Structures, water, computers, languages and people (not necessarily in this order)

More than mere engineers

We have entered a new era that is changing the role of the engineer on the job and the engineer’s relationship to society. To be successful in the new era of engineering we are going to need to be more than mere engineers. That will be true whether we are a student, a fresh graduate or a senior engineer. The inmediate changes are:

- Eco-responsiblity: Core design specifications will soon require to minimize environmental impact and carbon footprint.
- Information Technologies (IT): Many new software projects may consider using open source software. The Internet also broadens the scale of engineering collaboration. We now have instant access to the thoughts, insights, and feedback of other engineers.
Numerical methods will be unified: finite difference & finite element methods and solid & fluid mechanics. Also the differences between civil, mechanical, computational engineering and physics will fade.
- Communication: The impact as an engineer will increasingly depend on the ability to communicate, collaborate, and participate across the organizations and communities, not just within the engineering department. It is our duty to make the effort to have a continuous dialog with the shareholders of our projects.
- Business skills: Engineering increasingly requires more direct involvement with every aspect of business, including finance, sales and marketing, channels, customer support, and competitive analysis. For example, the most common undergraduate degree for CEOs of Fortune 500 companies is not marketing, sales or finance—it’s engineering, with 20% of all CEOs being engineers; and the richest man in the world -Carlos Slim- got a degree in civil engineering.
- Political action: Engineers are beginning to realize how important it can be to educate and influence those who make public policy decisions (nuclear energy, floods, climate change, data security, etc...) about technology.

Society keeps changing, so society’s needs are changing and enginering should change as well.


  1. Nice to meet you again. I´ve been keeping this article as "unread" for weeks until I had the chance to sit and read it relaxed.
    Three comments:

    1st. I´m afraid that engineer´s responsibility is very limited by corporate responsibility. As time goes by, entrerprises make professionals less important, more close to link in a chain than to a key figure on their policy.

    2nd. My father (engineer from the early ´70s) always gave me two key tips for this... "vocation": (1)A good idea isn´t useless if you can´t explain it an (2) an engineer shall know a little about everything. I find it really close to you points 2, 3 and 4.

    3rd. On your last point, I´m afraid I will disagree a little. There are still a lot of engineers who think technology to be a kind of dogma over ethics, politics and so on. Furthermore, we use to miss the point on general public (now known as "consumer") as the real engine for great policy changes.

  2. @Miguez: Thank you very much for your answer. I still think that professional are what distinguish one company from another but in today competitive environment specialization is the key. We need global vision but I do not buy the idea of the generalist engineer.
    Whith reference to the last point, technology without politics is a dogma, as you well said, but politics without understanding of the possibilities of the technology is smoke-selling.

  3. Thanks for your post! I quite agree that we can usefully consider all your points on a daily basis. As societies and technologies evolve engineers must adapt. Engineers should also use their problem-solving skills and express themselves more in order to participate in the decisions of their organisation and community. I don't have much confidence in the “wisdom of the crowd”. Partly because of our collective silence, the world is in turmoil, dominated by talking-heads and bean-counters, with various skills for sure, but not much care or vision beyond the annual accounts period or the usual electoral cycle of 4 or 5 years.

    Some “mere engineers” consider that by sharing their knowledge with others, or expressing a technical viewpoint, they will damage their career; so they avoid the hard questions and “go with the flow”, even when bad choices are being made. This is one way to rise through the ranks, but I suggest that by not acting they lose something else. One person cannot change the world but on a small scale we can at least hope to increase cooperation, do better engineering work, and feel happier overall. With that attitude and good business instincts and skills, I think its still possible to become a Fortune 500 CEO as you note, but we would probably have to quit our pure engineering job at an early stage to achieve that particular goal.

  4. @David Brett: Thanks for your informative and deep answer, David. Very good comment but I think that the mentality of the engineers is evolving: sharing knowledge and experiences is more common now than ever before. Engineers tend to be silent but I am optimistic, things are changing: for instance, I felt a lot of criticism in hard or traditional engineers with respect to Tepco, the Japanese government and the Fukushima nuke crisis. This fact was unbelieveable two decades ago.

    Unfortunately, I quite agree with you. In order to become a top manager or a top influencer is difficult to not quit the pure engineering tasks.

  5. Our Achiles heel are our marketing skills. There is a break between Engineering and Society.