The Lost Soul of the Engineer
"The paradox is that insiders capture our attention while outsiders stir the drink. Outsiders, now commonly called "outliers," write most of the books with insiders' names on the dust jackets. Outsiders write speeches, strategy briefs, and tactical maneuvers for politicians, CEOs, generals, educators, clerics, and television commentators. Outsiders remain essentially mesmerized by their nearness to power, while unaware of their own.
This is played out with finality in the engineering community. The modern world is a product of the engineering mind. Yet, while engineers created that world, it does not belong to them. It has been stolen from them."
James R. Fisher, Jr., A Look Back to See Ahead, 2007, p. 113.
There once was a man who lived on his lawn in a mobile trailer while he built his dream house. For some reason, he continued to live in his trailer after his magnificent home had been completed, leaving it empty.
After a time, opportunists noted this oddity. They took possession of the dwelling and laid claim to it as their own, possession being nine-tenths of the law.
At first, the builder was bewildered then exasperated, disbelieving what had happened. He was full of angst and found all attempts to redress this wrong driving him deeper into litigation and financial ruin. He was the odd man out.
By the accident of his circumstances, he stepped into a world not of his making, a world of words that were not his forte. He considered himself a maker, not a taker; a doer, not a transgressor. His world previously had been of predictable outcomes, not disreputable deeds; a world of moral certitude, not cunning malice.
Time passed and he took comfort in the fact that at least he had his trailer even though it had been fenced off from the rest of the property. Yet, he did nothing. Then one day while enjoying his morning coffee, he was hit with an eviction notice, giving him 48 hours to pack up and leave or be thrown off the land.
Colin Wilson, Access to Inner Worlds, 1983, Rider Publishing
His world, and all that he held dear, was suddenly destroyed, not unlike Franz Kafka's Joseph K (The Trial, 1925), who was arrested one fine morning and had done nothing wrong.
In Tracy Kidder's The Soul of the Machine (1981), we are introduced to the genius f a superb team of engineers who take on the nearly impossible task of creating a supercomputer in a finite period, only to be reduced to the equivalent of a vestigial organ once the magnificent machine — The Eagle — was completed.
These engineers put their hearts and souls into this project, sacrificing everything, only to be persona non grata in the end, and they had done nothing wrong.
They, too, built their dream house and left it in the hands of the wordsmiths and the spin doctors to legitimize ownership. Then marketers added insult to injury, rechristening The Eagle as "Eclipse MV/8000." This was followed by securing elaborate mention in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times of this singular achievement.
The final humiliation came in the form of an elegant luncheon at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City. These engineers, essentially untutored in the finer social amenities connected with the elite, felt uncomfortable in their ill-fitting suits, while confused with the showy formality. They hung helplessly together as if a pastiche, not knowing whether to take the first-course salad on their right or left. They were fish out of the water and made to feel that way.
These self-conscious celebrants felt like embarrassed teenagers at their first dance, intruders being punished for what they had done. After all, once the project was completed, not interested in making waves, they packed up their belongings and left the building.
A year later, one Eagle engineer, reminisced, "I felt like a hired gun in an old Western movie, sent to rid the town of the bad guys, only to be run out of town once respectable citizens could sleep easily again."
The engineer has a fatal attraction for being punished rather than rewarded. Why? Could this be a product of the engineer's masochistic complex?
The Mystique of the Engineer
From birth, subtle forces are conditioning us to be what we become. The engineer is prototypically a product of the technological culture. His acumen is that of the problem solver of things while exhibiting ambivalence towards solving people problems.
Regrettably, we know precious little about ourselves as human beings than Plato observed in The Republic some 23 centuries ago. Education cannot put knowledge into the soul any more readily than sight into blind eyes. The soul of every man has the power to learn and the power to see, but not always the wisdom to see as the mind is manipulated to justify our biases.
Just as the eye can see light instead of darkness, the soul can see reality instead of its unchanging permanence. To see the soul's light requires one to look in the right direction from where the soul's light emanates.
