Thursday, January 29, 2009


Sure, engineers love doing things the hard way, but there's more to it: they also like doing things themselves. Not to be relegated to the level of the hammer-swinging simian handyman, staple excuses in-hand, engineers are quick to try their keystroke-hardened hands at a problem before turning the job over to the professional with the monkey wrench.

Engineers are generally cynical when it comes to people and the dreaded thought of human interaction; between at least four years of college, above-average paychecks, and job titles that cause eyes to glaze over, they have quite a superiority complex. Even alleged peers are seen as incompetent, and the only way to avoid headaches later is to fix the problem themselves.

An entire commercial ecosystem has cropped up to serve these engineers. Make Magazine and its Maker Faire, and even Mythbusters (a.k.a. Jamie and Adam Build Stuff) not only give engineers ideas, but practically coerce them into trying to do better, all while online stores quietly facilitate a likely trip to the hospital; "do not try this at home" isn't a warning, it's a challenge.

So the next time you see an engineer attempting a task that's below him, don't ask if the glue will hold; just sit back—at a safe distance—and enjoy the show.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The hard way

Engineers have an unusual ability to turn the most mundane, trivial task into what they hope will be the next wonder of the world, and justify it, using any and every conceivable technical benefit as a mandate to choose the more complicated approach.

What turns otherwise-practical engineers into Rube Goldberg cartoons with sledgehammers? It's a combination of making an otherwise-unbearable task bearable by putting fun jobs in between—a bit like chocolate chips in pancakes—and a dream of a world where every line is straight, measurement metric, and angle is right. Think of it as a release of pent-up creativity from people trained to improve things every chance they get.

Engineers dream of a world where things automagically work. Sure, a drip-free faucet would be nice, but motion-sensing spigots are the future (just look at airports)! Why stop there? If one shower head is good, two must be better, but why upgrade an obsolete shower? Maybe a second head in a new shower makes more sense, and so it continues.

And what's the result of their once-noble endeavour; which steps do they complete? Just the fun parts—the parts that were never even part of the original task.