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.


58 thoughts on “What Makes an Engineer

  1. Is it that engineering grads have ever been thus, and only really are at home when doing the hard maths for the difficult stuff

    Bardon’s answer is a good one. The engineering degree teaches you the principles on which everything is based, but isn’t much use in a job. Once in a job, the stuff you learn is totally different, but it would be extremely difficult to do so if you didn’t know the underlying principles.

    For an analogy, consider sport: knowing the rules doesn’t make you a good player, and becoming a good player involves learning all sorts of things the rule book doesn’t mention. But if you want to be a good player you’d better know the rules first.

  2. For an analogy, consider sport: knowing the rules doesn’t make you a good player, and becoming a good player involves learning all sorts of things the rule book doesn’t mention. But if you want to be a good player you’d better know the rules first.


    Ultimately I’ve not ended up doing engineering proper, but what I do involves describing in text other people’s engineering. Without knowing the “rule book”, as it were, I’d be totally lost in this.

  3. Tim, you’re probably familiar with the Russian term sopromat

    No, I’m not actually!

    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.”

    Heh! I’ll run that by a few colleagues. I’m sure the top Russian engineering courses were fiendishly difficult back in the Soviet times. Maybe they still are?

  4. I can’t say I’m keeping an eye on Russian engineering colleges, but the top undergraduate programs in math and computer science are quite good, so they must be difficult at least for some of the students. Actually, most of these kids start learning math in earnest at 13-15, when they get accepted into high schools with a focus on math/CS/physics. Solving problems and coding becomes a habit for them, a way of life. Their biggest risk is early burnout and/or mental illness. Not all of them look and act like nerds, though – some seem to be good at everything from sports to music to languages.

  5. “Then you had matrices.”

    Loud screaming from a distant memory of extreme pain……I did actually find a use for these in composite design, but that very heavy going that I happily outsourced to someone with a love of mathmatics.

  6. BTW, just for reference, I washed out of engineering and became a project manager…..

  7. “When an Engineer meets an Artsy Type:”

    And last thing to add, one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed your blog is that I have almost exactly the same T-Shirt, not quite as extreme example of the ‘artsy type’, she worked hard, but her whole circle were, quite frankly, losers who dressed it up with a mixture of entitlement and dreams of making it big event though they where hitting 40.

    I gained a lot of insight into people going through that.

  8. @David

    “BTW, just for reference, I washed out of engineering and became a project manager…..”

    Good for you, I think that is the natural progression for engineers and the path that the majority follow. I spent my younger career days with many engineers and now at this stage of life they are all in management roles, I can’t think of any colleagues of my era that are still engineers.

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