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[flagged] Why are engineers so narrow-minded? (zdnet.com)
34 points by vo2maxer 8 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 58 comments

I'm an engineer. I'm creative as hell even outside of the domain of my work. I'm also able to analyze situations and problems with consistently unerring, narrowly focused detail. Four years of training in certain types of cognitive processes does not preclude someone from learning how to use another less rigorous (by definition) method of thought.

This article was shit from the get go, here's a list:

The title was shit:

>Why are engineers so narrow-minded? New research has an idea.

The research is not new, the research he and the hbr.org article are citing is from 2007. It's also important to mention the findings are about the perception educational environment itself not and not in the workforce. If there was new research I couldn't find it links to the papers.

The very first sentence of the body was shit:

>I could make a viable argument that engineers are swiftly destroying the world.

Yet he neglects to do so, and also fails to mention that it's the people using the technology that are destroying the world, not us.

The second sentence is even worse:

>Naturally, I won't, as they can be very sensitive souls who stream uncontrollable invective like many people stream Netflix.

So in order to make himself immune to any reasonable argument that he knows would refute his weak-ass claims he just says that all engineers would be critical of it anyway - shut up and accept him and the psychologist findings as gospel.

The worst part is that the older research isn't bad, though I'm unable to find the newest research that should be easily viewable inside of the hbr.org article (seriously, where is it???), the older stuff seems reasonable, it's the zdnet.com writer's snide asshole commentary inserted everywhere while pulling bits and pieces from the research to come to incorrect conclusions.

This drivel seems to be ending up on the front page more often. Please stop upvoting it.

Two things are somehow irritating to me. First, Mark Zuckerberg is not an graduated engineer by education but the first eyecatcher on the article's page. Second, I would prefer some distinction between classic engineering disciplines (mechanical, electrical, civil…) and software engineering. The article targets the latter but curricula of engineering disciplines vary widely and good schools offer elective courses on ethics and social sciences. It is more a matter of students personality and interest where he or she stops expanding his or her horizons.

Excellent comment, I thought the article was talking about software developers.

Congratulations, you have proven the point of the article :-)

Society gets what society pays for: people don't like creative engineers because they don't always solve the problem you want them to solve (they might discover a more important/interesting one and jump to that instead; or maybe discover they have a cool interesting solution... and maybe decide to create a new problem for that solution etc.) and they tend to get bored easily (and may appear lazy) and they are not controllable ("if I can imagine it AND make, why do I need the boss for?") and they also tend to get just a tad bit power hungry (think Zuck, Page etc.)...

So we're optimizing for "engineers that are not too creative" and "artists that are not too technical" because these are the kinds of cogs that fit well in our current organizational machines. And then we have the first read "how to be more creative" books/articles, and the latter "how to be more structured" books/articles.

And most good engineers learn to hide their creativity and focus on showing off effectiveness. Sometimes we even post-hoc invent elaborate ultra-logical explanation for why out intuitions and preferences must be correct in order to sell them. Also, creativity in engineering lowers efficiency and safety, so nobody would be willing to pay more to get less of these two. And if god forbid you are one of those creative-engineers that openly declares he/she "doesn't really give a f about either efficiency or safety, only engineering new and novel stuff that never existed before" you'd have to tapper it off with an "I'm joking" or nobody will want to work with you again :)

I'd love to see a rise of the techno-creatives, but in general organizations hate or fear us, so we keep disguising ourselves as either "engineers" or "artists" or "entrepreneurs", sometimes switching hats depending on the crowd/situation. Oh, and purely business oriented people tend to equate a volatility loving creative-engineer with a psycho with a chainsaw in one hand and a flask of gasoline in another, so it helps to never be too honest with these guys either.

Many engineers and other technical people are so narrow-minded because that's what our society rewards in these fields! Change the reward system if you want different results!

I couldn't agree more. I think our entire tech interview system exists to find people who fit the role you defined above. I wrote a post on this describing my thoughts [1].

What's strange is so many companies brag about how they have "The Best" technical minds working for them. They pride themselves on their engineers' pedigrees. However, once they hire "The Best" they put a ton of process for those engineers to go through. Effectively this is a mechanism to be predictable and to let managers know more precisely when things will be done.

I don't see this changing in industry too quickly, simply because once a company gets past the founding stage, those companies hire engineers who can close tickets and work "effectively" rather than creatively.

[1] - https://www.nedrockson.com/posts/management/interview-correc...

