Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Bedrock Of Engineering

Call me conceited, but I'm going to write this entry based on the idea that I am a stereotypical engineer. I know right off the bat that it's not true -- I'm not nearly interested enough in math to fully embody the role, nor am I enough of a disciplined analytical thinker to really carry the title. My core personality is more along the lines of engineering by gut feeling. I'm technical enough to pull it off, but I don't have the chops in science to really own it in the same way as someone who still remembers everything they learned in calculus ten years after college. But I do think there's a common aspect between my personality and that of someone who's more methodical and, well, a classical engineer, and that is the desire to fix things.

I'm not just talking about a vague desire to make things better. Pretty much everyone has that, engineer or no. I'm talking about a deep-seated frustration with things that are slower than they could be. I'm talking about an exasperation that rises from deep within at the hint that you might be doing something repetitive -- and not just repetitive, but when doing anything that you haven't been personally been convinced is worth your time. If your reaction to a boring task is not, "Let's get this over with," but, "Let's automate this so I can do it in one percent of the time," that's the core of the engineering mindset.

It comes so naturally to me that it's something of a shock when I step back and look at all the elements that have to be in place to give me the luxury of even thinking about this. Combined millennia of engineering effort have gone into creating flexible, multipurpose tools that I can play with on a whim. The fact that the Internet will shuttle any piece of information from anywhere, to anywhere, without any setup cost by the person injecting the information into the network is a minor miracle. These things give me the kind of freedom to create that people one hundred years ago could only dream of, and yet I still find everything too slow, too repetitive, and badly in need of fixing.