Today, we refer to the soul as the psyche when discussing the self or the mind. Plato's point is that we see what we want to see. Currently, the fantastic explosion of technology implodes our senses with the wonder, "Will I survive?"
Plato would say we are looking in the wrong direction. It is not the gadgetry that is critical to a changing world, but man's relationship to man. The engineer is in the middle of this turmoil. His world of algorithms is not enough for man to survive, much less to prevail.
Thoughts are composed of ideas that are time-bound states of mind and not foolproof algorithms. Ideas distort our passions with perpetual biases. Algorithms straighten them out and spruce them up, opening ideas to the purity of mathematics and clearing the way for the advancement of science.
Yet, we are befuddled by this complex of ideas, which are derived from simple ones, as words are made up of letters, letters sentences, sentences thoughts, and thoughts a compendium or complexity. Simple ideas arise spontaneously from the sensation of inner reflection and then insert themselves into the conversation without the benefit of invitation.
The engineer distrusts words as such, but not the language of mathematics, which is itself a language of symbols that connote ideas without the apparent messiness or ambivalence of words.
We, who write essays and books compound words and divide them at will, constructing all sorts of complex ideas to suit our vagaries, inviting the danger of making a mess of things.
But the engineering mind is equally capable of generating chaos as well as order, regression as well as progression. After all, he is the creator of weapons of mass destruction as well as the marvel of the World Wide Web.
That said engineers are the preeminent builders of the modern world. They have automated the workplace, ending the factory system. Genetic engineering has revolutionized agriculture with biotech laboratories producing synthetic vanilla, coconut oil, and staple farm products. A select corps of engineers has created 24/7 financial trading across the globe. Thanks to engineers, globalization of industry and service are now standard operating practices. Unfortunately, problem-solving in the creative phase is not always problem-solving in the operating phase. Engineers move out of the picture once the problem-solving moves into the sphere of social dynamics, where the world of words and similar constructions deal with as well as produce ambiguities.
Once the systems are operational, the message engineers hear is, "Engineers need not apply!" How could this be? How could engineers be left out of the equation? How could the engineer be relegated to a homeless soul?
Technocracy & Consciousness
The engineering mind has shaped technological society and its consciousness as well. In technology, many things are going on at once in social systems (relational processes) and technical systems (technological production).
The engineer has kept in touch with the technical, but not necessarily the relational as he has an aversion to people processes. Yet, his relationship with the social is as critical to his success as is the technical. The whims of human nature differ little from those of Plato's time, while our knowledge of the universe far exceeds that known to Aristotle.
We have experienced more technological change in the past thirty years than in the previous three hundred. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that modernity has driven our consciousness to the brink of disaster. This is a failure to recognize the soul's significance in the relational aspects of technical and social systems. Denial is expressed in the statement, "Not my problem!" Then emphasized with, "Let them (whomever They maybe) worry about that. Leave me to my work!"
Engineers, gifted with special knowledge and skill, follow the laws of mathematics and physics and presume to be free of the ambivalence of people, or as a breed apart. They motor forward with "1+1=2."
They are uncomfortable working with non-engineering groups and fail to see that socialization skills (consensus building) apply to them. Such skills are for those who have nothing better to do. Likewise, they fail to see the value of reading non-engineering books or developing writing and speaking skills.
Alas, the lines are blurring between disciplines while social compression is accelerating at near warp speed. The workplace has taken on the characteristics of a social center with camp informality and personalized rhetoric echoing the refrain, "have fun at work," masking the corporate rush to the bottom line. It takes more than engineering acumen to cope in this new environment.
The mounting of non-engineering demands on the job has led to the engineer's dis-identity, sense of discontinuity, and disenfranchisement from work itself.
Meanwhile, the technocrat, the benefactor of the engineer's expertise, thrives in this ambiguous environment with political cool. This is brutally apparent with one data point. The engineer is the last to be hired and the first to go. He is treated like an indentured worker, used up and discarded, a vagabond with a modem and microprocessor, while the technocrat goes to the bank on the engineer's impact.
