Engineering route to accounting

In a discussion on Google+, Daniel Lemire argues that engineers end up essentially being accountants.

Engineering, at least how it is practiced in North America, is hardly very exciting. … By the time you have your degree, you have 5–10 years to go before, if you have any ambition, you end up a manager of some kind, doing more or less what your friends who went into accounting do. … No, you don’t get to build anything, technicians do that … you only approve their expense reports …

Of course there are exceptions, but the career path Daniel describes is common. And it’s not unique to engineering. It’s a sort of variation on the Peter Principle. Many people find themselves approving expense reports for people who do the work they enjoy doing, or used to enjoy doing.

What can you do if you want to avoid going into management/accounting? Here are a few ideas.

  • Be content with a lower salary.
  • Work for smaller companies.
  • Work for specialized companies, e.g. an engineering firm.
  • Go out on your own (but watch out for the e-myth).
  • Spend a lot of time searching for a job.

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Engineers save millions of lives in Japan

From Dave Ewing via Roberto Montagna:

The headline you won’t be reading: “Millions saved in Japan by good engineering and government building codes”. But it’s the truth.

The loss of life in Japan is tragic, but it would have been far worse without good engineering.

Update: As Tim points out in the comments below,The New York Times did publish a story headlined Japan’s Strict Building Codes Saved Lives. This is to be commended since it’s natural to only see the people who died and not the people who did not. Along these lines, I wonder how many people did not die mining coal to generate the electricity that nuclear power has provided Japan.

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Software structural engineers

Billy Hollis made an interesting point in his interview on .NET Rocks. He argues that “structural engineer” is a better analogy than “architect” for the role of “software architects.”

Structural engineers make sure a building can withstand the stresses it will be subjected to. They do not design buildings, though they work closely with the architects who do the design. Hollis says that most software projects do not have an “architect” who is responsible for the external design of the project. Instead they have structural engineers who focus on infrastructure. This is a very important role, but calling these folks “architects” may obscure the lack of someone playing a role analogous to the architect of a construction project.

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Deconstructing Thomas Edison

I’m reading Remarkable Engineers to write a review for a website. The prose is pretty bland, though it got spicier in the chapter on Thomas Edison. It seems the author felt he needed to take Edison down a notch.

The career of Thomas Edison was not that of a great man of science, or even that of an inventive genius … His only major scientific discovery was the fact that a vacuum lamp could act as a rectifier, passing only negative electric currents. … He was said to have invented the business of invention.

So Edison was an engineer rather than a scientist. This criticism seems odd in a book devoted to remarkable engineers.

Surely Edison was an inventive genius; he held over a thousand patents, more than anyone has ever held. That is not to say anyone believes he came up with over a thousand unprecedented ideas completely by himself. He built on the work of others. He coordinated the work of his employees. He took ideas that were not being used and commercialized them. Perhaps he was more of an entrepreneurial genius than a scientific genius, but he was a genius nonetheless.

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Engineering in the open

From Herbert Hoover, mining engineer and 31st President of the United States:

The great liability of the engineer compared to men of other professions is that his works are out in the open where all can see them. His acts, step by step, are in hard substance. He cannot bury his mistakes in the grave like the doctors. He cannot argue them into thin air or blame the judge like the lawyers. He cannot, like the architects, cover his failures with trees and vines. He cannot, like the politicians, screen his short-comings by blaming his opponents and hope the people will forget. The engineer simply cannot deny he did it. If his works do not work, he is damned.

Herbert Hoover photo

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Robert’s rules of order and Galveston flooding

I found out recently that Henry Martyn Robert of Robert’s Rules of Order fame was also a civil engineer. After the devastating hurricane of 1900, Robert was part of the effort to raise the level of Galveston Island and build a seawall. As much damage as Hurricane Ike did to Galveston, it would have been far worse without the efforts of Robert and others over a century ago.

For more information, see Engines of Our Ingenuity Episode 1099.