Don't Call Yourself a Programmer

I'm a frequent visitor to the PhysicsForums career section, I try to give the advice I wish I had received when I was younger. I saw a really interesting post this week, Don't Call Yourself a Programmer.

There is a lot of good stuff here. I think the single biggest eye-opener in the whole article is the focus on money. As an engineer/programmer/technical-whatever in the business world, you exist to make the company money. This seems to be a surprisingly difficult concept, given how often it comes up in the career section of the forum.

I like using concepts in new contexts, and I think this one is really useful for understanding the difference between being a scientist and an engineer in America. I've pondered this subject a lot, because when I was little I was absolutely sure I wanted to be a scientist, and I went to college to be a scientist, and I ended up as an engineer.

In a certain sense, the tasks of an engineer and a scientist are very similar. You conduct experiments, write technical papers or reports, go to meetings, and so forth. However, very few people see these activities as the same.

The biggest difference is in the end. An engineer is almost always trying to make a product, something you can sell in the market. A scientist is trying to advance our knowledge about a subject. Science is typically seen as more pure than engineering, which is kind of dirty, since it is about money.

Due to this difference in final causes, most young people perceive scientist to be a higher prestige profession than engineer. Being a Thomist, this implicitly Aristotelian perspective amuses me.

Where the disconnect occurs is in the actual work of a typical scientist and a typical engineer. While in theory young scientists are bravely advancing the frontiers of knowledge, in practice they are grinding away at their PI's latest project, sequencing yet another strain of E. Coli. Everything you need to do is new, in a certain sense of never having been done before, but not really groundbreaking.

Rutherford's famous quip about all of science either being physics or stamp-collecting seems to be more and more true. And I'm not so sure about physics anymore.

Unlike the scientist, the engineer is focused on making a thing that has never existed before. Sometimes this does not involve new understanding, but in my own experience I have seen plenty of new discoveries come out of engineering work that would have been worthy of a dissertation in academia. The real difference is in the end that is pursued, in a sense the discoveries are accidental or secondary to the process, whereas in the scientist's case these discoveries are the whole point of the exercise.

Having seen both sides of the coin, I have come to doubt that pursuing pure science is more effective than trying to make stuff, and having the discoveries come by accident. If I were to win the lottery, I would love to investigate the biographies of famous scientists over the past 500 years [scientist wasn't even a word in English until 1834], because I have a theory that many people we now call scientists spent a great deal of time doing what we now call engineering, and their science was the better for it.

To bring this back to the beginning, in the engineering world you can stick your head in the sand and pretend it isn't about money, but if you can understand a business perspective you will be much more successful. It isn't hard for this to become perverse, but engineering is about efficiency and performing miracles with constrained resources. For a scientist, the money issue is hidden, but still present. You really can pretend that this is all about knowledge and discovery and whatnot, because the PI and the lab manager make all that happen.