What Is an Engineer?

Let's start with some Etymology, that everyone loves. In English, the word engineer is similar to "engine". In Spanish, the word is "ingeniero", a word with the same root as "ingenio" (wit or cleverness). But actually, both "ingeniero" and "engineer" stem from the Latin word "ingenium", which means intelligence or ability.

People tend to think of engineers as technical people who work with machines or things, but the key activity of the trade is solving problems. Technical problems, design problems, people problems.

The stereotype goes that to succeed in engineering one needs to be analytical, logical, and structured. That's accurate but incomplete. Engineers also have to be creative, lateral thinkers. Not all problems have obvious mathematical solutions. Most real-life problems involve trade-offs between benefits and drawbacks that are impossible to measure.

As hardware and software invaded our lives, the demand for user-friendly products went up. Somewhere along the way, a good chunk of engineering got severed. Human-computer interaction turned into UX design. It happened so fast that we forgot that engineers were the ones responsible for making products with proper design.

I don't know who is to blame for this. Blame it on universities trying to sell design courses. Blame it on companies trying to make all jobs standardized so workers are easier to replace. Or, perhaps, blame it on engineers for making some ugly, unusable interfaces. But even if engineers and designers follow a different path, the skills have a huge amount of overlap:

  • Designer: person who creates and plans the form, look, or workings of an object before it is made, usually by drawing it in detail
  • Engineer: person who applies scientific knowledge, mathematics, and ingenuity to develop solutions for technical, societal, and commercial problems

Aren't civil engineers, for example, designers? How about software architects? What about an industrial designer who works on a physical interface using mathematics?

Categories are useful lies. We use the words "engineer" and "designer" to describe a kind of flair. If the flair is more artistic and aesthetic, that's a designer. If it's more technical and aimed at solving problems, that's an engineer. But we need to understand that the lines are so blurry and dynamic that it's better to reject them altogether.

This means that if you want to create solutions for this world's problems, you shouldn't be afraid of expanding your area of expertise. Engineers can learn design and designers can learn engineering. You can do this by picking a fun project that compels you to learn what you don't know. You don't need to waste 4+ years in college for a useless degree, you can learn as you go.

And now, to close, here are some words from Bret Victor

In the schools, I trained in the Way of the Electron.

On the streets, I learned the Way of the Algorithm.

And I mastered these paths, but they were false paths. Their followers knew only the Yang of Technology, and worshipped the Code. But technology has not soul, and code no conscience. And I despaired.

Yet I sought, and after many seasons, I found the Yin of Design. It spoke of people, not things. I studied the Way of the Interface, of human perception and understanding.

And I mastered this path, but it was a false path. Its followers were taught to answer questions. They could not question the questions themselves. And I despaired.

Yet I sought, and I thought, and I pursued my own path. And with time, I was enlightened.

The True Way transcends the minutia of Skill. There is no "Technology". There is no "Design". There is only a vision of how humanity could be, and the relentless resolve to make it so. The rest is details.