Top Ten Things You Learn In Engineering School

The longer I work in this career, the more I realize that engineering school actually was pretty great prep for an engineering career, and, well, life in general. I hope I learned more than ten things for all the effort  I put it, but a list can only be so long. So here are the top things I learned in school and how the long term impact to my life and career.

1.) How To Maximize Your Time

black-and-white-hand-vintage-numbers-mediumThe fact that everything seemed due at once and there was never any time to get everything truly completed bothered me as a student. Why not give us the time to really absorb the material, play around with that design, take it easy and mull it over a bit longer? I was paying all this money! Shouldn’t I be able to do as I wanted? Well, of course not. The real world won’t allow such luxuries. You will never have enough time. You must learn to prioritize, back burner things that are not of immediate concern, and complete the top assignments to the best of your ability. I am sure this lesson comes with any college degree, but something about engineering projects, labs, and class work makes a lethal combination that will force you to grow up. Oh, and don’t forget the oh-so-true Pareto principle: 80% of the outcome is the result of 20% of the effort. Learn to recognize the 80% of the effort that you are wasting.

2.) You Can’t Be Perfect And You Really Shouldn’t Try To Be

What is engineering if not “Professional Risk Assessment”?  You can never know, with 100% certainty that your design will work as intended. But as a profession, we use all kinds of disciplines to get as close as we can. We utilize “All The Knowledge That Came Before Us” to avoid repeating disaster and to instantly acquire all the formulas and observations that smarter people came up with long ago. We will perform a DOE (Design Of Experiments) to maximize our testing plan without breaking the bank or blowing your time table. We will leverage statistical methods to ensure our process is repeatable and reproducible.  And, of course, we will design in a Factor Of Safety to cover us if our calculation are a bit off or the real world throws a variable at us that we did not factor in. But, again, you are not going to be perfect.  Time, Budget, Profits, Knowledge, and Skill will all coordinate to wreck your world.

3.) You Don’t Have To Like Everybody, But You Have To Find A Way To Work Together

man-couple-people-woman-mediumSomething about engineering brings out the, uh, strangest people. It seems that everyone is coming from a different background or has a different view of what would make the project successful. Even if there is a fundamental disagreement, you must understand that a professional setting requires a decorum that you might not use around your family or friends.  As a result, most people develop a professional persona. That is the “you” that you present to others so that your ideas and projects get completed.

In my own life, I have absolutely tuned down the more eccentric elements of my personality when hanging out in the office.  For example, being from Georgia, I learned early on that a deep southern accent would get in the way of communication. So, I learned to even it out a bit (slow my speech down, enunciate more) to the point that when I eventually moved to Michigan people didn’t believe I was from the south.  Was I trying to hide the fact that I was Southern? Of course not! In fact, I probably mention that fact too much. However, it would be very difficult to communicate with people from other countries if was not aware of the potential for misunderstanding that I was in control of.

4.) Problem Solving Skills

I could argue that this is all you do in engineering. We are constantly trying to figure our way out of some jam or another.  If it isn’t a packaging, optimization, testing, or some other design issue then it could very well be a process issue within our development system. That is, something that deals with the design process rather than the design itself.  I have often argued that any large product development or manufacturing company needs a disproportionately high percentage of engineers simply to make everything work. It would appear that, more often than not, the process of design is just as flexible as the design itself.  Companies are willing to pay a higher premium for engineers when a process must be “massaged” because we will find a way forward.  So if you hate problem solving then stay away from engineering.

5.) Learn How to Learn and Never Stop Doing It

This is another skill that you most likely pick up with any advanced degree, but I think it is accelerated with an engineering one. You are just inundated with difficult concepts and, as stated above, very little time to absorb it. So, you learn to learn or you fail. Once you get to the real world, this skill is probably one of the most important ones you can have. I realized very early that you can quickly become an expert, or go-to person,  in any discipline if you have ambition and an ability to learn.  Any if you don’t know something, ask questions! Too many people think that asking questions makes you look dumb. I have learned that the exact opposite is true. People respect that you are thinking through the problem and most people like to be in a position to teach others.

I will give you one of many examples from my own career. I was working in an assembly plant as a manufacturing engineer. One of my crazy-robot-vector-illustration-10776117constant stresses was this robot that installed clips into one of my subcomponents.  The robot was old and finicky, so 4-5 times a week I would get the call that the robot was acting up and production was being affected. Of course we had back up plans, but this required extra man power which we did not always have in abundance.  When the robot would fail, I would call the one guy in the plant that knew how to fix it. After several weeks of struggling with the machine and struggling to get the repair guy out to fix it each and every time,  I decided that something had to be done. We were not going to be able to replace the machine, as this was out of our budget.  So, I asked for a crash course on how to fix it from the one repair guy. He obliged and walked me through some basic operations. I don’t think anyone had every asked him to teach them before. Then, he handed me programming guide (written in basic) and said that there was probably more that could be done if I could figure it out. Armed with this little bit of knowledge, I was able to get the machine back up and running quickly when it became misaligned. Going further, I learned enough about how to program the machine to modify its routine slightly to reduce its downtime by a good 75%.  Within the month, I started getting calls from other engineers to help me out with their machines. I had apparently become the new repair guy. Now, I didn’t want to walk around repairing these things all day, but I was able to help enough people that my reputation grew (“guy that can fix things”) and my network grew (“That is a helpful guy to know. If he needs anything I should help him”).  Having the respect of your peers comes in handy when you need help in return.

