Oysters, Pearls, and Professions

This post was inspired by a comment Boatbuilder made regarding
my reflections on
Wired Engineering’s “Top 5 Reasons it Sucks to Be an Engineering
.  (The title was inspired by Jimmy
Buffett’s song
Oysters & Pearls
;  I’ll leave it to you to
make the connection.)  Judging from the concluding
remark, Boatbuilder’s position is that engineering in general
sucks. That is a slightly different topic from what I was writing
about in my blog, which was my perspective on why in the end, being
an engineering student can be worth it, even if
there are some days it sucks. Note that I said can
worth it;  it may not be so for everyone, which is
one of the points I was trying to make in item 3 of the original
post. That aside, Boatbuilder raised the issue of engineering as a
profession rather than a course of study; actually, they indicated
that engineering wasn’t a profession and hadn’t been for a long
time. Since I see things differently, I thought I would offer a few
of my thoughts on engineering as a profession since I have been
doing it for a while.

If you look up the definition of profession at Merriam-Webster on-line, you will find
several possible meanings, the first three of which have religious
connotations. It is the fourth that I believe applies in the
context of this discussion;

… a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long
and intensive academic preparation …

If you look up calling at the same source, you will find it
defined as;

… a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of
action …

It would seem then that at its core, being a professional and
having a profession is not so much a function of what the term or
title for your job is or even what the compensation is. Rather, it
seems to be about having and interest and passion and dedication
for what you do, coupled perhaps with a bit of knowledge or insight
that make certain concepts or phenomenon understandable and readily
accomplished by you while they might be puzzling or
incomprehensible to others. Personally, I know that I have
interacted with professionals from many walks of life,

A trash collector who would take a moment to sort out
the recyclables that had erroneously been placed in the wrong bin
and who would return the various containers and trash cans to your
curbside, neatly arranged and with the lids on them versus strewn
about the street and flower gardens.

A lawyer, who after giving me very good legal advice on
the problem I had consulted with him about, proceeded to provide
what time has shown to be one of the best bits of advise on life I
have ever received. The legal issue was inextricably interwoven
with life and his knowledge, emotionally detached position, and
life experience gave him an insight that he felt was important and
chose to share. None-the-less, the bill was for the 30 minutes he
spent reviewing my legal issue, not the hour and a half he spent
helping me think through the bigger picture.

A doctor who was enough of a scientist to take care of
first things first and heal the life threating illness that was
challenging me, who then took the time to council me a bit on the
spiritual side of things, because I suspected that the two might be
related. In his belief system, they were and and he knew that true
healing would involve the melding of science and spirituality. I
don’t really know this, but I suspect that my insurance company
compensated him at the same rate as they would have compensated
someone who kept me alive but figured I was on my own to sort the
rest of it out.

Just yesterday I had an experience with an Amtrak gate
who was the consummate professional; he solved a
challenging problem and delivered customer satisfaction and service
rather than strict adherence to company policy. And he did it all
with a smile, some friendly conversation and commiseration on the
problem, and a parting wish for the well being of myself and my
son. And, while I can’t prove it, his demeanor would indicate that
a big part of the reason he interacted with me and others that way
(I watched him work with several other folks as I waited in line)
was that he loved what he did and he loved being a part of trains
and railroads and the history of it all and hoped you might get a
sense of that to through your interaction with him.

So, I guess my point here is that I consider all of these
individuals and the others like them that I had the pleasure of
interacting with to be true professionals who stood out from their
peers in carrying out their calling;  pearls you might say
among us oysters (O.K. so I gave you a little hint about the
Buffett connection). But, I also suspect that in the eyes of some,
their titles or callings would not be considered professions and
that their compensation would not be commensurate with the value of
what they delivered, assuming it could even be measured or have a
value placed on it.

