What Makes an Engineer

Last June I wrote this in relation to Laurie Penny’s claims she was a nerd:

There was a time when to be a nerd you had to be good at science, technology, engineering, or maths (STEM) to the detriment of everything else. Or at least you had to be more interested in these subjects than most other people were, which made you socially inept as a teenager. Given that I studied maths, physics, and chemisty for A-level, did a Mechanical Engineering degree, and have (sort of) worked as an engineer for most of my career, believe me when I say I know what nerds are.

By claiming to be a nerd, Laurie is implying that she is highly intelligent and is respected in a field which requires a lot of hard work and dedication to enter.

I was reminded of this during a Twitter discussion initiated by yesterday’s post on pretending people with no maths and doing mostly group projects can be called engineers.

There’s a certain solidarity among engineers, and it completely transcends cultures and international boundaries. This obviously applies to other subjects too, but the fundamentals of engineering are universal. If a British, Brazilian, Japanese, and Turkish engineer all end up in the same room they automatically have an enormous amount in common having all sat through 20+ hours per week of the same stuff for three or four years. Without a doubt the courses will differ, but the fundamentals on which they’re based are the same. A Nigerian, Iranian, Australian, and Chinese structural engineer will draw bending moment diagrams and calculate second moments of area in exactly the same way. One of the most under-appreciated and understated bonding mechanisms in teams of engineers is shared suffering through university. It’s a bit like having gone through a war and you later meet some someone who was on the same battlefield.

Yesterday in a very pleasant Twitter discussion I made the point about how much of engineering is actually maths, in particular calculus. A typical lecture mid-way through a first or second year fluid mechanics module would start with something like:

“Take a spherical object of radius d and temperature t suspended in a fluid of temperature T. Heat loss from the object is given by dt/dθ….”

At which point I’d get hopelessly lost, which is why the above example is likely nonsense. Within a few minutes the lecturer would write an equation the length of the board containing all manner of differentials and half the Greek alphabet. If your calculus isn’t up to scratch (and mine wasn’t) you’re going to struggle. The main reason why my old friend Wendy did so well at Mechanical Engineering is because she found calculus as easy as breathing.

Then you had matrices. To this day I don’t know what matrices are for, but when it came to control systems and electrical engineering – both major components in a Mech Eng degree – they are very important. I vaguely knew how to multiply one configuration with the same one, but if they were different? Oh, who the hell knows? As I was contemplating this last night I got a horrifying flashback, similar to the repressed memories trauma victims lock in a vault somewhere, to what are known as complex numbers: square roots of negative numbers, which until then I’d been confident were impossible hence didn’t exist, involving liberal use of the letter i. They were again something to do with control systems, but I couldn’t tell you how I ever passed an exam containing questions on complex numbers. Actually, looking at my academic transcript I got 39% for Control Engineering and 36% for Signal Processing, so in fact I didn’t. Ahem.

My point is, the degree was bloody hard and Manchester University’s Mechanical Engineering course was by no means the hardest out there: some of the foreign Mech Eng courses were absolutely brutal. I have a friend who studied at the prestigious Middle East Technical University in Ankara in a non-STEM field, and she told me what the engineers were subject to there bordered on abuse. But then, places were extremely limited, applications many, and anyone who graduated had a rewarding career to look forward to.

When you’re working with a bunch of engineers there’s an appreciation that everyone in the room has gone through much the same mill, regardless of where they’re from. Surprisingly, they’re not in the habit of looking down on people who haven’t, but that’s probably because the vast majority have. It’s one of the reasons why female engineers are accepted rather well by their male counterparts, because they’ve proved themselves to some degree already. No matter who you’re put to work with, you can at least take comfort in the knowledge that they too sat through lectures on subjects they found utterly bewildering and somehow managed to scrape together enough exam marks to graduate. Looking again at my academic transcript, over 4 years I sat 32 engineering exams and did a project, a directed study, and an industrial placement. I know my colleagues of both sexes did much the same, probably even more (they might even have passed Signal Processing, but I doubt it). Yes it’s hard, that’s the whole point. It’s horrible, but it’s the same for everyone: nobody enjoys it. You just suck it up, and that’s what makes you an engineer.

This is why I find the proposal I wrote about last week rather offensive: either do the course and sit the exams like everyone else, or f*ck off. There are no shortcuts.

