Are Engineers Creative?

Are we creative, we engineers and programmers? I think fewer of us are than we think, but more of us need to be than are (although it’s not essential that we all are).

It’s probably useful to define creativity, because it could be argued that engineers — people who “engineer” things — are creative by definition. I don’t think so. Creativity is the ability to make something, change something, or do something that creates positive surprise in one’s peers. It goes above and beyond just “the new”. It must elicit, from those who appreciate and understand your field, an appreciative “Huh!?”

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Code Class as Soul Craft

We look for “proxies for greatness” in potential new members of the Verilab team. It can take some time to find out if someone is good, because in the end “good” in this context means something like “consistently delivering desired results”, and you can only see that over time. But there are clues early on that a person may be, or may become, good. Those are the P’s for G.

One is mentioned by philosopher-turned-mechanic, Matthew Crawford in his Shop Class as Soulcraft. In chapter eight, “The Further Education of a Gearhead: From Amateur to Professional” he tells the story “Of Madness, a Magna, and Metaphysics” in which he takes on the task of bringing back to life an old and neglected-by-underuse 1983 Honda Magna V45. A key part of the repair was fixing the clutch hydraulics. Continue reading

Depth, Precision, Persistence

The flood of books on expertise, and mastery has been going on for some time now. From popularizers like Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, to expertise scholars like Anders Ericsson and his co-editors in The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, and including the thoughts of those who have demonstrated expertise and mastery, such as Josh Waitzkin (chess and martial arts) in The Art of Learning, Matthew Syed (Table Tennis) in Bounce, and also those experimenting in methods of becoming expert, such as Cal Newport in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, a wide range of ideas have been gathered together under a single banner.

I’ll explore those and more in future posts, but what has struck me as I’ve studied this area is the prominence of three specific ideas that all those widely ranging accounts seem to share. They are three characteristics that the training and studying approaches of all experts seem to have in common. Regardless of the field of expertise, without fail the training and studying is deep, precise, and persistent. At first sight, those can seem obvious, but let me take each in turn and describe what I think it’s attached to. As you read these, consider what they might look like in the development of expertise in programming, and particularly in chip verification and design. Continue reading

Rituals

Finding the following very interesting: “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work“, by Mason Curry.

9780307273604_custom-b0393414440fa19a6b8301f3a6a4855bf6caf661-s6-c30It’s a review of over 150 writers, painters, scientists, and so on, as to the daily habits and rituals surrounding their accomplishments. Most obvious first impression is that there seem to be as many approaches to creativity and productivity as there are individuals studied. There are highly disciplined people, and severe procrastinators; organized, and messy; laid back, and intense; healthy/ascetic, and hedonistic to the point of debaucherous, well-nigh alcoholic, drug guzzling, gluttony. However, I think that apparent variety hides a common factor; namely they all found their individual way of doing things, and to hell with convention.

It feeds a growing feeling I’ve had recently that I’m on the scent of something to do with the damage done, in recent decades, by the professionalization or at least the standardization of doing pretty much anything. Prime examples: the “9 to 5 office job”, the broadening out of University-level education, certification for pretty much anything you want to get certified for. The people Mason analyzes — the first bunch anyway, which is as far as I’ve got — all seem to more or less ignore the “standard” way of doing things. Or, rather, it may simply be there were fewer “standard ways” around when they were doing their stuff, but the effect is the same.

In my work running Verilab, I collect what I call“Proxies for Greatness”, being observable characteristics of an engineer that indicate I may be in the presence of someone very high up on the effectiveness bell curve. Perhaps “Healthy Disregard For Conventional Approaches” is another such Proxy for Greatness.