Tempting troll article, but "Why are X so narrow-minded" is just a rhetorical question aiming to undermine any other interpretation than the assumption behind the question itself!

The same can be said of any role, position or profession. Just yet another master supression technique.

This is not to say engineers can never be narrow-minded, the statement is both true and false, for diverse situations of each X..

Contradictively, in the software engineering environment I'm working at, engineers who thrive are those who are open minded and capable of thinking out of the box: the jack-of-all-trades-and-master-of-something, the artist-artisan, the orator-motivator, the metaphor-generator, the occult, the physicist, the photographer, the producer-psycholog, the gunpla-mad-scientist, etc.

The rest follows.

Some engineers are close minded because of upbringing, culture, and previous education. They simply didn't experience enough or experienced more than what they could receive at a time, inducing trauma.

Encouragement can unlock it, sometimes with shock therapy. Current environment boost one's change as long as it can hold against negative traits and influence of someone's close mindedness.

It's a game of influence and infection in a closed scope.

>Contradictively, in the software engineering environment I'm working at, engineers who thrive are those who are open minded and capable of thinking out of the box: the jack-of-all-trades-and-master-of-something, the artist-artisan, the orator-motivator, the metaphor-generator, the cult-follower, the physicist, the photographer, the producer-psycholog, the gunpla-mad-scientist, etc.

I think this is nearly always the case. Meritocratic promotion systems don't really exist in reality. Being more social and open-minded than one's colleagues is always going to get one ahead.

Yes, but it's not only because of being more social and open-minded. Sometimes it's the ultra-introvert-ultimate-problem-solver, or someone who is involuntarily being depended on by everyone by being caring all the time. Ultimately it's someone deemed useful for other people.

On the contrary, someone with "I'm frontend so I don't care what backend is really doing" or "If it is in production then it's SRE's responsibility" attitude don't go anywhere.

Where do you work? Sounds like somewhere I'd like to apply.

Is there such thing as an actual credentialed "software engineer"?

From my experience, it's a title invoked by anyone ranging from a CS grad to someone who has completed a 3 week coding bootcamp...

Anyone who can pass an interview in any company requiring engineers really.

One of the reason there is level.fyi.

Certifications help up to a certain point.

Word of mouth is still a thing for us. Linkedin recommendation, even though it's forgable?

Also, being in a company with a high engineering and culture expectation, I noticed that some people are naturally good for the business, ranging from old experienced people to non arrogant gifted entry level engineer. The more they are open-minded the faster they learn about any thing.

Possibly narrow-minded reaction: this is a bad article about iffy studies.

The article throws up a link to a review of two studies [1] and spends the rest of its time freely asserting that "engineers" are arrogant people who lack "openness, kindness, and curiosity". Here's the closest it gets to some evidence:

>I know several people at Google just like that.

But OK, maybe the study actually offers good evidence that the author article missed?

From the HBR summary, the first study had ~100 engineering students fill out a questionnaire, do either a 15-minute guided meditation or stress relief video, and then either "list as many alternative uses for a brick as possible" or "list all the factors they would consider in designing a retaining wall for a river flood scenario". They found that self-reported mindfulness in the questionnaire was positively correlated with "the number and the originality of ideas that participants wrote down in the idea generation task and with the number of factors considered in the engineering design task".

In the second study, they looked at survey data from ~1400 and found that self-reported mindfulness is positively correlated with self-reported "confidence in one's ability to be innovative".

But neither of these things demonstrate that engineers are narrow-minded. They don't even demonstrate that mindfulness meaningfully affects creativity. They just suggest that self-reported mindfulness is positively correlated with producing ideas for a small toy task and confidence that one is creative.

It's a big jump from those conclusions to "mindfulness should help engineers be more creative". And then it's an enormous jump from that to "engineers are narrow-minded".

[1] https://hbr.org/2019/01/how-mindfulness-can-help-engineers-s...

I ran into this pretty heavily recently when trying to talk through problems with users (who weren't also SWEs). My goal was always to approach the problem bottom up by breaking down into significant detail where the problem originated from and the steps to arrive at a satisfactory solution. Their concern was top down and they could care less about any of the details other then 'ok its "fixed" now' - even when these details were necessary for them to contribute to the problem at all.

Long story short I sighed deeply (in private), took a deep breath, and tried to turn off any emotional connection to the problem while I did all the work necessary to make it a non-problem.

