Last week was engineer's week, a fun time where we engineers joke about ourselves and also try to do some friendly outreach "get kids into engineering" things. Along those lines I thought I'd post about The Knack.
It's this funny Dilbert video about toddler Dilbert fixing everything in his mom's house and building his own ham radios and the doctor telling her "he's got the knack, he won't live a normal life he'll be an engineer". The first time I saw it it was funny. I'm not going to throw too many rocks at people who share it, I love engineer humor as much as anybody, we can be worth making fun of.
But engineering is hurting in the US. Kids don't want to be engineers. They think it's too hard, too weird, and they're not the type. They don't have "the knack", they can't lay their hands on a VCR and repair it, they missed the devine priesthood-like calling needed to be an engineer.
As as engineer I can tell you a few things:
1) Nobody actually has the knack. Nobody can approach a complicated technical device they've never seen before, lay hands on it and magically fix it.
2) Anybody can fix anything if they know enough about it how it works. "Knowing enough" can take some time, interest, and a little talent to keep things in your head, but again it's not magic.
3) As a manager, I can tell you that when us managers talk about the "best engineers", the rockstars who we NEED to be on the big new coolest projects, it's not always the ones with The Knack. It's the people who are cool to work with. They write their shit down, keep their boss in the loop, show up on time, can present at a CEO meeting without freaking out. They can talk through a system with a customer, stay organized, they don't forget assignments, they prioritize, they help mentor new people. None of this is "the knack"! None of it requires building your own car when you're five or passing differential equations in middle school.
If engineering needs these genericly cool smart people who can communicate, we are not doing ourselves any favors by gatekeeping and acting like "the knack" is what you need. We NEED people who are NOT 100% sure engineering is their calling. We need people who want to do different things... drift into sales, develop tools to make our jobs easier, lead teams, manage projects.
I will admit, I personally went into engineering because I thought it'd be a simple, black and white, zeros and ones kind of job. I thought the task would be "make this light blink" and if you did that, everyone would know you were obviously right and I wouldn't have to convince people of too much. But there were ecosystems all around me, dividing and creating that work, getting input to make the design decisions, and I had no idea how complicated that ecosystem needed to be for me to simply "make this light blink". Once I learned that, I learned what the world really needs.
You might think, reading this, that engineering is not that different from other jobs. That is EXACTLY the point I'm trying to make. Engineers are not genetically different. The stereotypes are keeping kids out of it... and what's worse, they're keeping some kids out more than others. The kids who doubt whether they "look" like an engineer are more likely to feel like they need a divine inspiration story to prove they belong.
We don't watch engineering happen like we watch sports, so engineering will always lack exposure. Add on some old stereotypes, and our recruitment numbers will only get worse, our diversity problems will stay stuck where they are. Let's drop the idea that we are born with "The Knack".