An Engineer’s Mind: Were We Born This Way?

I am sitting here in the middle of the night answering some emails, writing reports, and putting some numbers together. I am thinking about my career path and my path in life. My mind wanders to thoughts of how I got where I am today. What makes me think the way I do? Was it the formal education, or was it my experiences? Was I just born with a creative mind that allowed me to excel on an engineering path?

What makes engineers different from everyone else, whether they are mechanical, civil, chemical, or electrical (ignoring for the moment that EEs are the sharpest)? What gives us such an odd sense of humor and makes us unique?

Pushing in a bit deeper, we are all pretty good with numbers, and most of us are common-sense types of guys. What makes us come up with a crazy idea in our heads on a random Tuesday afternoon of grocery shopping?

Why are we constantly looking at items on a shelf and improving them in our minds? When you are staring at a TV, stereo, or laptop in the electronics section, do you find yourself picking it apart in your mind, thinking about how many components are inside, wondering how big or small the PC boards are, looking at the ports and connectors, and thinking about the various voltages and signals being generated to turn on the displays? I find myself doing that.

Now, as engineers, we all have our own experiences, but it seems that we all are in the same boat when it comes to analyzing everything we see. We have quite the methodical and detail-oriented approach.

Sometimes my buddies or my girlfriend will make fun of me when we are window shopping or taking a walk. They will be discussing a certain topic, such as how cool they would look in a certain car that just drove by us. While they are discussing the superficial details, I will have about 100 different visions in my head about what type of power supply is running the headlights, what type of cameras are being used for the backup feature, or where the motors controlling the seats originated. I will be figuring out how much wire is used from bumper to bumper or what Bluetooth chipset is being used in the built-in GPS. Is the screen on the dash capacitive touch or resistive? Are the controls typical tactile push buttons or capacitive touch? Are digitally controlled pots part of the control system? Are LEDs back-lighting the gauges, or does the car use an electroluminescent panel?

On and on it goes — much analysis, many questions, and few answers.

Am I the only one who thinks this way, or is it the same for engineers in general? I think we have a different way of envisioning things, and I wonder if other engineers do, too. Does it bother you when others can't see things the way you do?

Engineers have this intelligent ability to jump out of the box, go through a special mind process, and come up with solutions and improvements for everything. We see things totally differently from everyone else, and to us, it's just basic common sense.

Take this situation: You're sitting with a group of people at your favorite watering hole. Someone sets down a glass of water. Everyone is asked if the glass is half full or half empty. Most normal people would come up with an answer and the supporting reasoning. An engineer would look at the glass and say, “This is an easy question. Obviously, it's just bad engineering. The glass was just designed too large.”

Is it just me, or do all engineers share this thinking process? Where did we get our ability to think this way? Let me know your thoughts and experiences in the comment section below.

8 comments on “An Engineer’s Mind: Were We Born This Way?

  1. DadOf3TeenieBoppers
    January 28, 2013

    All people are born with an inate desire to want to do good (Romans 2:14, 15). For the engineer, this isn't beaten out of us as we grow up and mature, unlike so many others. We cling to it and in doing so enter a profession where we solve technical problems and attempt to make the world a better place.

    So its not so much a matter of being born that way as it is a matter of not letting the world destroy what was given to us at birth.

  2. goafrit2
    January 28, 2013

    No man is born of anything – tabula raza. We are trained in ways we act. There is nothing being born. Most of the bankers messing up the economy are MIT trained engineers who write codes in Wall Street!

  3. jkvasan
    January 28, 2013

    Hi JB,

    Interesting blog. Thanks for reading  out my mind through a blog. I would go a little further. If we engineers can think about the internal architecture more than the externals, think about the plight of a surgeon.


    What is interesting about self-analysis is that it leads nowhere — it is an art form in itself. – Anita Brookner

  4. ECTH78
    January 29, 2013

    I'm an EE and I was born that way. Otherwise why would I begin tinkering with electrical things at the age of 4? Why a shock from 220V/50Hz outlet didn't kill me and didn't scare me away then and there from these things but increased my curiosity? In case you wonder, I'm not related to dr. Frankenstein.

  5. Brad Albing
    March 28, 2013

    An excellent point – never quite thought of how the abilities might have been suppressed in others. Guess I was lucky my parents understood – or at least tolerated – me.

  6. Brad Albing
    March 28, 2013

    That mirrors my life as a “child engineer.” Including sticking bare wire into outlets to see what I could make happen. Quite a bit, as it turned out….

  7. PZman
    August 5, 2013

    I ripped apart every fan, motor and  radio in our house. What makes an engineer is having parents letting you do these things and going oh well or having my father try to put something back together.

    Engineers are funny; when my wife, engineer also and I go shopping for some home improvement project. The salesperson knows they are in trouble when we pull out  the graph paper with dimensions, labels and windows etc. Plans & material lists are a necessity, as well as proper pre-planning.

  8. Brad_Albing
    August 6, 2013

    @PZman – Engineers are funny – I may put that on my business card.

    Yep – when we go into LowesDepot, we go thru a similar experience regarding project planning and execution.

    Also: Parents were different when we were kids regarding letting us do things and learn from the experience.

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