As I read your article this morning, I looked up and took a glance at several eager interviewees at the career fair this morning. I considered your plight: many of us aspiring engineers were drawn to the field in hopes of mastering powerful tools that will someday allow us to make enormous, tangible positive impacts on the world. Excited and a little disoriented, we took our swing—a first internship—and saw a terrible twist to our original vision. A lot of fellow engineers are working hard and building powerful tools, but many of those tools are ambiguous in impact to the world or perhaps seem detrimental long-term. A swing and a miss!
As engineers, we live to make an impact. This is our heart. Ethics often comes second. Even Leonardo da Vinci made his money by advertising and selling plans for his easy-build bridges to warlords. The distinction for da Vinci was that his bridges weren’t his biggest contributions to the world. After he had secured some money, he trusted his wits and transitioned to designing aspirational flying machines, studying biology, and making art. At the end of the day, many people will make decisions, even pivotal and life-changing ones, depending on how easy that option is to choose for them at the time. Right now, it seems that most engineers are finding it harder to build their future while holding on to their ethics, or perhaps easier to get straight into building their future if they let their ethics go. But that decision isn’t permanent for any of us. It just may be easier. Paradigm shifts happen as a whole society works to make ethical decisions easier for everyone. It is during those times that ethically conscious builders have it easy. They have a wide variety of opportunities to build a change they can be satisfied with in the world. Right now does not feel like a paradigm shift is happening. Nonetheless, we can sacrifice some amount of ease (or perhaps some amount of salary) in the name of good. Today, I also noticed stickers advocating a broader movement for engineers to refuse to build systems that they consider unethical. Refuse to Build may also become a tool for us to stabilize our direction and work towards good as engineers.
This summer, I skipped my opportunity to work an internship and instead worked with a crew of 10 dedicated, smart people at a backcountry outpost at Philmont, a Scouts BSA camp. The work wasn’t easy and it didn’t pay well, but all of the people I met shared an eagerness to act straight from the heart. Our camp director, Ben, left his job as an engineer at Intel to work at Philmont one more time. He explained that he left because he didn’t feel like managing the 2000-step production process for Intel’s largest FPGA would get him anywhere in life. From 18 months of work, was able to pay off his student loans. He now works as a math and finance teacher. He lives in a souped-up mobile home with ‘bold and brash’ hung over the fireplace. He is a better rock climber than I will ever be, but in a way, he has put down the powerful ‘bat’ that we pick up when we become engineers. He is not the professional builder that can make an enormous impact on the world with his work. As an engineer, you’re still holding the bat. Now what are you going to do with it?