Ask an Engineer! What inspires you?

May 11, 2010

Neil asks:

Who (or what) inspires you as an engineer?

…you actually stumped a few of us with that question, Neil!

Many of our previous questions have demonstrated the breadth of engineering as a discipline, but I think this month’s question has finally revealed what we all have in common. “Just give us an interesting problem to solve and we’ll be happy.”

Jim - Cement Industry, Pennsylvania, USA

I suppose we are all inspired by mega-projects and stunning technical achievements.  But really, 99% of engineering is detail work.  And most projects, especially the mega-projects and stunning technical achievements, are so big and take so long that you, the individual engineer, only get ownership of a very small slice.  And after awhile all your role models reveal their flaws. And sometimes things go horribly wrong – I’m thinking of the recent BP blowout off Louisiana.

So why do it?  Aside from the existential pleasure of a job well done, any engineering project is like a complex jigsaw puzzle.  You don’t know how many pieces there are. The shapes of the pieces change constantly. And if
you want to get paid, you have to finish your part of the puzzle under severe and often arbitrary constraints.  Even the most mundane job can be a complex puzzle when you get down to the details - as someone must to make it succeed.  

Generally speaking, as long as you keep in mind that it’s fun, engineering is a hugely challenging game – dare I say……inspirational?

Scott - Semiconductor Industry - Massachusetts, USA

I took a long time trying to come up with some answer that sounds profound or something and simply couldn't.  The thing that gets me out of bed in the morning and into work is simply that there's an unfinished problem waiting to be solved.



Dan - Diesel Engine Manufacturing - Illinois, USA

I grew up in an engineering household where neither of my parents had the technical training to be engineers (but both of them should have been), so my dad encouraged us in that regard (not necessarily in engineering, but just in *something*).

I'm sure he knew before I did that I was going to be an engineer. His efforts have made me strive to come up with designs that are simple and easy to work with, and to document what I do so that someone with the interest but not necessarily the technical background could follow (one of my professors called my thesis the easiest reading she's had in a while from a masters student). I'm not happy until my dad could follow what I'm doing.

Justin - General Contracting/Construction Management - International

The biggest inspiration for me are the problems I face, and more importantly the challenges they represent.  And not the simple problems - easily addressed by the right formula or the right reference material. 

It’s the complicated problems that require innovative solutions.  Or the challenging design requirements that push the limits of what is possible with a material or a method.  As my structures professor was fond of saying when we whined about difficult problems, "If it was easy, we'd get the business majors to do it."

Thomas - Software Consulting – Taiwan

I really don't have an answer to this one aside from: I am good at it, I don't mind doing it, and it pays well.

Work for me is just a means to an end. My real motivation is adventure.


Dyson - Mechanical Technologist - Yukon Territories

That's a personal question, but one with a fast answer as I have asked myself the same question.

It is a combination of two things, (1) a curiosity about the possibilities of a technology, and (2) the insane high of accomplishing the difficult. Being curious about all kinds of technology in all of it's weird, wacky, wonderful forms allows me to put away all kinds of ideas to pull out against (and go ban-kai on) problems that I encounter later. The joy that I get from solving problems provides the deep-down drive to keep going.

Wow, that sounds really cheesy when I say that out loud!

Johan: Software, Domotics Industry, Netherlands

A hard question this, Neil. Very hard.

I can't really say what inspires me in software engineering. Perhaps that is because it's what I've always wanted or did in one way or another. When I see a complex system in action, I can't help but try to figure out which rules govern it. Which event causes which reaction, things like that.

Software engineering, in a way, is the same thing. When creating a piece of software, it represents a model of reality. To create a piece of software that the customer is happy with, you need to figure out the rules that govern whatever it is that the software is a model of, and then translate those rules to a computer program that simulates them. The process of discovering and exploring the rules is one of the most rewarding things to me, as a software engineer.
So I guess in short, you could say that my inspiration for writing software comes from a desire to understand the rules that govern things. Any things.

Angela – Sustainability Industry – Vancouver

As corny as it sounds, what inspires me as an engineer is the opportunity to make the world a better place. Since I was very young, I would spot problems in products, systems, and life in general and I've thought "this could have been done BETTER."

Engineering is the process of taking a problem (or spotting a problem), being able to understand the breadth, depth and nuances to the problem, and then finding a way to fix it. And even once it's fixed, there are ways to improve, tweak, enhance and make the solution more simple and elegant.

And, of course, my father (Jim, up there) was and continues to be a major inspiration.


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

Well, being inspired is not an easy task. Like any other job, there will be days when you just can't get your mind to it. Usually, when this happens, I think about why I am doing this job.

I am doing this job because software engineering, to me, is the most fun way to spend a day. I love programming and analysing problems and doing this keeps me afloat. I also think about the people around me: my girlfriend, my parents, my siblings... I want to make them proud and they inspire me to stay motivated.
Another point about that is that the inspiration of the moment is sometimes just like magic. When you are in trouble (you find a major bug in your software, for example), you usually have that "divine" inspiration that just comes from nowhere to just go and check if the bug is not in that "impossible" place in the code where it should just not be. Well, it might just be there. And when it is, it is extremely rewarding, and that feeling keeps us going.

Robert - Oil and Gas Industry - Texas, USA

To be honest nothing really inspires me as an engineer. Then again nothing really inspires me as anything else either. I'm an engineer and do what I do because I enjoy aspects of it. Well, that and I'm good at it.

Honestly you don't need inspiration as long as you enjoy what you do; everything will come in good time. Then again, the situation might be different if I was designing something new, or making improvements on something that already exists, however that's not my current job, and so I don't need inspiration, only the flexibility to be able to adapt to various situations and problems.

Let me give you one final piece of drunken answer, and that is when I tend to be the most sage and honest: find out what inspires you, because it will almost always be different than what inspires the next person. Something may inspire them, but when you look at it, you may think it to be trivial; and that's what makes engineering such a great field, it has room for virtually everything in the universe. Just because someone thinks something to be insignificant doesn't mean that everyone else does, and there is likely to be a position that will capitalize on that, which means that you can find a job in something that will interest you.

So in conclusion, what inspires me is irrelevant as long as you know what inspires you, because I'm just some random stranger who knows nothing about you, I can give you advice on my job and what I do as well as why I do it, however when it comes to what you feel and why you do something, I don't know anything at all.

Kimberly - Computer Science Undergraduate - United States

The brilliant and passionate people around me are what inspire me and keep me going.  While it can sometimes be intimidating being around so many intelligent people, being exposed to so much positive energy is amazing.  Engineers and computer scientists alike have to be incredibly passionate about what they do in order to make the commitments they do to their work.  What could be more inspirational than being surrounded by people who love what they do?


I didn't actually need to trim this one, so no pdf version this month, unless you'd like one :)

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

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