Doing it “Right”

As an engineer I notice I’m in a minority of people who are obsessed with discovering the “right” way to do something. At the same time, I know that there’s more than one way to do it. Not only that, but the “right” way isn’t the right way until someone discovers it, and the right way becomes the wrong way once someone discovers a better way (and then does the hard work of convincing everyone else that it’s better).

When we say there’s a “right” way, we’re implying that there’s also one or more “wrong” ways, but we’re also implying some more subtle nuances:

  • The “right” way is rarely the one that’s obvious to the novice
  • The “right” way takes more time, effort, and resources up front
  • It’s the “right” way because the additional investment pays off in the long term

I think these are interesting and insightful observations. All of them are strictly tied to experience. Nobody starts their first task on their first day of work and says, “wow, I can do this two different ways… I have no other way to weight the value of these strategies, so I’ll choose the one that takes more effort, time, and money.” By default, we choose the easiest, fastest, and cheapest route available to us. We change our strategy (if ever) only after seeing the outcome of the first trial. We only change if we see that the extra investment now will pay off for us down the road.

That’s why a homebuilder only builds your house “to code”. Have you ever seen how they build their own home? They put extra reinforcing material in the foundation, they use better materials, use longer lasting shingles, and they take care to get the best people to work on it. That’s because to them, the “right” way is different if they’re building your house vs. their home. Your house is just short-term profit, but they want their home to pay them back after the long haul. This is normal, logical, and selfish behaviour.

Yet I think Engineers, Architects, and Designers have some malfunction in their DNA that makes them obsessed with doing what’s in their client’s best long term interest even if there’s no benefit for them personally. There’s some kind of obsessive-compulsive aversion to a sub-optimal design. I would argue that it’s a prerequisite for those professions.

This often leads to frustrating conversations with clients, because the Engineer (not usually that good with social interactions to begin with) is trying to convince the client that they’re going to have to spend more money than they’d planned, it’s going to take longer than they thought, and it’s going to be more difficult than they’d imagined. That is, in fact, what the client is paying for: experience. The Engineer (who is a crazy deviant, always in search of some mythical “right” way of doing things) doesn’t understand why the client is upset, since they’ll be saving a boatload of anguish in the long term.

The most frequent complaint about Engineers has to be that they make things “too complicated”, and to be certain, you can take it too far, but what we’re really doing is inhabiting the losing end of every argument. As Engineers, we’re asking people to endure pain now for the promise of a better life later. If that were easy, the dessert industry would have perished long ago.

2 thoughts on “Doing it “Right”

  1. Ken McLaughlin

    Great post Scott! It always amazes me how complex even the simplest process are when you get into the details, different scenarios and variability. These details create complexity and if not managed (planned for) result in a solution that is hacked together and clugy, rather than an elegant, simple, intuitive system.

    Measure twice, cut once!

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