Oh, and engineering school will teach you to learn, not just to memorize. Generally, you bring whatever you want into an exam. But if you don’t know the material, then you won’t have time to complete the exam.  True story: I went in for an interview for a promotion at my company a few years ago. We have a very detailed product development system that takes years to fully master and is very detailed. Anyway, the interviewers asked a ton of detailed questions regarding the system. I did okay, but could have used some notes to make my answers even better. After the interview (and not getting the position) I sat down with the manager in charge for a “what could I have done better” review.  He asked me point blank why I did not just bring up my notes or fire up my laptop and look up the answer. What?? You could do that?? The successful candidate did. I mean, you still have to know what you are talking about to even know where get the answer, but the successful candidate would not try to memorize everything. Lesson Learned!

6.) Be Okay With Failure

woman-dropped-fail-failure-mediumThis is a tough one for those of raised in the “everyone gets a trophy for trying” era. You will fail. Often. Don’t beat yourself up. Just try to understand why you failed and do your best to prevent re occurrence.  There is even a book about it. This doesn’t mean that you should be stupid, a gambler, reckless. It means that you have to be okay with putting effort in and seeing it not go the way you want. As long as the journey teaches you something (see my point about lifelong learning) then you haven’t really lost anything.  I could go on and on about the number of high profile people that failed more often than they succeed, but that is an article already beaten to death in other places.

7.) How to network

Network doesn’t (just) mean going to conferences and handing out cards. It also means just being helpful to others (having value) that helps others think of you when opportunity arises or if you reach out to them for help. In school, the ability to network can get you access to old tests, helpful hints, professors to avoid, intern opportunities, etc. The best place to start is probably attending study sessions and well, hanging out with your fellow students. Doing this will introduce you to former students, teacher assistants, and similar folks that can help you remove obstacles to your success. But keep in mind that networking is about giving and taking. Don’t just be a leech. When you are in a position to help, go help. See my example in “How to Learn”. It all comes back around again. If people see you as someone who can get stuff done then you are networking effectively.

8.) Shoot for Design Optimization, not Design Perfection

desk-office-pen-ruler-largeThis one kind of goes along with “You can’t be perfect”, but I think it can stand alone as a single lesson.  Engineering is about balancing multiple requirements so that the right mix is thrust onto the eager masses. You could design a non-electric car that gets 100 mpg, but the cost might make it noncompetitive in the market place (gas savings end up being less than the extra monthly payment for the vehicle due to higher base price). Or you could design the safest car in the world (think, a tank) that would get such low gas mileage that no one could afford to drive it. So, design optimization. As of this writing, I work in the world of automotive craftsmanship.  If I designed a mass produced car that looked great, all the time, for all 100,000 units built, then my cost would be high. Instead, we play the odds. The car looks great for 90% of the vehicles, while the other 10% might suffer a slight flaw. A trained eye will pick it up, but most customers would not.

9.) Learn When To Walk Away

man-person-people-emotions-mediumAnything worth doing is going to come saddled with some degree of frustration.  It took many years, but I finally matured to the point where I can walk away from something that just isn’t worth pursing anymore. It might be something where the effort going in does not equal the output (low return on investment) or it might be something that has eclipsed my skill set and I need to bring in outside help.  By walking away from the problem, even if just temporarily, you get to calm down and think about something else for a bit. This is very helpful in many of life’s difficult situations. I am a pretty enthusiastic woodworker on the side, which is a hobby that can get stressful at times if things are not going as you would like. I used to just push through a problem with aggression, more often than not making it worse. I have since learned to walk away for a bit, calm down, and come back to the problem with a clear head. With this approach I can usually come up with a solution.

10.) Take Care of Yourself

healthy-person-woman-sport-mediumI mean this in the macro (you are in charge of your career; act like it) and in the micro (you are in charge of your body; act like it). The career stuff is obvious. We exist in a world were “lifetime employment” is pretty laughable. This mentality was boosted by a pension plan that would kick in only after you had so many years in service (say, 30) and reached a minimum retirement age (55, or something similar). In most cases, the pension amount kicked up considerable once the threshold was reached. This kept many people at one company for a long period of time. Now, of course, you need to manage your own career.  As far as your health is concerned, you can’t give everything up in support of your career. See that whole “you manage your career” thing. What are you going to do? Work your health into the ground for one employer only to be let go? Then what do you have? Take care of yourself. Eat right. Exercise. Get sleep. Find some way of reducing your stress.  You owe this to your self and those depending on you.


That’s about it. Do you have anything else that to add to the list? Reply in the comments section!


Sculptural Furniture By Sebastian ErraZuriz

It is no secret that I love kinetic art and simple building materials. And if you make something that is also functional and beautiful then you are really on to something. Enginartist Sebasatian ErraZuriz uses motion to turn a simple box into an infinitely configurable storage container and display case by having the simple beams of the design fold out from each other. In another take on a “simple box that hides its true complexity”, he has created on that explodes horizontally by sliding the simple beam members out along integrated dovetails. Following on with the simple building material motif, Sebastian uses plywood to design a gorgeous table and chair set, complete with a carved bowl in the center. I have always wanted to tackle something like this but was afraid how it would turn out after pouring way to much time into it. Looks like I should have had no fear. And, finally, dead tree limbs turned into a coffee table and books shelf? Way too cool. Head on over to his site to check out the rest of his collection.