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58 thoughts on “What Makes an Engineer

  1. This is one reason I admire bodybuilders – sort of. Some are narcissists, but there is no short cut. You have to punish your muscles and you have to control the diet. And you have to persist. It’s very, very hard work. If you see a really muscly bloke you know you are looking at someone with mental and physical stamina. Which in today’s snowflakey, I-want-it-all, ‘I deserve the outcome even without the input’ society is becoming rarer.
    Losing weight is the same. Fat bastard = physically lazy (and greedy). Fit bod = makes an effort/ dietary discipline.

  2. Getting sent on to my two sons doing Mech. Eng. at Loughborough and Cardiff.

    Not sure if it will enthuse them or terminally depress them! 🙂

  3. Totally agree Tim. And as I’m no longer and engineer I have less of a dog in the fight than many. But I have huge respect for the education, probably the closest to the renaissance man ideal than any other.

    A big part of the problem in the UK (and you may have covered this in the past) is that to most Brits an engineer is someone who comes to fix your gas boiler or sky dish. Both valuable skills, but engineering it ain’t.

    Unlike on the continent – as a professionally qualified engineer you actually get an honorific title, “Ing.” or the equivalent, in many countries. Maybe it’s a bit like a PhD and you don’t use it all the time, but I think it helps psychologically in some way. Even in the US the PE (professional engineer) designation has far more prestige than our own CEng.

    I’m convinced this status effect really does impact the pay for engineers starting out in their careers. One reason why many switch fields.

    I’m not sure if I would want the word ‘engineer’ to be a protected term as it is in many other countries. I’m probably too libertarian for that. But I do think it has a profound effect.

    I was interested a few years back to read about efforts to create a DEng program that was insanely gruelling, with the objective, I think, of making it very prestigious. As far as I could tell it was like doing a PhD *and* another four years of qualifying practice. That was getting to surgeon levels of training. Wonder what happened to it.

  4. I’m not sure if I would want the word ‘engineer’ to be a protected term as it is in many other countries.

    Nor would I. In fact, I don’t care if the guy who installs a telephone line calls himself an engineer. But don’t come into a professional engineering environment expecting to be taken seriously if you’ve not done what everyone else in the room has done as a minimum.

  5. Not sure if it will enthuse them or terminally depress them!

    Oh, the Mech Eng lot pride themselves on the difficulty of their course. Wendy’s housemate was a medical student and he conceded the Mech Eng course was miles harder than the medical one, which was mainly cramming stuff from books right before the exam. The breadth of a Mech Eng course is as daunting as the depth: f*ck me, you cover some ground!

  6. Aah, imaginary numbers. Super things! My mind was blown when shown how to use them to represent sinusoids with exponential notation. That was the first really, really elegant (to my eyes) bit of maths I’d ever seen, and as a bonus it was genuinely very useful! Still no bloody clue why it does that, but I could just accept that it did and use it.

    However, I never really *understood* on a fundamental level any of the analytical maths. I understood what it was trying to do (and can normally explain it in words) and could crunch the formulae by throwing standard operations at them, but since I had no fundamental mathematical understanding I couldn’t see more than a couple of steps ahead. I think I said on the other thread that I was like a blind man finding a door by systematically tapping around with my stick. IIRC I still somehow managed to break 40% in my maths finals by some miracle (and some MASSIVE gaming of the system, making sure I could do each of the 2 numerical questions one of which always had to come up perfectly more or less parrot fashion, the rest of the numerical stuff OK, and then enough of the analytical to scrape a couple of points for showing your working with the intention of scraping home over the 30% pass barrier).

    The most horrible bit was concrete calculations in the civil engineering modules. They’d give you a beam structure, not give you a piece of critical information you’d expect to have in practice, and leave you to show you fundamentally understood the maths of it to get at it indirectly (with placeholders and iteration IIRC). I guess it would have been boring any other way. Because reasons… Didn’t do so well in that module…

    And I also suffer the almost-PTSD-like nightmares of finding myself back there suddenly.

    Ho hum, it was a means to an end, I suppose.

