by Leon Rosenshein

Thinking Like An Engineer

First, a link to something I posted about 7 months ago. It was relevant then, and it's still relevant now.

That said, there are lots of things that go into thinking like an engineer, but here are a few that I think are important.

  1. Balancing constraints: Everything we do has some sort of constraints. They could be memory, bandwidth, execution time, development time, short vs long term gains, user value, or something else entirely. Our job as engineers is to look at the set of constraints and figure out the best solution to the problem with the information currently available.
  2. Making it practical: The solutions we come up with need to be doable. Part of it is balancing constraints, but it's also about not limiting yourself to the perfect solution when there is a good enough solution that meets all the requirements. If the perfect solution we come up with needs unobtanium then it's not a practical solution and it doesn't count.
  3. Solving a problem: Theoretical physicists do important work and without their additions to the body of knowledge engineers wouldn't be able to build/design things, but theoretical physicists aren't engineers. Sheldon Cooper might get the Nobel prize for his work, but it took Howard Wolowitz to turn things into devices people could use. Also, one of my favorite answers when someone asks me how to use a system in a non-standard way is "What are you really trying to do?" This makes sure that I'm not just solving a problem, I'm solving the right one.
  4. Always learning/teaching: Speaking of "What are you really trying to do?", another reason I like that question is that at least one of us, and often both of us, learns something, and often it's both. I get to understand use cases better, so I can provide a better solution. The person with the original question either learns how to do what they asked or they learn a better way to approach the problem.
    Additionally, as an engineer you recognize that there are other engineers out there working on similar problems. It's great to learn from your own mistakes, but it's even better if you can learn from someone else's. Good engineers stay aware of what's going on in their fields _and_ related fields and figure out how to use that knowledge going forward.
  5. Laziness: Great engineers are lazy. They'll put a lot of effort into something up front so they never have to think about the problem again. Designing automation and feedback loops so that proper function is maintained despite changing conditions. In the software world it's things like scripts, crontabs, triggers and redundancy that let us sleep soundly at night.

Of course there are lots of others. What do you think it means to think like an engineer.