Future of Engineers
July 14, 2011
Tom Gillis writes a post on his blog on Forbes today called The End of the Engineer. It's sort of like reverse STEM recruiting we typically see everywhere else. Which would be refreshing if it wasn't so ignorant. He first posits that post industrial revolution the need for better machines and manufacturing has been outsourced (not going to argue manufacturing has been outsourced). Then he talks about how the slight differences in performance that engineers generally strive for are no longer as crucial. He cites Apple as moving away from the engineering model towards one of marketing and customer understanding. Saying instead that that is what makes Apple successful.
He may be right that incremental improvements no longer please consumers. But I think that's always been the case. I think music industry people were surprised when MP3s gained such popularity. Their quality was a lot lower than CDs. However their portability and ease of use with a variety of devices was what had the mass appeal. And the same with cell phones and smart phones. We use them for convenience not because the sound quality is fantastic (anyone remember the old hear a pin drop Sprint commercials?) Now industry executives are surprised that the mainstream way to watch music videos is YouTube. Watch what you want when you want at your own convenience and for free. That's what consumers want rather than the high quality that executives might have assumed consumers would always be demanding. However, these incremental changes are still appreciated when your smartphone or your LCD TV gets slimmer or the next model of car gets a little lighter and a little better fuel economy.
So none of this means engineering is no longer crucial. He mentions the hoardes of engineering graduates from India and China. But for now, whether its societal or level of education, these high numbers have not meant Chinese and Indian companies are always able to compete with equal fervor with western companies. Part of Apple's success is certainly marketing based. But a lot of it is a core product that required a lot of fantastic engineering. And just because Chinese companies have no qualms about stealing IP and churning out cheaper products later doesn't mean they actually have the independent engineering knowledge to make another Apple. And as the sole commenter on his blog alludes to, not every American company that relies on engineering talent is a consumer electronics company.
True we're no longer innovating as much in agricultural machines, but we are in power generation plants, offshore drilling, mining applications, solar and wind energy, automotive design, aerospace, weapons, military technology and medical and biomedical breakthroughs. I think Mr. Gillis has really been sheltered too long in the bubble that is Silicon Valley. Apparently he is a VP at Cisco and his Forbes profile includes such excellent buzz words as "social networking", "new security paradigm", "leverage today's tools", "strategic" and he goes on to claim credit for making Cisco strong in the security market. I hope none of the engineers on his team who helped him position Cisco as a strong security leader read this article and realize their head honcho doesn't appreciate their technological contributions. For all his flattery of Steve Jobs and Apple one can only assume he's trying to get a job there. I hope Cisco recognizes this and lets him go so he can make his move. If I want marketing and social media BS I'll go talk about it on Twitter. If I want a company that makes reliable hardware and services because I know they have a good engineering core I will continue to go to companies like Cisco. When a VP doesn't see what's right beneath his nose he doesn't deserve the job.
Gillis goes on to recommend that people get Liberal Arts degrees and that he will give that advice to his own children. I sincerely hope he's kidding. As a highly paid executive I'm sure he'd have no problems placing his children with jobs after they get their Art History or Communications BA but he's not only living within the soft bubble of Silicon Valley then he's living within the privileged bubble of upper class if he thinks liberal arts degrees are a viable path to a solid middle class lifestyle. Engineering isn't as respected as it used to be (as evidenced by this article) but I wouldn't tell an intelligent young person who had strong math or science skills not to major in it any sooner than I'd suggest a broad liberal arts degree is a good path either. People should follow their passions certainly as success tends to be elusive no matter what path you take. But underestimating the need for some percentage of the population to be engineers is complete ignorance. Just because we aren't always putting these minds to the best use is a limitation of our policies and a focus on short term growth. If we were thinking Apollo Program big again we'd be able to achieve things way beyond what Gillis could imagine. And we'll need engineers to get us there.