The one strange secret that only the very best engineers know

In my career as an engineer, I’ve noticed one thing that separates the engineering cream of the crop from the rest. It took me a long time to recognize it, but once it finally clicked, it was like whole profession came into focus for me. It became blindingly obvious why some engineers are head and shoulders above the rest, but it’s not obvious at first.

Most engineers, including me (up until recently, anyway), think of engineering as being a profession whose job it is to solve problems. While that may be true, it’s only true to a point. That’s only half the equation, and arguably the lesser half. 
The second half is the most important ingredient. The most important quality the best engineers in the world possess is the ability to see the problem at hand. It’s not just about seeing problem to be solved – it’s about having the ability to see the problem. The best engineers don’t waste time solving the wrong problems. (Tweet this!)
Think about this for a minute. Without the ability to see and understand problems, the ability to solve problems is useless. Without being able to get to the root of a given issue, you can never truly solve it. 
One example that illustrates this is the invention of the first car, the Ford Model T. Henry Ford is famous for declaring that had he asked people what they wanted, they would have told him they wanted a faster horse. Ford saw the real problem – the need for fast, affordable, reliable transportation. The best engineers think the same way as Ford. The best engineers don’t waste their time trying to make a faster horse. They look for ways to solve the transportation problem.
Many engineers think of their job as being to address the technical issues that their managers bring to them. Today, I’d like to invite you to break this mentality if you hope to achieve true greatness in your career. You need to ask yourself if the problem you’re solving is the real problem. You need to stop and think to yourself: “Am I trying to make a faster horse, or solve the real issue?”
So, this should bring an important question to mind. If you don’t already have this mentality, how do you develop it? Luckily, it’s not as difficult as you might think. The simple answer is a three-letter word: why. You need to start asking why. Why are you being assigned a certain task? Why is the company pursuing a specific project? Why is the most powerful question an engineer can ask to become better at what they do.

So my challenge to you is this: start asking why. Don’t ask with the intent to challenge your bosses, ask with the intent of getting to the heart of the issue. If you can master this skill, you’ll make great strides in becoming a truly great engineer. 

About Pat Sweet

Pat Sweet | Engineering and LeadershipPat Sweet is a Professional Engineer working in Ontario, Canada. He’s a full-time vehicle engineer focusing on commuter train electrical systems and the author behind the Engineering and Leadership blog, where he shares his thoughts and experiences on leadership, productivity and career advice for engineers. Go to Pat’s blog now to get your free copy of his engineering career guide and 12-week “Become an engineering ninja” engineering career course for free.

Image credit: Flickr/ William Creswell