My observation and experience has been that compensation and
professionalism in the broader sense that I have been discussing it
go hand in hand. People, providing a service that comes from a
strong inner impulse and dedication to their chosen calling will be
seen as delivering a superior service. And, over time, if they can
be open to it, their dedication and passion will lead them to a
level of compensation – financial and otherwise – that is above the
average for the particular type of work associated with their
profession. A couple of points here.

One is that, from my experience, you have to be open to allowing
yourself to do well financially or otherwise. That sounds easy, but
it isn’t and can take a lot of soul searching, maturity and other
things that take time to develop. But, again, from my experience,
once you say “its O.K. for me to succeed” and maybe allow folks
into your life who want to help with that, its amazing how quickly
good things will come your way.

The second point is that, right or wrong, for what ever reason,
our society places more value on some services and the professions
associated with them than others. So, in the ideal world, you
should be thinking about what your financial goals are when you
choose your line of work because it is likely that there will be
societal constraints placed on how much you can make by virtue of
what you choose to do.

Of course, for many of us, there is more to this than money, and
the fulfillment created by following heart and passion can be just
as important as the compensation it generates. Take the engineering
company I work for as an example (and several I worked for in the
past for that matter). At its core, its a collection of folks with
a genuine passion for what we do. Near as I can tell, all 45 or so
of us – from the engineers to the support staff – are very good at
what we do and love our jobs. For many of us, the real challenge is
figuring out how to balance our love of the profession with the
rest of life, which, near as I can tell, we also love. We are
nicely compensated for our efforts, well above the cap Boatbuilder
mentioned in his comment, including very generous profit sharing
and extremely flexible work schedules. Of course, I suspect that we
could make more money if we were doctors or lawyers or maybe even
accountants. But then, we  chose to be
engineers and, since we like doing that sort of thing, we feel
privileged to be doing something we like to do in the company of
others of a similar mind set with the added bonus of being well

One final point before I close here. The formal definition I
cited originally mentions the possibility of long and
intensive academic preparation
as a part of the
development path for a professional. And while I think that can be
true, I also wanted to point out that its not necessarily a
requirement. I say this speaking from my own experience, and also
in the context of the definition, which qualifies the academics
with the word “often”. For me and many others, the knowledge you
pick up on the job can be just as valuable, if not more valuable,
than the book learning. Mentoring can be a huge part of this and is
a topic that CSE magazine has begun to
in their content.  Related to this, I
suspect that if I was being an apologist in the post that lead to
Boatbuilder’s comment (they postulated that I was, but since I
didn’t really know what it meant, I had to look it up; it means
“one who speaks or writes in defense of someone or something”), it
was because I felt the need to defend the countless mentors that
have coached me and others through out our career, sharing their
passion and showing us how to be professionals at what ever it is
we do. There may be some poor professors, teachers, bosses, and
instructors out there, but the great ones and the collective good
they do by far out-weighs the bad ones.

And, as far as intensity goes, at least in my business, there
are few things more intense than some of the events that can occur
as buildings and systems are fabricated, brought on line, and
operated. There have been several days where I could have done with
just a bit less intensity thank you very much; perhaps something
less vigorous like taking the EIT exam or signing off a log
book stating that the plane I just inspected is airworthy and won’t
fall out of the sky in the next 100 hours of operation.

So, as a bottom line to Boatbuilder’s comments, I would have to say
that I know quite a few people who think engineering and related
technical activities can be a very rewarding profession and an
especially important field of endeavor for anyone with an interest
in addressing the challenges we, as a society will face in the
coming years as the resources we have taken for granted for the
past century decline. (read Bill Coad’s paper titled
Energy Conservation is an
on ASHRAE’s web site or the related on-line discussion on his
personal web site as well as some of the other stuff I link
too in my
posts on sustainable design
  if you want some
more perspective on that).

So, thanks Boatbuilder for taking the time to comment and for
the inspiration. I’m truly sorry you are so unhappy doing what you
do and hope you eventually find a profession that is as fulfilling,
challenging, exciting, and rewarding (financially and otherwise) as
engineering is for myself and countless others that I know.

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