Intellectual virtue and the engineer

Intellectual virtue and the engineer

Plane_crash_into_Hudson_River_(crop)On the 19th of January in 2009, Captain “Sully” Sullenberger glided an Airbus A320 into the Hudson River just after takeoff from LaGuardia airport in New York City. Both engines failed due to multiple bird strikes, so the ditching was undertaken with no power, in a highly populated area. Captain Sullenberger could have attempted to land on one of several large highways, but all of these tend to have heavy traffic patterns; he could not make it to any airport with the power he had remaining, so he ditched the plane in the river. Out of the 155 passengers on board, only one needed overnight hospitalization.

There are a number of interesting things about this story, but there is one crucial point that applies directly to life at large, and engineering in detail. Here’s a simple question that exposes the issue at hand—

Do you think the Captain had time to read the manual while the plane was gliding along in the air after losing both engines? Or do you think he just knew what to do?

Way back in the mists of time, a man named Aristotle struggled over the concept of ethics. Not only was he trying to figure out where ethics come from (normative ethics), he was also trying to figure out how to transfer those normative ethics to individual people (aretaic ethics). Aristotle was, above all, a practical man; he wanted to know how any given person could live the “good life,” which he defined as “in accordance with the normative ethics that produce the greatest happiness for an individual.”

What does Aristotle have to do with Captain Sullenberger gliding an airplane into a clean ditch in 2009? Let’s go back to the question just above — do you think he had time to read the manual before ditching that airplane? I’m pretty certain we all know the answer to this question: he didn’t need to read the manual, because he knew what to do. Which leads to the next question: how did he know what to do? As it turns out Captain Sullenberger was a glide instructor, so he not only knew what to do in theory, he’d actually practiced it before. And this, I think, is a crucial point.

What Aristotle posited was that action and belief are not independent “things,” as we often believe, but rather interconnected. As we do things we change our beliefs. As we believe things, we change our actions. The two run in tandem like a Möbius strip, each one supporting the other. This theory of aretaic ethics is called the virtue ethic.

What does any of this have to do with engineering?

Have you ever met an engineer who can quickly assess a network design, seemingly at a glance, tell you where the problems will be, and propose a set of solutions? Have you ever met an engineer who can sit calmly through a huge network outage, looking at the various outputs and figuring out what is wrong, apparently oblivious to the storms surrounding them?

What you’ve witnessed is the virtue ethic in operation. Knowledge builds on experience, and experience builds knowledge. It takes time to build the two, but neither one can exist without the other. To put it in another context, in the shooting world there is a saying: when you’re under pressure, you don’t shoot the way you think, you shoot the way you’ve practiced.

We can apply this concept to our lives in many ways as engineers. To be the engineer who can take in a network “all at once,” and “grock” it, you have to both gain knowledge and practice. The knowledge I’m talking about, by the way, isn’t about command lines; it’s about understanding how networks work at a systemic, integral level. It’s about having a set of mental models you can put around any situation to make sense of it quickly and efficiently — for instance, the OODA loop. It’s about understanding complexity, and all the rest. The virtue ethic says we need to experience and know; that these two things need to reinforce one another.

But how can we learn? Learning isn’t just about reading a few things here and there, or watching the occasional webinar. Learning is, itself, a learned skill — subject to the virtue ethic. You can learn how to learn (a subject for another entire set of posts, and at least part of the point of every other post here).

In fact, the concept of virtue is closely tied to something else that’s always close to the surface of my thinking: culture. One possible definition of a group’s culture is the intertwined surfaces of knowledge and action built up through repetition over time — the virtue ethic.

What defines culture for a group defines culture for you, as well. What are the habits you’re building today? Are you learning to learn? Are you intentionally building a set of practiced skills that will carry you through when there’s no time to read the manual?

What’s your culture? After all, culture eats technology for breakfast.

And you didn’t think Aristotle could teach you anything.


  1. Michael Kashin 28 September 2015 at 7:34 pm

    Hi Russ,
    It’d be interesting to hear your take on learning ethics. Do you concentrate on one thing at a time or do you try to balance your time between a few things in order to sustain interest what you’re learning? And if you do a few things how many is too many?

    • Russ 4 October 2015 at 4:04 pm

      IMHO, the issue with learning ethics is that they’re all interconnected; what you really have to do is start with one or two foundational things, learn them well enough to get to a comfortable level, and then move to others, coming back to the original skills over time. I tend to focus on one or two things at a time, but I never consider a skill “learned,” just “practiced.”

      And I try to keep in mind that practice doesn’t make perfect — only perfect practice makes perfect.

      It would be interesting to hear the experiences of others in this area.

  2. xgbolakcah 3 October 2015 at 8:13 am

    Nice Question @Micheal. Russ, I would really love to hear your answer to the question

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