Kinetic artKinetic art 2 Kinetic art 3Kinetic art 5 Kinetic art 4

Machines Blown Apart

BeaterThis one is brilliant in it’s simplicity. I have often marveled at electrical and mechanical components and  been absorbed in their raw, I don’t know, beauty. Think about those clocks that are made from car brakes that look perfectly natural hanging on the wall. Here, artist Brittny took it a step further. Here, she has disassembled normal appliances and laid the pieces out so you can take in all the cool things the the industrial designer tired to hide. No, you can’t look at these pictures and tell how the contraption actually functions, but I do think that the complexity of our “simple” devices are on full display. Plus, the contrast of steel, iron, copper, and multi-colored plastic is just,  well, beautiful. Nice job Brittny!

Check out the original article here.


Form Meets Function – Cool Bird Feeder


I love to see KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) in action. Here, we can see KISS methodology used to support both engineering function and design. Assuming this feeder actually foils the little seed stealing basta…squirrels, what you are left with is a product that looks cool just hanging in the yard, with or without the birds. Side note – I tried my hand at building a squirrel proof bird feeder as a kid and know first hand how crafty they be. Let’s just saying that screaming at them an effective, but not sustainable, option is. Kudos to Jim for an innovate design.

From Wired:

Here’s an elegant bird buffet worthy of even the rarest feathered friend. What’s better: The stoneware feeding tube hangs from a single wire and see-saws downward when a squirrel alights on it, making it impossible for them to hang on and steal a meal. J Schatz Mobile Bird Feeder | $225

Engineer Girl – A Great Resource For Aspiring Female Engineers!

Engineer GirlThis is a great resource site put together by the National Academy of Engineering. Fun, informative, and very professional. I really like the material they put together for “Try On A Career“. They have a write up for each of the main engineering disciplines and even go so far as to have FAQ’s about that discipline answered by actual engineers. Very cool and very useful! If you, like many of my readers, are exploring engineering as a career option or are the parent of a future engineer then I highly suggest paying them a visit.

Fail Your Way to Success

Most of the readers of this blog share a common goal: To utilize their engineering mind and their creative mind to produce something awesome for the world. And hopefully get paid for it. Of course, the world isn’t necessarily beating a path to your door just because you want them to.  To carve your own path you will have to get out there and try different things.  But where to start? What if you choose the wrong path? What about all that wasted time, which you don’t have? But, but, but….

This is where Scott’s philosophy is really powerful. He believes that you should have a system, rather than a goal, in order to reach your destination. From there, you try different things until skill and luck coincide. Every failure you have is an opportunity to learn something new, to find a new contact, to get introduced to another project, etc. So each failure is really building up to that final success(s).

So how does this look in the real world? Let’s use Scott’s story. He gets an engineering degree and starts working as an engineer. He is good at it, but really wants to do something unrelated to the cube farm. He has always enjoyed drawing cartoons, but is actually pretty terrible at it. He didn’t one day say “I want to be a rich, famous cartoonist!” because that would be absurd. Instead, his thought process was more along the lines of “I would like to not be in this cube farm anymore” and starts to put a system in place (he uses the goal of “Lose Weight” versus the system of “Eat Healthier” to show what he means by goal versus system. It is a little confusing). His system is straight forward: Try different things until something sticks, learning from each failure. He invents products, writes books, starts up businesses, and starts drawings a little thing called “Dilbert”.  He leverages all that he learned during all of the failed ventures to help push Dilbert toward success. If Dilbert had not happened some other success would have come his way because he was ready to capitalize when luck ventured his way.

Anyway, the book is worth the quick read that it is. Have any of you found success using this method?

Enginartist – Definition




1. an artist who displays an aptitude for technical problem solving, often relying on an unexpected use                         of technology to create art.

2. a professional engineer who demonstrates an artistic ability.



Mathalicious – An Innovative Approach To Teaching Math

mathaliciousI am really curious how well the team at Mathalicious will do at integrating into the wider math curriculum. I have long been a proponent that most of our math teacher/professors are great at teaching the fundamentals, but that the approach often lacks the necessary connection to the real world. Heck, even though I excelled at math all the way through a Masters in Engineering, I would typically just “go through the motions”. The light bulb didn’t go on for me until I was trying to solve problems in the real world while working as an engineer. Would it have been that difficult for professors to start a semester off with a real world example rather than just diving into proofs? Maybe you begin with a scenario that would be difficult to solve without the liberal use of say, differential equations, and then revisit this example as the students acquire new skills. I have always found that I retain knowledge better if I first construct a framework upon which to hang new knowledge on.

Of course, it is possible that some of the higher order math classes are just meant to teach us how to think critically, but some of the lower level and useful course are taught with the same amount of obscurity.

So, good luck to the team at Mathalicious. I hope they spark a revolution, or at least give the best teachers at least one more tool in their arsenal.


Floating Coffee Table

This is an awesome coffee table by enginartists RockPaperRobot. This is classic physics at play, as the magnetized walnut cubes try to spread apart while the whisker-thin cables between the blocks keeps them tethered together. The effect is very cool, but I do wonder how much load this thing can take. Can you reasonably expect to set a glass on this thing with it acting uncontrollably? And I don’t know if this is a real possibility given the nature of magnets, but what about the magnetic force dissipating over time and the entire system become unbalanced? This seems like something that must be highly tuned. I bet long-term quality issues are a nightmare! Very cool idea, though.