  7. This is one reason I admire bodybuilders

    Indeed, and this is related to this rather emotional and angry post I wrote a couple of years ago called When an Engineer meets an Artsy Type:

    I know some genuine artists, and have heard from others who do as well, and those who pursue the arts as a career have had to put in thousands of hours learning and perfecting techniques, honing their skills, and converting their visions and ideas into a tangible output. I heard one say that he paints because if he didn’t, he might as well die. Even those who don’t practice their craft full-time and have to take a normal job to pay the bills dedicate huge swathes of their lives doing what they love and – crucially – having something to show for their endeavours of which they can be proud. Tastes vary of course, but one has to show something in terms of output. Being an artist, like being anything worthwhile, is a lifetime of seriously hard work.

    This just didn’t apply to Angela, and nor (from what I could tell) to her whole social circle. Having come from a background of engineering, I must confess I was barely aware such a section of society existed. Almost everybody I associate with has worked their backsides off, put in years of effort, and committed endless sacrifice to achieve something tangible, be it learn a language, perfect a skill, or even raise a family

  8. My mind was blown when shown how to use them to represent sinusoids with exponential notation.

    Whut? *Shuffles off to find a banana and a tyre to swing from*

    And I also suffer the almost-PTSD-like nightmares of finding myself back there suddenly.

    Indeed: see here. Strangely, I stopped having these dreams a year or two back, for some people they have them all their lives.

  9. Indeed: see here. Strangely, I stopped having these dreams a year or two back, for some people they have them all their lives.

    Mine tend to appear at times of particular stress and work pressure. They’re normally of the illogical type that I find myself at my age now, with my commitments now, back there having to do my 4th year again for no apparent reason, only I’m super-rusty on the 1st-3rd year stuff, can’t find info on where the lectures are supposed to be, and I’ve somehow got to work my day job in Switzerland and look after the family at the same time…

    Indeed, and this is related to this rather emotional and angry post I wrote a couple of years ago called When an Engineer meets an Artsy Type:

    Just read that. Wow. Just wow.

    It’s interesting though that everyone is subject to a bit of projection, presuming that others reason the way that we do. And being spergy engineer types, it’s logical that we’d presume that someone claiming to be an “artist” would have put a similar degree of effort into artsing as we generally tend to put into anything we commit to. I sometimes express un-comprehending credulity that acquaintances with time on their hands haven’t turned themselves to working on anything, acquiring new skills or similar.

    But in reality I think that we’re the unusual ones…

  10. Still on the bodybuilding theme – there’s a clear correlation between those who want to work hard or don’t and their politics. I remember during the 2016 election a US reporter going to a gym somewhere. All the posey tossers doing pec flies in a cropped t-shirt on the ground floor were voting Hillary. All the serious guys downstairs in the basement pushing very heavy weights and actually building their muscles were voting Trump. I think being a lefty is a pretty sure sign that someone is lazy.

  11. Calculus, fine; complex numbers, fine. If you don’t like the latter you would really dislike any analysis of alternating current systems. (As a further side, I have a friend, a Signals officer who has a tattoo of Euler’s equation, which I thought was pretty cool.) I even get my head round Fourier transforms, though I would struggle to do one on paper without about a week in text books to refresh my memory.

    It was z-transforms that proved the limit of my mathematical comprehension.

  12. Just read that. Wow. Just wow.

    Yeah. One of my best posts according to some, but one I should never have written. I leave it there for posterity.

  13. Calculus, fine; complex numbers, fine.

    Begone, evil wizard!!

    I even get my head round Fourier transforms

    I remember them, but seem to recall they weren’t as daunting as other stuff.

  14. I, very occasionally, have flashback dreams/nightmares to when I was doing Civ Eng at Lboro many years ago. IIRC, we had over 30 hours a week of lectures, and the breadth of subjects still astounds me.

    The whole course was really, really hard.

  15. I also get these dreams of being in a situation where I am about to attend an exam that I have done zero preparation for, always happy when I awake from them.

    And by the way civil engineers are the biggest drinkers, pull more birds and are the smartest of the lot.

    Nowadays in any given management structure I like to make sure that engineers are on tap and not on top.

  16. “complex numbers: square roots of negative numbers, which until then I’d been confident were impossible hence didn’t exist …”

    Oh for heaven’s sake: we did those at school when I was sixteen. Were you by any chance, gulp!, a slacker at school?

  17. Nowadays in any given management structure I like to make sure that engineers are on tap and not on top.

    Most good engineers don’t want to be managers, and make bad managers anyway. The best managers are poor engineers who are better at management than engineering, but understand what engineers do and how they work best.

