5 Engineering Myths Busted

Former MythBuster Jamie Hyneman, perhaps unintentionally, laid out some truths of engineering that counter often presumed -- and incorrect -- statements on engineers and engineering.

You can take the man out of myth busting but you can’t take the myth busting out of the man.

Former MythBuster Jamie Hyneman, perhaps unintentionally, laid out some truths of engineering at UBM's Pacific Deign & Manufacturing conference and expo that counter often presumed -- and often incorrect -- statements on engineers and engineering.

Hyneman spoke to hundreds of attendees at the nation’s largest design and manufacturing event here in Anaheim, Calif, during a fireside chat this week. Below are 5 common myths about engineers he busted during the chat.

 

MythBuster Jamie Hyneman
UBM's VP of Content Shana Leonard chats with former MythBuster and engineer Jamie Hyneman.

 

Myth: The end goal of engineering is to solve a problem.
Hyneman: Often the goal of engineering is to, indeed, solve a problem. But it’s not the end. “Once I figure something out, it’s time to move on,” Hyneman said in discussing how he, like any good engineer, aims to keep learning, moving on to the next project and leveraging any and all knowledge gained from his most recent project.

 

Myth: Engineers are about facts and numbers, and are not creative people.
Hyneman: “I don’t think people appreciate how creative engineers are,” Hyneman said, receiving a spontaneous round of applause for the audience. Often, engineers are the most creative people in the room, designing and redesigning all the electronics and mechanics that we all enjoy and need on a daily basis.

 

Myth: Failure is bad. Engineers cannot fail. Doing so is expensive and a waste of time.
Hyneman: “Failure is a wonderful thing,” Hyneman said. “There is advancement made without failure but of you fail at something the ultimate goal is to cherish what just happened because now you’ve got the possibility of making something new. If I didn’t fail at something I was working on, what was the point of doing it?

“Generally if you are manufacturing something for [your] company, you don’t want to fail and cost them money. But somewhere in there is a newer, better product. It’s also your job to make newer, better products,” he continued. “So when something fails, it’s not time to bemoan the situation and make heads roll. It’s time to dig in and figure out what went on because you are just about to solve something to make something better.”

 

MythBuster Jamie Hyneman explosions
Crowd watches clip of Hyneman's explosion video.

 

Myth: Engineering is a nice safe cubical job.
Hyneman: Immediately dispelling such a myth, the former MythBuster started the fireside chat by showing a series of video clips from the hit show highlighting the many, many explosions that took place over its run.

Later in the chat, though, he discussed a test gone wrong, when the MythBusters team shot a cannonball that went off course, plowed through a suburban home, finally lodging itself in a minivan.

“In 14 years of shooting and hundreds and hundreds of experiments, often they were quite dangerous in their own right,” Hyneman said. “We had broken fingers from handling our safety equipment, but [other than the cannonball incident] that was

Comments

A very large portion of my engineering career has been being creative. Facts and numbers are just tools used to hopefully get the thing done right the first time. But they are just tools, although often important ones. Failing and failures come from incorrect understanding most of the time, and while fear of failure is a paralyzing impediment, actual failure indicates something was not right someplace. The place to have failures is on the sketchpad, not on the production floor.

Where I work failure is bad! Never before developed systems, ultra tight schedules mixed with low budgets and the desire for good profit margins. The first design must work or else. No excuses because complex design efforts are typically trivialized. Debugging is seen as a weakness and a by management when dealing with burdensome electronics engineers. Yes we learn from failure, but it is taken out with flogging and many long unpaid hours of overtime to make up for our sins.

As an engineer I did not often have much of a career path planned, but perhaps a general direction intended. Much of my time was "running in an interrupt-driven mode", I often had to explain to folks. Too much detailed planning ahead prevents those fun and interesting side trips that make the career so much fun, and provide the unanticipated enjoyment and unexpected rewards.

Companies with short-sighted management, often dominated by non-technical people, typically think that failure is verboten. I've found that those are poor companies to work for, and they eventually fail - they chase away their talent and also stymie their own product development until they are no longer competitive in the marketplace. I suggest that if you find yourself in this situation it is time to find a better job elsewhere. You won't be able to change management's opinions.

About the round-about path into engineering, while this can be a great way to round your experience and focus your ambitions it can affect how you actually land an engineering job. HR and non-technical managers will not understand, so they will toss your resume. You'll need to bait their interest by demonstrating performance, such as participating in makers' fairs or making presentations or via contact through another job (that has multiple vendors working together) or thru your own company.

I agree that your past jobs are what make better engineers. Although I am a designer, my experience as a marine mechanic, automotive parts sales and many other hands on jobs helped me understand how things work. I find many young engineers fresh out of college that have no real world experience don't understand why some things won't work or can't be assembled.

A mistake can be as minor as missing a ; in your code, or as major as a bridge that falls down. As long as you catch it (not the bridge) before the thing gets made, the practice makes you better. Nothing is perfect either, but we learn to decide when the time/improvement curve bottoms out. I am sure that everyone reading this is familiar with fudge factors, and the tendency to disguise them, but I came across an electrical box on a navy vessel, which had stamped into the lid "Fudge Resistor".

Jamie Hyneman had perhaps the most fun job of all time, but his ultimate goal was answering interesting questions, not designing products against cost and schedule constraints. To the point of creativity, I have been out of school for a long time, but can anyone tell me if any engineering schools today specifically teach out-of the-box creative thinking? I can only recall "here are the constraints, find the best solution (usually cheapest) within the constraints."

Some jobs are just inherently safer than others. After years working with low voltage logic and analog circuits, I moved to a job with many safety hazards, fire, radiation, falls, asphyxiation, high voltage, toxic and explosive chemicals. Some needless accidents happened there. Don't assume that the "experts", industrial hygiene, work planners, etc. think of everything. Learn all you can, and look for insidious hazards. Your most important safety equipment is between your ears.

You never know where engineering will take you. If you had told me 40 years ago when I graduated with a BSEE that I would end up working for the Air Force in the Comm/Computer field I would not have believed you. One must always embrace the "Dirty Job" as Mike Rowe says. You learn more that way. I got involved in Land Mobile Radio system dsgn in the AF because nobody else wanted to touch it. I got involved in customer support of AF Networks (much later) because the CC liked my work.

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