What Do We Do All Day? Revisited

by Don Friedman on August 15, 2017


Internet discussion can be many things, with good and bad. Once in a while, a reply is more interesting than what triggered it. This short essay by Yonatan Zunger was a response to a “manifesto” that I’m not going to link to, on the topic of diversity. It should come as no surprise to anyone who has been reading this blog that OSE prizes diversity not just for its own sake (although that’s not a bad thing) but also because we think it makes us a better firm. It naturally follows that I have little interest in or sympathy for the document that Mr. Zunger is responding to. His response, on the other hand, is fascinating.

Specifically, Mr. Zunger’s second main point, on the nature of engineering, clearly states an idea I’ve been nibbling around the edges of. “Engineering is not the art of building devices; it’s the art of fixing problems.” Other than the word devices, which I can forgive a computer engineer for using, that sentence is perfect. Our work is always a means to an end, and the elegance of a design is meaningless if the end is not achieved. And achieving the ends always requires so-called soft skills. We don’t just have to work with people, we have to persuade them. Our designs have to meet our engineering goals but also have to fit into the architects’ ideas and work alongside the mechanical engineers’ systems. Saying that our work is a means to an end is saying that it is never itself the goal; this means we ourselves are always supporting players.

The badly aged picture above is listed in the New York Public Library’s database as a “View of engineers on the project at work in their office,” and the project is the Sudbury River Conduit of the Boston Water Works. The picture probably dates from about 1876, and a “conduit” in this sense is an aqueduct. “Work” seems to include two men in the foreground with some time on their hands, two men writing in ledgers, and several men looking at a whole lot of drawings. I do not believe it is an insult to any of those men to say that no one cares now about the work that the photographer captured and no one cared then, either. People care and cared about the result: fresh water for the city of Boston. People care and cared about the effect that the construction had on the houses and towns nearby, and whether the Sudbury River was permanently altered, and whether public money was wasted or stolen in the process of construction. If I can quote Mr. Zunger again, changing a few words to reflect a different kind of project, “The truly hard parts about this job are knowing [what to construct], building the clear plan of what has to be done in order to achieve which goal, and building the consensus required to make that happen.”

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