General Engineering Introduction/Do it First

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Engineers want to do things first. Engineers want to be first in their family, first in the class room, first in the school, first in the community, first in the world. This is not a competition. Engineering is not a race. Below is what engineers think about themselves, what motivates them, what they strive to achieve. Remembering "Engineers do it first" helps understand this.


Experience means practice, it means that you have done it before. Engineers have experiences, but experience alone is not what qualifies them for a project. If engineers are doing something first, no one has direct definition. An engineer that relies solely on experience is becoming a scientist, a technician or traditional teacher. Engineers value problem solving experiences, not expertise development.


Expertise is gained through successful, repeated, fully hacked experiences. Doing the same thing for 15 years creates expertise. Engineers typically don't do the same thing very long. After observing repetition an engineer either immediately tries to automate or creates a job for someone. This means that most engineers are not experts.

If an engineer does something first, they are instantly a temporary expert. This can be very seductive. For example, suppose an engineer figures out how to make the first keyboard extension cable without blowing up the motherboard or power supply. What is the next step for the engineer? Make keyboard extension cables forever? No. Hide the information for making the keyboard extension cable and demand a higher salary? No. Patent the information and form a company? Perhaps, but this often entails giving up engineering. The engineering ethic is to work one's way out of any perceived job by creating a job for someone else. The engineering ethic is that an engineer works from project to project.

Scientists and technicians want to become experts in some narrow field with a few tools. Engineers want to experience everything.


The currency of engineering is respect. A positive reputation is the same thing as respect, but a reputation can also be negative. Experience comes a distant second. Companies that employ lots of engineers sometimes go through reorganization that involves firing all engineers and then hiring some back on different projects. This jump starts project teams. The more “experienced” senior engineers sometimes hold back projects. Respect is more important than experience.

Some engineers work all by themselves in companies that don't understand respect. Maybe there are no other engineers. Maybe the personnel department is dominated by people that don't understand engineering. Experience is more important in the non-engineering world. And respect can not be communicated through a resume. So include the buzz words of every project, every software package, everything that you have the slightest experience with on your resume. Don't try to indicate level of expertise. Leave it to the personnel managers to figure this out; look forward to the “technical” interview where respect may be probed.

Respect is gained first by your ethics. The recommendations of your professors and teachers is often based upon how you do your homework, how you work on projects. Not tests. Not grades. There is a saying among engineers, the “A” students become professors and the “B” students end up working for the “C” students. In many engineering colleges, getting a “C” is not a bad thing.


The reputation that an engineer values most is "getting things done." Engineers are usually a little more willing to risk upsetting people because change always upsets people. A reputation of "always being right" is something some engineers want for themselves. But most of the "always right" engineers develop a reputation of being "hard to work with". Sometimes being "right" about the physical world at the "wrong time", in the "wrong place" and in front of the "wrong people" creates less engineering success than being wrong about the physical world.

Conflicting Statements[edit]

An engineer has to translate what the client (usually your instructor) wants out of a project into something that can be done within the time materials available.

In most classes the instructor has already done the project. So all you have to do to get an A is figure out what the instructor did. The instructor tries to say, (without being mean), “figure it out yourself.” But the reality is that instructors drop hints. Students torture themselves (brown nosing). They torture the teacher (become teacher's pets). And no engineering is learned. Friendship, liking and being liked is the currency learned.

Engineering projects in this class are open ended, meaning (among lots of other things) that the instructor has no idea what they want done. Instructors are liable to tell you conflicting things if you start the normal torture routines. Your goal is not to climb into the teacher's head, but to present the instructor with something that they can OK as an engineering project.

“Doing it First” can not be a competition because there are no rules. Everybody is fumbling around in a fog of vague, never done before ideas and thoughts. Celebrate this freedom!

Many Solutions[edit]

In most classes, the instructor has the right answer they are hiding. They grade by checking to see if you get the right answer. In engineering nobody knows what the answer is. Defining the question or the problem is hard enough. There may be many solutions that need to be checked out. Some may be completely wrong. Several might be right. Right solutions need to be explored, because there may be some hidden, unknown variable that makes one right solution more right than the next.

Most people play, they don't engineer. They latch onto the first apparent solution like baby ducks, draw lines in the sand and feel threatened if an engineer proposes another solution. For example, suppose, while eating a piece of bread, your back freezes up in pain. You stop eating the bread. The pain goes away. Your solution to avoid pain is to stop eating bread. An engineer would say: “Try eating bread again now that the pain has gone away. See if the problem (pain) repeats.”

No right or wrong[edit]

In most classes, among all solutions there is a “right” solution. There is rational thought that can find differences among solutions. In real world there are often solutions that are completely equal. This can destroy a freshman engineering team. The team members all have attractive, equal solutions and argue the merits of their solution and nothing gets done.

Some say that choosing among equal solutions implies there is no science going on. In fact the opposite is going on. It is true that the initial scientific engineering classes have one right answer. And it is fun to arrive at the answers through completely different scientific paths. But by the end of the 2nd engineering year, the science can be done different ways that arrive at different answers. Different assumptions can be made, different tables can be used, different interpretations of the problem can occur. The instructor may mark your homework correct even if the answer does not match … and your respect will increase! And if your answers always match, respect will go down. See ethics.

It is scientific only to say what is more likely and what less likely, and not to be 
proving all the time ... I might have said to him, "Listen, I mean that from my knowledge 
of the world that I see around me, I think that it is much more likely that the reports of 
flying saucers are the results of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial
intelligence than of the unknown rational efforts of extra-terrestrial intelligence." 
It is just more likely. That is all.  .. Richard Feynman

There are several ways to choose among the equal solutions. One is to translate opinions into numbers (see decisions). Another is to broaden the comparison critera until something obvious pops up. Another is to present the solutions to a larger group of engineers (your class, see design review).

1000 Questions[edit]

Suppose you do something that your parents don't like. They suspect that you have. They start asking questions. They interrogate you. They ask the same question different ways. They can ask questions forever. Your parents are acting like engineers. You are acting like the physical world that doesn't want to give up it's secrets. Learn to be your parents! Ask 1000 questions at every opportunity.

Walk around with questions at the tip of your tongue. Know what you don't know and want to know. Always have something. Refresh these in the morning. Make lists of what you don't know when reading something on the internet in your notebook. Einstein started his career by walking around with the question “if I ran at the speed of light, what would the light look like?” He wrote his papers when he entertained the answer “Light would still look like light … there would be no difference.” Start asking the world questions. The answers will appear in mysterious places just like a treasure hunt!

First Manual[edit]

Engineers typically hate manuals. Many like to hide the manual. This is because engineers are gifted at creating manuals. If you can criticize something, then you are gifted. Forgive those that created the poor manual and write a better one!

First Sales Pitch[edit]

Engineers have a profound impact on the world. How is something described? How will people understand it? What will it be named? How will the rest of the world be taught to use this device? Engineers don't necessarily provide the final answer to these questions, but they are responsible for the first answer.