What Makes a Good Engineer?

Strength in math and science aren't the only keys to a successful career as an engineer. We sat down with an expert to find out what it really takes.

We’ve talked before about how David Goldberg, author of A Whole New Engineer and cofounder of the nonprofit Big Beacon, wants to change engineering education. He wants to make it more student-focused, less cram-the-equations-down-your-throat-for-three-unrelenting-years. But that doesn’t mean he wants to change what it means to be a good engineer.

"There's more to being an engineer than being narrowly technical," says Goldberg. It’s not just about having a high IQ, because there are many different types of intelligence, including emotional and social intelligence. And “good” engineers need them all.

"What makes engineers valuable is their ability to model and deal with stuff happening in the world,” whether that’s the physical world of mechanical engineering or the conceptual world of software design.

Engineers need to be able to imagine things that will help people. Sure, there are plenty of technical aspects, as engineers need to know how to design something strong enough, fast enough, safe enough, etc. But there's a human side to engineering too that students might forget about. Engineers aren’t designing things for other engineers or computer programs; they’re designing stuff to be used by people. And anything subject to human influence needs to take human factors into account, needs to be able to roll with the punches.

Those human skills start right in their engineering firms too, not just out in the “real world.” Many people say the language of engineering is mathematics, but Goldberg thinks the language of engineering is, well, language. Engineers write reports, speeches, presentations, specs, and patents. This is because engineers generally don't physically build much themselves—they instruct others how to do so, using words and drawings.

Because they instruct teams and create solutions used by groups of people, engineers also benefit from a sense of leadership. And yhey should have enough emotional intelligence to be able to trust their gut, and enough social intelligence to listen to and understand the people they’re working with and helping.

So before you think that you’re not destined to become an engineer, just because you’re not overjoyed by your math or physics homework, think again. Strengths, skills, and intelligence in many varied areas are essential to being not just any old engineer but a highly skilled and impactful one.

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