That maker misunderstanding
One problem I’m faced with everyday in Indonesia — not exclusive to this country, alas, but proheminent enough I notice it time and again — is that real makers are hard to find. I sort of see it as a problem of society and where we’re going (I don’t like it much), and a huge problem of education. Society first: our collective self seem to only value rapid success, even more so in the Internet and mobile devices age. I see kids everyday who believe that overnight success is easy. Funnily when I point out that in most cases they cite there was a huge amount of work before the product was released (yes, even Facebook which nevertheless remains a piece of crap bad idea), they are quick to dismiss and give me tens of examples where it worked as they say. In society, like all other devs, I have had dozens of people approaching me with the next [insert your popular app or service of the day] idea. Some better than others. Most not worth mentioning apart for laughs. Where this gets worrying, to me, is that traditional engineering follows that trend as well. Immediate benefits without long tedious hard work is just not compatible with what we do, and I believe an integral part of education is teaching the students the value of effort.
In the old days, meaning my old days, every engineer knew how to calculate, how to draw (technical drawings), how to read data from compiled tables, how to analyze a problem and perform back-of-the-envelope calculations, and how to operate workshop machinery… and mostly, it came with the early realization that understanding how something is made is not the same as being able to make it yourself. Transport that to today and what we see is the following:
- kids don’t calculate anymore, they type the calculation in Google search field. I had to swallow a bit of puke in my mouth the first time I saw that.
- they also think that they can draw when they completed their 15 minutes training video on SolidWorks. The fact they cannot conceptualize a problem, analyze it, let alone propose a solution doesn’t come to their attention.
- they cannot read data from tables, they can only search for it. While I recognize this is a valuable time saver, particularly when the data is generated on the spot, it takes away everything that your peripheral vision was grabbing when reading one data: the two lines above and below, which may sometimes hold an answer to your problem or a future problem.
- I have noticed a generalized lack of understanding of orders of magnitude. For example, as I work in nanotechnology, when someone gives me a length in kilometers where pico meters were expected, that someone should expect to fail his/her exams. Appreciating the fundamental units is necessary in engineering. Confusing metric tons and kilograms is important. Giving the same mass to a plane and a car is a bad mistake.
- workshop experience is a real problem. I’ve experienced huge delays recently because a workshop said “no problems” to work with stainless steel, when the only metal they ever worked was aluminum. That’s not the same, at all.
And then, there are all the idea people. I don’t know how to break it to you mildly, so I’ll be blunt: your ideas have no value. When they come with a detailed business and implementation plan, and a prototype, they may have value. That’s it. And only will you realize that they require real work to be made. That’s why I value makers so much. In interviews, it’s really easy to spot the makers from the idea people. I run away from idea people. The makers are able to conceptualize something to solve a problem easily, passionately. They are also able to describe something they’ve made inside-out. They are able to point to a detail and procrastinate over it for hours. They are never quick to dismiss something and weight various factors. To a maker, a piece of forged metal is not the same as a piece that was machined. A maker appreciates the Apple Watch and immediately thinks about he process to make them, the alloys, the tolerances, and how they’ve impacted other products (I’m convinced that the iPhones have benefited from what they’ve learnt in the process of creating the watch for instance), and marvel at the pressure sensitive screen (how did they get that to work)? Similar reasoning goes for software development by the way.
As I’m writing these lines I am on my way back from a nanorech symposium, where graphene is now an overblown hype, and I have met very few makers but very good ones. People who ship products. People who roll the dice.
We do live in strange times.