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What Makes An Engineer An Engineer?

Posted on February 24th, 2016 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence


For the last 65 years the birthday of George Washington has been celebrated by observing National Engineers Week in the USA. The week of February 22nd has been used to call attention to the contribution that engineers make to our society.

The reason for the date is because George Washington is considered by many to have been one of the nations first engineers after his surveying work and invention of new farming tools. This annual event has got me questioning what makes and engineer an engineer all over again.

A Job Title?

It seems quite clear that being an engineer is much more than a job title. There has to be more to it than that. I have worked with plenty of people who don’t have the word “engineer” in their job title that do more than enough design, building and support to qualify as an engineer in my books.

Turning to the dictionary for a little inspiration, we find one definition of an engineer to be:

“a person who designs, builds, or maintains engines, machines, or structures.”

While there’s some truth in that definition, to me it seems more than a little limiting. My experience of engineering doesn’t always fit into those neat categories. There are plenty of things that aren’t engines, machines or structures that can be engineered.

Turning again to the dictionary for the definition of what it is to engineer, we find:

“to skilfully arrange for (something) to occur.”

I’m sure the intent isn’t for this phrase to be used to define a professional engineer, but actually, I think it fits quite well.

A Way Of Thinking?

Skillfully arranging for something to occur could include designing and building a product or system. But it could also mean so much more.

To me, this definition gets closer to the mindset of an engineer and points at three activities that in my opinion, make an engineer an engineer:

  1. Observing, determining the scope and bounding problems
  2. Creatively defining solutions, objectively measuring them and selecting the most appropriate solution to the problem
  3. Bringing the solution into being

The field of engineering is so broad that it can be difficult to land on a particular definition. But in this National Engineers Week, now is a good time to reflect on what your role as an engineer is (whether that word is in your job title or not) and what contribution you’re making to the world around you.

I’d love to hear from you. Do you like this definition or can you think of something else? What do you think makes an engineer an engineer?

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