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Entries in silicon valley (1)

Thinking Out Loud: Engineer State of Mind

by, VJ Tocco

Too many people cringe when they hear the word engineering. This reaction is probably caused by painfully unfunny sitcoms like “The Big Bang Theory”, which conjures caricatures of dweeby engineers whose idea of fun is solving Rubik’s cubes for time. I used to resist becoming an engineer for fear that I would maybe one day find programming my calculator to tell a stupid joke enchanting or that one day I would understand all those complicated mathematical formulas with the Greek letters.

Against my preconceptions, I declared Chemical Engineering as my major when I was a sophomore at the University of Michigan about 8 years ago. During the first few weeks of classes, I was surprised and relieved that many of my classmates were “normal”. Most of them did not memorize pi to 50 digits or read Stephen Hawking’s books. Shockingly, I met a few students whose interests (sports, rap music, etc.) aligned with mine.

When people learn that I will soon have a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering, they treat me similar to how I used to treat engineers. They say things like “you don’t look like an engineer”, or “wow, I could never understand what you do.”  I tend to disagree with both of these statements. If you think all engineers look the same, you’ve seen too many episodes of “Silicon Valley.” If you believe you could never think like an engineer, you’re selling yourself short.

At its core, engineering is nothing more than solving a problem in the most efficient way possible that satisfies all the constraints.  We solve problems as an engineer would more often than you realize.  You think like an engineer when you choose to buy a 4-pack of canned tuna for $3 instead of 4 individual cans for $1 apiece.  You may not calculate the exact cost-per-can difference ($1 vs 75 cents), but something in your brain tells you that the 4-pack is a better deal. In this example, you are solving a problem (you want some tuna), subject to the constraints (you must buy tuna at the grocery store), efficiently (you choose the tuna that gives you the best deal).

Sometimes, we don’t think like an engineer, even though we should.. How many times have you driven around the block in search of the cheapest gasoline? Consider the following two options: a nearby gas station is selling gas for $2.60 per gallon, while a station 2.5 miles away is offering a price of $2.50 per gallon.  Which would you choose? Would you even consider that during your fill-up you will only buy about 10 gallons of gas, and therefore only save $1? Not to mention the extra 5 miles you’ve put on your car (for the round trip), the time you’ve spent driving 5 miles, AND the gas you consume driving those 5 miles. Going to either gas station will solve your problem by filling up your tank, but the closer, more expensive station is clearly more efficient than the further, cheaper station.

Driving somewhere on the freeway is another example of a simple problem which you can solve like an engineer. Imagine you want to make a 100-mile journey as fast as possible. You intuitively know that the amount of time it takes to travel a certain distance depends on your average speed. The faster you drive, the sooner you arrive. Therefore, one option is to redline your vehicle the entire way, drive 150 miles per hour and arrive at your destination in 40 minutes. Obviously, this is not feasible because there are other considerations, such as the law, safety, and your fuel efficiency. Another option is to play it safe, avoid the highway and make the drive at 40 mph. This way, you get there in 2.5 hours; longer than you would like, but at least you are still alive with your driver’s license. The best solution exists somewhere in the middle of these extremes.

So how do you find the happy medium? Engineers specialize in graphing all possible solutions for visualization. To make such a graph, you need the relevant equation, which is distance traveled equals velocity multiplied by time. You need to rearrange the equation to isolate the dependent variable (time) as a function of the independent variable (speed); time = distance/speed.  Here’s what it looks like for a 100-mile journey:

 

Looking at this graph offers a few benefits. For one, it becomes easy to compare several solutions. If you drive 60 mph your trip takes 1 hour, 40 minutes. Going 70 mph saves you 15 minutes compared to going 60. You also learn gain valuable insight about the problem. Notice that the faster you drive, the less time you save. In other words, driving 50 mph vs 40 mph saves 30 minutes, while driving 80 mph vs 70 mph only saves 11 minutes. Therefore, you might conclude that the risk of speeding does not outweigh the small payoff.

Bringing it back to my thesis of this blog, anyone can think like an engineer. Engineering isn’t difficult. It seems difficult, because most engineers like to shroud what they do in fancy math-speak to seem important. Don’t let them fool you, their thought process is no more difficult than choosing a can of tuna fish from the grocery store.