Design and support

I always considered being a design engineer to be the epitome of the engineering profession, so it was with some surprise that I found out there are people who think otherwise; specifically Anant, who believes that being a service/support engineer is the tops.

After mature consideration, I have to admit he has a point.

The engineering profession today is a triumph of, more than anything else, project management. Who built the Apollo moon rocket? — we cannot point to one person and say, as truth imitates fiction, “Here he is! Our Professor Calculus!”. At its peak, the Apollo program employed 400,000 people. As far as I know, there was no single ‘architect’ who could claim anything like a commanding role in the design of the project. As Prof Bhaskar once told me, the most any design engineer working on the Apollo program could boast of as an individual accomplishment was to say he designed the rubber gasket of some small wing part of the rocket.

In the large companies that have the mantle of being at the forefront of engineering in today’s world, the situation is no different. There are great feats of design and invention performed everyday around the world. But for the most part, these are feats that, in isolation, command little respect. They are a small part of a large whole.

The greatest advances in engineering and technology today are made by the super-specialized. Popular imagination may assume that the engineer who comes up with the next new generation of chips from Intel is a ‘processor whiz’, who can recite, back to front, the instruction sets of every processor intel has ever made. Not so. It is more likely that the engineer is a¬†metallurgist or a solid state physicist, whose knowledge of computers may hardly go beyond using e-mail and Microsoft Office (I exaggerate, of course), but who is the cat’s whiskers in quantum physics.

To be a great design engineer, it is not necessary, or even desirable, to be a great inventor any more. The holistic view that the Faradays of the world had, of the technologies they invented, have all but disappeared. The world of engineering is too complex for one person to understand.

Except, of course, the support engineer.

When a diesel engine in a giant mining machine stops working, and a one-man army is dispatched to fix it, that one engineer is armed and equipped to diagnose and repair the fault. He cannot hide behind his specializations, he cannot claim that he will only fix the problem if it can be proven to occur in some small, narrow component that he proclaims expertise over. His responsibility is to understand the machine as a whole, and to use this understanding to progressively whittle down to narrower and narrower subsystems until the faulty one is identified.

We do not expect feats of creative genius from the support engineers, and it is very infrequent that they ever grow to the ranks of the patent holders and the CTOs. But what they have lost by that, they gain by experiencing, probably singly amongst the legions of engineering specialists in the world today, the sheer joy of understanding how every part of a complex machine works.

And thus, the baton of doing ‘real engineering’ has, in many disciplines, been passed from the designers to the debuggers.


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