General Engineering Introduction/Golden Ignorance
Personal ignorance can be something nobody yet knows on the planet, or it can be common knowledge the engineer has not stumbled across yet. Engineers leverage both ignorance and experience equally. Both have benefits.
.. it is normal to read all the information available on the problem. Failing to do so may mean "reinventing the wheel" and wasting time. However, during the course of gathering this information, you may destroy your chances of obtaining an original and creative solution if you are not careful. As you read, you will be exposed to the existing assumptions and prejudices that have been developed by previous workers or researchers. Try as you may to remain objective and original, your innocence will have been lost.
Engineers read just enough to familiarize themselves or get a "feel" for some problems. Then they will celebrate their ignorance as a reason for putting them on a team. They have a "can do" attitude when there is absolutely no experience or expertise. All this seems misplaced to non-engineers who are only trained to identify technician expertise.
Engineers value their ignorance, know what they don't know, and know not to make their ignorance a problem for others. For example, suppose you want to draw a part to be built, but have no expertise in 3D software. You have a choice, learn 3D software quickly or find someone that does. Neither is an engineering problem.
Over Easy Eggs
Suppose you have been hired as an Engineer to design the instructions for cooking an over easy egg for the short order cooks that will be hired. You have never cooked an egg, but you are an Engineer. You have been hired because of the success you have had in redesigning the machine that makes milk shakes. What is your attitude?
Observing Others Who Might Know
You don't know how to cook over easy eggs. Everyone else knows. How did they learn?
- Saw their parents cooking over easy eggs before they could walk. They can cook, but not talk about it.
- Had a really good teacher that marched them down a well worn path to cooking over easy eggs. They can cook, but not recall the frustrations along the path to learning how.
- Trained as a chef (expert) in eggs. Can talk about it for days. Can not help you find a starting point to begin learning and don't know when to stop talking about eggs.
- Self taught engineer who cooks, does some things in what appear to be unsafe, strange and stupid ways. Can talk about it .. but you feel like running away rather than listening.
Assume Nobody Else Knows
Don't make the mistake of thinking that others know more than you. Assume the opposite. Engineer a response. Build your intuition.
The only alternative is to destroy your confidence which destroys your intelligence, destroys the fun of creation, destroys engineering.
Risk being wrong. Let those that know more (if they exist,) correct you. Listen. When you first start doing this, it is hard to hear people correcting you.
You gain respect when you can engineer solutions on the spot. The solutions may be wrong and fail. But they will start conversations. They will provide a starting point for others. They will build your respect. What is the alternative? To chant "I don't know" the rest of your life?
Being right in an academic sense is an artificial artifact of high school education. It rapidly turns into politics, sales or management ... not engineering respect.
Find a Starting Point
Engineers don't choose between these two situations. Project managers may, but normally they don't have enough insight to be able to guide an engineer to the STARTING POINT of a perfect blend of knowledge and ignorance. Good project managers can listen and have a conversation about this.
Every design has a STARTING POINT. Expertise gained from others may be needed walking up to it. After starting, the hope is that new knowledge will emerge rather than reinventing the wheel. This is the worry of project managers and business people. Ultimately the engineer is responsible for choosing. How often do you come up with a homework solution that is different from everyone else's? How often does it match the answer key or the instructor? How often can others follow your work? How often do you re-invent the wheel without knowing it existed? Homework is not a struggle for the right answer. Is your starting point always "Find someone else's formula?" Too often respect for prior attempts cripples the starting point choice. Skim the text, read ahead, experiment, and find different starting points.
Being different from everyone means you are unique and have something special to offer: a NEW STARTING POINT. Ask questions that nobody else thinks to ask. See the walls of the box. Feel and reject seduction. Choose what to know and not know .. don't let others do this for you. Develop a gut level feeling.
Everyone processes much more information than we can be conscious of. The question is what details do we try to bring into our consciousness. The police want lie detectors built into their bodies. Lawyers want to predict the response of everyone to their words. Soldiers try to keep everyone alive. Engineers find starting points.
The Self Sacrifice Alternative
What is the alternative? I should know how to cook an over easy egg. I am glad I learned. Now I can catch up to other people. I sacrificed a bit of my personal time/life so that I could be like others who know how to cook over easy eggs. Nobody knows I was once ignorant. I know this is not engineering. But I would rather be like others that already knew.
This is nonsense! This is stupid! You will ruin your life and never be an engineer. You will burn out. You will feel defeated, ignorant, born to the wrong family, deprived, and the world stacked against you. Sex, race, age, class, ... discrimination will feel even more painful. Even worse, you will stand in front of people and proclaim your ignorance.
An engineering attitude is not dishonest. Engineers love life. Self sacrifice is not life.
Forward and Reverse Engineering
There are two types of engineering: forward and reverse. For example a quad copter was purchased. The reverse engineering goal is to take apart the quad copter, chop it into subsystems, name the subsystems, cost the subsystems, and figure out how they work. Why? Incrementally improve upon past success and provide scaffolding for forward engineering.
The forward engineering goal is to begin adding features to the quad copter .. different payloads .. different controls, different software to interpret the data that it is collecting.
Forward and Reverse Engineering start from a made object. Objects use to be made by nature ... rocks, trees, sand, water, fire. But now objects are made by man. The fundamental building blocks of the universe are found in Walmart. Everything needs to be taken apart at Walmart. Every piece stared at to the point possible uses appear in dreams. The world of man-made objects requires reverse engineering.
Made objects are the material component of a starting point. All projects exist at the nexus of reverse and forward engineering. The goal is to live at the made object starting point nexus with joy. Respect the creativity of others that doing this. Call it art.
What separates kids taking things apart from professional engineers that are reverse engineering?
- taking video or pictures of the assembled piece
- naming the object being taken apart
- naming the assemblies as they separate
- theorizing what each piece does, how it works
- building a tutorial of the disassemble similar to an unboxing video
Reverse engineering is an alternative to finding a starting point in past documentation to learn from. Reverse engineering is trying to find function from given form ... which is hard. Forms can have lots of functions. Reverse engineering is similar to taking something apart to figure out what it does/did, rather than reading the manual. Reverse engineering is often much faster than reading the manual and searching the internet.
Forward engineering is often called solving problems. This is sort of an oxymoron because the problems really are dealing with additions, total redesign, and significant changes, not the conservative goal of fixing things.
Documentation can always be Improved
The world is changing. In the 1950s, all the world's starting points could fit in one or two dozen books. There was one starting point for all information ... an encyclopedia. All justification was expected to begin at the same point. Yet going back to the 1700s, there was no expectation of consistent spelling of words. By 1950, everyone was expected to spell the same way. There was a single starting point.
Starting points may be unique to each engineer. But they are constantly shifting. Starting points are constantly being improved. Is there a single, best tutorial for the world? No, there are so many it is unreasonable to even search through them. Rather than trying to polish a single set of instructions, the youtube generation just starts all over again at a new starting point. The result is more video, more content, new context, more starting points, and many smaller audiences that serve a larger and larger body of knowledge. Value your ignorance!
Today people are doubting the need to teach spelling. Search engines are now learning our own personal spelling. Right now they are correcting our spelling. Will search engines soon start presenting content in the personal way we spell? The question then is: "Where is the starting point for spelling?" Will there be many of them including: texting starting points, emoticon starting points, perhaps even avatar body language starting points?