Engineers are meant to be artists

Dear all,

This is a translation of the post in French (Parce que les ingénieurs sont des artistes). I think some non-French-speaking people might want to have a look at it… or at least I hope so!

At last, I publish a new article. It is not that easy to keep a blog alive, to write a post worth reading. Though I am very involved otherwise, especially in politics, this is not the only reason. I have been experimenting a quite strong dry spell for the last few months, and it brought me to do some introspection.

My aim when writing these lines is to share an « epiphany » that I had. You may know it (or not), I am currently finishing up my studies as an engineer (French understanding, MSc for the rest of the world). You may know it (or not), I had the chance to work for four months last year at dw capital, a start up incubator/VC in Cologne. On my last day, I was offered a few gifts. Among them, there was a book « 55 Gründe, Inegnieur zu werden« , the 55 reasons to become an engineer. It was offered to me because after spending on year in a business school, I was to return to my engineering Grande Ecole.

In October 2011, I opened this book, and began to read it. The author first presents his joy as being an engineer, and then lists these 55 reasons. All of them are worth reading. But my so-called « epiphany », is reason #1.

« …weil Ingenieure Künstler sind » — « …because engineers are artists »

Shock #1 : I am in the last year of my MSc. I have wanted to become an engineer since I was 8, in embedded systems since I was 15. It is a call. An it never, never occurred to me, though it was pretty much obvious.

Shock #2 : it happened because of being shocked. My father is an engineer, my mother is an artist. If one person could have connected the dots, it should have been me!

Theodore von Karman, a famous engineer, put it this way :

A scientist discovers that which exists. An engineer creates that which never was.

This is the essence of it. Being engineer, is creating. Creating, is what defines an artist.

Since then, I see more what Steve Jobs meant when he talked about Apple being at the crossroad of technology and humanities. A meeting point is already an interesting place, and this one especially, because they are places where creation happens. On the same idea, I understand more what Tim Cook meant with his « cross-fertilization ».

To conclude on the analysis side, I think that the archetype of the engineer should be Leonardo da Vinci. Able to conceive machinery, conduct research, design, and paint. An engineer has to be creative.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that everyone can be Leonardo, me included. But I strongly believe that the engineer should be conscious of this. The day after reading this, I asked around about it, and for most of them it seemed to be meaningless. Now it can very well be that I am a bit wacko. And I do not pretend to hold the absolute truth.

What I am describing certainly dates back to the end of the Renaissance, at the beginning of humanism. It was at that time that modern science was born. And this was without a doubt a huge step forward for science. For engineering too, but as this work is not only scientific, and open on the world, it should be embraced in a more holistic way. After all, even Newton, who is usually considered to be one of the father of modern science, was also very prolific in not-so-scientific areas.

To conclude on this post, I am going to mention two consequences that I feel.

The first on if about the whole start up world, where maybe more than anywhere else artists-engineers are needed, to envision not only new solutions, but also completely new sectors.
A correlated point is that stereotypes have to be handled with caution. I am in a computer science university, I see clearly what appears often on people’s face when « computer » is said. We must not let this stereotype hinder our minds. These people, eager to judge, probably enjoy checking their Facebook updates from their smartphone.

The second consequence is related to engineering studies in France. I am not aiming at criticizing the whole system, system of which I am a product, and which I think is pretty good overall. When I see something I don’t like I tend not to separate myself from the whole, but to stick with it and try to bring my two cents. The purely scientific part of the teachings is really great. But I am wondering if, especially at the end, it wouldn’t be a good idea to give more room to personal initiative. Now I say this cautiously, because I am talking about personal initiative, and I am the first to want less « system ».

This is the end of this post. For me it is a risk, but I really wanted to share this thought. If you are reading this and you happen to be an engineer, please indulgent, I am still a rookie. You may think I am reinventing the wheel, and it may be true. You may think that I am overreacting, and I won’t agree with you, though I am perfectly fine with different opinions. But if for at least one person, it opens new possibility, I shall consider my work done.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, and feel free to comment.

I want to thank dw capital for offering me this book, and showing me the way.

Photography by Luc Viatour (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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