Engineers love solving problems. Unlike scientists, engineers often don’t get to choose what problems to solve. We’re told: Build this circuit! Design this bridge!
If you could define the questions, what would they be?
Not every innovation you come up with must be worthy of a Nobel Prize. A career-minded engineer can craft a vision for a given project, a given employment situation, or for one’s entire career, and then strive to shape individual assignments to move closer to that goal. A balanced career comprises an interleaving of such assignments because it’s true both that concrete short-term results inform long-term strategy, and that models that are informed by the voice of broad experience help set the compass points for near-term endeavors.
Goals that reflect the great questions of our time take many shapes and forms. Some lie in the realm of research: to make quantum computing practical, to create economic sources of hydrogen for fuel cell cars, or to derive programs from natural language. Others are technical, like breaking boundaries of chip densities or finding heuristics that shorten data lookup times. And some are social, ranging from laying out your department’s new organizational structure to shaping the moral fabric of a group, enterprise, or industry.
In this age of Internet time scales most of us feel a daily tug towards the bottom line. Instead of worrying about how much your next raise will be, worry about which country you will next target — that your business can raise the quality of life there. Edwin Land (the Polaroid-Land camera guy) reminds us: “The bottom line is in heaven!” Alan Kay remarks that instead of worrying about measuring answers right/test or tests-passed/year, we should be measuring “Sistine-Chapel-Ceilings/lifetime.” And we know that the former doesn’t correlate with the latter (see Certification).
Sometimes small answers contribute to resolving great questions, and we often have to settle for interim deliverables instead of the home run. If your day-to-day tasks are anchored in a vision, work will not only be more meaningful but you’ll be less likely to wander in the wrong direction. Understanding the broad direction can cover a multitude of lower-level misunderstandings, and the broad direction usually wins out even when it contradicts the specifications that come down through a noisy corporate process. Think globally, and act locally.
When I take a consulting engagement with a company, it always must address a great question. I work with firms who can look beyond themselves to their broader role in humanity, not only now, but for years to come. It doesn’t have to be a question that humankind recognizes as grand, but it must be something that I myself believe to be strategically important to humankind.
Many of these great questions face engineering today. We are both a destructive and healing force in biological ecosystems, and each one of us is accountable for both the tearing down and building up that happen at engineering’s hands. Grady Booch reminds us: “Just think about it: there is practically nothing you see or do in your daily life that is NOT created, supported, delivered or impacted by computing.” That goes for both the good and bad, and we’re at the root of both.
Pondering the great questions takes time and, for most people, that means getting away for a while. Get into an environment where you can avoid the Tyranny of the Urgent. Take a Google Friday once a week, a retreat once every few months, and a sabbatical every few years.