Ask An Engineer - What FRUSTRATES you?

Jam's picture

Every month we ask our panel of engineers a general question from a reader. Have a question? Send us an email!

Andrew asks:

What part of your job frustrates you the most?

Jim - Cement Industry, Pennsylvania, USA

What frustrates you is probably very different from what frustrates me.  I can't think of anything that's core to my work as an engineer that's really frustrating.  Some of the peripheral stuff is kind of annoying though.  For instance, I find the company expense account software to be very frustrating.  So I found a young lady who loves using that software, and now I bribe her to complete my expense accounts for me.


Scott - Semiconductor Industry - Massachusetts, USA

 Far and away the most frustrating part of work is the office politics.
I've worked for global companies that everyone's heard of, and little 15
person companies that nobody's heard of - office politics is constant.

I'm not much of a political sort of person, so I haven't figured out how
to play that particular game.  The best advice I can give is to get a good
manager who can handle the politicking on your behalf.

I'd love to hear advice from others in the comments on how to avoid
playing the politics game and yet not get thrown under the bus by the more
ruthless coworkers.

Dan - Diesel Engine Manufacturing - Illinois, USA

Unfortunately, I do not work in a vacuum, or otherwise I'd get all my work done. Once other people (and departments, and divisions, etc.....) get involved, it can take a long time to get things done. On top of that, these separate entities don't always talk to each other, so 2 (or more!) groups think they have control over a part of a project and then no one gets things done on time. This extends itself to the bureaucracy, which means it's hell to get anything done when you have to involve a lot of people. I plan on adding an extra week per person involved when I have to get simple tasks done because no one can coordinate what's going on.

Justin - General Contracting/Construction Management – International

The most frustrating thing I deal with on a day to day basis is interruptions while I am trying to focus on a task.  In my line of work, it is quite common for issues to crop up during construction and it's my job to find solutions.  However, it can be extremely bothersome if I am trying to focus on a report or complete another task and have to stop and start again in order to solve other problems. 

The way to deal with it, at least that I have found, is to make sure you work to a logical stopping point whenever possible.  That way, when you do get back to the original task, you can pick up right where you left off, rather than trying to figure out what you were thinking or remember the train of thought that got you to the point you are trying to make.

Thomas - Software Consulting – Taiwan

 This question is especially relevant to me - I am actually dealing with it at this very moment. My biggest frustration is "corporate speak"; That language that keeps so many unqualified people in positions of power.

 I have flown into the US to sit through 5 days of supervisors meetings. So much stuff is being "Bounced around" and "Run up the flagpole" that I am ready to "Reach Out" and find the "Synergy" between my hands and somebody's throat.

I handle it by treating this sort of speech as null words, asking for clarification whenever one is used. Eventually the speaker will get the point that you aren't falling for their bullshit and will speak normally.

Dyson - Mechanical Technologist - Yukon Territories

If I ever get driven over the edge of insanity it will be by a manufacturer.
Many manufacturers are posting their catalogues online and although these catalogues are convenient, it is rare that full design documentation is available to the designer.

Much of the time it's not the over-reaching aspects of the unit that determines which product I choose, it' the little things. The depth of a locking collar or the type of gasket in a valve can determine whether I will specify that equipment or not. That information is very hard to find, and many times brings production to a halt while I go hunt down some tidbit of information.

Johan - Software, Domotics Industry, Netherlands

The most frustrating things for me are persistent bugs, and reverse bugs. The persistent bugs speak for themselves: when there's a system, and it's not doing what it should be doing. When I can't figure out why on earth it's not doing what it's supposed to be doing, that can really get frustrating.

Reverse bugs are curiouser. It's when the system is doing exactly what it is supposed to be doing, but I can't figure out why they heck it does. It creates a bit of a snag when maintenance is required on that specific part.

Angela – Sustainability Industry – Vancouver

Personally, inefficiency drives me up the wall. Whether it's the obtuse system that we have to use to triple-report everything, or meandering meetings that take twice as long as they need to, or work assigned to massive teams when a more focused effort will do just fine.

Sometimes there are good reasons for things to be the way they are, but often systems evolve over such a long period of time that no one has ever taken a step back to see if there’s a better way from A to B.

