Do Engineers Know Everything?

Do engineers know everything? Certainly not! Not even close. Engineers know a lot, but there’s just too much knowledge for an engineer to know everything.

Heck, combine all engineers together, and they still wouldn’t know everything. To better understand, we’ll go over what engineers do know. Then, we’ll go over how you can learn to know more.

Young engineers who think they know everything

reading books endlessly

Almost always, young graduating engineers think they know everything. They come marching out of the ivory towers ready to conquer the world.

I compare this to babies, who think their entire world revolves around them. Then once they grow older, they realize how many countless other people exist.

It’s the same concept in engineering. When you operate in a small university bubble, you can’t grasp how wide and deep engineering fields are. Because a school’s curriculum sets you on a single narrow path.

This is no fault of young engineers though. It’s just part naivety and part poor engineering education.

How much do I know as an engineer?

I’ve been a working engineer for over 15 years, and there’s so much I don’t know. I even try to learn something new everyday. But what I find is, the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.

When I was a young engineer though, I also thought I knew everything. I always figured once I graduated, I’d hit the ground running in any job. Because what was my entire grueling education for then?!

Boy, was I wrong.

There’s a reason why engineering work experience trumps formal education. Engineering education doesn’t prepare you for the workforce.

When I started working, I quickly found out how little I knew. At one point, I even felt my education was useless. To top it off, I had the imposter syndrome as an engineer.

Even with work experience though, there’ll be so much you won’t know. And what comforted me was, I realized I wasn’t alone. All engineers have huge holes in their knowledge base.

Specialized fields in engineering

closeup of electronic circuit board with CPU microchip electronic components

Today, even when you drill deep into a field, the field becomes wide. Every field of engineering is perpetually expanding with new knowledge flooding in.

So, even if you devoted every waking minute of your day to your niche, you’d still be behind. Let’s use power engineering as an example. The following are just some of the branches in the power engineering field alone:

  • Transmission lines
  • Low voltage power systems
  • High voltage power systems
  • Substations
  • Lighting
  • Power system analysis
  • PLC programming
  • Renewable energy

Even more eye opening, I can drill deeper into each subniche listed above. Then a step further, power engineering is only one field in electrical engineering. The following are some other branches of electrical engineering alone:

  • Controls
  • Electronics
  • Microelectronics
  • Signal processing
  • Wireless communication
  • Instrumentation
  • Photonics

Each subject matter no matter how small, is constantly evolving. In parallel, parenting new fields.

Senior engineers with decades of experience

I know some amazing power engineers, who’ve been practicing for near 50 years. They even constantly reference materials in their work. They review codes and guidelines, equations, and so much more.

I don’t blame them either. There’s just too much to know and our brains unfortunately have limitations.

In the same vein, there’s no guess work in engineering. If you have even 1% of doubt over something, you need to quell the doubt. This means verifying with outside reliable sources.

A great engineer isn’t someone who memorizes a ton load of stuff. Rather, they know where to look for information, and how to apply the information. This goes in hand with the engineering code of ethics.

High-level engineering work

I’ve noticed the higher-level work you do, the more you rely on references. Because on the cutting edge of tech, your guiding light is the work of past engineers and scientists.

So to push the marker forward in darkness, you need to humble yourself to the work of others. Frankly, it’s very rare to make one giant standalone discovery. Rather, you’ll make small incremental improvements over the work of past great minds. This is the typical paradigm for engineering inventions.

Engineering theory versus real-world application

It’s one thing to know a lot of theory. But the application of theory in the real world is a completely different animal. In the real world, you need to consider the following:

  • Human safety – will anyone get hurt?
  • Environmental impact – how will the environment change?
  • Utility – does the product meet specs and do what it’s designed for?
  • Cost – will the project remain within budget?

There’s a lot to consider, especially considering every project has unique components. For example, designing a substation in a dense city is different than in a frozen tundra. So what you think you know about designing substations may not apply in every scenario. Imagine the following questions:

  • How will near below freezing temperatures affect the rating of the electrical equipment?
  • How to increase the life of the equipment in the blistering cold?
  • Does the temperature affect the safety of the substation’s operating crew?

This is where codes and standards come into play. But even then, you’ll need to do self-research to fill in the holes. A great executed example is the design and construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. Engineering creativity peaked in the erection of this colossal bridge through endless research.

How can engineers know more?

I quickly realized the limitations of the human brain, as I stuffed more information into mine. This alone is one big reason why machines are better than humans in many lines of work.

Veering back on topic, to support my mind’s limited storage capacity, I now do the following:

  • Constantly take notes in a highly organized manner
  • Keep all my old textbooks
  • Buy new textbooks
  • Learn new methods to optimize studying and researching
  • Understand the basic core concepts of complex subjects
  • Pick up pointers from the designs of other engineers
  • Stretch my learning to all fields of engineering and beyond
  • Use first principles thinking

Just as important, is to constantly stimulate your mind with subjects in your field. Like a muscle, you need to train your mind. Otherwise, you’ll lose your technical and creative edge.

“Do engineers know everything?” wrap up

Engineers are smart, but there is SO MUCH they don’t know. Any engineer who thinks otherwise, is simply ignorant.

What’s more, any engineer who thinks they know everything isn’t a good engineer. Because great engineers by default are lifelong learners. And your true learning journey only starts after you’ve humbled yourself. I find the best way to humble yourself is to look up into the stars.

In the end, collectively, humans make up a web of knowledge. Like a big anthill, we all depend on one another to survive in today’s modern world.

How much do you think an average engineer knows? How do you gain and retain more knowledge? 

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