Why Engineers Never Win

Our world is full of bad decisions based on convoluted logic in service of irrational preferences. A great example is people who drive into NYC every morning to get to work. Why people sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours polluting the air, wasting fossil fuel, and developing hypertension inducing road rage is beyond me. Another good example is junk mail. I just can’t phantom why the we tolerate a process where perfectly good trees are transformed into trash, and delivered to my mailbox in brightly colored envelops. Every day I simply throw this junk mail away. At least with spam no trees are sacrificed and I can automate filtering it out.

I like to think that if engineers ruled the world driving into NYC and junk mail would be optimized away like inefficient algorithms and duplicated code.

Apparently engineers don’t rule the world. They rule the internet and the desktop–all the virtual worlds–just not the real one.

So why is that? Why do lawyers and managers (like me) and lawmen get elected and listened too? Why do A students work for C students?

It’s a problem of tools. Engineers are taught logic. Lawyers, managers, and lawmen are taught rhetoric. Thus the engineer makes a well reasoned argument based on data and sound scientific principles and gets blown away by a non-engineer making an emotional appeal in the court of public opinion. If engineers used rhetoric to communicate their ideas instead of reason we would not have half as many problems. We would figure out where to store nuclear waste, how to feed more people, provide more health care, and jump start the economy. As a manager I don’t have the answers to these problem but I know several engineers who do.

If we let the engineers win life would not be perfect but it would actually get better via iterative processes, refactoring, and bug fixing. Instead our life degrades. This makes me sad and hopeful too because there is an obvious solution: Engineers of the world: Stop arguing so rationally.

My favorite Monty Python skit is the one about the Argument Clinic:

Python 1: Ah, is this the right room for an argument?

Python 2: I told you once

Python 1: No you haven’t.

Python 2: Yes I have.

Python 1: When?

Python 2: Just now.

This skit is brillant on so many levels. Every engineer should study it to help him or her learn rhetoric. Python 1 is obviously a typical rational engineer. He asks a perfectly good and honest question. Python 2 is obviously a manager. Python 2 answers Python 1’s question with a statement designed to inflame his passions and cloud his senses. By the end of the skit Python 1 has had his argument but feels cheated out of it at the same time. Like asking for technical debt to be addressed and leaving the meeting wondering how you got talked into creating more technical debt to remove the old technical debt.


  1. I like the overall thrust of your argument, but…
    The reason you still get junk mail is because it works, either as a direct response mechanism, or because when an advertiser who doesn’t get any responses stops using it, sales go down. It’s very difficult to measure brand awareness… we should be careful about listening to ‘the engineers’ who see things as either black or white.

    And whilst I wish all junk mail was turned to spam, it wouldn’t be a complete win-win situation… there’s a lot of energy used sending spam: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/apr/15/spam-mcafee-symantec-emails-environment

  2. Guy: Thanks for your comments. I worked in the internet advertising business for many years and it still amazes me how many dollars are spent on ad formats of dubious return value. Perhaps junk mail works for some audiences, perhaps with brand awareness, but not for **me** (neither does spam). I think much of junk mail/spam is just fraud, best practice, or tradition. I do believe in driving arguments to black and white. I know the real world is all shades of gray but I find it very useful, for the sake of argument, to limit those shades to two 🙂

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