The engineer's loss of soul might be traced to his failure to take the non-engineering world seriously and to see engineering as part of the larger world, a world requiring a quantum leap in consciousness.
Remember, technocracy grew out of technology. Oddly enough, many successful technocrats were once die-hard engineers. They took that quantum leap coming to realize that finance is not an intrinsic but an acquired goal for the engineer-as-technocrat. Take The Eagle team. The team of engineers sets a goal to produce a supercomputer, and that was the team's end game, not the technocrats.
Imagine if these engineers had seen the completion of the supercomputer as the beginning of the marketing phase. They would then see themselves involved in the licensing agreement, the marketing contract, and the network of distribution. This is the world of technocracy where the spoils are divided.
While the fundamentals of logic dictate the technological phase, irrational gamesmanship dominates the technocracy phase. In this climate, technocracy has little choice but to acquire a sense of humor about itself. Here waste, duplication, falsity, dissent, duplicity, and chicanery are encountered. It is the price of doing business with the social group. The engineer's failure to make a connection with this world has been at his peril.
To the engineer, the focus is on problem-solving. To the technocrat, it is the solution with "nothing left out." The engineer focuses on the process and the technocrat on results. The outcome (result) is incidental to the process as long as all the t's are crossed and i's dotted. Technocrats invented documentation.
Technocracy creates its own inertia as it is governed by a discrete body of policies and procedures with a mania for enforcing them no matter how counterproductive. Consequently, to produce meaningful results, this finds technocracy growing exponentially chasing more than a few exceptional engineers out of the megacorporation. Unfortunately, the next company, should there be the next, may even be worse.
Denying the existence of this technocratic world, ignoring its penchant for wasteful policies and other non-systemic propensities, its fixation on ends at the expense of means, and its fascination with numbers, does not change the fact that technocrats are living in the house that engineers have built. How did this happen? More importantly, what can be done about it?
Profile of the Engineer versus the Technocrat
The engineer desires to bring the future into the present. The technocrat is interested in protecting the status quo.
The existing social system represents the culture of shared beliefs, values, and expectations. It is a psychological wall that resists change. Due to innovative engineering, breakthroughs however do occur, with the technocrat quickly changing course and developing a vocabulary to exploit this to advantage. These innovative engineers seldom share in the spoils. Gutenberg invented the moveable type printing press but went bankrupt.
Arrogant disregard for things, not engineering has proven a damning disease compounded by engineers seeking the comfort of like-minded individuals to lessen their angst when having to deal with technocrats.
The engineer admires those who can do what he does only better and not those who are engaged in something different. This finds the engineer difficult to manage and impossible to lead. Take his preference for managing data rather than dealing with people, or his aversion to managing himself. The measured world of the engineer with its discrete indices and lack of spuriousness does not exist beyond him if it exists at all.
Consider the following five dimensions: intelligence, support, conformity, achievement, and decisiveness. As you examine these, note how minor adjustments could restore some balance between the engineer and technocrat.
The engineer has an uncanny ability to analyze, digest, assimilate and utilize data, information he can see he grasps with quick facility. Information not quantifiable is unimportant and of little interest. If the information is not empirically derived, it does not exist. The engineer is interested in facts, not feelings, in hard data, not abstractions. Yet, love, hate, security, freedom, peace, and fulfillment are subjective values that can easily trip him up.
The technocrat is like the shark in water always in motion more concerned with making an impression than a difference. He lives in the world of soft data (impressions, feelings), information of little interest to the engineer. Survival warrants the technocrat to be especially vigilant to new information, who possess it, and how to leverage it to his purposes. He takes the product of the engineer (e.g., The Eagle Supercomputer) and runs with it. The technocrat's adaptive skills are not often apparent to the engineer.
