John Marburger at UCLA Engineering Commencement – Full Text of Speech

Jun 29, 2005

By UCLA Samueli Newsroom

UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science
Commencement 2005
Los Angeles, California
June 18, 2005

John Marburger
Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy
Executive Office of the President

Greetings, and congratulations on having the foresight to graduate during the sixtieth anniversary of the UCLA engineering school. This is not an advanced age, as institutions go, and the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science appears to be just at the beginning of a distinguished era of education, research and service.

Is there anyone who doesn’t think engineers are different from other people? The mythology associated with engineers is very strong, and supports a whole industry of comedians and comic strips. In my college days, you could identify engineering students because they wore slide rules on their belts. Later it was plastic pocket protectors. Then tee-shirts with Maxwell’s equations printed on the back. It is not a negative image. Dilbert, the paradigmatic corporate engineer, shows ingenuity, dignity, and a good deal of common sense in the surreal setting of Kafkaesque cubicles and counterproductive bosses that populate his world. He is eccentric, but honest. He knows what should be done, but his world won’t let it happen. Or just maybe he does succeed after all in the face of all this chaos.

What I like about engineers, and what distinguishes them from scientists, is that they are oriented toward getting things done that most people care about. Scientists can be driven too, but their goal is abstract. The trick of science is to narrow the field of inquiry to the point where critical variables can be controlled. The trick of engineering is to get a useful result even when the variables are not controlled. In engineering, errors are expected and systems are designed to work despite accidents and interventions and the usual disorder in the world. A good engineering system, like Dilbert, gets it done anyhow.

This characteristic of getting things done in the face of uncertainty and error is not the only important distinguishing feature of engineering work.

Just this week, in the current issue of the American Scientist magazine, the publication of the science and engineering honor society Sigma Xi, Henry Petroski, a civil engineer and a fine author, has devoted his regular column on engineering to a retrospective on C.P. Snow’s famous essay on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.” Some of you may have read this essay. It’s often required reading in courses on science and society. Snow was a scientist who wrote novels and mixed with the literary crowd, and he noticed that his two sets of friends seemed to speak different languages.. The scientists weren’t reading much literature, and the literati were scientifically illiterate. The essay predicted dire consequences of this cultural divide because it was the literary crowd – or at least the non-scientists – who held he reins of power in society.

We hear similar warnings today. The warnings are no longer couched in the language of the cold war and our need to outgun the Soviets in technical capability. Today the warnings foretell loss of economic competitiveness and power in a globalized technology-based economy. And the crux of the issue today is the same as in 1959 when Snow was writing, namely the inadequacy of the educational systems in developed nations, especially at the lower grades. Snow worried that we were just not producing enough technically trained people to meet the global challenges of the coming decades.

Petroski, in his article about Snow and his two cultures, says that engineering does not fit well into either of them. He quotes Snow to the effect that the launch of Sputnik, a marvel of engineering, was “a feat of organization and a triumphant use of existing knowledge.” “But,” Petroski writes, “engineering is much more than that. In fact while sharing characteristics of the two cultures …, it is also a culture unto itself and thus separate from each of them.”

And what is the new dimension that distinguishes engineering? Petroski says, “Perhaps even more so than science, engineering is akin to writing or painting in that it is a creative endeavor that begins in the mind’s eye and proceeds into new frontiers of thought and action, where it does not so much find as make new things.” “Science may be the theater,” says Petroski, “but engineering is the action on the stage.”

These twin qualities of creativity and accounting for inevitable error are crucial ingredients of engineering work. And there is a third ingredient, implicit in C.P. Snow’s categories, which is quantitative thinking. While not everything important can be measured (think of humor, for example), it is certainly true that some factors in any venture are more important than others, and engineers must be able to assess and separate the significant from the insignificant – something that Dilbert is able to do in pointed ways that make us laugh. In real life, however, this very often entails reducing desired behaviors to a set of measurable quantities, which is why mathematics occupies such an important niche in action oriented planning. Snow did not stress mathematics or analytical thinking in his criteria for the two cultures, but clearly the lack of fluency in quantitative reasoning is a major barrier to other technical skills – and a closed door to many occupations.

In my view this set of skills is essential for ALL action-oriented professions, and not just engineering. Everything we make for useful purposes – from tableware and network routers to computer codes and drugs, and including abstract things like business plans, organizational structures, and the charters and constitutions that govern nations – all these things begin with a creative idea, proceed with analysis of significant factors, and accommodate the ever present range of error and uncertainty in every venture.

Consequently the study of engineering is the ideal preparation for men and women who want to play an active role in society. You might think that the value of empirical methods would diminish in situations where human passion dominates, but that is not the case. Effectiveness with people depends crucially on seeing others as they are, not as we imagine them to be. We do not dehumanize others when we treat them objectively as part of the greater system whose overall behavior we seek to optimize. Dehumanization occurs when we design systems without accounting for the sometimes perverse and counter-intuitive ways of the human beings who have to live with them.

To think like an engineer is to think of situations in their entire context, including the laws and regulations of society and the actions of all the people necessary for success. Dilbert succeeds not because he ignores the perversity in his environment, but because he engages it objectively, and finds clever ways around it.

Commencement speeches are supposed to be (1) short, and (2) have messages. I am nearly done, and I have four messages. The first is that engineering is a word that has a broad and noble significance. It provides the action on the stage of nature, and requires skill and creativity of a high order.

The second message is that engineers have a valuable lesson to teach the other cultures – a lesson about the inevitability of errors, bugs, noise and unforeseen conditions. The lesson is that these things are normal and must be tolerated by design. It makes no sense to plan for an ideal world just because you think things ought to be a certain way. Your own life will be more successful if you count on meeting obstacles and frustrations, and think of them as an essential part of execution. To an engineer, the unexpected glitch is not cause for complaint, but an opportunity to build a better way.

The third message is that nature, broadly construed, includes people, and no engineering solution can ever be successful that ignores the human element. This applies not only to the characteristics of customers and end-users, but to the bankers, lawyers, legislators and inspectors whose cooperation is needed to get the work done. And it includes the people in whose backyards your projects will be consummated – the advocates and detractors, the jealous and the zealous. It is this part of broader nature in whose ways politicians are expected to be expert, and many of them are, especially those who think like engineers. My boss, an astute businessman, chose an engineer to be his chief of staff, and it works marvelously.

The fourth message is that your own education has prepared you, whether you know it or not, for a life far more rich and satisfying than Dilbert’s stereotype of engineering jobs. Much engineering work must be done in teams and corporate enclaves. But engineering values and engineering skills are effective in every human endeavor, from building bridges to building businesses, to building nations.

We need more engineers in every walk of life. Do not hesitate to take a job even if its demands do not resemble the problems in your textbooks, or the topics of your senior papers, or your dissertation. The most important qualities of engineering are the most widely applicable to all human affairs. I envy you your futures in a world that needs your talents. Go with confidence. Good luck.

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