Want to be an engineer? Then learn to think like one, especially by learning how to see structure where chaos abounds.
Engineers aren’t like ordinary mortals. Ideally, they’re Spock-like creatures who think logically about all things. That’s one reason, writes engineer/economist/National Academy of Sciences adviser Madhavan in an interesting aside, engineers aren’t often found in politics, in which participants in the melee “show no reluctance to make bold pronouncements beyond their areas of competence.” Engineers, conversely, dislike making mistakes and oversimplifying, and in theory, their line of reasoning steers clear of value judgments of the sort politics is built on. Not that the engineering mind yields utopias: as Madhavan sagely notes, optimization algorithms may yield financial windfalls, but they also “had an ‘invisible hand’ in financial disasters,” just as the liberating technology of cellphones now means that people are chained to their work at all hours. So how do engineers think? With quantitative rigor, of course, and with qualitative objectivity. Madhavan’s opening case studies, which “demonstrate the power of engineers to convert feelings into finished products,” take their time in cohering, but eventually they settle down to look at the issues of structure, constraint, and trade-off, as well as the allied concepts of “recombination, optimization, efficiency, and prototyping.” One need not be employed as an engineer in order to put these principles to use; as Madhavan notes in one of the best case studies in the book, the film director Alfred Hitchcock was trained as an engineer and employed these practices in his movies: “Hitchcock was a backward thinker. His final product was preordained but flexible. He valued implementation over improvisation.”
Madhavan is a less engaging writer than Henry Petroski, who covers much the same ground, but he provides a readable survey for would-be engineers and those seeking to understand them.