Can’t Fail.

Time for a Hot Shower!

Working As An Engineer

So, what does an engineer do all day anyway? Unlike other professions, where that question might be answered rather readily, engineering is a different animal. By definition, engineers are paid to solve problems that are grounded in science. In practice, engineers are doing everything from designing bridges, to writing code, to running Fortune 500 companies

Work Environment

black-and-white-coffee-cup-mug-mediumSome engineers wear ties, some dress casual, some where hard hats and jeans. Some engineers work in offices, some work in manufacturing plants, still others work in space. There are four main branches of engineering: Mechanical (includes Aerospace), Electrical (includes Computer), Civil, and Chemical. One could argue that Electrical and Chemical engineers tend to work in office/labs, Civil engineers work on site, and Mechanical engineers work all over the place. Of course, that is a very broad statement and there are many, many exceptions. So, you are encouraged to be open minded about the type of environment you are willing to work in. You may be surprised that a plant environment ends up being more appealing to you then a desk job (or vice verse) . You never know until you try.

Day-to-Day work

Job duties will  be highly dependent on where you are at in the design cycle. Some engineers will work exclusively in a certain part of the design process (specialists) while others will take a project from start to finish (project engineers, design engineers). You probably won’t play the same role your entire career.

Companies hire engineers because of their problem solving capability and flexibility. Though relatively expensive, engineers can be put into many different roles based on the companies needs at that moment. Throughout the course of a career (or even over the course of week) an engineer might be an Analyst, Designer, Draftsman, Contractor, Diplomat, Inventor, Technician, Program Manager, etc.

Engineers almost always working in teams. The days of the solitary engineer working through a project or problem alone are gone. Today, 99% of all engineers work as a member of a team, whether made up of only engineers or a cross-disciplinary team of engineers, specialists and business people. Hone your skills at writing and get better at public speaking. These are skills you will need if you plan on moving forward in this industry. Engineering is a bad profession if you want daily written instructions. An engineer gets paid to THINK. That’s why you are getting paid so much. The answer will rarely be given to you. Best engineers are self-starters and self motivated.Yanked in many different directions at once. Must learn to prioritize. Engineering school is meant to prepare you for this kind of work environment.


Let’s walk through the job responsibilities of a fake employee named Bob. Bob is a Mechanical Engineer in the Automotive industry. Now, a car requires pretty much every engineering discipline to go from concept to customer, so Bob has to have a general working knowledge of engineering (or he at least needs to to know where to go to for the answer). Bob is specifically responsible for delivering the instrument panel of the vehicle, which contains plastic parts, leather, steel reinforcements  electrical systems (wiring, switches), audio systems, and climate systems (ducts, registers), He is also responsible for making sure that all safety/comfort requirements with respect to the human body (ergonomics and energy management in crash conditions) are met, environmental requirements for material selection and recycle-ability are met, and that the design is manufacturing feasible. Oh, and he must do all this while not exceeding the budgeted costs of the system and while hitting the necessary timing for the automobile. Whew!  Bob is busy. But he is NOT ALONE. Each of these functions has a specialist tied to it that helps Bob deliver the overall system.

What, excar-vehicle-measure-fast-mediumactly, Bob is doing any given week will be based largely on where he is at in the product cycle of the automobile. It can take anywhere from 2-4 years for a vehicle to go from concept (sketches) to production. In the early phases, Bob will likely be working with the product designers and the business managers to provide feasibility on the proposed designs. This is an iterative process, so Bob will be attending numerous meetings where he provides expertise on packaging, manufacturing, and material selection and will then work to answer any questions that come up. He may need to go hunting for a supplier of a particular part if it is decided that the car will need it (he will leverage the purchasing organization to help find this source). He will also utilize his CAD designer to provide early concept feasibility. He will do all of this while guaranteeing that safety and cost considerations are met. The company likely has design rules and best practices to guide Bob, but he must always be thinking and be flexible. All decision will likely be presented up the management chain, so Bob has to be comfortable with public speaking and getting his idea across in a clear, concise manner. These reviews may find Bob at odds with upper management, so he needs to be persuasive if he feels that a change in direction is needed. The tools of his trade at this points will likely be CAD, email, phone calls, instant messaging,  face-to-face meeting, web meetings, and various computer programs and databases. His main job is to keep communication going between all involved parties, tracking the process, and providing deep technical knowledge of the requirements.

Another year  and many iterations later, Bob is kicking off tools. The design must be done with all requirements met. Now the company will need to invest millions in tooling (stamping machines, injection molding machines, assembly line fixtures, etc). This is likely a stressful time for Bob. Kind of like a painting, it is hard to say when a design is really done. There is always more to do, but Bob is running a business here and there are only so many engineering hours that you can put into the design. Bob minimize as many opportunities for failure as he can, but a perfect design is almost unbelievable  Engineering experience  judgement, and intuition pay off significantly here. Bob finalizes his design and puts “pencils down”.

plastic_injection_moulding_machine6 months later, Bob is standing in the mold shop where some of his parts are being built for the first time. This is just a trial, but the stakes are high. Based on what he finds, he may need to authorize tweaks to the tool and/or design in order to meet the requirements  He will then take these parts to the next assembly line in the process; in this case, the instrument panel. He wants to make sure the entire system is coming together correctly.  Bob likely has a make-shift office in the plant at this point since he has so much going on there. Finally, Bob will watch as his system makes its way to the final processing plan where the whole car is coming together. Once again, Bob is troubleshooting errors that are popping up and implementing changes.

