WHY ENGINEER? – Chapter 9 – Some Rules of Thumb!

I’ve been giving this some thought, and I will provide a few simple rules here, but I may add to them in the future.  I never wrote these things down.  So, please be patient as I recall them over time.

I will start with two rules from two Rays, Ray Horstman and Ray Trush, neither of whom knew each other.  I can’t say with assurance that the rules were originated by the Rays, but they certainly could have been.  I am still in contact with RH, but I have not seen RT in nearly thirty years.  And although these two rules are both possibly in the category of humor, there is quite a bit of serious truth in them.

1.  RH:  “Thumb times it works, and thumb times it doesn’t!”  Depending on your own view of the world, you could interpret this to mean that either success is inevitable or failure is inevitable.  At any rate, you have to be ready for either.

2.  RT:  “An once of image is worth a pound of performance!”  My memory of RT is of his positive humor.  He used this phrase to softly mock those who followed the path of image before performance.  I include it here to remind you that good engineering is sometimes an uphill battle of attitudes.

And here is a third rule of thumb.  It is a serious comment, and I am sorry to say that I do not remember the name of the person who penned it.  It was in an article about the engineering of systems from many years back.

3.  “Remember, a model is not reality!”  Mathematical modeling of physical and electrical systems has become common place with the introduction of computers on every desk.  And it is both a wonder and a danger.  When you print out the results of computers on graphs and other media (especially in color), it adds a sense of reality that all too often is not quite true, sometimes not true at all.  Computer output may be impressive, but it should always be looked at with caution. Don’t read too much into it.  It is the easy way out at times, and very tempting.

Here’s an example:  computational fluid dynamics, CFD, depends on things called “turbulence models”.  And to quote a phrase, thumb times they work and thumb times they don’t.  The reason for this is that no one truly understands turbulence, and therefore can not truly model turbulence.  And the answers produced by these various models can be quite different from actual test data.  Now don’t throw CFD out the window because I just said that, but as with all mathematical models, be careful how you use it.

And finally, here is an old one that has been around the block many times.

4.  “We never have time to do it right, but we always have time to do it over!”  (origin unknown, at least to me)  Unfortunately, this is more than the ordinary rule of thumb.  In many cases it is the “Law of Thumb.”  All I can say is that when you run across it, do the best you can.


There is a category of rules that is worth a short discussion.
Murphy’s Law, or Laws, consists primarily of one statement, “If something can go wrong, it will,” or words to that effect. You can find various lists of Murphy’s Laws, some being rather long. Many items on these lists probably did not come from Captain Murphy.  Some are entertaining, and some are true; however, the original law is not a central point in design.  Rather the point is that everything has a probability of failure, and the point of good design is to reduce that probability to an acceptable level.

WHY ENGINEER? — Chapter 8 — How Much Does Engineering Pay?

When I started my engineering career, I didn’t know how much engineers were paid. I knew roughly how much my dad was paid, and he was an engineer, but he was way beyond the starting salary level. Nowadays you can go on the web and find numerous sources for pay information, and I assume you have done that.

So, what can I tell you that you don’t already know? You’ve probably noticed that pay varies with specialty, industry, company, and location. And no doubt you assume that it goes up with experience. Well, I would say that experience is tricky. In general, pay eventually goes down with experience!

OK, that does sound strange, and you may not want to worry about that early in your career, but someday it will become an issue. You no doubt can find information about this phenomena on the web if you look hard enough. Here is a quick and simplified explanation.

The good news is that the younger engineers get the best raises. Of course that means the older engineers don’t. If you were to see a graph of salaries of all the engineers at your company versus years out of college you would notice that it climbs, flattens out, and then goes down! It isn’t that the salaries of the older engineers actually go down. It shows up in the graph that way because of salary inflation. The younger employees started out higher, and that starting level loads the curve to the left. Companies actually use that sort of data in mapping out their salary plans.

The shape of the curve also reflects the fact that the older engineers are a captive audience, so to speak. A company holds onto employees by giving the biggest raises to the young and inexperienced. Sorry, but that is the way things are done. Some people try to avoid that by changing jobs in an attempt to get higher pay at the point where the graph starts to flatten. I have never seen data on that, but my impression is that it is by no means a guaranteed strategy. There are things at play here other than salary level. Change has its problems, many of which are personal. Also, change actually does cost money. What you see about changing jobs for money in the news, in TV shows, and in the movies is not representative of average reality.

I changed employers in my mid forties. I didn’t do it for the money. The real reason is complicated. I can’t even explain it to myself. If I had the chance to do it over, I would. The money was better where I was, the job was better, and starting over at that age wasn’t easy — but who knew? One of my first bosses was born and raised in Germany. His favorite quote was, “Ve grow too soon old and too late schmart!” He had an accent.

Some things you are going have to figure out for yourself. Just remember that the way pay looks this year will not be how it looks twenty years from now.

Hey, you won’t be poor.

WHY ENGINEER? — Chapter 7 — What Do I Need to Know About Office Politics?

Just to get you going, how about a little sarcasm? Here’s my definition of “politics”.

Poli-tics : many blood sucking insects.

OK, now I can back off a little, just a little.

The first and already discussed aspect of politics is the use of lies to get ahead. I think I discussed that enough in the blog about ethics, so I’ll skip that part of politics.

Possibly the least objectionable thing about office politics is the surest way to the top, treating the company as though it is the most important thing in your life. All you have to do is work more hours than anyone else. Work weekends. Work nights. Companies tend to reward that type of behavior with promotions. Pretty soon you will give the impression that you will make a good manager.

That was simple! Yet, it has some flaws that can catch you unawares. First, when you are promoted into management, you will convince yourself that you got there because you are the greatest engineer the world has ever seen. The odds of that being true are near zero. If you don’t fall for that, you will probably be a better manager. The next falsehood you need to avoid is that you got the job because you are a great manager…WRONG! You got the job because you sacrificed most of your life for the company.

So, if you can avoid those two traps, and you don’t mind what it has done to your private life, and you actually do have good management skills, you will do well and be happy.

So, here is the other side of the coin. I have a friend who was faced with a request to work a lot of free overtime. This was his response, “I have a job, and I have a wife, and I am only married to one of them!” You might want to think about that.

The third side of the coin comes from a statement by one of my undergraduate professors, whose name I can not recall. “You will never get rich as an engineer, but you will always love your work.” That is no small thing for most of us. Remaining part of the “productive flow” has great charm. There is no shame in it, even if you never have anyone work for you throughout your whole career. And it has one really nice benefit, you can pretty much avoid any involvement in office politics.