Robust Math Skills
Engineers know that mathematical relationships form the building blocks of all that we see in nature. The famous British mathematician, engineer and computer scientist, Alan Turing, was so talented in math as a child that he could solve advanced math problems with little to no exposure to introductory calculus. He went on to make history breaking German code at Bletchley Park and inventing the “Turing Machine,” an electronic computer that could calculate anything provided it was given mathematical algorithms from which to learn a pattern of logic.1 Although Turing was an exceptional thinker, it’s safe to say math comes easily to most engineers. Engineers intuitively know that one way to really grasp something is to put it in mathematical terms.
Creative Problem Solving
The year is 1969. At Intel Corporation, Ted Hoff, a new employee, is given the daunting task of developing 12 different microchips, each with a specific function, for a Japanese client. Hoff knew it would be very difficult, expensive as well as impractical to make 12 separate chips. With the support of like-minded visionaries at Intel, Hoff proposed designing one general purpose chip that could perform many tasks, much like a computer. A multi-functional chip that could be programmed to perform the work of several chips was the resulting product.2 The computer industry would never be the same again following the introduction of the microprocessor. A creative firestorm brought about by a corporate crisis irreversibly changed history.
Good Communication Skills
Computer programmer Grace Hopper worked with Howard Aiken on the first electromechanical computer, the Mark I, at Harvard University beginning in 1944. She was known for her excellent communication skills and valued this skill to the point that when she was a math professor at Vassar, she insisted that her students write essays as well. She justified this to her classes by pointing out that “it was no use trying to learn math unless they could communicate it with other people.” Ms. Hopper was exceptional in her ability to translate practical problems into mathematical formulas. She could then put these mathematical equations into terms that the computer could process. She is credited with being the first to develop a computer compiler and to write the world’s first programming manual on how to program the Mark I.3
Alexander Graham Bell was driven to invent at a very young age. Motivated at the age of eight to help a local flour mill, he developed a system of rotating paddles fitted with nail brushes to dehusk wheat. Later years saw Bell experimenting with acoustics and elocution as he struggled to help his deaf mother function in daily life. The “harmonic telegraph” was an invention Bell worked on tirelessly to transmit messages over a cable using different pitches. This invention would form the basis for the modern telegraph, the invention for which he is most well-known.
Although the odds were against her in 1940, a young Canadian woman by the name of Yvonne Brill made up her mind to become an engineer. People tried to discourage her from pursuing her dream, but she eventually moved to California where she found a job at Douglas Aircraft designing the first American satellites. Attending graduate school at night, she continued her studies in mathematics and chemistry and eventually began serious work on a chemical propulsion system that would challenge the electrical systems that were then in use. She developed an electrothermal hydrazine propulsion device whose fuel-efficiency helped to launch several satellites; these could carry heavier payloads and remain in orbit for long periods of time.4
Organized and Fact-Oriented
I was in Florence, Italy, some years ago with other family members, one of which was looking for a painting to take home. She zeroed in on an impressionistic landscape of the Italian countryside. For those of you who need some background, impressionism as a painting style is known for a pastel color palette and a painting technique that tends to give a mutable quality to all the forms in the painting. A house in an impressionist painting looks like it is part of the landscape and trees blend together with everything around them. This style of painting drives me crazy—it lacks precision, angles, points that can be measured. But this is what separates engineers from other people. We live, breathe and thrive on facts and things that can be quantified and defined. Uncertainty, incomplete data or any kind of murkiness drives us crazy!
And there you have it—six qualities that most engineers share.
1 Walter Isaacson, The Innovators. How a group of hackers, geniuses, and geeks created the digital revolution (New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 76-78.
2 Isaacson, The Innovators, 196.
3 Isaacson, The Innovators, 90.
4 Rachel Swaby, Trailblazers. 33 Women in Science Who Changed the World (New York, New York: Delacorte Press, 2016), 66-67.