Another 6 months pass and the company is ready to launch the vehicle and start selling to the public. Bob has tweaked his design considerably, the parts and process have matured, and all tests have been completed. All of the involved assembly lines are capable of producing enough parts with the required amount of quality to support the (hopefully) enormous public demand for the product. It has been 3 years, but finally Bob is able to sit in a finished vehicle and cruise down the road. But there is no time to take a breath. The next version of the vehicle is already being designed and Bob needs to start providing feasibility.


It would be impossible to write a “day in the life” summary for every engineer out there. The only thing typical about engineering is that nothing is typical. The desire to work in a flexible, sometimes stressful, usually difficult, but rarely boring profession is must (if you are bored, it is time to move on).

Wasted Talent (web comic)

CaptureAhhh…the perfect example of an Enginart. Angela Melick’s site, Wasted Talent, is a wonderful glimpse into the mind of an engineer that only an engineer could really bring to life. She does these awesome web comics that capture everyday occurrences in the life of an engineer . I wouldn’t call her comment LOL funny, but that isn’t what she is trying to do (though a few have really struck a chord with me).  Spend a few minutes (or hours) on her site. See what you can do when you don’t let that artistic side of you get beaten down by the engineering side?

Sad but true.

Can Send a Man to Space, But Not to a Woman's Apartment

Who Needs Real Friends Anyway?

Engineering Fields With The Most Potential For Innovative Development

I recently received the following email (edited for clarity):

Recently I came across your blog and I found it quite constructive. I would like your opinion about which engineering disciplines  you perceive to be most linked with future technologies. I mean, which specialization seems to exhibit the most potential for innovation in the future. I am considering studying either naval architecture or  marine engineering. Although these fields covers a lot of engineering modules,  I just don’t think that there is no enough space for innovation in (comparing to automotive or aerospace). What do you think?

Here was my response:

I’m glad you have my website useful. Thanks for the feedback. At the moment, I would think that automotive has the most potential for break through innovation. The industry is at the crossroads of better communication (smartphone interfacing, city wide wifi, touch screen everything), better gas mileage (which WILL require some major innovation in weight savings as well as battery improvements), and consumer safety (crash avoidance). And look at what they are doing with self-driving automobiles. Here in Michigan, we are testing self driving fleets on the highway with remarkable success. Then again, automotive is a consumer product so we know what is happening their. Major innovations in the marine and aerospace are likely to occur in government (military) applications, so they will be classified and not visible to the public. But, hey, look at SpaceX. Private shuttles in space. Who knows where that will take the industry?

Do What You Are

Interesting article going against the perennial career advice of “doing what you love”. Instead, the author suggests that you “do what you are”.

The pressure we feel to find a perfect career is insane. And, given that people are trying to find it before they are thirty, in order to avoid both a quarterlife crisis and a biological-clock crisis, the pressure is enough to push people over the edge. Which is why one of the highest risk times for depression in life is in one’s early twenties when people realize how totally impossible it is to simply “do what you love.”

This idea is in line with the main thread of this blog: only chasing what you love can have you end up doing that which you hate. I have often heard it said that the secret to a great career is to develop a love for something that other people can’t or won’t do. If you have a passion for picking up trash, then you can make a great living dominating the trash collection industry. Why? Because most people DON’T have a passion for it. Having a passion for something is 9/10 of the battle. The rest comes down to competitive edge. If, instead, your passion is shared with millions of other people (like acting or art) then you have a much harder road ahead of you. So, my advice is NOT to drop your dreams. That would be silly. Instead, find an angle to your dreams that involves looking at what you really ARE. Love singing/songwriting but have found it difficult to break on to the scene? Have skills when it comes to managing people and using production software? Why not go the production side of things to get started. Then, produce videos of you singing your songs. Not in the hopes that you will be the next Bieber. But so that Bieber picks up your songs and records it. You still get in to the industry, have influence, make money, etc. Play up what you are, not what you love.

So how does this apply to engineering? I can state, without question, that most engineers use the profession as a means-to-an-end. We all come to it for different reasons, but I highly doubt anyone truly LOVES engineering. You may love design, product invention, problem solving. But you get paid to manage projects, remove roadblocks, and trouble shoot processes. The result is the same: Great design goes out the door. But by acknowledging what you ARE you actually get the chance to play the game.

Fun With Wood

Very cool design project from Michael Turri. He took the time to slice up a beautiful hunk of wood, finish the end grain, and then snap a photo. He repeated this process an insane number of times and then edited them together. The effect is kind of like an MRI of a piece of wood. Then, to top it off, he synced up to music.  Only an engineer with artistic brain could pull this one off. Kudos to Mike! You can check out his process here.




Uh-Oh! Algebra Is Too Abstract To Bother Teaching Anymore.