  18. Oh for heaven’s sake: we did those at school when I was sixteen.

    Yes, not everyone went to school in 1910, back when the education system still functioned and churned people out capable of running an Empire.

  19. When an Engineer meets an Artsy Type

    The ancient Greek word τέχνη means both art and craft, thus implicitly recognising that painting requires the same practice and effort as building furniture. And of course τέχνη is also the root for technology. So there is no gulf really between the artist and the scientist, only between the genuine and the fraudulent.

  20. Re: the Manchester pretengineering course, it doesn’t really matter what they call people who graduate from this, does it? They won’t be engineers in any real sense because they will not be able to do any engineering. Well, I’m certainly not walking over any bridges they build…

  21. Re: the Manchester pretengineering course, it doesn’t really matter what they call people who graduate from this, does it? They won’t be engineers in any real sense because they will not be able to do any engineering. Well, I’m certainly not walking over any bridges they build…

    Nobody will touch them with a bargepole for real engineering. But the degree might look good to HR drones looking to fill management roles.

    So they’ll probably end up in engineering project management in large corporations ruling over real engineers who will look upon them with scorn since they won’t be able to do even the most basic calculation.

  22. So they’ll probably end up in engineering project management in large corporations ruling over real engineers who will look upon them with scorn since they won’t be able to do even the most basic calculation.

    Yup.

  23. “Most good engineers don’t want to be managers, and make bad managers anyway.”

    I don’t think I would agree with that, it’s not a matter of competency for either. It’s more like engineers that become managers tend to do this from the perspective of climbing higher and receiving higher remuneration for their efforts from a given organisation. Divisional, group, executive and director level roles tend to be done by engineers that have moved into management roles as opposed to engineers in engineering roles. Nothing at all wrong with a wise old Engineering Manager either but there probably isn’t a succession plan after that career station.

  24. over 4 years I sat 32 engineering exams and did a project, a directed study, and an industrial placement.

    White male privilege.

    I also get these dreams of being in a situation where I am about to attend an exam that I have done zero preparation for, always happy when I awake from them.

    Me too, despite my last serious exam being over 25 years ago and absolutely no intention of ever sitting one again.

  25. “So they’ll probably end up in engineering project management in large corporations ruling over real engineers who will look upon them with scorn since they won’t be able to do even the most basic calculation.”

    This in spades. The whole concept (engineering-lite courses) is to encourage women to do them so they can be parachuted into engineering management roles without doing the hard bit of actually qualifying as an engineer or doing anything hard like designing and building things.

    Its a win win for the usual SJW idiots – universities get to show that ‘more women are studying engineering, hurrah!’ and companies get to bolster their PC credentials by employing them in management areas where their lack of knowledge can be hidden in thickets of useless paperwork. And middle class women get lucrative employment for doing bugger all.

    All in all the epitome of 21st century education and employment really……

  26. “Its a win win for the usual SJW idiots – universities get to show that ‘more women are studying engineering, hurrah!’ and companies get to bolster their PC credentials by employing them in management areas where their lack of knowledge can be hidden in thickets of useless paperwork. And middle class women get lucrative employment for doing bugger all.”

    And then the real engineering talent bogs off to small subcontractors to be away from that management BS by people who think they can do engineering but really can’t.

  27. It’s more like engineers that become managers tend to do this from the perspective of climbing higher and receiving higher remuneration for their efforts from a given organisation.

    True, but that’s because few companies provide purely technical career paths, forcing anyone with ambition to take the management route. Ideally, there would be two parallel paths, technical and managerial. It’s not so much about competence as personality: technical engineering and management require different personality types.

  28. It’s been interesting comparing different courses of study.

    Back in the day (even longer ago than Tim) I struggled through a BEng(Hons) in mechanical engineering, which was – as others have well described – bloody hard work, but set me up to get a decent job.

    Just shy of a decade later, having specialised a bit, cracked CEng and demonstrated I was useful in things technical, my employer sent me to do a part-time MSc in Systems Engineering – less calculus and hard sums, but lots of the “if you change A to improve B, did you expect what happened to X and Y?” Very much case studies, share and learn from experience, bigger picture stuff. I found it easier in some ways (it was covering “what I already do” and adding more depth and detail) but it was still hard work – and the pass rate was only 50% for “on schedule”, with half my cohort deferring their dissertation submission for another year.

