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Love the Show!

David Alan Grier
Erin Dian Dumbacher

Pages: pp. 120

Abstract—There are some problems that engineered approaches can't solve, and building a reputation—a problem of marketing and people—is one of them.

What part of building engineering's reputation is accomplishment, and what part is theatrics?


The other end of the table was the first to recognize the television host in the restaurant. One moment, we were a group of technologists talking about predictive analytics and Bayesian nets, and the next, we were giddy fans who were enthused by a celebrity in our midst. "Rock star!" shouted Ahmed. Serge added, "Love the show!"

But the moment quickly passed. The celebrity nodded his head to acknowledge our attention and then left the restaurant with his entourage. We returned to our conversation. The benefits of a brush with fame, if there were any to be had, didn't linger with us.

Time and again, I receive sug-gestions about how we might make software engineering more appealing to the youth of today, all of which are well intentioned. They're offered by people who are honestly concerned about the field's future. Many of them suggest that we should promote a young engineer, a rock star of the technological work. In the process, they overlook that such a strategy requires the potential rock star to have the skills required to identify, build, and hold mass market appeal.


Brace yourself for what you're about to read: there are some problems that engineered approaches can't solve, and building a reputation—a problem of marketing and people—is one of them. Most of us learned the lesson in high school that hard work plus talent doesn't always equal popularity.

A confession: I was one of those annoying, backward-walking campus tour guides at my university. I talked about class size and residence halls, student life, and professors. My job was to sell the school, but those who trained me told me to also focus on my own experiences. If I piqued the interest of a prospective student with a story from my internship or a fun night out with friends on campus, the potential student might be more likely to listen to the "boring" application requirements. All I had to do was talk about my experiences, one carefully crafted anecdote at a time.

The problem for engineering is one of communication, not of reputation. People appreciate engineering accomplishments, they just don't always know about them. The recent, risky landing of a massive rover on Mars, for example, was the talk of both blogs and mainstream news cycles. It even had its own rock star, a NASA JPL program manager with a Mohawk hairdo.


Engineers might not fit naturally into the world of mass popularity: to appeal to a mass market, you need to study that market, learn the aspirations of the group, and test ideas to engage those aspirations. If you (or your manager) don't spend time trying to engineer your ideas for the crowd, you're relying on nothing more than the luck of the draw.

I had a few friends who tried to make a career in popular music. All of them quickly learned the lesson that they needed talents beyond the ability to sing well, look good in spandex, or write a compelling lyric. None really mastered the skill of rock stardom, though the most innovative of my friends, Danny, got his picture on a national magazine cover and was popular in four or five major college towns. When he finally concluded that he wasn't going to become a true rock star, he was more relieved than sad. He remarked that he would no longer have to force his body into jeans that were too tight or press his music into ears that wanted to hear something else.

At the restaurant, our group wasn't that interested in the power of celebrity. None seemed very interested in building mass recognition. All had moved onto new projects. "We work with technology," said one, "and we do it very well."

About the Authors

David Alan Grier is an IEEE Fellow and author of the forthcoming book The Company We Keep. Contact him at or on Twitter @dagrier.
Erin Dian Dumbacher is a research director and consultant in Washington, DC. You can reach her at or follow her on Twitter @erin_dian.
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