Posted by: Rob | November 7, 2008

In Praise of Engineers

I was crawling through some old files on my desktop PC tonight and I came across this old piece I had saved.  This was published shortly after the space shuttle Columbia disaster February 1, 2003.  I always liked the piece and thought I would share it with my meagre complement of readers.

“In Praise of the Guys in Skinny Black Ties”
By Dan Neal, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 4, 2003

Like children frightened by a father’s tears, we have to worry when engineers cry. Amid the weekend’s terrible images — the flaming shuttle, the blasted debris, the ruined families — the one that troubled me most came from the most unlikely place: a news conference with the scientists in charge of the mission.

Swallowing tears on Saturday, shuttle program director Ron Dittemore grappled with his grief before a devastated nation. “There’s a certain amount of shock in our system,” he said. “We have suffered the loss of seven family members.” Granted, it was a mild reaction, given the circumstances. Oprah Winfrey can gnash more teeth over a set of sit-ups. But somehow the engineer’s brave understatement cut deeper than “O” will ever go.

When the guy with the pocket protector cries, when the catastrophe is so shattering that even the egghead cracks, we know instinctively that there’s more at stake than personal loss. We never know why, never know exactly what’s going on, but we know enough to fear that it might mean the end of the world as we know it. Because the world as we know it belongs to the engineers.

They built the cars we drive, the roads we drive on. They designed the homes we live in, developed the crop system that keeps our bellies full. They invented the TVs we worship, the phones we yak on
and every one of the silly or suddenly indispensable gadgets that prop up our lives. From umbrellas that save us from the rain to medical equipment that saves us from death, engineers are the ones
who make our world possible.

They do it without fanfare. They demand no pats on the head. And for their efforts, generally, we mock them. They can send a man to the moon, we gripe, but they can’t make a VCR you can program, or a

computer that doesn’t crash, or a you-fill-in-the-blank. We don’t know — we aren’t even interested in — how VCRs, computers and “blanks” work, so we can’t be expected to help solve these problems ourselves.  But like teenagers tooling around in Dad’s Corolla, we can make fun of the folks who feed us: Look at the geeks and pinheads in the skinny black ties, we say. They don’t care about clothes, they never get dates, they aren’t “in touch with their emotions.”

These guys are so out of it, we jeer, they think calculus is fun, and that studying and working are the only things worth doing in the world. And when that world breaks, of course, the engineers are the ones we blame — and the ones we count on to fix it. While the rest of us stand by and wring our hands over the latest calamity, we expect them to get to work and make everything whole again. Usually, they do.

Because, by nature, they are the fixers, the problem-solvers, the men and women behind the scenes who make the trains run on time, no matter how they might feel at the moment. They don’t resent the role, they treasure it and believe in it — believe with the indomitable optimism that keeps this country moving
forward that no matter how bad things get, there’s nothing that human ingenuity and hard work can’t fix.

“This is a bad day,” chief flight director Milt Heflin said at the news conference, his eyes red with grief. “I’m glad that I work and live in a country where… when we have a bad day, we go fix it.” We have no choice but to believe him. Yes, we’re shaken when the ones who are supposed to be calm and logical and in control are reduced to tears, and, yes, we’ve had a bad day.


  1. Well–I have always found the skinny black ties—well—sexy!!

  2. That takes me back. I was in a restaurant in Phoenix with a girlfriend having lunch when the explosion played on the TV in the bar. Everyone stopped eating. There was much weeping.

  3. Engineers are indispensable. We are going to need a few good (wo)men to fix the infrastructure of this country.

  4. [grinning] my nerd-breast swells with pride. there is truth here… and the geeks shall inherit the earth. but the movies stars and athletes will still get the hot chicks…

  5. oooh. and wasn’t that a Prince song? “When Nerds Cry”?

  6. and we program manglers…umm…managers give a self-righteous uproar that at some point the engineers must be shot so that the project may actually proceed beyond the design phase…

    excellent post, though…

  7. I’m a computer security specialist; engineers are our natural enemies. They want to install unapproved software on their computers, and don’t think that firewall restrictions should apply to them. Worst of all, you can find hotter engineer chicks than computer security chicks!

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