Rules of Life as an Engineer

Way way back in 1994, I used to contact mining industry people on the USENET, it was almost the begging of time and it was cool.

Anyway, this bloke I used to discuss things with sent me his “laws” of life with respect to engineering. Most of these fit today, even in a tech field. I have no idea how to ask the gentleman whose list it for permission to post, but if he does contact me I will give credit.

  1. The most difficult lesson for a recent engineering graduate to learn is how uneducated he is. Ignorance is bliss … and bliss is hard to spurn.
  2. An apprenticeship of 6-12 months will be served at the beginning of every job, and at every level. Pay the ante graciously and be admitted to the game.
  3. Two groups of people call themselves “engineers”, managers and practicing technical specialists. Only the latter has true claim to the title, despite smoke/mirrors, and other feigned claims of expertise.
  4. A distinguishing peculiarity of a manager is an ability to prosper in a world of lies, hypocrisy, and deception. This trait often is manifested as overt manipulation, dubious ethics, gamesmanship, or a proclivity to rationalize away personal motivations. The more lofty the manager, the more lustrous is the facade that masks this trait.
  5. Engineers who have spent time as a front-line supervisor making concrete things happen are easily distinguished from academic scholars. “Rank-and-file” miners can be fine “real world” teachers. Education at this level is unavailable from academia and is valuable. Seize it early and be open to instruction from anyone.
  6. Make time to listen; hear what is being said. Seldom are all the words in a conversation verbalized. And, of those that are, many are not meant literally.
  7. Do not assume managers are interested in optimizing anything but their own salary.
  8. It is irrelevant whether an engineer is right or wrong, he can only prove management asinine in public a small and finite number of times before he will be fired.
  9. It is easier for management to tolerate conformity and mediocrity than nonconformity and excellence. There is provision in predetermined scales of measurement for mediocrity but not for excellence. Submissive conformists seldom crusade for radical change or are leaders in insurrection.
  10. There are few truly imaginative/creative engineers. Consulting firms have been created to allow major corporations continued access to these individuals since they will be rejected from most corporate cultures.
  11. An engineer who cannot convey his ideas/work graphically, verbally, and in written form is useless. Get a dictionary and use it.
  12. Learn basic statistical analysis, accounting, and the many other semi-legitimate MBA techniques used to distort the truth. These frequently employed managerial devices can be convincingly used to sell your story, or fraudulently destroy it.
  13. “A picture is worth a thousand words . . . ” The human mind is like a multimedia computer with 90% of it’s processing power dedicated to image processing. Graphic images, therefore, are intuitively easier to comprehend than tables of numbers. Learn how to make pretty pictures to get your point across to the technically unsophisticated. Take advantage of every opportunity to present your work to those who count. Make sure your name is on every document that you generate.
  14. Most people are untrained in managerial science when they are promoted to a supervisory position and acquire little meaningful training after that. 3-5 years after quitting technical work, a person usually becomes obsolete in his field. It follows, therefore, that most managers are inept by definition. Exceptions occur, but don’t expect more.
  15. It is a bad assumption that dedication, and voluntary overtime resulting in excellent work will be rewarded, acknowledged, or even recognized by anyone but a colleague. Management is more likely to plagiarize good work than laud it.
  16. It is a bad assumption that a corporation will return the loyalty you give it. To a corporation, technical professionals are budgetary costs that should be jettisoned whenever possible, and are easily replaced with lower cost modules when necessary.
  17. Managers like to refer to themselves as a subordinate’s “superior”. It follows, therefore, that they will see you as their “inferior”. Don’t allow/accept/believe it.
  18. Never underestimate the power of “bull shit” or “bean counters”.
  19. An incompetent supervisor is a heavy load.
  20. Creativity is an important asset to every engineer. Learn what it means. Cultivate it at every opportunity, and in every way possible.
  21. There are two distinct and separate career paths for people with engineering degrees, technical specialization and management. Decide as early as possible which you want and actively seek out the requisite experience and training. Be careful what you wish for, you may get it.
