Engineer With Empathy
Updated: Jun 6, 2019
It’s been 25+ yrs, but I still remember one of my first freshman-year lectures at my alma mater. I don’t remember the exact class, nor the name of the professor, but I can still hear his voice (replayed in Bulgarian, of course):
“To be an Engineer, it is not a diploma, it is not a subject you will study here, it is a way of thinking.”
It was one of those moments that defined me and my career.
I was thinking about it recently (maybe because my second son just started his freshman year as a Computer Science scholar…). It prompted me to look up the definition of “Engineering” (in English this time).
Per Merriam Webster:
“1: the activities or function of an engineer
2 a: the application of science and mathematics by which the properties of matter and the sources of energy in nature are made useful to people
2 b: the design and manufacture of complex products //software engineering
3: calculated manipulation or direction (as of behavior) //social engineering”
A little narrow and incomplete IMHO. I went on to Dictionary.com:
“noun 1. the art or science of making practical application of the knowledge of pure sciences, as physics or chemistry, as in the construction of engines, bridges, buildings, mines, ships, and chemical plants. 2. the action, work, or profession of an engineer. 3. Digital Technology. the art or process of designing and programming computer systems: computer engineering; software engineering.”
Better! But not fully satisfied, I went on to Wikipedia:
“Engineering is the creative application of science, mathematical methods, and empirical evidence to the innovation, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of structures, machines, materials, devices, systems, processes, and organizations for the benefit of humankind.”
What a great conceptualization of what us Engineers (of any sort or flavor) do on daily basis!
What really struck home with me was the very end of that sentence: “… for the benefit of humankind”. All structures, machines, materials, devices, systems, and processes we build – are FOR THE BENEFIT OF HUMANKIND.
That was something they did not teach us at school. At least, not 25 yrs ago. We learned science. We learned math. We learned how to collect, process and interpret empirical data. We learned how to innovate, design, build, operate and maintain. But we didn’t learn anything about the humans or even acknowledged the fact that on the other end of the product of our engineering efforts is a human being.
Where the definition falls short a little, is recognizing that engineering is done for humans, BY HUMANS. It is where the engineering starts and where it ends.
As an Information Technology Project Manager (which is a form of process and organization engineering) of 20+ years, I learned the hard way that the technology is never the issue. Sometimes it enables, sometimes it is the constraint, but the true enablers and constraints are ALWAYS THE HUMANS – the people that execute on the project, the people that pay for the project, the people that consume the product of the project.
Knowing the science and understanding the humans, one can master any engineering feat.
“ Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.”
Empathy is one of the most under appreciated and underdeveloped skills for Engineers. Yes, in recent years Human-centered Design and Design Thinking are starting to take prominence with tons of literature, academic classes, and certifications. However, teaching Engineers about humans is still not viewed as a core competency. For years (and decades), we have been taught to think logically, objectively and scientifically. When being interviewed, we are generally assessed by our technical abilities, with the occasional soft-skills/team-player questions. Our performance evaluations and our compensation are also primarily based on mastering the technical hard-skills.
Most humans are inherently empathetic – at various degrees. Last time someone yawned in the meeting room and you yawned right after – that’s an empathetic response (I just yawned too!). We practice empathy on daily basis with our family, our friends, or even strangers, but somehow we just tune it out once we switch into “work mode”.
WHY! With the advance of AI, the logical, objective, scientific thinking becomes less and less valuable. Soon machines will be able to think as logically as we do, but only faster. Our value as Engineers will shift toward our ability to think, design, and build more empathetically.
Regardless of your field or flavor of engineering, you can apply daily your ingenuity and empathy toward your end-customer and toward your teammates – building better products and creating a better work environment for the benefit of humankind. When you engineer your next solution, remember to ENGINEER IT WITH EMPATHY!