EngineersOthers Thursday, August 26th, 2010
Today I was invited to be the Chief Guest (or Guest of Honor in other parts of the world) for a function held at my Engineering college. I graduated from Goa Engineering College in 1997 and have never interacted directly with students or the faculty since then. So this was a good opportunity for me to visit my alma mater and spend some time with my professors and meet the students. One of the jobs of the Chief Guest is to deliver a speech. So I thought of sharing something I learned the hard way after graduating from college, which I wish someone had taught me when I was studying there. For those who are interested here is part of the speech.
“I’d like to make a point which I believe is very important. But first let me give you a couple of examples that will help me illustrate that point.
I am sure most of you have heard about the Mars rovers. The day the rovers landed on Mars and began exploring the planet, it struck me that a few months back someone from the Jet Propulsion Lab at NASA had placed an order for one of my products. Out of curiosity I sent an email to the person who had placed the order asking whether my software was used, in some way, in Mars Rover project. I received a reply saying that my product was indeed used in the project and that it had saved one particular engineer a great deal of time.
A while ago I received an email from a prospect saying that my STL file import add-in for SolidWorks was crashing. I asked the prospect to send me the concerned file. When I opened it in a mesh viewer I was shocked to see that the 3D model was anything but a mechanical part or assembly. It looked like a bunch of roots or threads all twisted around randomly. I told the customer that his model was not in a condition to be imported into SolidWorks. But out of curiosity I asked him what exactly was the model about. His reply shocked me even more. He told me that the STL file contained a 3D scan of the arteries of his boss’ heart. The doctors were having a problem deciding exactly how to conduct an operation on the heart and he wanted to do some analysis on the model in SolidWorks. He tried explaining to me what he wanted to do. But frankly it all went over my head. Sensing his urgency, I decided to try and solve his problem. I used another of our tools to split the mesh into smaller more manageable parts and imported them into SolidWorks individually. I sent the SolidWorks files over to him and wished him luck in whatever he was trying to achieve. A few days later, I received an email from this person telling me that he showed the doctors something they hadn’t seen which resulted in them altering their procedure. The operation was a success and his boss was recovering well.
In the above two examples, when I was writing these software products I had absolutely no idea that they would be used in such a way. I had no idea that one of my products would be used to help design a vehicle that would roam on another planet. I had no idea that the output of a couple of my products would be responsible in altering the way doctors would slit open someone’s heart. The point that I’m trying to make is actually quite a simple one, but very profound. As engineers we simply have no idea about the kind of effect that our actions can have on people.
For example, when you graduate from this college and get your Engineering degree, suppose you are given the task of designing a machine tool or a particular component of it. You come up with the model, validate it using various analysis tools, build prototypes, test them and then finally sign off on the design so that manufacturing can go ahead and build thousands of them. When operators start using them in production some failures are reported. You accumulate the failure data, analyze it, draw up some charts and graphs showing mean time to failure and all kinds of stuff and then start the process of rectifying your mistakes. But somewhere in all this do you realize that when your machine tool failed, an operator may have actually injured himself? Do you know what kind of effect that could have on him and his family?
A common perception is that doctors affect people the most. True, the work of doctor directly affects an individual and maybe his family. Similarly the work of an architect or a building contractor will probably affect the home owner and his family. The decision of a bank manager will affect the person taking a loan and his family. But the stuff that engineers do has the potential of affecting people in masses. Doctors perform complex operations and save lives. But what enables them to do that is the work of engineers who design and build the sophisticated equipment that they use to perform those operations. Remember one thing. In today’s world, everything under the Sun that is not made by God is probably designed by an engineer. And one day in the near future all of you are going to be engineers.
Thirteen years ago when I was sitting on the benches that you are now sitting on, I was taught that if I wanted this to happen I needed to do that. If I tweaked this parameter the output would change that way. For four years I was taught how to do my job. I don’t remember anyone telling me anything about the kind of effect my actions could have on people if I didn’t do my job properly. I learned that the hard way after I graduated from here.
I write CAD software for a living. As you know, all software has bugs. There are two ways of fixing bugs – the easy way and the hard way. The easy way involves patching the code with a work around. It’s like covering a wound with a bandage as opposed to applying medicine on it. The hard way involves picking apart the code and locating the root cause of the problem. It can also mean that you need to re-architect a portion of your code, tweak the algorithm or even create a new one. That takes time and often involves a lot of work. When I first started programming I often used the easy way to fix bugs. I soon realized that I was merely covering my problems, not solving them. Almost always they came back to haunt me, often with a vengeance.
Remember that although your actions may seem small and insignificant to you, as engineers they can have huge consequences, both positive and negative, that too collectively on a large number of people. For example, take the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In all the blame games and accusations flying around, we simply cannot hide from the fact that some engineer somewhere did not do his job properly. I don’t need to tell you what kind of an effect the oil spill has had in the region and how many people it has affected.
The world does not need engineers who can do their job. The world needs engineers who can do the best job they possibly can. There is a world of a difference between the two.”