Can a technical engineer make it in Prime Time?

Senior Technical Editor Dan Hebert is sharpening up his acting skills for his big shot at Prime Time television in this month's edition of Machine Builder Mojo. But does he have the charisma it takes to pull it off?

By Dan Hebert, Senior Technical Editor

DON'T LOOK NOW, but people just like you are the new stars of prime time TV and the big screen. That’s right, engineers, scientists, and technicians are dominating the airwaves as the main characters in a host of highly rated dramas and big-screen epics. Not only are you a star, but these shows center around the use of logic to solve vexing technical problems. Sounds like your job, right?

Technical people used to be summarily ignored by the popular media, and virtually non-existent on TV. Doctors and lawyers always have been TV’s darlings. Business owners and salespeople often were demonized, but at least they were filthy rich and worthy of air time.

However, I’m here to tell you that doctors, lawyers, and business people are yesterday’s reruns. We’re the new darlings of prime time television.


"I now can say, ‘Yes, I’m an engineer/scientist/technician, and just like the actors on CSI, I use logic to solve vexing technical problems. Please, no autographs."

Who among us would have thought we’d see the day when the male lead of a Top 10 program appeared in the opening credits wearing a lab coat and safety glasses? David Caruso of CSI: Miami does more than wear the tools of the trade, he actually spends significant time in the lab. Plus, beautiful women fall for him every week. How about that new show with a mathematician as the hero? The premiere of Numb3rs hit number 5 in the TV ratings. 

This phenomenon is not limited to TV. We’re in the movies too. A Beautiful Mind won an Oscar for best picture with Russell Crowe in the lead role as a mathematician with a heavy economic bent. Crowe’s work just prior to A Beautiful Mind was his Oscar-winning portrayal of a gladiator. From warrior hero to stats geek, mirroring the career path of many of us.

The genre closest to the heart of most technical people is science fiction, which often was relegated to cheap paperbacks and B-movies. Now, some of the world’s leading directors and actors are making and appearing in widely acclaimed Sci-Fi films. The hero of The Matrix trilogy is a top-gun programmer, able to hack his way around and through the code faster than anyone, including the program authors.

The world’s leading director (Spielberg) and the world’s number one actor (Cruise) collaborated a few years ago on Minority Report, a fantastic Sci-Fi flick and a huge financial success. Because these shows are entertainment, many of the technical portrayals border on incredulity. But, that’s still better than what we’ve experienced for decades. Besides MacGyver, we’ve been non-existent except for space fantasies such as Star Trek and Star Wars.

As a bonus, the technical people in these shows are incredibly attractive, witty, and completely non-geekish. Hopefully, this will help to quell stereotypes about antisocial engineers and other propeller-heads.

This new-found recognition might not make us prime topics for cocktail party conversation, but it does signal respect for the contributions that engineers and technicians make to society.
Lawyers are on the outs, and doctors have been taking it on the chin lately. Even the clergy has suffered grievous blows to reputation as of late.

My newly chosen profession after 22 years as a working engineer is journalism, and we in the press have taken our lumps lately, including major credibility scandals at national newspapers from The New York Times to USA Today.

By default, this leaves engineers, technicians, and scientists as the new heroes among the professional classes. Our own actions and positive media portrayals can help further positive perceptions.

What ramifications could this have for the machine builder community? I think that recruiting employees could become easier, as more young people look with favor on technical careers. The long-term effect should be substantial. Those of us with children know how much they are influenced by pop culture, TV in particular.

It also could become easier to site new manufacturing plants and expand existing facilities, especially if locals see these plants as high tech. The more plant construction, the more machines purchased.

Finally, I now can say, "Yes, I’m an engineer/scientist/technician, and just like the actors on CSI, I use logic to solve vexing technical problems." The solutions to these problems end up furthering the greater good.

Now, I’m not yet as engaging or charismatic as those actors, but I am working on it. Please, no autographs.

 About the Author
Dan Hebert, PE, is Senior Technical Editor for Control, Control Design and Industrial Networking magazines. He has a PE in Control Systems and is a patent holder for a closed-loop control system. He holds a BSEE and an MBA, and is a member of ISA and Eta Kappa Nu, the engineering honor society.

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