Perhaps users of a product don't want to contribute to solving problems based on the product since they expect that what they are paying for is the entirety of the involvement expected from them, and you making sure it's "fixed" now is part of what they are paying for? I imagine enthusiastic early adopters would be more amenable to working through solving the problem with you, but I don't see why your general later stage user would be willing to really dive in deep with you to solve the problem?

You're absolutely right. To clarify this is an internal tool, not a paid-for product (though I prefer to think if it as a product).

The problem in question was one of basic usage and training needs. Again in short we have a very subpar UI relative to what I think the potential of great UI is, and this conversation was about bridging the gap while the tool itself is still in development.

So a million pieces of context, but I think the frustration caused by the event is the same thing this blog alludes to - as an engineer I looked at it one way, as ${SOMETHING_ELSE} they saw it a different way, and the result was a lot of negative emotion (frustration, anger, apathy, etc.).

As a PM I see it as my job to find a way past that, and it was a great learning experience even if I would prefer to never go through it again!

As an engineer myself I do agree with this in a sense. Engineers lack creativity and they also tend to lack analytical skills. There's a high focus on "best practices" and design patterns without the critical thinking on "why." So you tend to see the over-application of these kinds of things everywhere in code. If I were to describe the style of thinking engineers tend to have, the best word is "religious" with grand delusions of being "analytical."

I work in a golang shop where engineers were stupefyingly trying to port Java Design patterns over to the language. I literally told them straight up that most of these design patterns are horrible and bad for code. I told them about the huge pitfalls of dependency injection and Nobody even wanted to listen or believe me.

One guy tried to have all init functions that create structs replaced with a builder pattern. Literally can people not see how the builder pattern enables the creation of structures with invalid state? Why? Why? Why? I think because the builder pattern is prettier and more elegant looking. Overall though these engineers are miss applying their analytical thinking.

It's only when I referenced quotations by Rob Pike (creator of golang) on how Rob Pike designed Golang to get away from OOP did people start to actually listen to me. Appeal to authority rather than logic, that's how "analytical" engineers think.

Obviously these engineers love OOP as a language they also like Golang which is the antithesis of OOP. The fact that these engineers can exist with conflicting beliefs tells me that their isn't an analytical bone in their body. They worship the buzzwords of OOP and Golang for religious reasons.

> I work in a golang shop where engineers were stupefyingly trying to port Java Design patterns over to the language (...) It's only when I referenced quotations by Rob Pike (creator of golang) on how Rob Pike designed Golang to get away from OOP did people start to actually listen to me

I mentioned this "Python is not Java" [1] blog-post in my first interview for a job as a Python programmer 15 years ago (I got the job), interesting that some things seem to never change.

[1] https://dirtsimple.org/2004/12/python-is-not-java.html

Ah that's just syntactical stuff. Structurally python OOP and Java OOP are similar.

The thing with Golang is that you're not even suppose to think in terms of "Objects." It's literally suppose to be a step backwards towards C like languages.

> Appeal to authority rather than logic, that's how "analytical" or engineers think.

This describes a large fraction of engineers I've worked with. I think the popular media would portray this as "analytical" when it's anything but.

I don't think this has much to do with the training of engineers and instead reflects natural tendencies of most people to take the easy route. "Passing the buck" to some established authority is simply easier. And it works most of the time. Unfortunately the "appeal to authority" types often drown out the actual analytical folks, so when there's a problem with the authorities, little happens.

Yeah you're right. I probably framed it too narrowly against engineers. A better way to put it is people are biased creatures and engineers are no different even though there is a tendency to believe they are more analytical or creative.

I disagree with you on the "easy route" though. I don't think engineers appeal to authority because of an intentional decision to take an easy route. I think engineers do it because it's just an inmate bias people have. People's identities and beliefs are dictated more by emotion and pre-existing notions rather then logic.

> I disagree with you on the "easy route" though. I don't think engineers appeal to authority because of an intentional decision to take an easy route. I think engineers do it because it's just an inmate bias people have. People's identities and beliefs are dictated more by emotion and pre-existing notions rather then logic.

This is a strong possibility. In retrospect, I don't actually know the reasons why people defer to authorities so often and was speculating. I'd be very interested in the reasons why and how, if possible, we could influence people to be more critical.

Engineers lack creativity


The etymology of the word literally means to “contrive or devise”

Engineers are creators, to say they lack creativity is nonsense.

The post above is a perfect example. He says engineers are "creators" and to say "creators" lack "creativity" is nonsense.

This is displays an immense lack of analytical skills. First off, there exists in this world people who are bad at their jobs, shoe makers who are bad at making shoes and artists who are bad at art. So it definitely makes sense that engineers can lack creativity.

