I’ve just finished reading an interesting post by Andrew Rae on the missing aspects of engineering education (Mind the Feynman gap) which parallels my more specific concerns, and possibly unkinder comments, about the lack of professionalism in the software community.
Perhaps in contrast to most engineers, my professional education included a five year stint in the Navy as a young engineering officer, where even as a wet behind the ears sub-lieutenant you are still expected to act as a leader. In fact you might say that the service is all about leading and managing, you’re an officer first and an engineer second. And perhaps this early experience has also helped me to look at the profession of engineering from a different and perhaps more objective standpoint.
Having subsequently worked in several large civilian engineering companies I can unfortunately confirm Andrew’s point, that the majority of civilian engineers view their role as being technocratic vestal virgins who are inviolate from the low art of management, “la déformation professionnelle du fonctionnaire” indeed.
There are, I think, three reasons for this. The first is that all large organisations are inherently bureaucratic to some degree and bureaucracies discourage the exercising of personal responsibility, accountability or leadership. The second is that there is always an uneasy tension between any organisation which must perforce employ professionals, and such professionals allegiance to ideals which may run counter to the objectives of the organisation, or at least it’s management. Third and finally I’ve also found that many engineers personally find the exercising of responsibility, with the attendant accountability, to be an uncomfortable prospect. Of course all of this serves to divorce the technical activities from the ‘real’ decision making of the organisation, the Challenger launch decision being a case in point.
specialization …draws off attention and interest from other lines than those in which the specialization falls, thereby widening the candidate’s field of ignorance while it intensifies his effectiveness within his specialty. The effect, as touches the community’s interest in the matter, should be an enhancement of the candidate’s proficiency in all the futile ways and means … together with a heightened incapacity and ignorance bearing on such work as is of material use.
Verblen, Higher Learning in America
But how engineers view their professional role can also affect whether they even see issues as having a safety aspect, or as Kenneth Burke put it, ‘A way of seeing is also a way of not seeing’, if you view your role narrowly, as merely a technocratic specialist responsible for solving a specific class of design problems then you are unlikely to raise your head from the furrow, look around, and recognise that what you are doing is problematic, nor are you likely to acknowledge that you have broader responsibilities. As Verblen points out above such narrowing of focus leads to ignoring the bigger picture and engaging in dysfunctional behaviour, of course if you ask the subjects of this assessment you’d find them monumentally oblivious, déformation professionnelle indeed.
The antidote to all this? Well back in school engineers should be taught that they are custodians of the whole not just owners of the part, and that as such they are expected to show leadership and make decisions, for which they can and will be held accountable. Likewise in an engineering organisation of any size there needs to be clear lines of authority and accountability for technical decisions, where engineers are empowered to make decisions but neither are they divorced from the broader flow of organisational management.
Finally as a profession we need to recognise that practicing engineers worth the name are empowered and trusted to make decisions that matter, and to be accountable for them. If you are happy to take that responsibility then you should be able to call yourself and practice as a professional engineer, without such a commitment you should not. This should also be a clear legal distinction, just as it is in medicine and the law. A degree does not confer the status of being a doctor or a lawyer in practice, neither should it confer that of being an engineer.
*I’ve also noticed that civilian engineers can find the (military) goal focused approach to be somewhat challenging, which is perhaps a reflection of my déformation professionnelle. 🙂