Hey Engineers, Let's Stop Being Assholes?

There’s this toxic idea in tech circles right now that’s starting to get really tiring. And it pains me to have to point this out because I could just blissfully go along with it, and give myself that self-congratulatory pat on the back that most of the tech world is doing on a nearly daily basis.

It’s the elitism. There’s this culture (cultivated by engineers) that worships engineers and shuns everyone else for not ‘being technical.’ This culture is backwards and counterproductive. It presupposes that engineering is the only thing that matters, and that everything else must defer to it.

There’s a reasonable origin for this line of thinking. Back in the dot com days, business majors were raising 50 million to make online wedding invitations and going public because they had a homepage. MBAs were looking for some engineers to “code up this idea quick,” as if the tech part of a tech company was just this checkbox that needed filling. As if engineers were these interchangeable cogs in the machine of a startup. Of course, those tech companies imploded and for most of them, technology wasn’t the primary cause. But even really great business ideas often failed for lack of technical expertise. It turns out people who don’t know how to create software are also terrible at recognizing how important (and hard) it is.

But the reverse is also true. And that’s how far the pendulum has swung in the other direction. There are lots of engineers proudly proclaiming that everything that isn’t engineering is just some checkbox department filled with warm bodies who weren’t good enough to be programmers. As those in the know have known for a long time, it turns out things like business development and “having customers” is pretty important too. It turns out people who don’t specialize in a non-technical role are also terrible at realizing how hard and important it is.

Which brings me to the general observation that everyone thinks their job is obviously the most important and indispensable. Not surprisingly, everyone is wrong, but engineers have convinced themselves that because the MBAs were demonstrably wrong about engineering, engineering must be right. Which is just a logical fallacy wrapped in wishful thinking sprinkled with the chocolate covered bacon bits of all your friends who also happen to be engineers agreeing.

This false premise (engineering is everything) leads to all sorts of crazy conclusions. One of them is that everyone should learn to code. This is stupid, and a waste of time. There’s no substitute for computer literacy, but saying everyone should learn to code is like saying everyone should learn to drive manual transmission and change their own oil: cars are everywhere! Cars are the future! If you don’t drive, you will not be in control of where you are driven! This kind of alarmist propaganda is nonsensical and should be laughed out of the room. The whole point of software engineers is so other people don’t have to code!

This phenomenon coincides with a related one that also annoys me: the insinuation that being an engineer automatically demonstrates your superior intellect. The recent shortage of engineering talent in the US exacerbates this feeling, because it’s easy to conclude that the problem is because people aren’t smart enough to become software engineers. Actually, it’s mostly[1] because 1) most people think programming is about as sexy as mopping floors, and 2) for the past decade, smart people who just wanted to make money could make more for the same hours and less risk — in finance.

Software engineering is actually not that hard. There, I said it. Basic computer science type education and work is not much harder, conceptually, than intermediate calculus. The majority of the population is capable of being taught, and understanding, intermediate calculus. We know this because lots of countries teach both in middle school. QED.

This means that being a software engineer is not beyond the intellectual capacity of the average joe[2]. It also means engineers need to stop waving their diplomas around like they’re computer astronauts[3]. It makes us all look like elitist assholes, and it’s holding back our profession.


[1] Ignores our immigration problem, since it’s better if this isn’t about politics.
[2] Speaking strictly about proficiency, of course. We all know there’s a very high skill ceiling, and being a “great engineer” is a whole other ballgame. But this too has lots of external factors not related to innate skill.
[3] But don’t take this to mean we shouldn’t be proud of what we do.

17 thoughts on “Hey Engineers, Let's Stop Being Assholes?”

  1. Unfortunately, of all the engineers that I know; not one of them read your blog…every single one of them is an elitist, self- absorbed, condescending narcissistic asshole. they all think they are capable of reshaping the fabric of space and time with sheer brainpower.

    Oddly enough it seem like you have reach self awareness..how did it feel, to fall to human level…did you shed a tear of pain ? I’m certain it is a mere ruse so that you can walk amongst the plebe and feeble-minded organism ! We are watching you.

