The Unwritten Laws of Engineering

Alex Woods

Alex Woods

Aug 06, 2021

The Unwritten Laws of Engineering was first published in 1944. Despite its age, 95% of the book applies to software engineering.

Why This Book Matters

Here is a quote from the book, which I strongly agree with:

Empirical studies of on-the-job excellence have clearly established that emotional competencies play a far larger role in superior job performance than do cognitive abilities and technical expertise. Yet the education and training of engineers primarily emphasizes science and technology.

This book is valuable because it says something we beat around the bush about in engineering circles — your personality, your character, how you are to work with, is critical.

Furthermore, above a certain threshold of intelligence (which most engineers meet), technical ability is more correlated with interest level, persistence, and curiosity.

Which are really matters of someone's attitude, not IQ.

Overall Structure of the Book

The book has 3 sections.

Part 1: What The Beginner Needs to Learn at Once

That section title is pretty self-explanatory.

Here is one of the first laws from this section — however menial and trivial your early assignments appear, give them your best effort. A quote from the book:

Many young engineers feel that the minor chores of a mundane project are beneath their dignity and unworthy of their college training.

They expect to prove themselves in some vital enterprise. But the spirit and effectiveness with which you execute your first assignments will be carefully watched and may affect your entire career.

You might worry about where your job is taking you—whether it is weighty enough—and you should not take this consideration lightly. But by and large, if you take care of your present job, the future will take care of itself.

Employers and managers constantly search for competent people to move into more responsible positions.

That is fantastic advice.

Part 2: Relating Chiefly To Engineering Managers

This section, while targeted at engineering managers, is relevant to all engineers. It's really about how you should work in relation to others, or, leadership.

As the book says,

In reality, nobody successfully moving through an engineering career can avoid these [laws] altogether. They are necessary parts of all job descriptions, and a certain amount of managing projects and supervising others is satisfying for all but the most narrow-minded technologist.

Carefully considering how much management responsibility you should assume is actually one of the laws in part 3.

Part 3: Professional and Personal Considerations

Part 3 is about how you can act personally and professionally, or "laws of character and personality".

It's easy to read, but it contains serious topics, like integrity and responsibility. e.g.

Upon becoming a member of the engineering profession, you accepted the responsibility as well as the liability that accompanies that.

Many engineers pretend that they can hide behind a shield erected by their employers or clients. Or that they are mere cogs in the machinery, powerless to prevent things from going haywire.

Environmental hazards, product liability, and community safety concerns are everyone’s responsibility.

But engineers, whose jobs are to create and build, hold a unique position on these issues. We are better-equipped than most not only to prevent problems, but also to identify and correct them.

Regardless of the size of your organization, you contribute to its decisions, whether the results are good, bad, or catastrophic.

I would also add that we have the responsibility to think carefully about what we're using our skills to accomplish. About what effect the company we're working for has on the world.

This is why I wouldn't work for Facebook, Snapchat, or TikTok. Cuz I think the world would be better without those tools. My 21-year old sister certainly would be. 😬

Some of my favorite laws

  • Maintain your employability throughout your career — obsolescense is bad for you and your employer. It's especially bad if you find yourself on the job market. Personally I call this maximum interviewability.

  • Be aware of the effect that your personal appearance has on others—and on you. This is an interesting one. I'm glad the days of wearing suits are over, but he has a point here.

What I primarily do is wear a uniform, which is brown dress shoes, jeans, and a black T-shirt. Yes it's less comfortable than gym shorts, but I do want to be taken seriously. It's also far more comfortable than what our ancestors were wearing.

  • Regard your personal integrity as one of your most important assets. This is the most important and demanding law in the book.

Integrity is easily described: you have high integrity if you are honest, moral, trustworthy, responsible, loyal, and sincere.

I'm glad he's bringing questions of character into job performance. I think that's a key part of how it is to work with someone.

Loyalty is an interesting one, because with respect to the employer / employee relationship, it is dramatically different than it was in 1955. Arguably more difficult to navigate.

Conclusion

I find this book refreshing.

Sometimes software engineering can give the impression of being a bunch of hooded, 20-year old nerds working jobs in a garage that resemble lottery tickets more than actual jobs. But really it's a variation on engineering, which has been around for a very long time.

It will be interesting to see how the profession evolves in a post-Covid world.

I love the maturity and professionalism of this book. I hope it keeps circulating for another 80 years.

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