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Engineering Sense

Why_Didn't_They_Ask_Evans_First_Edition_Cover_1934Why didn’t they ask Evans?

For those who haven’t read the famous Agatha Christie novel, the entire point revolves around a man uttering these words just before dying. Who is Evans? What does this person know that can lead to the murderer of the man on the golf course? Bobby and Frankie, the heroes of the story, are led on one wild goose chase after another, until they finally discover it’s not what Evans knows but who Evans knows that really matters.

Okay… But this isn’t a blog about mysteries, it’s about engineering. What does Evans have to do with engineering? Troubleshooting, as Fish says, is often like working through a mystery novel. But I think the analogy can be carried farther than this. Engineering, even on the design side, is much like a mystery novel. It’s often the context of the question, or the context of the answer to the question, that solves the mystery. It’s Poirot straightening the items sitting on a mantelpiece twice, it’s the dog that didn’t bark, and it’s the funny footprints and the Sign of Four.

Just like the detective in a mystery novel, the engineer can only solve the problem if they can put an apparently nonsensical question into the right context. But what is the right context? The answer to this question is obviously the big variable. How do you know?

The key is a two step process.

First, know as many contexts as possible. This might seem simplistic, but it’s actually a hard answer wearing simple clothes. There’s only one way to know a lot of different contexts — to encounter them. There are a few different ways to encounter a context, of course — by studying technologies and problems you don’t already know about, by confronting problems you’ve not confronted before, by intentionally stretching out and learning where you can. Hence the importance of reading widely, taking on problems you don’t know how to solve, going after certifications (especially early in your career), taking on degrees, and other intentional learning paths.

The first step is, then, to reach outside your comfort zone and learn something new.

Second, to learn how to turn these contexts into shorthand through abstraction and modeling. I talk a lot about models, I know, but they are a key point in learning how to be a good engineer. This is a skill that takes time, of course — in fact, it’s an almost physical skill. Many people don’t expect the physicalness of building virtual worlds when they first get into engineering — they somehow expect virtual solutions to be infinitely pliable, and think that the further you get from the physical world the more degrees of freedom you have. It’s actually the opposite — the first degree of freedom from the physical world brings a lot of new possibilities. The second not so much. The third almost none. There is a law of diminishing returns it takes a long time to make this connection.

Third, learn how to match the contexts you’ve encountered in the past to the problem you face right now. This model matching process is a skill that takes time to develop. Much like the detective that knows just what sort of information to look for in order to produce the key to the problem, the engineer needs to take the wide array of learned context from the past, distilled into a shorthand, and apply them to the problem faced today.

This, in short, is the process of developing what I call an engineering sense — that “fifth sense” of the engineer that knows, on seeing a problem, just what sorts of solutions might be successfully applied. This is what you should strive to build through your engineering career. The ability to look at a problem and give a rough set of solutions that might produce a solution, the ability to choose a direction of investigation through which a problem can be solved — this is worth more than knowing fifteen CLIs and twenty programming languages, or the product lines of a thousand vendors.

If you develop a solid engineering sense, the answer to the question, “Why didn’t they ask Evans,” might baffle you, but you’ll at least know where to start looking.

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans First Edition Cover 1934” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

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