    Most recently I put myself through an MA in intelligence and international relations, partly through my uniformed hobby and partly just because it looked really interesting. It was a very different style: no “right” answers (mechanical engineering has the simple tests of right and wrong: “bridge stays up” or “bridge falls down”, while “describe the influence of Clausewitz on modern strategic thought” is the starting point of a debate – can you argue your opinion well, can you support it with references?) and much more open-ended. I was rather pleased when my piece on the impact of global commerce on the Third World, which would probably have gone down well in these circles, got a distinction (the lecturer said she disagreed completely with the notion that trade was a massive benefit and the Third World’s endemic problem was corruption – but it was solidly researched and written so she gave it a very good mark) and both enjoyed it, and got a good final result.

    What I did find was that – this being a distance-learning, own-time degree – there was a very clear distinction between those who had chosen to do it, and those who had been sent to do it. Some of us put in the work and succeeded (the weekly discussion sessions were only 10% of the marks for each module, but they were very useful for building understanding of the subject so you’d deliver on the main assessed items), some names sort of faded off the plot as the course progressed, one or two delved right into it (a colleague is banking his credits earned to date towards a PhD)

    Was it easier than engineering? I’d say “yes, but you still had to work at it to get a good result”. What I don’t know, it being distance learning, is how many of the coasters and “I’m only here because my boss put me on it” types actually struggled through the 3-4 modules and the dissertation to get any sort of pass – I certainly felt that you had to put in some significant effort to succeed, even in a subject I already knew quite well and enjoyed.

    The other thing I don’t know, is what some of the undergraduate arts degrees are like – back in the 1980s they seemed to be pretty lightweight (3-6 hours of teaching and the rest “self directed research”) and difficult to fail, compared to the attrition in engineering (about 30% of the course had simply disappeared at the start of Year Two, with the lecture halls going from overcrowded to merely busy) Trying to filter for prejudice (of course we worked harder than those lazy BA in Scottish Literature types), just how difficult is a BA in Water Sports Centre Management these days?

  29. “she told me what the engineers were subject to there bordered on abuse”

    People said that about us STEM students at St. Andrews in the 70’s. What they meant was that we had lectures at 0900 every day whereas they got to laze in bed all the time except maybe 3pm on a Thursday.

    Context is everything.

  30. Abacab writes:- And then the real engineering talent bogs off to small subcontractors to be away from that management BS by people who think they can do engineering but really can’t.

    Well, don’t know about “real engineering talent”, but there’s something to be said for going independent and getting bought in at consultant rates – provided the customers keep asking for you…

  31. In my last posting (a semi technical role) was classified as an “Engineer” even reaching the dizzy heights of “Senior Engineer” within my official title before the contract ended… I am nothing of the sort and raised this several times as I was uncomfortable with being given the title and very much downplayed it as a rule. Turns out it was simply used to denote seniority in technical or operational departments where some sort of understanding of the real work was required – I’d have been more than a little miffed had I been a “proper” engineering graduate.

  32. I’d have been more than a little miffed had I been a “proper” engineering graduate.

    I shouldn’t fret: there have been some places where the proper engineers were enormously grateful you could pronounce the letter ‘h’ and didn’t appear to be suffering from a severe form of mental retardation.

  33. My first degree was in law (Liverpool – 70s). It left me behind and, with added qualifications, I fell into teaching EFL . Cue Batemanesque apoplexy from Tim’s band of merry engineers – see the cartoon at this link for a sample of said apoplexy:
    https://punch.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/H-M-Bateman-Cartoons/G00006u6DE9s.h_U/I0000Tu9dutDMIPg

    When at Liverpool, we lawyers thought engineers were as thick as bricks. Oops! Beware assumptions.

    Over time, I’ve learned very considerable respect indeed for your profession, not least during my 20+ years in a national oil company in the Gulf, where if things weren’t done right, big bangs might occur.

    Kudos.

  34. As an engineering graduate myself (Electronics, Southampton) I know exactly where you’re coming from. My second year, second semester maths exam remains the hardest test I’ve ever sat – and that includes the signal processing one in my third year. One point of pedantry though: for engineers, it’s j rather than i. 🙂

  35. One point of pedantry though: for engineers, it’s j rather than i.

    Yes! I thought it was j and originally said that on Twitter. Then I looked up complex numbers on Wiki and saw i, and thought I’d misremembered.

