Who’s better: Tom Brady or Steve Jobs?
During the World Cup, I wrote a blog entryabout technology in football (i.e. soccer). Owing to the popularity of that light-hearted techno-babble and the excitement surrounding the start of the NFL regular season, I have decided to write another (silly) article about another (fruitless) pastime of mine: fantasy football. I have done a lot of thinking about fantasy football (for those of you unfamiliar, fantasy football is detailed here), and my conclusion is that it is asuperior waste of time.
Is it reasonable for grown men and women (usually men) to justify spending several hours a week shuffling starting lineups and agonizing over opponents and matchups in hopes of winning what usually amount to about $500 (a.k.a. compensation equivalent to about $2.34/hour invested) for the champion? Of course not! But, as a self-admitted (committed?) fantasy addict, I have to admit it is fun, it makes Sundays more enjoyable, and it has me thinking…what about Fantasy Engineering? Is it possible to come up with the Engineering equivalent of fantasy football where we can pick a few categories for engineering skills, such as intellect, or creativity, or work ethic and score them on a points system? I don’t think Fantasy Engineering would be very fun, but it has me thinking about how to evaluate the mostly subjective skills of engineers, and relate them to quantifiable metrics.
My main focus is to evaluate the various engineering positions. What are the specific traits of these engineering positions, and how would you quantify the relative value of the person filling that position? In football, Tom Brady is clearly more valuable than Alex Smith. Therefore, it is reasonable to argue that in the real life engineering trenches, some people are more valuable than others. I’ve looked at past and present scientists and engineers, and tried to come up with my list of the top ranked “players” in each position. To stay in the football theme, I am going to create an engineering team which is analogous to a typical fantasy football team setup: Quarterback, Running Back, Wide Receiver, Tight End and Kicker.
Engineer Equivalent: Project Manager/Team Leader.
Key Attributes: Charismatic, Superior Communication Skills, Motivating, Organized, Level-headed Temperament, Broad Technical Understanding, Forward Thinking/Visionary
Description: Just as in football, no engineering team can be successful without a charismatic leader. The project leader must be able to organize his team with a calm, clear, and collected approach (think Joe Montana during the 49er glory years). The team leader can have inferior technical skills to the other engineers, but this is compensated for with visionary thinking and the ability to absorb and evaluate a broad range of technical details. I have worked with PMs with this ability and it is impressive: you know they cannot do the work themselves, but they tend to have an uncanny ability to immediately understand the implications of the technical data. Moreover, the best PMs can take the data, and see how the results impact the future direction of the company/technology. Most engineers don’t think with this futurist/opportunist mentality, this is why a good PM is essential; they don’t handcuff their minds with excuses for why something won’t work.
- Steve Jobs—Does this really need an explanation?
- Richard Feynman—The gregarious genius knew more about more topics than just about anyone to ever live. He foresaw the nanotech revolution, and dabbled in field far beyond Physics. Read his autobiography or his Caltech Lectures and you’ll immediately understand why he is, in my estimation, the most well-rounded scientist to ever live.
- J. Robert Oppenheimer—Oppenheimer oversaw the most ambitious scientific project in the history of modern science: the Manhattan Project. Say what you will about the negative impact of the research, you can’t help but admit that the challenges Oppenheimer faced were immense, and the historical impact of the success of this project changed human history. Imagine if we could assemble a similar team of scientists, headed by Oppenheimer, to solve our energy issues! That’s why he’s #3 on my list.
Engineer Equivalent: Lead Engineer.
Key Attributes: Brilliant, Hard Working, Focused, Instinctual, Intuitive, Fearless
Description: In football, a great running back is a quarterback’s best friend because he takes the pressure off by keeping the defense honest. In engineering, the project manager’s best friend is his lead scientist. The lead engineer and the project manager tend to have complementary skills. What the PM lacks in technical ability is more than made up by the lead engineer. The lead engineer doesn’t necessarily need good communication skills because the only thing that matters is results.
- Leonardo Da Vinci—If I had to pick one mind upon which to make a company, it would be Leonardo Da Vinci. Some might argue that Tesla is a better pick (listed #2), but Da Vinci lived hundreds of years before the Industrial Revolution. His mind was so creative and prolific, I can’t imagine what he could have conceived of with modern conveniences like computers and CNC machines.
- Nikola Tesla—Look at his resume, its remarkable!
