Friday, May 13, 2011

The Iron Ring of +1 Engineering

Some time ago I was chatting with some friends from Canada, when I noticed they both wore a similar "iron ring" on their pinky. When I asked about it, they told me a story about a bridge in Quebec, that collapsed (repeatedly, it turns out, when I checked on Wikipedia) as a result of poor judgement on the part of the overseeing engineers.

While it is a myth that the rings that are given to Canadian engineers today, in a ritual called "The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer" are made of the steel of this bridge, the ritual (and the Obligation taken therein) is a reminder of the responsibility that comes with an Engineers' power and responsibility to "build structurally sound".

Their story made me pause, and think. Not only think about all those folks in the world who we have met on our travels who are "allowed" to call themselves Engineer with nary the ability to differentiate a nut from its bolt, but also about the (relative) triviality with which I think about my own engineering degree.

Upon my graduation, while it neither being devoid of effort nor of a sense of accomplishment, I have always felt disappointed in the content, the "weight", of the (Computer Sciences) study I attended. I often felt, and still feel, that the school's primary interest was in "delivering me to market" in as short a time as possible, rather than to mold me into a professional and responsible Engineer.

Thankfully, I believe that the time I spent in College was well-spent in learning to be independent and that many of the actual technical, practical, skills I still use in my work today I picked up during that time, but outside the classrooms, being disciple to UNIX Guru's.

And while I am grateful to the College for giving me a way of thinking, an engineer's approach to a problem, the story of the Iron Ring made me feel that, perhaps, we have somehow lost, or forgotten, to convey a similar sense of responsibility to our engineers as they do in Canada.

A lack of this sense that may have given rise to some interesting side-effects.

For one thing we seem to have lost our sense of duty to deliver Sound Engineering.

Under pressure by management, who are driven by a completely different set of beliefs and sometimes seemingly have done away with morals altogether, we all too often succumb, like my College, to their never ceasing demands for lower cost, shorter time to market, etc., etc.

With a predictable, and often catastrophic, result in the delivered product.

Well, catastrophic? Am I exaggerating on purpose? Or are we trivializing what is essentially the perversion of our professional ethic?

Does it really matter that much if my iPod skips a number?
If my cell-phone doesn't connect one in every ten thousand calls?
If my car's engine management system doesn't give me optimal mileage?
If my GPS system has a few meters higher deviation if I leave it on for more than a day?

What if this engine management system and the GPS deviation cause a missile defense system not to fire?
Or the number my iPod skipped is a heartbeat deviation the monitor system missed?
And if I am, essentially, the product of such a shorter time to market, what does that say about me as an Engineer?

If doctors are expected to swear an oath "to do no harm", and even lawyers are bound by a system of professional ethics (the "bar"), why are we not, as Engineers, both bound and empowered by our principle of Sound Engineering?

And why is there not an ethics model for managers limiting them in the extent to which they can ask us to forego said principle?

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a small existential crisis to deal with.