I once tuned in to a sports talk show where the topic of conversation was all-time great quarterbacks. One caller, not content to name a single player, decided to compose the “ideal QB” based on the outstanding attributes of several players. By the time he was finished he had assembled a monster with the brains of Joe Montana, the arm of John Elway, the eyes of Bernie Kosar, and the feet of Randall Cunningham.

I wonder what the outcome would be if we took a similar tack to create the ideal engineer. Which attributes would we identify, and which all-time greats would we draw upon to set the standards?

My experience is that there are three main qualities that make an engineer. One is an ability to think analytically, another is creativity, and a third, for lack of a better term, is the knack for solving problems through associative reasoning.

Associative reasoning, as it relates to engineering, is the ability to make connections that extend from the basic laws of physics to practical components and systems. It is based largely on an accumulation of knowledge stemming from empirical, or trial-and-error, experimentation. My ideal engineer would have the associative reasoning capabilities of Thomas Edison.

Edison epitomizes the empirical approach to engineering. Working tirelessly, he trial-and-erred his way to more patents and world-changing inventions than anyone in U.S. history. His accomplishments include the phonograph, the light bulb, the microphone, moving pictures, and a company now known as General Electric.

But Edison didn’t rely on associative reasoning alone. Like any good engineer, he was also an analytical thinker. He knew how to use math as a road map to direct, shape, and perfect his ideas.

For my ideal engineer I want the analytical mind of Albert Einstein. Einstein was perhaps the best at using theory and math to understand and explain how things work. He also used his analytical powers to sharpen his own thinking, which is precisely how one optimizes a design.

The ability to think analytically isn’t enough, however. To be effective, engineers must also be creative. The creativity I want in my make-believe engineer is that of Walt Disney.

Disney, thanks to his boundless imagination, forever changed the entertainment and amusement industry. And the spark he ignited in the areas of animation, simulation, and interactivity is in the process of revolutionizing the way we communicate and learn as well.

Of all the skills involved in engineering, creativity may be the toughest to develop. What makes it such a challenge is that it often requires us to let go of our hard-earned knowledge and the theories we hold to be true.

Knowledge and theory, though essential to engineering, can easily become stumbling blocks. Had Einstein held tightly to the mainstream thinking of his time he never would have hit on the theory of relativity. And Edison, if he relied on common knowledge about sound, probably wouldn’t have invented the phonograph. No wonder Einstein once said that creativity is more important than knowledge.

Those are my thoughts; now I’d like to hear yours. How would you define the ideal engineer, and who would you tap for their skills?

Larry Berardinis
lberardinis@penton.com