Doug Kern explains why he thinks he washed out of engineering school, but while criticising his teachers (often justly) I think he too-hastily dismisses what may have been the real reason for his failure.

I am an engineering washout. I left a chemical engineering major in shame and disgust to pursue the softer pleasures of a liberal arts education. No, do not pity me, gentle reader; do not assuage your horror and dismay at my degradation by flinging a filthy quarter into my shiny tin cup. Instead, hear my story, and learn why the United States lacks engineers.

Not long ago, I showed up for my first year at Smartypants U., fresh from a high school career full of awards and honors and gold stars. My accomplishments all pointed towards a more verbal course of study, but I was determined to spend my college days learning something useful. With my strong science grades and excellent standardized test scores, I felt certain that I could handle whatever engineering challenges Smartypants U. had to offer. Remember: Kern = real good at math and science. You will have cause to forget that fact very soon.

Being "real good" at math and science isn't the most important thing for engineers. I know engineers who are brilliant mathematicians, but many aren't. I've taken years and years of calculus, but whenever I have to apply it to a difficult problem I need to scour the internet for pointers. As for science, most science classes are just memorization.

As Clayton Cramer recently wrote, it takes more to succeed as an engineer than just intelligence.

When my wife and I first met, she asked me what I did for a living. I explained that I was a software engineer. She was impressed, and assumed that it was a very difficult job, requiring exceptional skill. I told her that I thought you could almost teach chimpanzees to do it. I was exaggerating for dramatic effect, but my perception was that the skills that I had were really very widespread.

I've since found out that not ony can't you teach chimps to do this, you can't even teach a lot of very smart people to do this. My wife is a very bright, very thoughtful, very logical person. With my encouragement, she took a programming class when she was attending Santa Rosa Junior College. For reasons that I could not understand, this very smart woman that I am married to just didn't get it--and I've discovered that she is not alone in this respect. It is apparently somewhat harder to learn how to program, at even a very simple level, than I realized.

... Most important of all, from the standpoint of wage rates, most people seem to lack something fundamental that allows them to be effective software engineers. They may be able to write simple programs--or even write programs that should have been simple, and turn them into steaming piles of incomprehensible crud--but they will never be a software engineer. Hence, wage rates are pretty darn good for this line of work.

Engineering requires a certain attitude: a morbid cynicism mitigated by can-do; deep curiosity with ruthless practicality. Most people don't have it. As an engineer myself, I think it's pretty fun, and I wish more people thought like engineers... we might not end up with so many stupid messes. But then again, most artists wish others thought like them; it takes all kinds.

Mr. Kern goes on to lament what sounds like a rather pathetic engineering school at Smartypants U., but I don't think his experiences are atypical in America or abroad. The qualities that make for good engineers are often orthogonal to those that make for good teachers, which makes such combinations rare. The result is that most engineers, even highly-educated ones, are significantly self-taught; a person who can't bootstrap himself into engineering probably won't make a good engineer. Many of the best engineers I've known, however, weren't engineers by training or profession.



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