Everybody loves tech toys, but not the engineers creating them

Author: Fred Steinhauser, OMICRON electronics GmbH, Austria

Everybody loves tech toys, but not the engineers creating them

I have never ever heard somebody saying "you know, I am a lousy driver.” Everybody is conscious of being among the better drivers in this world. But when it comes to technical skills, it may be very different.

Most people have no problem saying that they are not particularly good at math, everybody is fine making jokes about this deficiency. The opposite can be true: if someone outs themselves of being interested in technical matters, they may even be considered as a strange person with some social inaptitude.

What I see expressed in the attitude regarding tech skills is a placeholder for society's attitude in respect to engineers. Everyone likes technology, but the people making it possible do not earn much prestige.

One indicator of society's ignorance towards engineers is how they are depicted in popular media. There are films and TV series about police officers, lawyers, and medical doctors. Often filmmakers emphasize on the professional advice they employed to make the performance realistic. But I do not know of anything serious about engineers. When engineers or engineer-like characters appear, there is always something quirky about them.

MacGyver can solve problems with a paper clip, a rubber band, and his Swiss army knife. Scotty, the chief engineer of Starship Enterprise fixes any defect on the ship in less than half of the scheduled time. The cartoons about the engineer Dilbert deal mostly about troubled projects. And in a little video, his mother started crying when the doctor told her that Little Dilbert will once become an engineer. The series Big Bang Theory continues this stereotype when character Howard Wolowitz is called "only an engineer", not being a real scientist.

There are simply no depictions of engineers in popular culture that realistically show what we do - is it too hard to understand or is it simply too boring? It is not that easy to become an engineer. You need a talent, it is a difficult matter, and it needs hard work to master the studies. So, it is not a low hanging fruit.

My father was an engineer and seeing him being capable of solving all kinds of technical problems made me wish to be like him. Both of my sons have chosen to become engineers as well, really out of their own will and not because of my advice, but maybe following my example.

So, there must be something to this profession that appears to be appealing when you come close by, but it might not be perceivable from a distance.

Inside technical companies, the standing of the engineers is much better. Those organizations know well that good engineers are rare and barely needed to create successful technical products. But in general, engineers have no lobby. And this is a problem, not just for the tech companies, but for the modern, tech dependent society as a whole.

So, what can we do about it?

It makes no sense to just complain that society is unfair to us.

  • Be conscious and act as a role model. The value you give your profession will be sensed by others
  • Be factual and respectful in the debate with other engineers, be loyal to your fellow engineers
  • Be supportive to young people with talent, encourage them to become an engineer, as well

And maybe try to stay away from projects that promise to be a "mission impossible," because those responsible for an unwinnable setup will blame the engineers when it fails ...

Biography

Fred Steinhauser studied Electrical Engineering at the Vienna University of Technology, where he obtained his diploma in 1986 and received a Dr. of Technical Sciences in 1991.

In 1998 he joined OMICRON, where he worked on several aspects of testing power system protection. Since 2000 he worked as a product manager with a focus on power utility communication. Since 2014 he is responsible for Power Utility Communication business of OMICRON.

Fred Steinhauser is a member of WG10 in the TC57 of the IEC and contributes the standard IEC 61850. He is one of the main authors of the UCA Implementation Guideline for Sampled Values (9-2LE). As a member of CIGRÉ he is active within the scope of SC D2 and SC B5. He also contributed to the synchrophasor standards IEEE C37.118.1 and IEEE C37.118.

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BeijingSifang June 2016