Sometimes it seems that the world would work better if more people thought like engineers. Sure, there would be less music and art and fewer people (because it would be harder for couples to hook up). But the world would also come with a version number, so everyone would know that it was a work in progress. And there would be other benefits, too.
I embarked upon this line of reasoning because I had an interesting experience over a recent weekend. I was called upon by a local Robotics Institute to judge a contest where 28 teams of high school students from the eastern US and Canada came together with their robotic creations to compete for prizes and recognition. I came away very impressed and feeling a little bit better about a country that seems to be kicked around quite a bit when it comes to science and math education.
I know we need to do a better job of preparing our kids for a highly technical future, but I was thrilled to know that there are some kids out there who really get this stuff. And it wasn’t just that they knew about software for automation or the physical construction of a robotic device within certain design criteria or even about managing complex machine control via software and sensors. The really cool thing about these kids is that all through the design process, they actually expected things would go wrong.
After the initial design was put down in their engineering notebooks, the rest of the exercise was mostly about watching things go wrong and fixing them in a way that didn’t break something else. Some kids ran out of time before they worked all the bugs out. But even those 'engineers' could tell you what they would have tried next, if given the time. I was thrilled.
“This is how things should be approached,” I exclaimed to the other judges, both of whom were professional engineers who simply looked at me and blinked as if they were seeing someone gushing over the fact that the sky was blue. This is how engineers think, I reminded myself.
Wouldn’t it be great if our political leaders thought more like this?
Unfortunately, when we speak of political engineering, we usually mean gaming the system to create an outcome that benefits a special interest instead of one that makes the world a better place. As we watch the government duke it out over healthcare and financial services reform like players in a giant game of pub sumo wrestling, we get no indication that anyone is seriously considering the long term outcome of their work or that there might be a version 2.0 somewhere down the road.
No, when it comes to politics, the players are out to “fix” the problem quickly, preferably before the next election. A real engineer would not do well in this environment. In fact, according to the National Association of Professional Engineers, there is only one licensed professional engineer currently serving in Congress (Joe Barton, P.E.(R-TX), holds a B.S. degree in engineering from Texas A&M University and a master's degree in industrial administration). There are a handful more that have engineering degrees, but aren’t practicing engineers.
I bet if you put a bunch of mortgage technologists in charge of the regulations, you’d come up with something like…well, like MISMO. Granted, it took a long time to bash out these standards and they’re still under construction and they likely always will be, but they work and they’ve put the vast majority of industry players on the same page. Big win.
Of course, in this case, the industry knew exactly what the inputs would be and what outputs were expected and so they worked together to connect the dots. The kids building robots didn’t have that luxury. They had to make assumptions about how their robot would function in the real world, test to the point of failure and then come up with new plans. Even then, they were unsure of what they would be competing against until the day of the competition, so they had to create contingency plans there as well.
Our political leaders don’t have to guess what problems exist in their districts. They have plenty of people to tell them, including lobbyists, community organizations, such as ACORN, and other special interests. Sometimes, they get feedback from the people most likely to be affected by the laws they make, but too often that feedback comes after the law is already on the books. By then, there’s no easy way to fix it.
If engineers were in charge, they would put a big red “Redo” button on the side of every new law, making it easy to get to the next version in the case of unintended consequences. Wouldn’t it be great if we could hit a redo button on some recent legislation affecting our industry? What would you delete?