In this post, I talked about the creative side of engineering. Surprisingly, that is not the only one. In a nutshell, this is what engineering is all about:
Simply put, you have to achieve a technical goal with a set of available resources (time, people, money, etc.) and within a deadline. That’s it.
Most of the time, resources are limited. As such, engineers and technical managers pursue efficiency obsessively. Each and every problem that they face needs to be addressed in terms of a benefit-cost analysis. They constantly ask themselves how many resources they’ll spend to achieve a specific milestone and if there were a more efficient way to do this. A similar concept applies to the quality of the outcome, too: when combined diversely, the same resources may lead to different results in terms of performance, operating costs, and reliability. Thus, finding the optimal combination of such resources is another challenging task they think about incessantly.
No matter if we talk about efficiency or quality, you have to trade off. This means that you have to find the right combination of factors to make your project as successful as possible. No book can tell you how to find such a combination, however. It’s a never-ending battle you have to fight relentlessly, project by project, day by day, choice by choice. And these processes are so pervasive that, if you work as an engineer for a while, you may develop a consequent mindset that never leaves you, even in situations other than your workplace. I realized that, after working for almost twenty years as an engineer, I now approach everyday problems this way, spontaneously and naturally.
Sometimes, I think retrospectively about some choices I made in the past and I ask myself: “Would I make the same choice if I had known what I know today?” One such circumstance I think about often is my Electronics Engineering course itself. Would I take it again? The answer I give today is “not exactly”, in the sense that I still would take it but I would attend it in a different way. I need to contextualize this statement before getting into the reasons behind my answer. I attended this course in the second half of the 90s. Then, most of the professors used to teach for their entire professional lives as teaching was their primary job. At the beginning of their careers, however, they started working for the universities as researchers, who were, at the same time, assistants to full professors. The idea is that this mechanism should allow professors to provide students a significant value thanks to the experience and the knowledge they got from their research activity. Put differently, they were supposed to give students much more than what they could find in the textbooks themselves. This is the reason why attending the classes should have been worth it. The possibility to interact with the professor should have been a great opportunity to make such lessons a priceless experience. Unfortunately, it wasn’t like that. Very few professors were able to give us students such valuable information.
Back to the question I asked myself: can I now take into account the pros and cons of the choice I made at that time? And this leads me to the answer I gave. All things considered, I think that the financial costs incurred by my family have not been worth it. I spent five years living in Padua to attend the university. It was a full-time commitment into which I put all my energies to complete the course as planned (roughly speaking, in Italy you should graduate at the end of the course but this is not obligatory; the majority of students need years after the end of the course to get the job done). I took 28 exams and wrote my final thesis to get a master’s degree. I spent about 8 months in a company to work on my thesis-related project. That experience was priceless—by the way, that company is the same I work for today and of which I own a small share—but I can’t say the same for the exams. Very few were worth it. For most of them, I think I could have studied by myself without attending the lessons. This would have allowed me to avoid living in Padua for such a long time. Besides saving a lot of money, maybe I would also have had time to find a part-time job to offset the costs of the university.
Of course, this is just an example to illustrate the general point. Today, I can’t list in advance all the pros and cons of the choices that I have to make as I don’t own a crystal ball. Anyway, I feel that my job has molded a rational mindset, which is quite helpful to manage best these circumstances according to the available information.