- Thomas Edison—Despite his achievement of giving us the light bulb, I cannot in good faith let anyone who would promote DC power distribution be any higher than #3. Nevertheless, the man was a genius and responsible for countless advances in technology.
Engineer Equivalent: Specialist/Theorists.
Key Attributes: Smartest guy in the room…and knows it!
Description: Terrell Owens. Chad Ochocinco. Michael Crabtree. This list goes on…Wide receivers are gifted athletes, and they’ll tell you that any chance they get. In engineering, I find that the theorists are the “know-it-alls” because they can figure anything out with a pen and paper and they don’t even need to perform the experiment. A great theorist can tell you the answer long before you make the measurement, and they love to brag about this fact long after the result confirm the prediction. Ok, I’m embellishing somewhat, but you get the idea. In fairness, the best theorists need to be a little arrogant because they have to make authoritative statements without the aid of experiments. To me, that is a scary existence, I prefer to let experimentation determine if I’m wrong or right. If you are going to survive as a theorist, you have to brave, cocky, and smart!
- James Clerk Maxwell—The following statement is 90% true: every upper level undergraduate and graduate course I took while at Duke and UCSD began with a review of Maxwell’s Equations. I could have skipped the first 2 lectures of any grad-level class and missed absolutely nothing. Learning microwave? Start with Maxwell’s Equations. Learning optics? Start with Maxwell’s Equations. Learning Shakespeare? Start with Maxwell’s Equations…
- Albert Einstein—I could be wrong, but I think Maxwell has been more valuable for our particular field of Microwave Engineering than Einstein. But, Einstein’s contributions and abilities speak for themselves. Plus, I give extra credit to anyone who could do Physics while improvising solos on a violin.
- Isaac Newton—Here is my problem with high school science: most “facts” you learn in high school Physics and Chemistry turn out to be wrong, at least in part. This is why Newton is #3–his so-called Laws are in fact special cases of the actual way Nature is. Hence, Einstein > Newton.
Honorable Mention: Victor Veselago
Engineer Equivalent: The guy who builds stuff.
Key Attributes: Skilled in all aspects of design and manufacturing
Description: In football, the tight end tends to be a player gifted in all aspects of offense. They have to block, they have to catch, and they have to understand defensive strategy to pick up blitzes. The engineering tight end is the guy who likes to get his hands dirty. While the lead engineer and theorist are likely to have Masters or PhD degrees, the best tight ends have a blue-collar background. In the world of company-building and widget making, the engineering tight end is absolutely critical helping you make products that are as robust as they are elegant. The engineering bourgeois like to focus on electrical performance, but sometimes packaging and manufacturing tricks are what matters more. Teams can get away with sub-par tight ends, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
- Jamie Hyneman—If you watch enough Mythbusters, you’ll learn to appreciate Mr. Hyneman’s skills. Jamie is a “man’s man” kind of engineer. If you were stranded on a desert island, you would make Jamie your leader because he’d be your best chance of survival. Only a true blue-collar type engineer would sport such an ambitious mustache.
- Adam Savage—In keeping with the Mythbusters theme, I make Adam Savage my #2 rank for tight end. While I agree that Adam has superior skills to most, I think he is a “poor man’s” Jamie. Sorry Adam. If it makes you feel better, you wear cool shirts.
- Ferenc Marki—Yes, I’m biased because he is my father, but I’d put his manufacturing know-how up against anyone. Little known fact: my father was a professional jeweler in his teens and early 20’s. The knowledge my dad gained in metallurgy and 3D construction are clearly evident in the products that Marki Microwave offers today. I’m sure anyone who looks under the hood of a Marki T3 mixer would agree.
Engineer Equivalent: Old curmudgeon engineer
Key Attributes: Experience, Experience, Experience
Description: My first blog was about the engineering “grey beards.” These are the engineers that have been around forever and know just about everything. While they don’t use all of the modern software and design techniques to do their job (that is left to the youngsters), these old curmudgeons always have a way of bailing out the team on 4th down. The old curmudgeon might not be used on every play, but they are absolutely vital because they possess valuable information that cannot be learned in books or simulations—they have true wisdom. The last second contributions of the designated Grey Beard can make a marked difference in the outcome of the project.
(Fictional Character) Power Rankings:
I respectfully decline to name real people; we have all met a few of them. My advice: do what you can to learn from them.
- Prof. Dumbledore