How to be an Engineer

An engineer is a problem solver. The goal of an engineer is to provide find solutions for problems that can be delivered on time and on budget. The last two constraints can never be overlooked or ignored; if a solution does not meet the budget and delivery expectations than it is not a viable option. A number of tools such as mathematics, scientific principles, modeling, testing, drawing, and measurement help an engineer accomplish their goals.

Being a good engineer requires a unique way of thinking. It involves the use of an extensive knowledge base to sequentially solve problems and arrive at a solution that can be applied. This last word is perhaps the most important. The purpose of an engineers work is application to solve a real world problem. In contrast a scientist is less interested in application and more interested in creating new knowledge rather than solving problems. As a result application requires a special set of considerations.

How exactly does an engineer go about solving problems? Generalizing can be difficult but a few basic techniques and tools are used by all engineers. First, engineers use math as a tool to help explain and model physics and other natural phenomena. Many things can be predicted with a simple equation since the world around us behaves according to certain natural laws. Using math reduces the need for experimentation and testing. Instead we can use equations, and computer models to help arrive at the best solution. This is often times much more cost effective than building prototypes and performing physical tests.

However, models always require assumptions to work and are not suitable for all applications and problems, which is where actual experimenting may be needed. Experimentation often involves building prototypes and measuring physical values. Often times this require the use of precise sensors or other measurement devices. The experimentation process often requires a lot of troubleshooting and replication of the results to insure they are accurate.

Drawing is another tool engineers use to help themselves and others see their design Drawings allow an engineer to communicate their work to others who may do the actual building. An engineering drawing has a language of its own so that important information can be communicated precisely and succinctly. These days software programs help engineers draw their designs.

In addition to using different tools there are also a few basic steps that any engineer can follow to organize himself or herself in order to arrive at the best solution. First is to understand and outline the design objectives and design constraints. Next is to break things down into small pieces that can be more manageably analyzed and understood. After this an engineer may have to do research into other similar problems and their solutions or familiarize themselves with the applicable science and mathematics. Next is to model and test possible design solutions. And the final step is to evaluate the solution to identify any possible changes. It is important to remember that there is a continuous compromise between the design objectives and design constraints.

Sometimes it is not so obvious what the best solution to problem will look like. Overtime an engineer builds intuition and gains experience by solving similar problems. New difficult problems though also often require other problem solving techniques. Teams of interdisciplinary engineers may need to work together to find new, fresh perspectives. It also may be possible the initial problem is too large in scope and needs to be broken down into multiple mini problems that can be sequentially solved to arrive at a final overall solution.

Many times it is easy to deliver a solution with an unlimited budget and unlimited time, but the real world does not work this way. Instead resources such as money, people, and equipment are limited. Time is also of essence in almost all engineering tasks, deadlines have to be met so that the next problem can be solved. Engineers also have to continuously weigh the prospect of over or under engineering their solution. Over engineering would involve wasting money by creating, a device, building, or process that is overly robust, eliminating any possible risks, but costing too much in time or money. Under engineering means money or time may be saved, but the risks associated with the incomplete solution are too high and failure may occur. Finding the right balance is more of an art than a science and many fields rely on statistics to predict the chances of failure.

Beyond problem solving skills, an engineer must also be good at other basic things such as organization, communication, time management, and budgeting. Without the ability to plan or communicate an engineer’ s other skills are essentially worthless. Being a part of an organization or company requires being able to work with others and collaborate on large problems.

Next time you have a problem approach it from the perspective of an engineer and see if you can solve it by using your intuition and tools. Don’t be afraid to test ideas or make changes after the fact. Develop your toolbox and practice whenever you can and soon you will become a great engineer.


Andy Davison