  2. Most engineers are douche bags who think very highly of themselves and don’t want to be bothered at all around work or jobs or networking. But boy when they need something from you, they expect you to make time for them. Here’s my thought, I pray for another downsizing, rightsizing to occur so they will be out of jobs and their overlvalued, overpriced salaries are gone. Start being humble for once. Geesh. So over it.

  3. Techs and non-techs need each other.
    However, and it _is_ a fact, techs make the products and non-techs don’t. I done enterprise engineering and Ive done enterprise sales too. And believe me the sales job was 100 fucking times easier.

    1. Sure it was. You people can barely look someone in the eye let alone talk on the phone.youre pussies.and selling enterprise ain’t real sales pussy

    2. Non-tech people are the ones who create the products. Who do you think comes up with this stuff?

      When products are designed exclusively by tech people, you get debacles like Google Glass. There’s a certain subset of people in the tech community who think they do everything, are everything, and ignore the complexity of the world around them that they interact with every single day.

      “But it’s stupid therefore invalid, and it’s stupid because the job I do is hard, defined by me and me alone, therefore I’m smart according to my own definition, therefore everyone else is stupid and invalid.”

      It’s narcissism, plain and simple. It’s not even based on facts, either, which is supposedly the divine realm in tech circles, yet facts are whatever you want them to be in this group of people.

  4. Full disclosure: I’m studying telecommunications engineering.

    The concepts we study are way beyond intermediate calculus. Hell, we have to take two advanced calculus classes and some algebra to even begin to learn propper communications concepts. Also there is a very large failure rate due to students not being able to reach the level of understanding of the subjects necesary to pass the courses. Of course this will vary by university but engineers intellectual elitism is to some degree justified.

    1. My goodness, we’ve got a genius in our midst – one of the glorious members of the intellectual elite! Thank you for enlightening us poor, brain-addled mouth-breathers with your words of wisdom!

    2. Your experience is fairly typical, and not without merit. My point is there isn’t anything *uniquely* hard about computer science or engineering that distinguishes it from, say, physics, medicine, or getting a law degree.

      We don’t see physics majors or lawyers walking around like celebrity astronauts, whereas every other sophomore in a computer science/engineering program seems to think he is already an unusually gifted and accomplished human being deserving of recognition and status.

      Which is really odd.

  5. I’m not an angry person but a city full of transplant aholes who think and act like they are superior to you…..this is insufferable, and I’m IN the industry. Something must change!

      1. Hi Peter, Iapologize for my immature outburst. Uh, time of the month? Kidding. Thank you for the opportunity to allow my commentary. I highly agree with your perspective. Here in San Francisco-SV, your fresh perspective is sorely needed.

        Most tech companies here in engaged in really awesome forward thinking ideas, and its great. Doesn’t come without challenges. Great blog!

  6. Most branches of Engineering are highly competitive and stressful professions. When engineers are put under this kind of chronic stress for long periods of time, it will erode their ability to form healthy work-relationships. Work becomes a cold game of political posturing and problem dumping that saps the life out of companies and drives talent away.

  7. Here’s my take on this. Im studying EE at MTU myself. Engineers do have to be smart. It takes a lot of hard work to become an engineer. Yes, it is a feat to be respected. But for Pete’s sake, people! Stop trying to rub it in other everyone’s faces! They will not respect you for it! Its fine! Everyone already knows you’re smart. Be graceful about it. And please, for the love of all things good, get a life and learn some people skills! You’ll thank me later.

  8. No industry frustrates people more than the computer industry. What other business can build a product that works but is glitchy, crashes, is not intuitive? Go ahead pat yourselves on the back but no one except you thinks your doing a good job.

  9. Here’s a recent experience that sums up the “superior intellect” of all the Engineers I work with on a daily basis:

    Engineer: “I need a new laptop to replace my existing one”

    Me: “Please provide a business justification as your current laptop is fully functional. No technical incidents have been logged for your current laptop and we are under tight budget constraints for this fiscal. The business requires a valid business reason to justify upgrade expenditures on assets that have not reached end of life”.

    Engineer: “I work on a vessel part time. I have to do most of my work on shore as the application I use is web-based, and the network connectivity on the vessel is terrible. Also, my laptop is too heavy so I want something lighter.”

    Me: ????? Superior intellect my ass.

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