Rise of the Engineering Technocracy

IgnoreCylonsNo doubt the accelerating drumbeat of technological innovation  is imposing economic, social, cultural, and emotional effects on the human condition across all boundaries of geography, industry, and expertise.  Engineering and manufacturing are no exception to this relentless technological tide.  Both are undergoing a transformation that may be as profound and broadly evolutionary as the Industrial Revolution if not more so.  What drives this acceleration?  All invention and discovery is drawn in part by standing on the work of those came before.  But as the breadth and depth of that knowledge increases, and the utilization of  it similarly scales, we’re faced with an exponential curve of innovation and discovery.  Consequently that also means a metric crapload of change.  It can be exhilarating; it can be depressing.  That precise dilemma has been a primary motivator as to why I write in this space at all – understanding what this means for engineering in general is crucial for the future.  But before we get all wrapped up in singularity monsters that look like Caribbean pirates,  the end of economic scarcity, or whether the guy who just handed you a Frappucino is really a Cylon, let’s take a step back.  Way back.  Let’s go back in time, through the ages of time and space… all the way back to last month.

In a very interesting LinkedIn Discussion, Dan Gaigalas poses some questions very familiar to any of us who have presided over any type of technology adoption in engineering circles.  Dan writes:

“As a support person in supporting CAD/CAE and PDM systems, I see a lot of disparity between individuals dealing with technology. Let’s face it everyone is not alike. Some get frustrated setting up a simple printer or installing windows. So how can we expect the users to be comfortable with his CAD or PDM tool. Technology is moving forward at a fast clip. CAD/CAE/PDM vendors are not going to stop pushing the envelope.”

and

“As technology moves forward, how does this affect the user that sits in front of the workstation? Engineers will have to be more aggressive with their computer skills. As a young engineer, are you willing to spend those weekend hours studying your technology skills?”

So many flashbacks (Get to da choppa!).  I remember my first day of my engineering employment as a starry-eyed co-op student… sitting in front of a workstation.  I had put together maybe five rudimentary 2D drawings in a positively Jurassic version of AutoCAD a couple years before in an engineering graphics class – and here I was on the edge of oblivion staring into the limitless possibilities of CAD in 3D.  It was UG v9 at the time and I’ve now forever dated myself – may the PFK rest in pieces.  Already an avid aficionado of computing technology (early props to Commodore) my venture into heavy CAD revealed only one emotion:  this is amazing.  Did it matter that I had no prior relevant experience or training – not one bit.  I had a burning desire to learn.

Fast forward 10 years or so.  A few thousand models and drawings later, I curiously found myself… in a leadership role for all that CAD.  There I was in a room with a underground faction of aerospace and mechanical engineers who for some reason or another despised the latest wave of technological change.  We had recently changed workstations (abandoning Unix), and CAD versions, and now we were deeply soaked in our first Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) implementation that -at least according to them – I had personally wrought upon them out of spite.  It seems rather benign by today’s standards but it was a big deal.  They didn’t hate what we had done nor me in particular (well except perhaps that one guy).  They hated what I was representing: a relentless accelerating onslaught of technological change.  It had outpaced their capacity to cope or understand, and the natural human reaction is to resist.  I have always been and will continue to be a huge proponent of technology but increasingly the pace can overwhelm anyone.   I frankly see it as a challenge, yet I can clearly see how others might see it as something far more sinister and destructive.  Without a compassion for that innate human fear, we could not have been successful.  No one can.

So back to Dan’s questions.  Understanding technology used to be an advantage, an ace-in-the-hole.  It’s now the price of admission.  We must intrinsically learn, and continue to do so.  So the moment the eager student faces today – the equivalent of me sitting in front of my first workstation is potentially much more overwhelming.  The good news is the newer generation, what we often stereotype as Millenials are more adapted to a life of technological change.  Not because they’re genetically superior, better fed, or infinitely more smug, it’s because from birth that’s all they’ve ever known.  They were born when the technology curve was already rather steep, many of us remember when the slope was considerably lower.  What do humans do well: they adapt.  It’s kept our species alive for a good while.  The rest of us, regardless of generation, can adapt too – it just takes more effort.

Brad Feld of the Foundry Group sums it up perfectly:

“But something new is happening today, and it is evidence of accelerating rather than merely progressive technology change. Discrete technology advances are giving way to continuous technology advances. Instead of making a one-time investment in learning a new technology, and then keeping up with the occasional updates, it is increasingly necessary to be investing in learning on a constant, ongoing basis […] Technology will not just keep advancing, it will keep accelerating. As the youth of today, accustomed to continuous learning, reach their 40s and beyond, they will become laggards and slow to adopt in comparison with their children. Even continuous learning will no longer be sufficient. What will that look like?”

The variety of available and developing technologies is simply astonishing – engineering is going in many directions at once.  There are lots of twists and turns, it’s hard to pry apart what’s relevant be it 3D printing, graphing databases, virtualization, Internet of Things, Things of Internets, abstracted data models, various flavors of cloud, etc.  What will pass and what will endure?  But there’s a distinct difference between technologies that are rapidly accepted in consumer circles and engineering technologies.  The former is largely adopted by choice, the latter is often not.  The key in developing engineering technologies is recognizing that fact and adjusting accordingly.

  • pgarrish

    I once had the job of putting together some training material for a web-based document management system (replacing a front end written in Visual Basic). When one of the managers reviewed it he pointed out that we hadn’t explained the different buttons on the mouse before we started using terms like ‘left click’. This was in 2004… and this training was for engineers designing an extremely complicated piece of machinery. When I questioned the need for such basic instructions ‘surely they all know how to use a computer?’ his response was ‘we don’t pay them for their computer skills.’

    I’d be surprised to get that response now, but I was surprised then if I’m honest. But I think the biggest change is visibility – staff can see job boards much more easily, and see what techologies are in demand. If they see no demand for their skills, they complain or move – it’s causing problems with staff retention in long-running defence programs where CAD and PLM tools are very out of date and staff don’t want to stay, or join. This might be the critical issue in engineering toolset adoption – it’ll be interesting to see contrast between the slow but rich big projects vs the fast but poor small projects in terms of technology adoption and staff retention

    • This is a great point, pgarrish. When enterprise technologies lag the
      pace we see on the consumer side, besieged with entrenched systems that
      are difficult to change or replace, it certainly presents a problem
      attracting young talent accustomed to a different life altogether.

  • Ross Bernheim

    Change can be good or bad. Either way, change has a cost associated with it. There is a general lack of appreciation of the costs of change.

    We are creatures of habit and don’t like to change. So change must be worth the cost and then some. A lack of cost/benefit analysis is the norm along with a lack of appreciation of the added costs of almost constant change.

    I’m not arguing against change, but against constant changes that are not worth the cost to the end users who must endure them.

    Many software companies have run into great resistance when they make major changes without fully communicating the need and benefits of the changes. Changes that add complexity should be avoided if possible. Simplify for the user. (If you need additional settings occasionally, make them available in an advanced tab.)

    Make it simple and elegant.