  36. My son recently finished his degree in mechanical engineering (and yes, a very tough course), and is about halfway to his P.Eng. In his third year (IIRC) I found a T-shirt seller on-line who had one with a picture of a large cartoon explosion, overlaid by the text:
    ENGINEERING – It’s like Math, but Louder

    I had no choice; I had to buy it for him.

  37. I did a thin sandwich B.Sc. (Hons) just down the road from you at Salford. But in the late ’60s. De-cluttering recently, I came across my notes. I reckon mech eng is about 60% maths and statistics. Fortunately I was/am good at maths and stats, but I was a rubbish engineer. I eventually forged a career in market research with a speciality in engineering-related fields. It all worked out rather well and I’m still working past state retirement. Maths and stats have been useful and I still use my Kreyzig maths book. But the real bonus from engineering training over a 50-year career has been the discipline. Project management, logic, focus, cause and effect, interpretation, reporting ……. discipline.

  38. Project management, logic, focus, cause and effect, interpretation, reporting ……. discipline.

    Exactly.

  39. It’s j in electrical and i in fluid mechanics.

    Hmm. Odd they should be different in different fields.

  40. Is the the wrong place for me to say I did Humanities and slept in ’til lunchtime every day?

    Not wrong, just unnecessary: it was assumed. 😉

  41. My son recently finished his degree in mechanical engineering

    Good lad! I hope he liked the t-shirt.

  42. Tim, you’re probably familiar with the Russian term sopromat, from soprotivlenie materialov – literally, resistance of materials, corresponding more or less to “mechanics of materials” or “strength of materials.” It used to be the bugbear of Russian engineering students (decades ago); there was even a saying, “Once you’ve passed your sopromat exam, you can get married.”

  43. Tim

    The problem with “i” in Elec Eng is that the symbol is already being used for current.

    Started reading an interesting book on using imaginary numbers and phasors to analyse circuits when I was in sixth form, with transients and inductance and various other bits that weren’t in the A level Physics syllabus. Definitely one of the neatest applications I’d seen up to that point for the complex numbers (the other was how much easier it made things to derive various trig identities, particularly multiple angles). But never used it at uni – initially avoided engineering because I never wanted to be as responsible as the guy who signs off a bridge or a chemical facility, and I had a sneaking suspicion my practical assessment work would be as stressful and potentially more failful than my Year 11 Technology course had been.

    A friend of mine almost persuaded me to switch to Chemical Engineering (he would have been my Director of Studies if I had) but due to what was essentially an admin cock-up (was told I wasn’t eligible to transfer courses though in fact I was, albeit on a rather rare route) it never came off. Funny how things work out. Might have ended up rubbing shoulders with some of you lot had it come off!

  44. An interesting question – are engineering degree courses still as hard?

    For my sins, I’ve managed to end up with an heavy engineering role previously occupied by a lad with a mechanical engineering degree. I’ve never been to uni, did A level’s that would have let me do an engineering degree (I was offered a uni place to do engineering), but then went on the tools. Over time, and particularly after aforementioned lad left, I gradually morphed into a role that’s half pressure vessel design, and half managing a group of merry idiots who actually build the things (including making the engineering decisions about what to do to fix their ^*&*(^ ups).

    The design bits use a bit of maths, coupled with a good understanding of the relevant British Standards – but being honest, most of it isn’t terribly difficult, and the main exercise is usually working out which bit of the standards to apply to which special case (we don’t tend to do much worked out from “first principles”, for unusual scenarios, it’s more a case of digging through the regs to find the nearest parallels, and adjusting them as appropriate). I suspect this is not uncommon across a lot of engineering disciplines, particularly those which are somewhat regulated.

    The management is the bit I find hard – it’s just a exercise in triaging a constant stream of issues major and minor that are dropped on my desk, and it’s the things I’ve forgotten to order/fix/design/draw that keeps me awake at night, rather than worrying about the pressure vessels with my name on blowing themselves to bits.

