How to fix ignorant engineers

Tweeting a few well-thought-out opinions may help.

By Dave Perkon, technical editor

While talking politics, I told my wife I was going to write a story about fixing ignorant engineers. She says, "Good luck with that; it's not possible." As an engineer, that kind of hurts; she can say what she wants, but perhaps she has lived with me for too long. Of course, engineers get it right much of the time and nearly all of the time in their own minds, but I'm biased.

Listening to the radical left and right sides that are dominating politics today got me thinking about the Dunning-Kruger effect (unskilled and unaware of it) again, and, strangely, ignorant engineers. Being the guy in the middle, I can make predictions about the incompetent left and right. Each side will dramatically overestimate itself. They won't recognize competence when they see it or the propaganda. Not only that, but, when they see the facts, they cannot use that information to change their strongly predisposed opinion of themselves, others or the topic. However, when they do look at the facts and understand more of the "why," they may eventually realize they acted and performed poorly but are still always trying to belittle.


There are some things that only experience will fix, but, like politicians, some people just are not as smart as others. Their ignorance cannot be fixed. Someone's ability, make that lack of ability, to drive a car is an example of ignorance. Some people are always really bad drivers and don't know it. They think the honking horns are normal, but they should be forced to take an IQ test, some would say.

From a machine standpoint, another example of ignorance is the engineer who runs 500+ wires between a control enclosure in a safe area through a 2-ft-thick cement wall to a multi-station assembly machine in a hazardous area. The ignorant engineer has no competence in distributed I/O or estimating labor costs. Connecting an Ethernet cable and control power would have taken minutes; instead it took the machine builder days to connect the wires. Then it had to be taken apart and done again at the customer site. A total waste of time.

How do you think the project went when the engineer couldn't understand use of distributed I/O? Well, add a few more ignorant engineers; then, after many changes, delays, redesigns and filibustering, the million dollar project went $700K over budget. The customer didn't know about this overrun, but it was a happy, ignorant customer. It wanted to celebrate the project's success with a steak lunch, thank you speech and some balloons. It was a great and expensive lunch for 50 people that the machine builder paid for. That's ignorant when costs are out of control, but my protest fell on deaf ears; it made me want to run around breaking windows.

Keeping the know-it-all away from the vendors and customers is huge.

I think I have talked about the ignorant know-it-all engineer in the past. Saying that these engineers can be fixed may be inaccurate and bad. However, keeping the know-it-all away from the vendors and customers is huge. If not, it's a quick way to stir up a hornets' nest and receive a lot of angry phone calls of protest. It's best to forgo training of the know-it-all and hide them in a corner without a phone.

Ignorance—lacking knowledge, information or awareness—can be fixed to varying degrees. Many engineers want to attend training or should to understand the issues, but management won't let them go and tell them it's not necessary; it's too expensive to attend; or you’re too busy to attend. Some managers will give all three reasons, in the same sentence while smiling and without blinking. That's crooked and bad judgment, and the manager has no sense of the real world.

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Training the engineer on new technology and hardware is worth the money and the time. Just think, if the ignorant engineer went to training on distributed I/O and networking. It may take four days of his time and maybe $4,000. Instead, the engineer's lack of knowledge caused hundreds of hours of work, and that is just one project. Think if it was a new 747 Air Force One; cancel order. Did I tell you how the ignorant engineer replaced a high-end motion system with a low-end one and wondered why the system didn't work? Let’s keep that one on the secret server. What about replacing a vision system, lenses and lighting that had corrected a 20-year problem at a billion-plus-dollar medical manufacturer? Total failure; bleeding red ink here; no good; very bad.

Try hiring some good managers. For proper vetting, you can send the future managers to manager school, but it's best to start with someone who has a chance to succeed and is not a puppet. Some will be totally ineffective. Try giving a rookie manager control of a project. The lifetime, bad-driver-type managers will immediately anger the team and create radical left and right teammates. There may be better choices, some who may even make the company millions of dollars.

If you are an ignorant engineer, having overestimated your competence, get trained and work with an expert or team and learn where you are underperforming. Feel free to tweet your successes. If that doesn't work out for you, you should be worried because a little ignorance creates anger that feeds hate. Seems to be a lot of that out there. Fortunately, there is no need for ignorance in engineering.

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