What makes a good engineer?

We were off to the pub. I was walking with two architects with a mutual intent to enjoy the sunshine with a glass of something fermented in hand. We’d just made a careful incision through the London traffic. Suddenly the conversation opened up and one of them asked me exactly what was it that made a good structural engineer. Good question. Obvious question maybe, but not something I’d ever heard posited before. And looking back I was quite pleased with what I came up with in the space of a few pounding heartbeats.

If they’d asked what a structural engineer does, that would have been easy. Hours spent sketching or calculating the size of bending moments are not quickly forgotten. Or you can just ask Google. For example the Institution of Structural Engineers website explains that ‘Structural engineers design, create, solve problems, innovate and use maths and science to shape the world.’

But what’s the difference between a good one and an average one? What does it mean to design better, solve better or innovate better? Are good engineers mined from exotic locations? Or can they be moulded? Are they like wizards, born of engineerkind. Or are they more like hobbits, who just need an invite to a great adventure to rise about expectations?

I mean obviously it’s subjective. There’s no golden rule to measure engineers by. Of the many good engineers who have achieved fame – Brunel was lauded for his bold innovation; Peter Rice thought it was about imagination and Bill Baker gives the impression it’s all perspiration.

I mean a good engineer must be dependable, scientific, able to think through a situation logically, prudent, a good communicator, understand contracts, party wall agreements and the management of risk. They must have integrity, work to improve the environment and ensure worker safety.They must be cautious but brave, striving for the best while preparing for the worst. They must be lifelong learners, questioning, curious. Widely read and deeply knowledgable.

But I wanted to answer succinctly. To lay down the shield of jargon and the breastplate of verbosity and wrestle with the question unarmed. I didn’t want to give a list post – the 37 things that all good structural engineers do and how you can emulate them. I wanted something pithier, punchier, peppier. I wanted a tweet not a novel.

To cut to the crunch, I feel that if you boil it all down, what separates the good from the rest, is that the good ones understand what everything does. This means that crucially, they know what you can justify doing without. It’s tempting to add strength to the structure to cover the weakness in our understanding. The better the engineer, the less structure you’ll get. Good engineers give you less. Less is better. Less is more.

So back to my conversation. The good question about good engineers. Well after a deep breath I slowly opined ‘a good structural engineer knows exactly what’s needed’. And I’m still not sure how I would improve on that.

One thought on “What makes a good engineer?

  1. I like that definition. One thing which is obvious on the railways is that the best engineering solution comes from people or teams who really understand how the different pieces fit together. Conversely, the best engineering solutions don’t come from people who think only about one aspect of the problem. For example, if you’re installing overhead electrification, there is often not enough space to fit the wires in under the bridges. I would define a good engineer as one who doesn’t design a bridge raising without thinking how much land take they need for the approach embankments if they are going to make the abutment a metre higher, or who decides to lower the tracks while making absolutely sure that the drainage system will avoid creating a lovely big new pond…

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