Engineering is a Deeply Social Enterprise.
Humans do two things particularly well. We bang rocks together to alter them, and, when we come up with a useful rock banging technique, we tell each other about it.
Engineering is the art and science of banging rocks together.
If you allow the generic term “rocks” to include all the things that we find in our natural environment, then anything we have ever made or will ever make, with the important exception of information itself, is made by banging rocks together.
We have gotten so good at banging rocks together that we can bang them together one atom at a time. The semiconductors in your phone or computer or television or automobile or pacemaker are all made using very specialized methods for getting atoms (tiny rocks) of some particular material to land in very particular places on a piece of silicon (a somewhat larger rock).
Software Engineering is the art and science of arranging for electrons (really tiny rocks) to bang into other rocks at very specific places at very specific times.
Ever since the first ancestor of modern humans found that she could make a rock more useful by banging it against another to make a sharp edge, we have been collecting and collating and expanding on the expertise born of individual experience. Engineering, at whatever time in history you choose to look, is the culmination of all the person-hours of work of anyone who has ever made anything. It is a deeply social enterprise.
How to be an Engineer
It is useful to remember, when you embark on an adventure of making anything, that all of the engineered products that are available for you to use were made by people, and they were made to be easy to use. The amazing products you use on a daily basis, like cellular phones, function in ways that you can understand, because they were built by people. They do lots of things, and it takes time and effort to learn about how they work, but they are inherently understandable.
Do not be intimidated by Engineering. Ask the most basic question you can think of, get an answer that makes sense to you, and build on that knowledge by asking the next most basic question.
Do not be lead astray by terminology. An engineering term can always be explained in other, simpler words.
Be safe. Ask about the process and tools and chemicals you will be using, and in what ways they may be harmful to you. Look them up online, to check on the information you are given. Do not proceed with any process if you are at all uncertain of your safety.
Within the context of safety, and cost, break things. Learn how things break so that you can learn how to make them so they don’t break. Do not be embarrassed or ashamed if you damage or destroy an inexpensive part. Breaking things is part of the work of engineering.
Dream. The most important characteristic of good engineering is imagination. Imagine new ways to do things, and then imagine what can go wrong with those new ways. Can you dream up a new way to keep something from going wrong? Can you dream up a new way to do something better? Can you dream up something entirely new? Can you make it happen, in a safe and reliable way? That is engineering.
©Paul Mirel 2015: For educational purposes only, you may freely reproduce this information, provided you cite this page as the source. Commercial uses are prohibited.