The engineer, by nature a technologist, expects support to emanate naturally from the nontechnical community. When it is not forthcoming, he becomes restive and petulant demonstrating his lack of maturity. Not so the technocrat. He is used to being taken for granted and slighted. Pride is a luxury he can ill afford. Therefore, he remains unmoved by insults and assaults on his character. His modus operandi is in the world of uncertainty, while the engineer operates in the certain world of first principles.
The technocrat is perpetually in the selling mode in the capricious world of power and politics. Once the technocrat identifies his needs, he rallies support for his cause, recruiting a cadre of folks of differing views, disciplines, and needs. He sees no need to be the smartest person in the room, but the facilitator of those that are to his purposes. Often this requires an ability to identify key talent, then persuade them to join his scheme usually without the requisite authority. Taking the initiative is second nature to him. He is a fan of fads and cosmetic interventions, of anything that keeps him relevant and involved.
The engineer is the consummate conformist. The technocrat is not. The difference is a matter of projection. The technocrat assumes the posture of the conformist when it suits him, while the engineer likes to think of himself as a non-conformist. Conformity is quite acceptable to management as it represents no threat to its control. While the engineer struts his stuff, he seldom steps out of line. To cover his frustration, he may retreat into passive-aggressive behaviors but is unlikely to ever be confrontational. Not so the technocrat.
The technocrat is in the face of management feigning conformity while busy pursuing his hidden agenda. Management should be leery of the technocrat but is blinded by his sycophantic zeal for its causes as he echoes management's sentiments to the letter.
The engineer comes to be used up by the system while the technocrat uses the system to fulfill his desires always alert to unexpected changes in the mindset of management. He then redirects his efforts to take full advantage of the course change, while steady Eddie, the engineer, is surprised by these disruptions to redundancy. The technocrat is untouched by management's caginess. He deals with the possible, the engineer with the ideal.
Paradoxically, it is the brilliance of the engineer who creates the necessity for change, but it is also the engineer (not the technocrat) who is usually crushed by the reality it introduces.
Conformity is an engineer's safe haven, while the technocrat’s halfway house. Seldom does radical change emerge from the ranks of engineers as radicalism is the antithesis of his discipline.
Engineering is synonymous with laws (First Principles), replicable frames of reference, inviolable structure, unfailing paradigms, and verifiable mathematical algorithms. The dogma of science is the theology of the engineer.
The engineer is apt to be more loyal to data than to his own mind and interests. Occasionally, he escapes this confinement and dances to the world of liberal arts. This is the world of the engineer as CEO.
The technocrat operates in unchartered waters while the engineer hugs the shore with his CAD/CAM blueprint. The technocrat gets the job done by bending the rules and seeing the possibility where the engineer is not likely to venture. The technocrat takes the engineer's science and makes it commercial while the engineer broods over the unfairness of it all.
The unhappy engineer, who would like to escape conformity, justifies his stance with the rationale, "I'm paid a dollar more an hour than I can afford to quit." Trapped in this psychological conformity, he deludes himself into that it is a matter of economics when it is much more.
An engineer has a strong personal drive towards excellence that is not necessarily related to achievement. One of the consistent complaints of the engineer is that he is underutilized as if that is the system's fault and not his own. The engineer is the system! He created it with diligence and innovative effort. Failure to recognize this goes back to his sense of powerlessness.
The engineers on The Eagle Project were consumed with a drive to complete the task. Every action was orchestrated towards that end. It was not a drive towards self-aggrandizement, but completion. But completion for what and for whom? Why not self-interest?
Solid achievement, while spectacular, can mask a deeper dilemma, a failure to feel in control. A project becomes an engineer's life with his self-obedience to its demands. He relishes that role and not being in charge. Why? Because he doesn't want that stress. His priority and his last is the project. Panic fills the void until he is involved in the next project.
The technocrat is a spectator to the engineer's achievement, sitting in the bleachers, so to speak, calculating how to exploit the project once completed. He sees the engineer as something of a trained seal. It is no accident that the risk level of the technocrat appears considerably upscale to that of the engineer.
