Thursday, August 31, 2006

I'm The Engineer

They mean it as a compliment. I should be flattered, and I am occasionally. I only hear it once every few months, but every time, I become increasingly annoyed at the phrase, "You figure it out--you're the engineer."

I'm sure that your profession or academic discipline has its own catchphrase which never fails to lurch its way out of the lips of some doofus whose intentions are innocent.

"Look out--this guy's a Psychologist. He's probably analyzing us right now."
"Oooh, a Philosophy major. Please tell me...what is the meaning of life?"
“You talk to them—you’re the Communications major.”
"Shhh! Not so loud around the Librarian."
"You're a Computer Science major, right? Why does my computer keep crashing?"

I acknowledge that by comparison, "You figure it out--you're the engineer," is not nearly as ignorant or pigeon-holing as some of the above. Some may even consider it due recognition and an aspect of the prestige that comes with a degree of Bachelor of Science in Engineering. People consider engineers to be rational, efficient, problem-solving eggheads because we work hard to maintain this reputation.

My gripe with the phrase is not what is said. Without reading too much into it, one can take it to mean: "This is a complex problem requiring a form of decision making other than relying on feelings or a group discussion. Please take the reigns." Or perhaps, "I wet myself at the thought of long division without a calculator. You have a big head and glasses—you solve the problem.”

However, I often take offense at what is implied by, and the context in which someone usually cops out with the "You're the engineer" phrase. There are very few contexts where the phrase is even reasonable to utter. Most involve a professional setting and a discussion of engineering things.

For example, an architect may be presenting the artistic vision behind his latest project to a design team. After blah blah blah-ing his way through the manner in which the outward form of the newest addition to the city skyline will embody the struggles of the immigrants of generations past, said architect will most likely be met with a blunt rebuttal from the structural engineer who will try to bring him back down to earth. The engineer will remind the architect of the finer principles of structural mechanics, and identify aspects of the design that will be nearly impossible to construct. To this, the architect will mostly likely reply, “That’s not my problem. You’re the engineer--you figure it out.”

That’s all fine and good, but I have never heard the dreaded “You’re the engineer” phrase spoken to my ears from the lips of an architect. I have instead been reminded of my academic pedigree by my father, and by my friends, and by any Joe Schmo who happens to know to what end my tuition dollars were spent.

- My father, God bless him, is not terribly handy with car repair. Having not fallen far from Father Tree, I do not know much about cars either, nor do I pretend to. We were at my parents’ house last month when the battery of mom’s car died. Not wanting to look like a puss in front of my wife, whose father could repair a John Deere tractor blindfolded, in a snowstorm, with oven mitts on, I volunteered to try to jump it. I have never had to jump a vehicle of mine in eight years, and have never even had to help someone else jump a car. I didn’t even know how to do it, but I understand the concept, and I have a healthy respect for live electric circuits. I said I’d give it a go. My dad, of course, responded with the predictable, “Yes, let’s let the engineer fix it.”

- At a recent work day at the church, Phil (an Electrical Engineering/Computer Science major from Bucknell) and I were watching two other guys (both college graduates in something other than EGR) try to alter the hinge spring on the sanctuary door in order for it to close more gently. We had been observing their progress for a not even a minute when one of these guys turned to us and said, “Well, what am I wasting my time here for? We’ve got two engineers here—let them figure it out.”

- In Pittsburgh earlier this month, the bridal party was helping my brother (the groom) and his new bride load their car with the wedding presents so they could drive away. It was plain to nearly everyone that the combined volume of the gifts was nearly the same or perhaps even greater than the available volume of storage that the vehicle could provide. If the gifts were not packed efficiently, they would not all fit. Several of us were sizing up the situation, when a voice chimed in, “Well, let’s leave this to the engineer to figure out.”

Granted, I take great pride in packing a UHaul for a move, or a loading an enormous volume of personal belongings into the back of a 1991 Ford Probe hatchback. I even like fiddling with gizmos and doohickeys of different kinds, trying to understand how things work by taking them apart and putting them back together. I volunteered to jump the car because even girls know how to jump cars, and to be handy with stuff like that validates me as a man. But what does my Bachelor of Science in Engineering have to do with any of that?

Do people suggest leaving it to the engineer because they believe that I took a class titled Space Management – How to Fit Lots of Stuff Into a Small Space? Why exactly would a civil engineer who deals with nothing but dirt, water, and rock every day know anything the inner workings of a hinge spring? Would my dad’s confidence in my ability to jump the car have wavered had he remembered that I barely passed Linear Circuits with a C-?

My beef with the “You’re an engineer” phrase is that I think it’s a cop out. It’s a cop out of a simple exercise in critical thinking. It’s a wuss out of looking at a problem objectively, flexing a little mind muscle, and deducing the best course of action.

How can it be that there are those who so easily diagnose situations as impossible to solve for anyone other than a high and mighty engineer? Why are some people so eager to pass the thinking on to an egghead? Have they no pride? If I were Joe Schmo High School Graduate, I’d take advantage of every opportunity to knock Mr. College Graduate down a few pegs by solving a problem using common sense and ‘real world’ tactics. Screw theory and mathematics. If the hinge needs tweaking, let’s tweak it. If the car needs a start, get the cables. Why is it that people jump at the chance to make way for the engineer when oftentimes they would do an adequate job on their own?

“You’re the engineer” strokes my ego more often than it bothers me, make no mistake about it. One of the reasons I chose to pursue a degree in engineering was the prestige associated with a BSE. But I will not let people assume better of me than I deserve. I will not let them believe that because of my degree I am more qualified to think than they are. I will not let people use it as a license to pass problem solving on to another.

Think for yourselves, people.