How To Think Like An Engineer

Though I attended yearly STEM camps as a child, I don’t think I fully grasped what STEM careers entailed. I knew that scientists conducted research and that medical professions helped people to heal, and I suspected that the technology field was filled with nerdy computer programmers like my dad. No one ever explained to me what an engineer does for a living. Looking back, I wish someone had.

Engineers are responsible for developing a more effective way of solving problems. The world is filled with problems and, while most people approach these issues haphazardly, engineers develop systems to approach problem-solving. Devising a solution-oriented approach is a meta-skill, and a highly valuable one at that.

“Everyone in this country should learn to program a computer, because it teaches you to think.”

–Steve Jobs

We are often tempted to immediately jump into a problem, aggressively attacking it from the most obvious angle. We try one tactic and, when it fails, we try another, and another. We ultimately waste valuable time searching for solutions, perhaps not realizing that we’ve wondered off in the wrong direction entirely.

It’s far more valuable to take a step back from large and complex problems, assessing the shape of the issue at hand and breaking the problem down in to easily computable parts. Rather than focusing on syntax, we can focus on composition: the components, connections, and similarities to the systems we are more familiar with.

Nearly four years ago, I fell into a systems engineering position. I quickly learned that to solve problems, we must first dissemble, analyze, and then rebuild. Though I’ve never done mechanical work on a car, I imagine the process is quite similar: remove the parts, figure out what is going on, and then put everything back in the most appropriate manner.

To begin, we need to develop a framework to which we can return when we begin feeling lost or overwhelmed.

The first step in solving a problem is to understand exactly what you’re dealing with. Clarify what is being asked: know exactly what the final product looks like, the deadlines, available resources, and limiting constraints. I’ve found that most hard problems are difficult solely because we don’t fully understand them. As Richard Feynman has said, “If you can’t explain something in simple terms, you don’t understand it.”

Next, lay out your understanding of the problem and develop a plan based on your resources and constraints. Plot out each step of the plan, assigning each step a due date. Including milestones will help ensure that your long-term goal is on-track and on-target. Be sure to write down your plan and take note of how long each step took as compared to your projected timelines. Note any challenges, so you can improve and refine your plan on future projects.

Alongside the planning stage, be sure to divide and delegate the workload appropriately. It’s much easier to solve 50 micro-problems than to solve one big one. Start with the simplest problems and then work your way up the chain. If one step in your plan is contingent upon the completion of another, but sure that tasks are tackled in the proper order. If one task requires high-level thinking whereas another relies on simple grunt work, be sure to assign these challenging and simpler tasks appropriately. Remember, you don’t need to do everything yourself! Once you’ve solved all of the micro-problems, connect the dots and paint out the final solution.

It’s easy to get stuck on a problem, even when you have a good plan and effective delegation. In such cases, step away for a bit and breath. Look at the big problem with new eyes, and reassess the micro-problems. Finally, it’s okay to delete everything and start over. I once scrapped all of my work six weeks into a three-month project and, though it was gut-wrenching, I quickly revamped my plan and was back on track. Starting over is an highly effective and underrated approach to overcome challenging problems.

Finally, thinking like an engineer takes practice. Once you understand the framework–understand, plan, delegate, revise, and practice–apply the approach to everything you do. As my boss always says, “Project management isn’t something you do; it’s how you approach everything in your life.”

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