    Anyway, back to my initial question – as part of my role, I deal with a selection of bright young things with engineering degrees, most of whom give the impression it would give them great difficulty to engineer their way out of a wet paper bag. I think they all assume I’m a engineering grad too(my management know I’m not, and couldn’t care less). With a couple of honorable exceptions, they have all being utterly clueless about how the world works, how anything is made, about such questions as sensible manufacturing tolerances (I had one such lad stop a job I was on, because he wanted to alter the height some concrete foundation block was poured by 2mm – I was not amused!).
    Is it that engineering grads have ever been thus, and only really are at home when doing the hard maths for the difficult stuff, or is it that now in the days of all having prizes, as well as the clever blokes who work hard (and thus end up pushing paper round at oil majors!), there are also lots of nice but dim types who scrape through an engineering degree, work some second rate mega contractor (e.g. Carillion), whose only actual function is usually to get in the way of their sub-contractors doing the actual work?

    I’ve a nasty feeling being a graduate engineer is no-longer quite the challenge it was 20-30 years ago…

  45. @the Prole

    “An interesting question – are engineering degree courses still as hard?”

    I would say so.

    “we don’t tend to do much worked out from “first principles”, for unusual scenarios, it’s more a case of digging through the regs to find the nearest parallels, and adjusting them as appropriate. I suspect this is not uncommon across a lot of engineering disciplines, particularly those which are somewhat regulated.”

    Yes I would agree with that and have seen this in many disciplines and there is nothing wrong with it, no need to reinvent wheels. The first time I seen it was in the nineties when I worked for a bridge authority and seen how the drafties played around with bridge span lengths on cad on screen. No calcs just knowledge of limitations worked in that instance, no doubt there was a calc done on the selected span length before the drawing was issued, but it was more of a rubber stamping exercise than a first principle design.

    “The management is the bit I find hard”

    I would also agree with that. Using your example of pressure vessels I have had a lot of exposure to them in previous lives for both onshore and offshore oil and gas facilities all over the place. An example of the management may be that the process engineer has a late design change and wants to simply move or change some nozzles around on the vessel and issues an Engineering Change Request (ECR) to this effect with an amount allocated to the resultant cost and time impact. Then the approved ECR gets up the line a bit and someone in management says hold on a minute the fabrication shop that is making these vessels is commercially aggressive and are praying for us to issue a change notice so that they can rape us and name their new price and delivery time frame that will be orders of magnitude higher than the process engineer’s estimate. End result could well be the vessel doesn’t change and there is some other additional spool works or similar work around done to address the issue without interrupting the fab suppliers order. This involves me or someone similar going to the engineer’s desk and discussing the options with them late in the day, they usually start looking at their watch because they have a bus to catch but they come good when you explain that you have someone hanging on this in some fab yard somewhere in the world where it is the morning time. The issue is solved and that is why I said that engineers should be on tap and not on top. Not knocking engineers here either, just pointing out that they and especially the younger ones tend to work in silos.

    “Is it that engineering grads have ever been thus”

    Yes I would say so. Nothing wrong with them, just that they are and always have been as green as the grass and don’t know shit from clay and are really learning from scratch when they hit the workplace as you have alluded to with the raising of the concrete foundation by 2mm.

  46. The practical aspects (such as normal tolerancing) – for some people it’s obvious (I think it is, though I’ve never actually had to deal with it professionally), whereas for others it’s something that they would have to be explicitly taught.

    IMO a lot of the mathematical geniuses on my course had zero feel for that kind of thing. I had a guy tell me with a straight face that if a dirigible has no over-pressure then it can’t distort in the breeze because a certain stiffness term in an equation is zero so it all disappears in a puff of maths. I politely pointed out that in reality there’s no such thing as zero stiffness, and even if there were it would still flap around like very flappy thing and not be very dirigible. Plus, eh? Yerwot?

    Some people have an in-built feel for this kind of thing, some not at all.

  47. Further to last – he was calculating the distortion on a dirigible surface based on wind pressure. Rather than notice that as the stiffness term in his eq went down the distortion went up, and hence will keep going up as the stiffness went down, he thought he could just cancel a term in the equation and the problem went away…..

  48. Delighted to know I am not the only one with ‘final-year uni’ dreams, where I am trying to find the correct exam hall to take an exam in something I know nothing about, while keenly aware of a dozen uncompleted assignments. Oddly enough, my original degree was history, followed a decade later by a maths degree taken externally, but the dreams are as likely to occur for either subject.
    Still, the feeling of joy when I wake up and realise I will never have to take another exam in my life makes it almost worth it.

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