At least according to this opinion piece in the NY Times.  I’ve talked about it before, but it warrants repeating: learning math is not about memorizing formulas or following the bouncing ball to get to the right answer. It is about understanding abstract thought and learning how to think. Algebra is that first rung of mathematics that has nothing to do with numbers, really. It is about using variables to stand in for relationships, balancing equations to show that input equal outputs, and presenting scenarios that could actually appear in real life and that a calculator can’t help set up. Heck, just the other day I was looking to buy a new computer monitor (adding a new on to my setup). My current monitor had a 16:10 ratio. My new one would need to be 16:9 (the new “standard”). However, the vertical height needed to be the same so that an image would not have to re-size as it went from screen to screen. To make matter worse, most of the websites only release the ratio and the corner-to-corner distance (viewing).  So what size monitor would I need to get? My problem was rather unique, a calculator can’t help me, and I had no idea if I could trust some of the random calculators out there. Of course, a simple algebraic equation and a spread sheet and I had my answer. I was able to match my monitor vertical height to within a few mm with a simple equation. Because I know algebra, I new that an abstract relationship existed that I could exploit. Now, of course, there is plenty of opportunity (engineering speak for “lots of problems”) to improve the way we teach math to kids. I absolutely love what the folks over at the Khan Academy are putting together. I love how they are breaking down the material, making it accessible, and doing their best make it fun and approachable. So why not just improve our teaching methods rather than simply ditching the material?

How Do You Attract Creative And Highly Driven Engineers To Your Company?

The good news is that when it comes to engineers, creative and highly driven pretty much always come together.  In other words, I don’t know many lazy creative engineers. Most tend to be driven to a fault.

Creative and highly driven engineers are out there, but they can be tough to attract and retain. That’s why a lot of the high tech start-ups end up in trendy areas (NY, Seattle, SiliconValley) and offer a real chance to be an owner of something big and exciting, rather than just another cog in the machine. Then you have people like me who work within a large corporations but have found ways to get rewarded for creative work. It hasn’t been easy, by my executives have learned what makes me tick and give me the freedom to do what I need to do.

My advice, then, is too look at what your company is offering that would attract this type of engineer. Strict work rules and large HR departments don’t work. Big impact projects and the chance to interactive with other highly driven people will help. Also, make sure you are at the forefront of the latest work trends (i.e. decentralized offices, work from anywhere, flexible work schedules) and be creative with the compensation.

The Art of the Engineer

I wrote earlier about my fascination with cut-away art. Well, I stumbled upon this book shopping earlier this week and was immediately taken in by the detailed engineering art/prints that this books contains.  This is a  perfect coffee table or office lobby book….just make sure no one walks off with it!

Is Math Beautiful?

I get a lot of questions about “math being too difficult” (answer: the passion for a subject often overwhelms the difficulty, usually influencing those studying advanced mathematics; at the lower levels you sometimes have to just grin-and-bear it) or whether or not math skills are innate or learned (answer: a little of both). Rarely, however, does some reach the level of mathematical understanding that the difficulty gives way to beauty. That why I love the work of the Enginarts’s featured in this article. Even if you don’t understand the math behind the structures, I believe you can see how complicated (yet oddly calming) the final product is.

What is the most difficult engineering discipline?

This is an interesting question and one that is surely on the mind of just about every student debating an engineering career.  However, the question really isn’t that appropriate. After all, if you are thinking about entering the engineering profession, then you really shouldn’t ask yourself what the easiest path is. That kind of thinking will only add to the 50% dropout rate amongst engineering students. Look, if you are doing it right, school will be challenging and rewarding, regardless of the specific degree.  Pursue what you find interesting and you will find that the course work is “easy” for you.

With that disclaimer in mind, I thought I’d see what the general consensus was for the “most difficult engineering discipline”. There are a few great threads on the matter going on here, here, and here. According to the commenter’s, it would appear that Chemical and Computer/Electrical engineering get the “most difficult” prize (with a polite nod towards the rocket scientists and the biomeds).   For that to be true, we would expect that the total number of Chem/Comp engineers to be far less that than the other major branches (they are). We would also expect the Chem/Comp graduates to earn more than the other major branches (they tend to).

Thus, one should probably assume that Chem/Comp is one of the more difficult paths to pursue if you aren’t particularly geeked about the subject matter. But, really, this could be said about any of the majors at a competitive school (architecture was dubbed archiTORTURE on my beloved campus, but the students actually doing the work seemed to love it).

So what to make of all of this?

You need to think critically about what kind of engineering type activities you like to do (coding, working on cars, writing, research, etc.) and then pick a branch that will get you there. Can’t decide? Then consider taking the Mechanical Engineering path.  ME’s are widely considered to be “utilitarian” engineers, meaning that they can be plugged into any organization, in pretty much any role, and get they job done. Plus, the fundamental thing you learn in any engineering discipline is how to think. Get good at doing that and you will find yourself employable for the rest of your career. With an ME degree, you can go anywhere (but you may not make the most money).

For me, the bottom line is simple: Follow your passion, do what you love. If you are chasing the money, or chasing the easiest path, then you will usually end up disappointed.

Lenticular Lens

Here’s an artist using a little-known technological gem to create something extremely creative and beautiful. Meet Rufus Butler Seder, founder and CEO of Eye Think Inc.

Years ago, a fascination with antique optical toys led Rufus Butler Seder to wonder if he could create motion pictures on a grand scale using no electricity, moving parts or special lighting. After some experiment he developed a 3-pound, 8-inch square, lens-ribbed glass tile that was to form the building block for his dream come true. He called it a Lifetile.