Bruno - Polytechnique - Junior Software Engineer - Quebec (OIQ)

 Well Andrew, that's a very good question: most people would ask about the nice things about being an engineer, you ask about the lesser part of the job.

A part that can be frustrating for me is the very heavy process to submit code in my company. It is a very good process with code review and support if anything is not perfect, but when you are just doing a small fix, it's more of a hassle.

 Another part that can really be a pain when you are a software engineer is compile time. Sometimes, it gets really long (like five minutes for a tiny local compilation). The five minutes add up pretty quickly and it gets boring very fast.

Robert - Oil and Gas Industry - Texas, USA

There are several parts of my job that are equally frustrating. The first and foremost would be the boredom/tedium.

It adds to the company’s reputation to have engineers on every or almost every job, even if all we do is either the ticket or quick and dirty fluid analysis on site. The times where we actually get to do some real engineering are few and far between, at least in the initial phase, or it might just be the district that I'm located in.

The second part that's frustrating is the lack of time. We're lucky if we're at work for only 60 hours in the week, so you can imagine how little free time there actually is to really do anything, especially have a life outside of work.

Kimberly - Computer Science Undergraduate - United States

One of the more frustrating parts of my job is the many meetings that are involved to build consensus.  It's simple enough to come up with your own ideas on how you might design a piece of software or what features it might have, but, as you might imagine, you have to get other people on-board with these ideas, too!

Sometimes you have to let other people think that they've come up with a certain solution or idea - even if you've already hashed those ideas out yourself - because it allows others to feel like they're contributing meaningfully, which encourages people's buy-in.

All of this can be very frustrating, and it's easy to feel stymied by a meeting that just didn't seem to go well.  In spite of all this, it pays off to get through this phase of the project, because then the development work can begin!

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Jam's picture

That's a great question you brought up, Scott. Office politics is so over my head, I can't even recognize when it's going on at times! I usually treat it the same way I treat 'drama': try to stay out of it, don't feed the cycle.  I'm still not able to sense the implications of a corporate reorg, but it hasn't bit me too badly yet...


I've nicknamed the corporate office-speak as 'parseltongue' :P

scottven's picture

Bruno, 5 minutes?  Try 30 minutes to 3 hours for a typical build in my work.  They can even get up to 6 hours for the big ones.  And then there's the simulation runs.  The really long ones and go for a week at a time.


Jam, parseltongue, eh?  I like that one.  :)

StickyWidget's picture


What's a small change?  In power plant work, small changes are usually the ones that cause real havoc, AND cause the largest cleanup time because you have no idea how that small change interacted with everything else.  Small changes are invariably the ones people don't consider to require testing, so the process is necessary at that point to ensure that the outcomes are considered.

I'd consider a small change to be a unit conversion, but NASA guys don't anymore.  :)  The point is that you don't know if it's a small change UNTIL you run through the process of figuring it out. 

What frustrates me is having political reasons be given the same priority as "laws of physics"-type reasons.  When I'm told something cannot be done because of the operating parameters of the station, and I find out that the reason it couldn't be done is because some senior manager's pet project was in the way, I tend to get annoyed.

I second "parseltongue". 


Mathemagician's picture

A small request to any programmers out there, especially those of us writing in assembly:  

PLEASE document your code in a readable fashion: it makes debugging so much more friendly.  

</rant> :)

Paul Strealer

I'm a gunsmith by trade and hobby(it as a job of sorts grew out of it as a hobby), and I have to share in Dyson's frustration with manufacturers being vague about things in the documentation for parts. Possibly the one phrase I hate and fear most is "fits most" or "fits most models of XXX". Ordering a part listed like that is always a gamble, because it may fit(good, rare), or it may not(bad), or it may fit but look like crap(bad, extremely common). It doesn't help that the tolerances on most of what I specialize in, old milsurps, are very loose by design and cheaper aftermarket parts are often sloppy as all hell. 

It absolutely drives me up the wall!




P.S. I'm also inclined to second StickyWidget on how a "small change" can throw absolutely everything off.

L473ncy's picture

You guys need to read "The Mythical Man-Month" by Brooks. I don't know exactly where I got the suggestion from and I just started yesterday but it totally relates to a lot of Dans and Angelas qualms about the field.

bining's picture



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