Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Culture: Engineers vs. Scientists? Really?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Yesterday, the main point of Henry Petroski's book, "The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems" was discussed and supported. There's an underlying tone, though, in Petroski's interviews, especially this one on KUOW's "The Conversation" with Ross Reynolds, that implies that Petroski doesn't care much for scientists and in fact seems to want to pit engineers against scientists. This strikes me as a very strange position to take that is neither necessary nor productive.

In the course of the KUOW interview, Petroski makes the case that "scientists have bigger egos than engineers" and are more interested in recognition. At one point, he even accuses scientists of "stealing" the Nobel Prizes, which he correctly states were intended to be for achievements in the previous year, after a group of chemical engineers decided they were more interested in making things than judging awards, and scientists stepped in to shape the awards to favor scientific accomplishments instead of engineering. I can't speak to the Nobel Prize origin, but I can evaluate egos of scientists and engineers I have encountered in my life, and there have been a number of engineers with significant egos and plenty of scientists with much smaller egos than accomplishments (for example, Richard Zare, to cite a somewhat public figure). I could make a personality-based argument that Petroski might be right on average, but the variation in each pool is so large that classifying the group of scientists as having bigger egos than the group of engineers is not useful in interacting with individual scientists or engineers.

Petroski also makes the bizarre argument that engineers aren't paid enough. He mostly meant in relation to lawyers and managers, but tell that to scientists! Chemistry and chemical engineering are arguably the closest science and engineering degrees, and yet chemical engineering graduates make on average $10,000 a year more than chemistry graduates. Interestingly, the gap between the two is considerably less in Europe; one of the disadvantages of working in Europe when I was investigating the possibility was that I would have taken a significant pay cut, to the approximately the same level paid to scientists on both sides of the ocean. Furthermore, because of the salary gap, in the United States engineering tends to attract people interested in money--I'll never forget how many of my chemical engineering peers at MIT who suddenly became very interested in investment banking when they realized how much more money they would be paid, while I had no interest that kind of career at all.

As mentioned yesterday, I have experienced poor management from scientists in development situations which Petroski emphasizes as a problem, as they seemed to think a product would appear instantly once they had shown something was feasible once or twice. However, that really had less to do with the fact that the people involved were scientists than the fact that they were poor managers. I've also worked with scientists that understood how to get out of the way of engineers as they moved a program along toward commercialization and just supported the engineers as needed. The key to product development is not to have an engineer be in charge, but to have a functional team that listens to one another. I'd like to think that when I was managing scientists that I gave them the room to do their research projects and provided a framework for that work to feed into the product pipeline, and more than one scientist told me that they preferred working for me since I was less prone to micro-manage their activities. Any manager that is smart enough to hire competent experts--both scientists and engineers--and listen to them in the development process will likely find a stream of products headed out to customers.

In the end, the goal of most technology companies is to make products that generate a profit. In most cases, they need both scientists and engineers to get the job done. Both need to feel valued, and Petroski has a point that engineers probably feel less valued right now in many companies, regardless of salary. However, just because engineers should be more valued doesn't mean that scientists should be less valued. I don't find it constructive to pit scientists and engineers against one another. Furthermore, the development process works best when they interact efficiently, and that's what managers--whether scientists, engineers, or MBA's--should be seeking to achieve in their companies.

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