks into place to build the pyramids. But engineering didn’t really get going until the beginning of the industrial revolution in the 18th century.
It’s rare that engineers go into politics, which is a great pity. Because if they did, I venture we’d see more action, quicker. The most famous engineer of us all was, of course, our boss: former president Fidel V. Ramos. Ramos was a civil engineer, he got more game-changing reforms done than any other of our presidents.
An essential requirement of the machines we use is that they be carefully looked after and maintained. Something that is not sufficiently well done here, if at all. Engineers ensure they run continuously, and well. When I was a cadet engineer, an old man (well, he seemed old to me in my ignorant youth) took me under his wing. And taught me the fundamentals of how to be a professional engineer. One that underlies it all: look after your tools. Treat them better than you do your wife. Whoops, I’d better not say that (she might read this). Let’s just say, give them the care and attention you give your wife. When an engineer sees something that needs fixing, he fixes it—properly. He doesn’t use duct tape and wire.
So enjoy our modern world, engineers built it.