The persona of the technocrat in his three-piece button-down world disguises his edginess and avarice. What happened to Data General is repeated daily around the globe. Companies rise like a firecracker, light up the sky, and disappear leaving scores if not hundreds of engineers behind without jobs, while technocrats escape the carnage to latch on to the next rising company.
Sad but only too true, the engineer is invited into the house that he built, treated like a trespasser, then eventually given his eviction notice.
An engineer is not decisive. By nature, he is tentative, and circumspect, looking for more data to verify his findings. Perfection is his bottom line. The technocrat is of a different mindset. The only numbers that matter to him are those that he can manipulate like a magician. He operates in the high-risk business of doing what makes those numbers work for him. Functioning at the gut level, the technocrat is seen by the engineer as a "loose cannon shooting from the hip." He is and he does, for the technocrat makes decisions with a flare often on the fly with little tangible data in support. He is not afraid to make decisions, the engineer is.
The thought processes of the technocrat, while seemingly orderly in retrospect, are in chaotic mode from the start. Not the engineer. Order is what he knows. The technocrat thrives in chaos, and the engineer demands order.
The technocrat gambles on his and other people's ability to fulfill his agenda. He keeps two different mental books, one for management and one for everyone else. This finds him hedging his bet, having a convenient fall guy should matters go awry, who is often the engineer. His decisions are designed to promote his career with little concern they might derail those of others.
Management sees the technocrat as decisive and intently loyal, while the keenly loyal engineer is often seen as tentative and his loyalty suspect.
THE DELICATE BALANCE
If the engineer sees himself in this sobering assessment as the pigeon in the enterprise, it is because he has demonstrated a reluctance to take charge. I was once a consultant to a high-tech company that had been awarded a $65 million systems engineering contract.
The system analysts of this program had no interest in performing the function of management. So, a technocrat was brought in to perform that function, a man who knew nothing about systems analysis, or the kinds of people who are attracted to this discipline.
Operations were barely into the first quarter of the contract when a ruckus erupted. The supervisor had downgraded one of the system analysts cutting his pay and grade level, citing "the man is incompetent and is performing poorly." The basis of his evaluation was that this particular engineer was always found to be doodling or tapping his pencil on his desk and whistling to himself, clearly an indication of noninvolvement in the work at hand, right?
This engineer happened to be the informal leader of the group and was respected by his colleagues. He had initiated key breakthroughs in simulation studies critical to the program.
When his coworkers heard of his demotion, they all threatened to quit. Abruptly, the supervisor was removed. One of the analysts reluctantly volunteered to act as supervisor "for the duration of the project, but not beyond." Even with this development, these engineers didn't see the significance of what had happened.
As Plato observed, the engineer has the power to see into his soul but must be looking in the right direction. The answer is not in the engineer's technology but in himself. He has created the modern world but spurns the responsibility for managing it. He has done this, not only to himself but to his profession as well. He has allowed the technocrat to steal his thunder. Fault, not the technocrat. He has come to this advantage by default.
The engineer has been finessed by his stubbornness, by his inability to entertain and then establish a delicate balance between social and technical demands, between engineering principles and demands of a diverse workforce. Contempt for things, not engineering has placed him in a cage of his own making. Only he can step out of that cage and enter the house that his genius has built. The first step may be to invite a technocrat to lunch.
Short Circuit Engineering Newsletter, Spring 1993.
The Peripatetic Philosopher
Dr. James R. Fisher, Jr. is an industrial and organizational psychologist writing in the genre of organizational psychology, author of Confident Selling, Work Without Managers, The Worker, Alone, Six Silent Killers, Corporate Sin, Time Out for Sanity, Meet Your New Best Friend, Purposeful Selling, In the Shadow of the Courthouse and Confident Thinking and Confidence in Subtext. A Way of Thinking About Things, Who Put You in a Cage, and Another Kind of Cruelty are in Amazon’s KINDLE Library.
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