Thursday, November 1, 2012

Engineer Engineer

Pardon me a moment of off-topic.  I promise, development blogging will resume soon(tm).  I have a couple entries still in draft as I finish them.  Hopefully I can finish them this weekend.

I would like to highlight a trend I find disturbing in the technical jobs sector.  The haphazard slapping of "engineer" on any title to make the job sound more impressive.  Being a formally trained, and practicing electrical engineer, from a family of engineers, I take the title seriously.  Unfortunately, since STEM education has fallen out of favor until very recently, I don't believe most of the general public has the vaguest idea what an engineer actually does.

Hint: It has nothing to do with driving trains.

About The Author

I currently work as a Test Engineer in Probe (Wafer Sort) at a memory fabrication house.  My current project is developing the first ever production-volume phase change memory (PCM) part.  Furthermore, my job is tied to part reliability as we beef up the process for higher volume.  This means I spend my day designing tests and experiments to properly stress the part, and deliver the data for fab to improve the process.

Though in practice, my job is not that impressive, I maintain my credentials.  I have a BSEE from Colorado State University, and have passed the Fundamentals of Engineering exam as the first step toward earning my PE.  I hold membership in IEEE and several of their societies, namely Networking (ComSoc), and Power & Energy Society.  

The Trend

I have seen many job postings, and have friends in many technical positions, where the term "engineer" has been attached.  From programmers to technicians, the trend seems to be an inflation in title and/or a deflation in responsibilities.  

Floor technicians called "solutions engineers".  Over-the-phone tech support called "Technical Support Engineers".  Website designers called "Network Engineers".  

This trend is infuriating when trying to get a handle of what companies actually do.  When your company touts significant technological or industrial advancements: ground-breaking new tech, innovation, revolutionary new service... I then expect when I see open "engineering" positions, that the company requires the kind of broad-base, profit-minded, data-oriented skill set an engineer brings... Or at least be willing to pay the premium that comes with that skill set.

If someone called themselves "doctor" without credentials, they would be ridiculed.  If someone represented themselves as a "lawyer" without accreditation, they could ruin their client's life and be held liable.  If a "plumber" or "electrician" misrepresents themselves, they could cause havoc... yet "engineers" can be anyone from a car mechanic to sales person?  Seems a little broken.

What Does "Engineer" Mean?

Engineering has become synonymous with technical expertise, but the title is so much broader than that.  Engineering comes with a host of other responsibilities and liabilities.

Design

Engineers design the systems, tools, and infrastructure we use every day: every system and part in a car, the bridges and highways we drive on, the city planning for sewage and flooding, the internet this blog is posted on.  Every day you touch thousands, of systems that engineers designed.  These systems are considered critical for the lifestyle we enjoy, our livelihoods, or even our lives.

Analytics

No system gets better without data and analytics.  Though most breakthroughs come from the laboratory and scientists, real world optimizations are made by engineers.  Timing traffic lights to decease pollutants, designing more efficient computer networks to serve data faster.  Without a feedback path of design->analytics->optimization, no system would be robust enough to survive the ever changing challenges of the real world.  Engineers provide the expertise to gather, analyze, and apply this data to continue improvements and innovations.

Ethics and Liability

This is most important to me, when defining the title "engineer".  When a bridge collapses, everyone from the welder to the designer will be investigated.  If there is a fault in the design, and an engineer signed the drawing, he can be held liable, even face jail time.  And beyond life-and-death consequences, engineers have incredible power to cost companies outrageous sums.

A dark joke in engineering circles:
What's the difference between a doctor and an engineer?
When a doctor screws up, only one person dies

Business Sense

It is the duty of engineers to take the experimental from R&D and turn it into products for the public.  Scientists can study in schools and labs all day, but until a plan is developed to monetize the technology, it does very few people any good.  It is the duty of engineers to analyze the elements of production and bring the theoretical into reality.  Also, it is the duty of engineers to remind their clients that nothing is free, and technically every feature can be bought... but the price can be unfeasible.  

My favorite professor, Dr George Collins liked to note
Scientists research and develop new technologies, and businessmen make money.  But engineers bridge the space between to turn ideas and technology into sellable products.

Who Should be an Engineer?

I am the first to state that formal education should not be the only path to success, and engineering is similar.  Many fields and positions might have elements of engineering.  Many people might work their way off the production floor and into design.  Instead, I believe that if the position embodies the spectrum of work outlined above, then they are an engineer.  

A certain element of education cannot be overlooked.  Without the broad-base interdisciplinary education that every classically trained engineer receives, it is hard to supplement the body of knowledge that engineers are called to have.  But the motivation to go find out and learn should not be seen as monopolized by education or institution.

I don't mind calling programmers engineers, or inventors engineers.  Many embody the hallmarks above.  But  without the liability or risk to really break things, it's hard to justify the title "engineer".  Without impact, without risk, the title engineer is only embelishment.

The Price Tag of Engineering

All of this expertise comes at a price.  Engineering enjoys one of the last bastions of "old style" business; where employers are actively invested in gathering specific individuals and doing whatever it takes to get them and keep them.  This investment in human capital does mean there is a real life price tag on engineering positions.  Not only in salary, but also in incentives and talent acquisition.  

Any position's pay should reflect the value added.  Engineers, being an all-in-one package with both a host of skills and the commitment to bare the load of responsibility, should be adding significant value.  In my company, several times a year individuals in my division save millions of dollars per quarter on their process improvements.  Money that would have been spent otherwise on inefficiencies.

I want to call upon companies to analyze their titles and really think about whether that "engineer" is really deserved.  Under this scrutiny, I am not sure if I could keep my engineer title for the real work I do, but this is still a legitimate question.  If you wouldn't ship a candidate in on the company's dime, if they will not add several-times-over the value spent on them, then I am not sure if the position really needs an engineer.  


TL;DR

The part I really want to drive home again is the ETHICAL responsibility that comes along with engineering. The price of failure is what measures engineers.  Landing a $2B lander on Mars.  Keeping power on at a data center automatically.  Designing and maintaining bridges and subways.  These are the topics that cost serious cash, puts lives on the line, and require more than average-Joe to design, maintain, and improve.  

Sorry for the rant, we will return to your regularly scheduled spaceships talk soon(tm).