  22. The effortless answer for a manager is always “no”. However, it is taxing for an engineer to say “no” to a manager. Develop the chutzpa to say “no” at appropriate times.
  23. If you ignore something long enough, it will usually go away. However, the third time a manager asks for something, do it, even if it is nonsensical. You don’t always know your manager’s agenda.
  24. There is no rational way to explain the “golden boy” syndrome but it is real. Some people have to make their own luck; others have it thrust upon them. Don’t take undue credit if it happens to you. Don’t stop believing in yourself if it doesn’t. 25
  25. Find a mentor.
  26. Keep in touch with people and organizations that you truly admire. There won’t be many, and the “good-ol-boy” network is a powerful ally.
  27. Study management science. You may become a manager someday through no fault of your own. Meanwhile, you will better understand what is happening around you. Untrained managers (a majority) can themselves be managed.
  28. Never be responsible for endangering another person’s health or safety no matter who commands it.
  29. Always give credit where credit is due. Always claim credit when it is yours.
  30. Managers seldom appreciate flamboyance or understand hyperbole.
  31. An unsolicited complement goes a long way with secretaries.
  32. Never stop learning or assume that you “know-it-all”. Inspiration comes from unexpected avenues.
  33. Write down “brilliant” ideas that come to you in the middle of the night if you have problems remembering. These ideas often are brilliant. Some of your most productive times will occur when your eyes are closed.
  34. Be careful who you call enemies. Be even more careful who you call friends. Betrayal by an enemy is to be expected. Betrayal by a friend is devastating.
  35. You cannot call yourself a mining professional until you have been fired at least once. The first time you are fired, or otherwise dismissed, is the most painful. It gets easier with practice.
  36. Job offers seldom come one at a time. The best job often does not offer the highest salary. There are hidden reasons for inordinately high salary offers.
  37. Truly excellent engineers are not draftsmen. Truly excellent draftsmen are not engineers. These are two totally different creative talents and should not be mistaken for each other. However, since the only tangible product of an engineer is ink on paper, make that product the best you can every time.
  38. Quick and dirty estimates (often called preliminary results) are usually just that, quick and dirty. They can’t always be avoided but make sure a list of caveats/exceptions/etc. is clearly stated. Preliminary results are often quoted out of context by management.
  39. Elegance is a key engineering concept and should always be sought, although seldom attained. Elegantly simple solutions are the acme of engineering work. Complexity usually means a problem hasn’t been completely thought out.
  40. Quality of engineering work is often judged by the mass of paper accompanying it. Verbal communication is of little value to managers because it cannot be comprehended, retained, filed and plagiarized. A single sheet summary will not be judged credible. A single sheet summary attached to a mass of computer generated output will be judged acceptable because it looks like you actually did something, and reading time is minimal. “Tomes of Wisdom” with deeply imbedded conclusions/recommendations never get read except by other technical specialists. Best of all is a laser printed graph that can be photocopied as a flawless transparency for misinterpretation in a “manager’s only” meeting.
  41. Define a personal code of ethics. Professional registration is one avenue toward this goal. Reconciliation between the concepts of “Political Correctness” and professional ethics is an ongoing and difficult personal process. Don’t allow pressure to prostitute your personal code of ethics.
  42. An engineer’s job is to analyze, draw conclusions, and advise. It is management’s job to make decisions and take actions. Don’t allow these roles to become confused. Document your work, maintain records, and otherwise cover your ass, or you may become the scapegoat when things go wrong.
  43. If you don’t understand, ask questions. Keep rephrasing and asking the question until you understand. There truly is no such thing as a bad question. A question becomes “stupid” only when it is asked repeatedly by a person who will not listen to the answer.
  44. Political correctness, amorality, and malevolence will overcome youth, vigor, and righteousness every time. Be discreet around politically correct elitists in any organization. Don’t wage war with sneaky old men.
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