on May 22nd, 2012

Dear colleagues
When I was considering studying electrical engineering (many years ago!); my dear father once reminded me with some prescience (although being a teenager it irritated me): ‘Remember my boy, with all your theory and design skills on paper; these are all nothing until you or one of the techies or craftsmen picks up the first screwdriver or soldering iron to start implementing your design’.
In engineering education, we emphasise theory, software and computer design skills to distraction. But sadly we often ignore the importance of experience and even more, the manual skills which build up our engineering experience. We learn a lot of theory at college as engineers and techies. But how many of us need to directly apply a Fast Fourier transform or a Laplace transform to our work today?

Experience seems to be in short supply, particularly if you observe a young engineer at work. In many cases (like a junior officer trying to read a map on the battlefield) he/she is often forbidden from doing any manual work due to concerns that there will be an accident and someone will get hurt. Why? He/she simply doesn’t have the experience.

So was all this theory worth while? I doubt it. But theory is considerably easier to teach than practical know-how - much of which is missing in the engineering curriculum. Admittedly, theory feels far harder to gain than practical knowledge (due to the incredible mental gymnastics one has to perform), but at the end of the day practical knowledge is the key to success in engineering. I was somewhat shocked when I finished engineering school and spent many months on the shopfloor learning basic welding, fitting, turning, milling and how to wield a soldering iron, screwdriver and spanner (to the right level of torque). I did, however, gain considerable proficiency as a result and learnt about real engineering and the difference between theory and practical engineering. And then working in a real process plant, I learnt the hard way about the real practical skills required to run the plant – from the tradespeople who were always thrilled to share their expertise.

There are so many valuable skills, particularly with tools, that are simply not taught in college or university. These skills are handled with panache by craftsmen, but are not easily taught by academics and instructors or books. They can only be gained the hard way - by brutal on-the-job experience, with a very patient mentor (or ‘apprentice master’).  Many technicians, who spend their lives working closely with circuits, often develop an incredible and deep understanding of electronic processes – much of this is not easily found in textbooks and dry theory.

As Jack Ganssle rightly pointed out: “Experience is a critical part of the engineering education, one that's pretty much impossible to impart in the environment of a university. You really don't know much about programming till you’ve completely hosed a 10,000 line project, and you know little about hardware till you've designed, built, and somehow troubleshot a complex board”.

As engineers and techies, we are like the blacksmiths of old. We start off as apprentices and through experience learn all our craft. And then when we have acquired all this expertise and know-how we start passing it onto the next generation without holding back any expertise. A sacred (engineering) obligation.

We’re generally paid for what we can do and I would wager a considerable chunk of this is from experience - not from what we derive from theory. So, building up our experience as quickly as possible when we start off, makes considerable sense purely from a mercenary point of view. The top engineers and techies are valued for what experience they have gained over the years.

We have to learn from experience and understand that we will make mistakes in everything we do. As long as we keep trying, we are growing as engineering professionals. We need to ensure that all our young engineers and technicians are involved ‘practically’ and get their hands dirty, when they start their careers. This is to ensure they can relate the excesses of theory that they gained at college or university to the real world.

After all, as Barry LePatner remarks:
‘Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.’

My gratitude to Bob Landman and  Jack Ganssle for their valuable input here.

Yours in engineering learning


Mackay’s Musings – 8th May’12 #476
125, 273 readers

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