When George Laurer invented the precursor to the barcode system, the Universal Product Code, in the early 1970s he demonstrated his prototype by recruiting a top softball pitcher to throw code-labelled beanbag ashtrays as fast as he could over a reader to prove that it could read labels with an accuracy high enough for it only to mistake one in two hundred thousand.
This is just one of the examples that biomedical engineer Guru Madhavan uses to illustrate the sort of ingenuity that distinguishes engineers from the rest of the population in his new book, ‘Think Like an Engineer’.
As Laurer put it: “It’s just a case of sitting down and thinking out every possible solution, step by step, one after another, and also having confidence that there’s a solution out there and you can find it… Not saying, oh well it can’t be done.”
Madhavan believes he’s been able through close analysis to reverse-engineer the engineering mindset itself. At its core lies what he describes as ‘modular systems thinking’, or the ability to bend different techniques and principles and apply them to a problem. Above this is ‘the one-two-three punch’: the ability to see structure where there’s none, the ability to design within constraints, and the ability to make dynamic trade-offs between different factors. Another metaphor he likes to use is the Swiss army knife approach to problem solving, combining structured and abstract thinking, common sense and imagination whilst also cross-pollinating information from as wide a range of sources as possible.
Madhavan, who currently carries out research at the US National Academy of Sciences and is a senior policy adviser to the American government, spoke to E&T from his home in Washington, DC about this intriguing proposition, and how he sees the beginning of his own career began in India as something of an ‘arranged marriage’.
E&T: Couldn’t other professions or vocations claim that engineers don’t have a monopoly on the combination of qualities you claim for the engineering mindset?
Guru Madhavan: Structure, constraints and trade-offs aren’t unique to the engineering mindset, but they are particularly central and respected in engineering. Artists or poets, for example, might apply these qualities to their work, but they probably don’t have to worry much about the efficiency and reliability of their creations, which are critically important in engineering design. Structure, constraints and trade-offs affect each of us every day, but ultimately what matters is how we capitalise on them—like good engineers—to achieve useful outcomes.
E&T: To what extent is the ability to think like an engineer something you have to be born with, or can anyone learn how to do it?
GM: Anyone can learn to become an engineer through training and practice. There’s immense value in being able to adapt aspects of the engineering concepts, tools, and techniques to create better strategies and solutions.
E&T: Do you give any credit to the idea that men and women differ in their natural ability to think like an engineer?
GM: No. When we are traveling in an airplane, do we think about the gender of the engineer who produced or assembled the fantastic machinery? The things that matter the most include safety, efficiency, durability and reliability. Engineers are judged honestly by the performance of their creations and not by whether those creations were produced by men or women.
E&T: The sort of modular systems thinking that engineers are good at is exactly what artificial intelligence is designed for. Are jobs that rely on this approach exactly the ones where machines will soon replace humans?
GM: Automation and algorithms have succeeded in making our lives convenient, but they’re not necessarily good at navigating the value debates toward achieving those solutions – something engineers need to deal with directly. Engineering design is as social as it is technical. Algorithms may continue to get better at understanding our shopping preferences, but that’s quite different to cleaning a polluted river or tackling obesity. Our grand challenges cannot be solved by robots and smartphone apps. We need good systems engineering to make a difference.
E&T: How do different countries and cultures around the world compare in the way they encourage young people to develop an engineering mindset from the very start of their education?
GM: My own entry to engineering studies in India was like an arranged marriage. A degree in engineering was prized in my culture—it was a social status—or perhaps people recognized it as a reliable platform for various career opportunities beyond engineering. Each country’s value system does play an important role in the development of an engineering culture.
E&T: What other types of work benefit best from an engineering-style approach? Are there some roles where it can be a drawback?
GM: Much of engineering practice relies on the notion of continuous improvement: learning from errors and mistakes and making progress. Challenges in life and business involving the analysis and use of structure, constraints, and trade-offs can benefit from an engineering-style approach. While there are numerous benefits, there are also potential liabilities to thinking like an engineer. One of them relates to the tendency of the engineering mindset to jump at narrow solutions and achieve end points. Not everything in life can or should be approached this way, especially with the issues of public policy that require a functional blending of empathy and rationality.
‘Think like an Engineer: Inside the Minds that are Changing Our Lives’ by Guru Madhavan is published by Oneworld, price £11.99, ISBN 978-1780746371