By combining hundreds of Lifetiles, Rufus is able to create large-scale “Movies for the Wall”: optical murals that appear to come to life, move, and change when the observer travels by them. Lifetiles murals contain no moving parts. The motion is in the eye of the beholder.

Since 1990 Rufus has designed, fabricated and installed dozens of Lifetiles work in museums, aquariums, and other public places around the world. The medium is maintenance-free and lends itself to almost any subject or location, outdoors or in. No special lighting is required.

Every Lifetile is hand-crafted from start to finish. To create a Lifetiles mural, Rufus first designs each individual phase of movement by referring to original or archival motion picture footage, filming the subject in motion himself, or by drawing from scratch. Once he has created the final visuals, he combines analog and digital techniques to compress them into “coded images” that he indelibly fuses into each glass tile. When the casual observer strolls by a completed Lifetiles mural , the ribbed tile lenses optically unscramble the coded images “frame by frame,” and the observer’s brain links this rapid succession of images together, creating the illusion of movement.

The process/method he is using is known as a lenticular lens. According to Wiki, this is an array of magnifying lenses that magnifies different images when viewed from different angles. The process has been around for a while and has been used in other art projects (look at the album cover to Tool’s Aenima), but not on this scale.  Hail to the Enginart!

Cutaway Art

npca_posters2Take a moment to check out Beau and Alan Daniels, of They are producing truly incredible “technical” illustrations.  Though all of their work is worth reviewing, I particularly love their PSA ads for the park services. The idea of joining technical information with an exciting illustration relates directly to my blog from last week. Used more as a marketing tool by the Daniels, the concept works equally well whether you are pitching a product idea or teaching kids about the wonderful world of learning.

How Things Work

New How Things WorkWhen I was kid, there was a series of books in my house titled something like “How Things Work”. The books consisted of full color cutaways of complex systems with easy to follow explanations of what made them tick. And the illustrations were so well done that even complicated machines and processes were easy to understand. Man, I loved those books! I’m not saying reading them lead me to be an engineer, but it may have stroked the fire. It also turns out that I’m a visual learner more so than an auditory one, so the graphics went a long way toward reinforcing the point. How Things Work: The Physics of Everyday Life, 3rd Edition

Anyway, I went looking for my original book and couldn’t find it. But I did find a couple of similar books that serve the same basic purpose.  New How Things Work would be for the little tykes, with simpler topics and explanations. How Things Work: The Physics of Everyday Life, 3rd Edition would be for the pre-college crowd. I recommend that any parent with a curious kid take a little at either of these books (or something similar).

The Art of the Brick

LegoIf you haven’t stumbled across Lego artist Nathan Sawaya yet, then take a moment to check him out. He doesn’t have an engineering background, but he is playing with Legos. In my mind, that makes him an honorary Enginart. I love his creative use of simple building blocks to construct these massively complex structures. When you think about the amount of planning Nathan has to put into each piece in order to ensure the final product looks right, you can begin to appreciate how both the left and right brain must work together seamlessly. In many ways, this is a metaphor for all of engineering: Simple, well understood concepts (bricks) coming together to create a whole that is greater than the some of its parts. What a fun medium to create with. I only wish I had thought of it!

Industrial Design

During one of the first classes of my undergrad tenure, our professor decided to give up the first 10 minutes of lecture so that a professor from another department could speak. This guest speaker was from the school of Industrial Design on campus. He was making a sales pitch to the throng of wanna-be Engineers sitting in an entry level engineering class (dynamics? calculus? I can’t recall). He was telling us that there was an opportunity to dual major in Engineering and Industrial Design. All we needed to do was take a healthy dose of art classes. There was an audible chuckle in the room and a lot of eye-rolling and hand wringing. He thanked us for our time and walked out. We laughed and got on with business of learning to think. Then, as now, the idea that an Engineer could be both technical and creative was absurd.

Of course, now I look back and think about the opportunity I had that I just let slip away. I could have easily sprinkled in a few art classes on top of what I was already studying. Not only would have found my passion for art a few years earlier, but I might have had a completely different shift in my career goals. Plus, the perspective could have really changed my view of the world.

What’s wrong with having a creative vision for a product while also understanding the technical and business details that would make that product manufacturability, marketable, and profitable? Why aren’t more artists dual majoring in Engineering? Why is there still some artificial divide between these two camps?

When you have moment, check out the Industrial Designers Society of America design excellence awards. There are some beautiful, and useful, products shown there.

Singing the Praises of GLAD Press’n Seal

prodshot_pressnseal1I don’t normally shill for a product, but this GLAD Press’n Seal is proving to be a great addition to my art tool chest. This stuff doesn’t have the irritating tendency to cling to itself that some other plastic wraps exhibit, but it holds on to containers just as well. Per GLAD’s website “While other wraps cling, Press’n Seal® wrap actually seals…” In the shop, I’m mainly using it to temporarily cover paint cans, rollers, and brushes, but I’m sure I’ll find other uses as life goes on. Its usefulness aside, I’d like to point out how the good people at GLAD went beyond their popular (and profitable) Cling Wrap to create this whole new storage solution. The creativity required to push beyond their comfort zone shouldn’t be understated. Though it’s not much too look at, the simplistic appearance belies the complexity of the product. Thus, I believe this product is a fine example of an Enginart design: Innovative, efficient, useful, and an aesthetic that’s only as complicated as it needs to be.

