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.

7 thoughts on “A Few Common Myths About Engineers

  • May 27, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    Engineering is often ‘sold’ to young people as an exercise in design and technological creativity.

    Whilst a small percentage of engineers will be engaged in creating novel and innovative designs and solutions the vast majority will find themselves doing rather more mundane tasks, eg:

    1/ Fixing/problem solving issues to do with an existing design (originated by someone else.)
    2/Testing products / systems / software and the associated documentation thereof.
    3/ Focusing on a very small aspect of a much larger project, eg: deciding on the thickness of Zinc coating on a piece of structural supporting material.

    If 1/,2/,3 and the like float your boat then great! But remember don’t swallow everything the engineering institutions career department try to spoon feed you with. In general being an engineer means problem solving on other peoples creations. Engineering means doing tough, mentaly demanding work under time pressure for which you will get little (ie NO) social kudos and substandard remuneration compared with your intellectual equals that decided to embark on a career in law, medicine, banking and the other well paid and well respected professions. Chances are you will plateaux-out in your early fifties (if your are still actually doing engineering)and get dumped out to pasture by your company – you’re doing the work of a twenty something year old for 3 times the salary – you can’t blame them!
    Exercising your mental synapses can feel great but it dosn’t necessarily get you a nice house, pay for good vacations or send your kids to the best schools. Think about it – please!
    The celebrated victorian engineer I K Brunel never achieved great wealth and died of a stroke at the young age of 53. I’ve said enough.

  • June 21, 2014 at 10:09 am

    Hi and thanks for the comment. What you have said is not necessarily an unlikely scenario, but it is far from guaranteed. Given the shear number of engineers as compared to, say, doctors or lawyers, you are bound to have more folks who simply show up to cash a paycheck. It happens. And these people can be miserable or blissfully happy, depending on how easy they think the job is and what they want to do with their life. But to say that a lawyer is always better paid and with a more fulfilling career than an engineer is controversial. There are many, many bankers and lawyers out there that are kicking around at the bottom of the ladder and stuck. Just like the theoretical engineer in your post.

    On the flip side, I know many, many engineers that are living their dreams everyday. But no one is going to just hand that outcome to you. Ever. Bring all you have to the job, show your value as an engineer, think creatively, and bust your ass.

  • September 15, 2014 at 11:17 am

    Hi creativeengineer,

    I find some of your observations fascinating as I never cease to be amazed by both the creativity of some fellow engineers and their social ineptitude – I ring-fence that into what I call the “engineering ego” which can be a menace in an office scenario.

    Your post opens with your intention to create a document on these myths – was that ever completed?

  • September 17, 2014 at 5:48 am

    The posting “A Few Common Myths About Creative Engineers” is the only myth document that I have. It is meant as a bit of joke, as I have found that no two engineers are alike and generalizations can be misleading. But the “engineering ego” is quite real! I don’t think you want an engineer designing something that you might use who doesn’t have a least a little confidence in their ability.

  • September 15, 2015 at 9:36 pm

    Hi, what I noticed about the engineers “ego” is that it is more of a pride and sense of responsibility. Have you ever heard of the Iron Ring, and the legends that go with it? Basically a bridge went down while still under construction, and some of the engineers took pieces of its metal and used it as a ring on the 5th finger on the dominate hand. This is so in every project the utmost care is taken.Sort of like a reminder.

    A stereotype I noticed is engineers cant spell. Fact while some engineers have trouble spelling, a couple I know are the best spellers I know, but I fit the stereotype…

  • July 30, 2017 at 2:40 am

    “It must have something to do with the combination of technical prowess and actual human emotion, which is often lacking from their male counterparts.” – And that statement is part of the problem. Sweeping statements about male emotional intelligence in the workplace reinforce sexual stereotypes, and keep the divide between male and female engineers open.

  • August 9, 2017 at 8:15 am

    Hi Daniel. Thanks for the comment. Admittedly, I wrote the initial article based more on anecdotal evidence rather than anything derived from research. To close the loop on this, I went out and reviewed some of the latest thoughts on emotional intelligence (a few interesting reads Here, Here, and HereWhat I find most interesting, though, and have since come to learn as my career has progressed, is that emotional intelligence is a learned behavior. This is especially true in the work place. Sure, some people tend to start off in a more advanced state (and this might be biased based on gender), but anyone can learn to operate effectively in this space. In other words, there are no excuses for the way some managers behave, especially in the tech world.

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