Engineering Terrorists

I had at first thought of writing about something else today, but seeing that I came across this gem of an article, I thought that I’d write about this instead. According to the article, an engineers’ personality traits make them excellent field operatives (i.e. on the ground terrorists). When I read the quote below, I didn’t know whether to take it as a compliment or an insult.

Engineers ideally make excellent strategic planners, and they make excellent field operatives. They think differently from how other people think

Regardless, I was very interested in what these special personality traits were that set us apart from normal people. So, I looked around and found a very interesting definition of an engineer. For this, I will just quote an excellent definition from a letter published by the Institute of Engineering & Technology here. It goes like this:

It may be easier to define an engineer by what he or she is not. An engineer is generally not a scientist, but takes scientific discoveries and applies them to the real world. An engineer is not a life scientist. An engineer is not a mathematician, but can do sums better than any accountant. Some engineers display excellent art capabilities – but they are not artists.

Engineers are creative, imaginative, capable and resourceful. Engineers make things work and bring ideas from the drawing board to real tangible entities. In Victorian times, engineers built big things. Now, while engineers still build big things, they also create things based on that great 20th Century discovery – electronics.

It’s easy to see that engineers created the canals, roads and bridges, the boats, cars and lorries. But engineers also created and operate telephone networks. Engineers bring the TV signals to you and designed the TVs in your house. Engineers made the rockets that flew man to the Moon, launched satellites that keep the world talking and designed and built the satnav in your car.

Engineers designed the medical equipment that allows you to see inside your body. Engineers created the radar and avionics systems that allow planes to land safely. Engineers designed the chips that are at the heart of everything ‘electronic’.

Engineers can be infuriating because they have an innate intuition about all things mechanical and electrical. To quote a delightful Dilbert cartoon – we have ‘the knack’. We are not without fault, though. We never read instructions and before spell check we could not spell. We don’t suffer fools gladly, we may be insecure – which explains why we take the lid off just to see what’s inside, we may be a bit ‘nerdy’ and we hate being told what to do!

When I give this message to teachers who are responsible for bringing on the next generation of engineers, I remind them what was said about Thomas Edison when he was at school. He was told that he was too stupid to learn anything, that his mind was ‘addled’. His inventions are too many to mention here, but you would not be reading at night or making phone calls without his engineering discoveries.

Charles Curry FIET

That, I think, is a wonderful definition of an engineer. I guess that being people who hate being told what to do, it makes us natural rebels. Then, being slightly insecure, makes us easy targets for conversion. Finally, being creative, imaginative, capable and resourceful, makes us ideally suited to independent field work.

So, it isn’t inconceivable that we would actually make good terrorists. The fact that we know how things works on the inside, does help when you’re trying to figure out how to take it apart. It doesn’t mean that all of us have suicidal tendencies though!

PS: I can totally relate to the part about not suffering fools gladly! d:

Published by

Shawn Tan

Chip Doctor, Chartered/Professional Engineer, Entrepreneur, Law Graduate.

One thought on “Engineering Terrorists”

  1. In my experience, engineers are some of the most self-aggrandising people on the face of the earth.

    Take this: “An engineer is not a mathematician, but can do sums better than any accountant.”

    When I was a maths undergraduate, I found that engineers would contemptuously boast that they could solve wider classes of equations than us, with a “we’re better than you” sneer. Well, bully for them — but the stuff we actually spent our time on, like abstract algebra, was such that the engineers couldn’t even understand the questions, let alone provide the answers.

    Engineers are very clever people, in my experience — but not as clever as they think they are. They seem oddly prone to the Dunning-Kruger Effect.


    Perhaps because their generally lacking social skills mean that others are often less-than-interested in talking to them, conversations about engineers often turn into one big circle-jerk.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s