Google Sketchup

A model created in Sketchup
 You’ve probably stumbled across this before, but I feel it s well worth mentioning in this forum: Google Sketchup is fantastic piece of software. More than just a “lite” CAD solution,  Sketchup is really a hybrid between surfacing programs like Alias and a parametric software like CATIA or IDEAS. The benefit to creative engineers out there is threefold: 1.) You can get your idea rendered without worrying about building structural correct 3D model, thus saving time and frustration 2.) You can push/pull the surfaces around to get the look you want without having to define it mathematically 3.) It’s FREE. Of course, the free part is debatable. After all, if you want to import/export an actual 3D model, you will have to shell out $495 for the PRO version. I haven’t tried the PRO version yet, but it may well be worth the price.

A Few Common Myths About Engineers

The Enginerd

I thought I’d start out by addressing a few of the Engineering Myths / Stereotypes that I hear all the time. Feel free to add to the list via the comments section. Once we meet a critical mass, I’ll compile everything together and make it available for download and distribution. Ultimately, I’d like to get the truth put into the hands of High School students who are thinking about becoming an engineer.

 MYTH:  Engineers have no soft skills. They are introverted and difficult to work with.

  REALITY: If you are thinking of being an engineer, you need to think of yourself as a leader, not a cubicle dwelling, anti-social, door mat.

 Here’s an except from Geoffrey C. Orsak, Dean of Engineering, SMU  

 In today’s reality, engineers are the new leadership class. Don’t believe me? Well, consider a recent survey of the S&P 500 CEOs by the global executive search firm SpencerStuart. Of these 500 key corporate leaders, nearly a quarter (23%) were educated as engineers and computer scientists.

 In fact, engineering is the most common college major among S&P 500 CEOs, with the number two, not surprisingly being business administration (15%).

 However, when you appropriately adjust for the relative numbers of majors (U.S. colleges and universities award four times as many business degrees as engineering degrees) you uncover a striking fact: A young college graduate with an engineering degree is approximately six times more likely than a graduate with a business degree to become a CEO of an S&P 500 corporation – and not just among traditional engineering companies. ExxonMobil may be headed by an engineer (Rex Tillerson, BSCE), as is Texas Instruments (Richard Templeton, BSEE) and Raytheon (William Swanson, BSIE), but engineers are also running financial institutions like Wells Fargo (Richard Kovacevich, BSIE) and Harford Financial Services (Ramani Ayer, BSChemE) as well as insurance giant Progressive (Glenn Renwick, BSME). The list goes on and on.

MYTH: Engineers are Geeks.


REALITY: No. Engineers are nerds, not geeks. A  geek is someone whose passions/obsessions are outside the mainstream (i.e. Star Trek geek, WOW geek). A nerd is someone with above average intelligence and debatable social skills. An Engineer is a nerd by default. The degree of social awkwardness is usually offset by personality, confidence, and hanging out in the right social circles. An engineer CAN be a geek…but it isn’t a prerequisite to the profession. They don’t call us Enginerds for nothing.


MYTH: Engineers must love math


REALITY: This simply isn’t true. Engineers need to be good at math, but that doesn’t mean they like doing it. My wife, a fellow engineer, states it beautifully: “Engineering requires the fortitude to enthusiastically apply your energy toward a task you find undesirable.” Engineers are valuable to businesses because they don’t balk at difficult assignments and will dig in to find a solution. The advanced math classes merely test your resolve. But you only have to enjoy the journey, not the subject.


MYTH:  Engineers aren’t creative people.


REALITY: This is the core myth that this blog strives to address. I think too many “artistic” people shun the profession because they feel that all the creativity will be sucked out of them once they start working. Of course, every organization can use more logical, intelligent, creative thinkers on the payroll. The profession needs to open itself up more to the creative, but detail oriented, individuals out there. 


MYTH:  Engineering is boring work.


REALITY: Well, it depends on where you work.  At various points in my career, I’ve either loved my job and hated to go home or I sat watching the clock, waiting for it all to be over. I suppose the same is true for any career or job. I mean, it is a JOB, not a stroll on the beach. However, the main reason I think that engineering is an exciting career is because of its flexibility. After all, at it’s core, engineers are problem solvers and thinkers. Every corner of your organization can use someone with an engineering head. Your only tether is your ambition.


MYTH:  Engineering is a male-dominated profession.


REALITY: I don’t have the stats in front of me, but I’m sure there are more males in the profession than there are females…but things are quickly changing. In fact, some of the best engineers I’ve ever worked with have been women. It must have something to do with the combination of technical prowess and actual human emotion, which is often lacking from their male counterparts. If you happen to be interested, check out the Society of Women Engineers.


MYTH: Engineering school is difficult.


REALITY: Engineering is brutal, not difficult. Imagine a class of over-achieving individuals, hailing from every corner of the globe and all speaking different languages, coupled with an instructor who is mumbling in a defunct dialect and is a little upset that he must take time away from his research in order to lecture whiny undergrads. Throw in a difficult subject matter, a vicious curve, and a sprinkling of enormous egos…and you have one frothy broth. It’s not for the faint of heart, but nothing prepares you for the reality of the business world like an engineering degree.

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