Another way of putting it: Creators can lack creativity. This is not a contradiction.

Additionally I didn't say "no creativity" I said "lack" meaning that their's a spectrum and (software) engineers tend to have less of it when compared to someone like a fine artist.

Also this engineer literally looked up the etymology of the word "creativity." This was an unnecessary detour and displays lack of the ability to think more generally. I'm using the word "creativity" in the same sense as how 99% of the human population uses it. No need to look up the definition of "creativity" just to assist in your arguments.

Of course I'm not saying All engineers lack creativity. I'm saying, on the job, and in my own anecdotal experience... most engineers lack creativity. It's a small few who keep the ball moving forward.

Are engineers this way? Maybe some are, as with any profession, but many aren’t. I actually think it has more to do with the set and setting, than the individual. People are like gases that fill containers, and often the most economically safe, salaried jobs are incidentally containers that would just love to have a “narrow-minded” person do tasks. This is often counter-productive in the long run, but by that point their boss or whomever has gotten what they needed.

The truth is that engineers deal with unknowns, and to do that you have to be extremely creative. Am I alone here in thinking this?

I always make a point to sit with the engineers at the lunch table wherever I work. The conversations are wide-ranging and deep. Hardly narrow-minded. If anything, engineers tend to look for flaws, leading arts majors feeling hurt.

I met one engineer with a similar attitude. He would often make fun of me for not knowing things. However, he completely lost it when I pointed out he didn’t understand some basic concept in the same way he would have done to me. I’m hesitant to believe interpretations like yours based on my experiences with these people. I kind of view a lot of what I’ve seen engineers engage in (it might differ from your experiences) as a pointless intellectual pissing contest (on subjects the participants often lack depth of understanding on) with some level of group ego massaging.

I'm an engineer and this his hugely true. I love intellectual pissing contests. If I lose a contest it's pretty hard to stay unbiased. I think I manage but to be biased is to not know about your own bias, so who knows?

> If anything, engineers tend to look for flaws, leading arts majors feeling hurt.

are you sure you’re not an engineer?

I'm an engineer.

I'm not as creative as I would like, but, at one time, I was a very good artist, and a pretty good musician.

However, I'm also an outstanding problem-solver, and I like that. I can also design some fairly complex software systems.

I appreciate folks who are creative, and I appreciate folks who aren't. We figure out how to work together.

This is just a rehash of the same issue we have had for millenia: people trained in certain ways of doing things will try doing everything that way.

Engineers, doctors and accountants are often pilloried for their lack of people skills, yet we never complain about a counsellor’s inability to build a bridge.

That's because counselors, as a general rule, aren't routinely asked to build bridges. Engineers on the other hand do have to interact with other people, and more importantly, build things that affect people.

Counselors also aren't generally defensive about their inability to build bridges.

Counsellors aren’t generally challenged about their inability to perform tasks outside their specialisation.

It is a mistake to assume that all humans can develop good people skills with the same amount of time dedicated to training.

I think solutions widely divergent or not should solve a problem and consider other problems that might be created along the way, and Engineers are quite adept at doing that thing called "consequence". The humanities people may not have solved any real world engineering problem and yet think they qualify to access Engineers?

Also of note, people trained in the humanities, presumably like this journalist, tend to treat everything as a literary analogy problem and proceed to reason about concrete issues based on how they "appear" or what other things they "sound like". At least the engineering approach is often useful for things.

this is the funniest comeback I've read on this website. Plus it's true.

Thesis proven? :)

Whose bridge would be better to drive over?

Swimming is the safer option.

In my experience, self-perceiving myself as being less orthodox and more creative than my peers, is that making a bunch of changes is aggrevating to your peers. It often disrupts their workflow, it causes them to have to learn things again, and worst of all it can lead to unintended consequences because you didn't understand why things were being done the way they were and the pitfalls of your clever solution. Alternatively it can be the case the creative DOES have a better solution but for some reason such as communication people cannot understand WHY the solution is superior and reject it perticularly when the creative is fairly new or in a fairly junior position.

The creative finds themselves in the position of either underperforming their peers through overconfident cleverness, or overperforming their peers and in the process threatening their peers because they have depreciated the knowledge of their peers while positioning themselves as the only ones who know the new system at least in the short term. So regardless of how well they perform there is reason to try and beat them down. The creative employee has incentives to try to downplay their creative instincts or at least to limit their creativeness to their personal workflow where it causes less disruption.

