By Michael Woloszynowicz

By Michael Woloszynowicz

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Under-Appreciated Engineers and the Curse of Usability

The life of an engineer is not an easy one. We're expected to translate ambiguous requirements into a concrete, timely, and scalable solution that satisfies a wide range of stakeholders. We venture into the unchartered territory with an ever growing array of technologies and infrastructures to choose from, never knowing what direction the product will take in the future.

While such challenges plague us on a daily basis, the really depressing part is that only a precious few people will ever appreciate the effort that went into it. Often not your boss, and certainly not the end user. 

The superficiality of human nature leads people to appreciate the physical aspects of the product rather than the beauty that lies within it. There's no better example of this than Apple products. While Apple garners constant adulation for the beauty of its products, few praise the engineering effort that went into every detail of a MacBook Air or iPhone, and bringing the designers vision to life through a physical and functioning unit. This effect transcends technology products and is equally evident in an industry such as construction. When an important or influential building is erected, it's the architect that garners all the attention while the engineer that is responsible for the lives of its inhabitants remains largely unnoticed.

From a technical product standpoint we suffer from a curse of usability. The simpler the product's interface the more muted the engineering effort appears, when in fact the opposite is true. The simpler the interface, the less work the user must do, the more work the engineer must do to yield the desired result.

That's not to say that engineers never get any attention, they do, but it's rarely the kind we want. Engineers are usually brought to the fore as soon as something goes wrong. If that very building collapses you can believe that the engineer will become the star of the show.

So what's my point? Well...

For those that are pursuing a career as an engineer of any sort, you'll have to develop a good degree of meekness. You'll have to make sure that you're pursuing it because you love it. You love the daily challenges, the ambiguity, and you're comfortable not always getting the praise you deserve.

For the companies out there, I urge you to foster a strong engineering culture where upper layers of management have the technical knowledge to appreciate the work done by your engineers. Companies like Facebook and Google attract lots of brilliant engineers for this very reason. If something goes wrong, don't be quick to blame the engineers. Remember that a majority of failures stem from a management problem rather than a technical one.

For the masses, I ask that you look beyond the surface of the product and become curious about what it took to make it work. Remember that simplicity often masks a host of technical obstacles.

For the engineers out there, I urge you to not live in a bubble, surrounded only by your own set of challenges. Reach out to your fellow engineers, ask them what they're working on and praise them for the interesting problems they've solved. You're in the unique position to understand and relate to their challenges. Remember that they'll do the same for you when you need them.

If all this fails, appreciate that you are creating something out of nothing, something that is hopefully used by and changes the lives of a large number of users. There will always be a demand for your craft, even if the appreciation of it is not always what you'd like it to be.

Cheers to all the engineers out there.

If you liked this post please follow me on Twitter for more.

No comments:

Post a Comment