His article talks specifically about Silicon Valley software engineers and their absurd reaction to the Hollywood Writer's Guild's strike, but in my experience it's a more common and widespread phenomenon than this: engineers in general are often clueless about whatever happens that is not in their area of expertise. And the worst part is that they are often unaware of their cluelessness, and believe that everything works just as in their own knowledge area. And don't try to correct them: they know what they are doing, and anybody who disagrees just doesn't know what they are talking about. Academics often suffer from the same kind of tunnel vision.
I've observed this behaviour for years as an insider. Heck, I've been guilty of it myself! I believe it stems from at least four causes:
- Engineers deal with exact sciences: engineering is based on physical and chemical principles. Likewise, software engineering is based on maths. In both cases, we are talking about exact sciences, which describe their subject (in the case of physics, the real world) using laws of universal value. The laws of physics don't have exception. They may be valid for only a subset of phenomena, but that only means that there is a better, more general law out there, even if it's unknown at the moment or irrelevant for the work at hand. This is not wrong, as long as one remembers that the laws are only tools to describe phenomena, not universal truths with which reality has to comply. The step is unfortunately easy to make, unconsciously, and creates people with a dogmatic attitude:
if it doesn't fit with my view of the world, it's nonsense(or worse:
if it doesn't fit my view of the world, it doesn't exist).
- Engineers are terribly insular: it is natural for human beings to feel most comfortable among their own. That's the reason for the existence of clubs, associations, political parties, etc. We like to be surrounded by people who have the same opinions, experience, interests... as ours. Engineers, however, tend to take this to extremes. It's not abnormal for an engineer's social circle to consist entirely of fellow engineers. When those friends are not engineers, there's a big chance that they will be academics, which in social terms is not that different. Worse even, I've seen entire families consisting only of engineers, often working in the same area (it seems particularly true in the Oil & Gas business, but that might just be my experience). Why this is is a complex question (that I might tackle in another article), but the net result is that the social world of an engineer usually consists of people who think the same way they do. That doesn't help awareness.
- Engineers feel they are not recognised: we have to be fair here: our world (or at least the developed, Western world) is mostly an engineered world. Many people never go to a theatre or a museum, but they couldn't live without their mobile phone, their computer, Internet, a TV set, a good car, holidays by plane, cheap food and housing... all things provided to them thanks to the work of countless engineers in many different areas. Scientists may get angry at me here, but while they are the ones who discover the principles behind the instruments of our modern life, it's the engineers who actually create the everyday applications of those principles. And it's something the layman is usually unaware of, as academics (or engineers working in universities, which for me is just another sort of academics) get the spotlight far more often. In any case, engineers feel (whether consciously or not) that they are a main driving force of our modern society, but are not recognised as such by the layman. That puts them in a defensive mode, and a tendency to glorify their way as the best way (
nobody understands how important I am. Well, I'll show them!). It's not a very good way to approach and understand others.
- Engineers are not very social: this might actually be the root cause of the previous two reasons I presented. This is a difficult topic to discuss, and causing lots of flamewars in various engineering communities (especially in software engineering). That's because the issue is tainted by the stereotyped images of the geek and the nerd, which are not things people like to be compared to. But one does not need to wear bow-ties and too short trousers to be a bit nerdy, or to have bad hygiene habits to be a bit geeky. The issue here is communication skills and nothing else. Communication skills are not a talent you're born with (well, not only). They are mostly something you learn as you grow, and not only as a child. Puberty and the beginning of adulthood are extremely important as well, the moment when people start getting specialised education for what they will become later, and often live along with people with the same education (in campuses and similar student housings). And while the communication skills engineers learn at that time are great to discuss with their peers, they are not that good when it comes to social chit-chat, or discussions with laymen (like it or not, social chit-chat requires snappy replies and quick apropos, and the ability to talk about nothing in particular. Engineers are more at home with long preparations and analysis, and a conversation must have a well defined subject both parties agree on). To talk in engineering terms, there is an impedance issue, between the way engineers and non-engineers handle communication.
Disclaimer: I do realise that I've been painting engineers with a very wide brush. Reality is far more complicated, and there's lots of engineers with lively social lives and broad social circles consisting of non-engineers. But my own experience tells me that there's at least a plurality of engineers who fit the portrait I've been sketching, at least in part, and those engineers do have difficulties understanding the world outside of engineering, and tend to approach everything with the same method, even when it doesn't apply. They are clueless.
In any case, what I'm trying to get at is that there are as many bigots and close-minded people among engineers as among any other (professional or other) group, unlike what many engineers seem to think.
What about me then? How can I be so self-righteous about my fellow engineers? Am I so much better than them? Well... no. I can also be quite dogmatic (who said
we can see that right here?), and I also lack social skills. But what I am not is insular. On the contrary, I can't say that I fit very well among engineers. I don't know whether it is because I come from a family where I'm basically the first one to ever have reached a university-degree level (my sister is the second one, but she studies Law, not Engineering), or because I am sometimes too geeky even for engineers (not many engineers in my area of work are actually interested in software itself, much less in its social implications and things like Free Software. And I haven't even mentioned my interest in linguistics yet...).
But my main advantage is that I am aware (sometimes painfully) of my limitations. I know when I am clueless. How is that possible? Quite simply really: I have someone waiting for me at home who couldn't care less about engineering, while still being the most intelligent person I've ever met. My partner keeps me firmly grounded in the world, and doesn't hesitate to point out when I become too dogmatic. And I am forced to work on my social skills on a regular basis as well. I don't always enjoy it, but in any case it ensures that I can never become a one-tracked engineering mind. My partner also encourages me to entertain more social interests, like sports and arts, to the point that I am currently directing a theatre play.
In a way, it's the age-long advice: get out, get some fresh air, do something different. If you do the same thing all the time, and only meet people who do the same thing, you'll only let your world shrink down to the size of a pebble. There's a bigger world out there, and it's not just utter nonsense. So don't ignore outside advice offhand, because you don't know what you're missing. Here's a clue: the world isn't what you think it's like; go and find that out by yourself.