Engineering attitude

Carver Mead on engineering:

Engineering isn’t something you study and learny, and memorize, and know where to look up. Engineering is understanding things all the way to the bottom, no matter what field they are called, and being able use that to build stuff and make it work.

I edited the quote slightly. Mead was speaking in the past tense about the attitude that Royal Sorensen brought to Cal Tech. I thought the stand-alone quote would be easier to read in the present tense.

Source: Carver Mead: the thing that’s going to be the most important 100 years from now, around 22:30.

4 thoughts on “Engineering attitude

  1. This is why I’ve loved working on embedded/real-time systems, sensors, controls and instrumentation. Initially from the software side, learning the rest of the engineering involved when folks would always blame the firmware, leaving me to find root causes. Eventually shifted to Systems Engineering to lever that broad experience, to get in front of and prevent such issues.

    Plus, it’s just plain fun digging “all the way down” then bringing that detailed awareness back to the system level. One of my indicators for low-level comprehension is finding bugs in vendor data sheets affecting our use of a component. That “detailed systems perspective” also makes design reviews fun, no matter what is being reviewed. Including things like tracing electronic circuit and layout design issues to weak DRCs (design rule checks) in the PCB toolchain being used.

    Which brings us to my personal definition of Engineering: “Engineers create technological artifacts using reliable and repeatable processes.”

    The most important “artifact” not being the product on the shelf, but the documentation covering why and how it was designed and built, and how it should be deployed and used.

    This attitude paid dividends during my stints as an independent contractor/consultant, where I’d view a client needing to call me for information after a contract had ended as a personal and professional failure: I hadn’t left the client with full documentation for the work I had performed. I never charged for those hours, billing them to my internal account of professional lapses.

    “Building stuff that works” doesn’t mean building something that only I can make work: It must work for everyone needing to use it, which means functionally useful documentation.

    (Anyone see my soapbox? I was standing on it only a moment ago…)

  2. Carver Mead. Personal hero. Even wrote a book on his own view of quantum mechanics toward the end: “Collective Electrodynamics“ I think it was…

    Very quotable guy, right up there with some of Richard Hamming’s thoughts about doing science and engineering.

  3. The quote applies to Physics as well:

    “In fact the total amount that a physicist knows is very little. He has only to remember the rules to get him from one place to another and he is all right…”

    ( Richard P. Feynman, The Character of Physical Law)

  4. I don’t know the quote verbatim nor who quipped it, but i like it.

    “Anyone can build a bridge that stands. It takes an engineer to build a bridge that barely stands”.

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