Additionally if you take two engineers of equal ability, one by the book and relentlessly uncreative but never breaks anything, and one which breaks as many things as they improve coming out about even, the former is almost always preferred simply because the latter causes a lot more stress and distraction and more need for training. There is a cost to creativity that often goes unaccounted for and a creative solution has to be meaningfully superior to be worth implementing.

Probably the only consistent reasons I've seen creatives being favored is 1: Outright superiority perticularly when conservatism has gone unchecked for too long 2: Collective boredom and a desire for staff to learn different ways to doing things to round out their skills 3: Management wanting to put pressure on complacent mediocre employees who "go through the motions". In many cases an employee exceptional at following directions and process can be genuinely more useful.

It's usually a red flag when a question comes with a built-in assumption that reads like an insult.

It's 2020... that's like the minimum you need to even hope people will read past the article title. Attentions gets scarcer, so quasi-offensiveness and assumptiveness have become kind of required to catch even a drop of it.

Especially in an upvote-based system, like Hackers News or Reddit. I'm not saying that these systems aren't useful, but simply it has flaws. Fortunately, there is a "flag" button to counteract that, although it doesn't always work.

Although this article seems to focus on software engineers, the "narrow-mindedness" aspect, reminds me of the book "Engineers of Jihad". The book gathers data about how there seems to be a disproportinate amount of natural science degerees in extremists groups and states as one reason a hierarchy-seeking mindset amongst engineers.

Of course, it is questionable, whether they understand complex systems better than anyone lese or are just more confident they do.

In my experience with software I've witnessed all forms of extremism. My non-software days are gone too long to remember if the extremism cohort was smaller there. But one thing I can say for sure: If a (software) engineer is radicalized, he is much more conversed and harder to argue with. In other words: better shielded from reason.

I would posture that much of what the author is trying to describe is differences in thinking patterns. We've got loads of psychological research that shows that across the population spectrum, various patterns of thought dominate (MBTI, for example). I think this is a case where people who think logically are attracted to professions where this skill is valued highly. Perhaps creative thinking is another skillset that's also influenced by personality. These folks are going to be more attracted to fields where they can exercise their creativity.

I object.

Engineers are the most creative. Every valid patent is evidence of that. When I'm judging creativity, the marketing gunk on the side of a Kashi cereal box ranks far lower than the design of the exhaust valve cooling in the Ford Mustang. Thomas Edison was more creative than Banksy. The people who created Vantablack were more creative than Anish Kapoor and other users. There was more creativity in the Antikythera mechanism than in the Mona Lisa.

MBTI is pure quackery. The only personality model shown to have any statistical legs whatsoever is the Big Five model and even that I have reservations about because it relies so heavily on subjective descriptors rather than measured quantities.

It is not pure quackery, you can make measurements on anything and use it for anything. The fact that it is not biologically "real" is a different thing.

I can make up a model for the human mind called there carboat model. It splits everyone up on a spectrum on how much they like boats and cars. Now I can use that model to make statistical assumptions about the people I measured. It bet the assumptions will have high accuracy on boat and car related matters.

Myers-Brigg is not a scientifically rigorous/valid personality scale, while it's popular with HR and corporate that has far more to do with good marketing than any sort of genuine psychological insight, so I would be very skeptical of the research that uses MBTI as a valid indicator to show differences in thinking patters accross the population. The big 5 is what's generally used and considered the best personality scale available for use currently to the best of my knowledge, and most scientific research papers should be using that.

https://www.vox.com/2014/7/15/5881947/myers-briggs-personali... ^Obviously not a scholary source, decent overall summary, take with a grain of salt.

Parent mentioned MBTI only as a side note. And the point stands regardless of this detail: there is a diversity of thinking styles, temperaments, whatever you want to call it. Whether (and how) those styles are quantified or not, people, quite naturally, often end up with careers that fit well with them.

"Why are engineers so narrow-minded?"

or should it be

Why do narrow-minded people become engineers....

Also it is not really a fact, there might be a trend but not a universal fact.

> Some might say, however, that X get so enmeshed in Y that they leave no space for true creativity.

No true Scotsman would get enmeshed in Y.

1. SWE is not all there is to engineering

2. Have you even read an ABET curriculum? "divergent thinking" is abundantly represented.

Software engineers are not Engineers.

Let the kafkatrapping begin.

Because an engineer sees one solution and somehow it's always theirs

The problem is that many engineers are not paid to have ideas. They are driven by their hierarchy, doing what they are asked to be done. They just obey orders.

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