Be An Engineer

I was recently in Blacksburg for a Civil and Environmental Engineering Alumni Board meeting and had the privilege to attend Virginia Tech’s induction of engineering students into Chi Epsilon. Engineering graduates know that Chi Epsilon is the National Civil Engineering Honor Society. I’m particularly fond of their stated purpose: “…Maintaining and promoting the status of civil engineering as an ideal profession.”

An ideal profession. There’s a lot packed into those words. And there are some aspects that we tend to forget as well. Seeing these kids being inducted reminded me of a few things I believe are worth sharing.

We’re all familiar with the traditional definition of engineers and engineering. We gravitate pretty quickly to the mathematics, science and technology aspects of what it means to engineer. But I’ve always been intrigued by lesser known and seldom used definitions.

Think about these statements a bit:

Engineer: A skillful contriver or originator of something.

Engineering: The action of working artfully to bring something about.

Those words “contriver,” “originator,” “artfully,” and “something” create an abundance of energy and excitement in me. Why? Because they demonstrate that engineering and engineers are about more than math. More than science. Engineering does not end with a set of plans. Engineers are not just problem solvers. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with being a great problem solver. But engineers should be encouraged to wrap themselves in a broader – and brighter – cloak.

Engineers dream.

Engineers create.

Engineers are artful.

And engineers get something done. Or they should. Otherwise, engineers stops short of their full potential. And that’s a shame.

I can’t help but wonder at times whether the industry has stopped short. I hear some firms espouse that the best job is “…one that never gets built.” Do you ever hear that in your firm? I understand and appreciate the context of the remark. In our ever growing litigious society, leaving a project on the drawing table is certainly a safer business proposition. Design. Get paid. Avoid liability. And walk away.

Do you draw a line between engineers who design and engineers who build?
If you do, then you’re not engineering. And people who work in such an environment aren’t being developed as engineers. Oh, they will get the experience they need to sit for the PE exam, and most will pass. But those same folks may never look around the corner to see where true “engineering” could take them. They may never know the full measure of what it means to be an engineer.

In the late 1950’s, our industry was called on to create and fulfill a vision. Gosh darn it, did folks ever respond to that challenge with a mighty burst of energy, creativity and a “get something done” attitude. I wonder if that spark has gone out a bit? I’m not suggesting it has in every corner. I just wonder about it.

Listen, sometimes you can see something more clearly from afar. I hold engineers and engineering in the highest regard as people and as an industry. But when I think of “engineers” I think of designers and contractors in one group. People who are committed to the end game.

People who originate.

People who contrive — in a positive sense.

People who are artful.

People who bring something about.

If your eyes are not on the end game; well then, your eyes are not on the ball. And you’re missing out on a hell of a lot.

Be an engineer.

Philip Shucet
Philip Shucet

About the author, Philip Shucet:  Since 1972 Philip has enjoyed the excitement of working in the transportation engineering and contracting business.  His work has taken him across the country as well as across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  Especially meaningful to Philip was the time he spent as the Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Transportation from 2002 through 2005.  During his time at VDOT, Philip made a concerted effort to reinvigorate the value of “being an engineer” in that organization.  In December 2008, Philip set out on a new journey by creating his own company, The Philip A. Shucet Company, where he is focused on providing strategic advice to private companies interested in pursuing — and building — transportation projects.   Interestingly, he graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 1972 with a degree in History.

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  1. “All religions, arts and sciences are directed toward ennobling man’s life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual toward freedom.” -A.Einstein

  2. TWIG, P.E., FNSPE

    Engineering is 98% common sense & 2% credibility, The credibility being your degree and your Professional License. During my career I have met many competent engineers, lacking the 2% credibility and many others lacking the 98%. Our job is to communicate! Oral & written expression is a basic requirement – a “plan” is no good, if you can’t read it and explain it to the public, owner or the Builder.

  3. I always liked this one:

    It is a great profession. There is the satisfaction of watching a figment of the imagination emerge through the aid of science to a plan on paper. Then it moves to realization in stone or metal or energy. Then it brings jobs and homes to men. Then it elevates the standards of living and adds to the comforts of life. That is the engineer’s high privilege.

    The great liability of the engineer compared to men of other professions is that his works are out in the open where all can see them. His acts, step by step, are in hard substance. He cannot bury his mistakes in the grave like the doctors. He cannot argue them into thin air or blame the judge like the lawyers. He cannot, like the architects, cover his failures with trees and vines. He cannot, like the politicians, screen his shortcomings by blaming his opponents and hope that the people will forget. The engineer simply cannot deny that he did it. If his works do not work, he is damned. That is the phantasmagoria that haunts his nights and dogs his days. He comes from the job at the end of the day resolved to calculate it again. He wakes in the night in a cold sweat and puts something on paper that looks silly in the morning. All day he shivers at the thought of the bugs which will inevitably appear to jolt his smooth consummation.

    On the other hand, unlike the doctor his is not a life among the weak. Unlike the soldier, destruction is not his purpose. Unlike the lawyer, quarrels are not his daily bread. To the engineer falls the job of clothing the bare bones of science with life, comfort and hope.

    No doubt as years go by people forget which engineer did it, even if they ever knew. Or some politician puts his name on it. Or they credit it to some promoter who used other peoples money with which to finance it. But the engineer himself looks back at the unending stream of goodness that flows from his successes with satisfactions that few professions may know. And the verdict of his fellow professionals is all the accolade he wants.

    – Herbert Hoover, President and Engineer
    The Profession of Engineering (from his memoirs)

  4. Just in short: “engineering is an art of materializing an imagination in a logical way with the use of scientific and mathematical tools .”

  5. Nice one David.
    Mine is more a civil engineering definition than a general engineering one.
    I formulated this definition when I was in college and one of my professors asked us what impact we wanted to have once we graduated. I came up with the following.
    ” To use our artistic, analytical and brilliant gifts to positively impact the society and ensure a sustainable future for all”
    Ken, EI

    • David Perrings, PE


      Very nice definition. The word “sustainable” appears to be a rather recent word with respect to civil engineering and architecture. I assume you are much younger than this old goat who is writing back to you. What do you understand the work “sustainable” to mean exactly ? and is it used so much these days that it has become a Cliché.

      David Perrings

      • Well, I’m a 2006 BS graduate. I suppose you would classify me as young.
        Actually the original quote read “safe and productive” in place of sustainable.
        The sustainability part was added to go with the chorus of those days.
        My definition of sustainability is, ensuring that future generation will enjoy our creations.

  6. David Perrings, PE

    Be An Engineer:

    I enjoyed reading the article very much. I liked his definitions for engineering:

    Engineering: the action of working artfully to bring something about.

    a number of years ago i wrote a similar definition:

    Engineering is the application of scientific and artistic knowledge to bring about functional form.

    THe whole point of his article is the simple idea that we are human beings first and engineers second. It takes a whole person to make sucessful contributions to society.

    the follow Illustrates this point:

    The Engineer

    I stopped
    searching for
    my father
    in my employer.

    I stopped trying
    to discover
    all the mysteries
    of the universe
    in a project.

    I came to know
    as a man
    rather than
    as my

    Now my
    is over.

    David Perrings, PE

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