The Widget Dilemma

I am often fascinated when I have conversations with professionals in other industries as they try to make sense out of the engineering profession. Particularly when I mention that engineering skills are transferable to other industries. Inevitably, I am then told that engineers build 'widgets', "How can this be relevant to Health Care"? It boggles to mind that people do not understand that problem solving is not monolithic talent that avails itself to only manufacturing or product development. Disciplined thought is clearly advantageous and would be beneficial to any activity. Why would you limit this sort of critical thinking to an industrial environment?

It would appear that most of this misinformation is propagated by the mass media. I would assert that simply aren't enough engineers in our population who are willing to educate people about the truth. If I may digress for a moment, I do know there are many people calling themselves engineers, much like folks who call themselves web developers but only design web sites using content management tools or blog publishing engines. Classical engineers are people that studied thermodynamics, statics, basic circuits theory, linear algebra, etc. Of course this list is not exhaustive. The basic premise is that engineers are taught problem solving and critical thinking skills. Obviously, there are many engineers that push paper for a living, but that was the subject of an earlier blog entry :-)

Now why is this issue so 'widget dilemma' so intriguing? The so-called widget builder is generally understood to be someone that is a monolithic thinker who only functions within well-defined framework. Often widget building becomes a pejorative term when used to describe engineers, as it suggest that we are robots. You can always throw that exaggerated over-bite into the description for good measure too. Obviously, these perceptions are totally inaccurate. To their credit widget building is quite complicated. Think of the number and precise nature of the widgets used to build a jetliner or automobile? It is clear that any sort of malpractice or improper judgment can cost hundreds of lives.

It is not uncommon to find engineers in business, law or medical fields. So clearly, we are not just widget builders. It does irk me when when people believe stereotypes and misinformation as the gospel. There are some good examples of engineers helping to improve the level of quality provided primary care physicians.

Well, I suppose the rant is complete. I'll provide more examples of engineers providing value outside of the proverbial 'widget' factory as time progresses.

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    This page contains a single entry by AG published on November 23, 2009 2:56 AM.

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