What Does an Engineer Look Like?

What does an engineer look like? Engineers come in all shapes, colors, races, and sizes. A cookie-cutter engineer doesn’t exist.

But ask this question to Hollywood, and you’ll hear something completely different. They’ll describe engineers as antisocial-looking geeks who are at times slobs.

I’ll admit, there’s some truth to this stereotype. I can’t lie.

But, there’s much more to this question of, “what does an engineer look like?”

Hollywood is without a doubt missing many of the puzzle pieces. As there’s absolutely no way you can zone in and place all engineers into a single looks category.

So, I hope this article paints a new picture of engineers for you. Because the stereotypical image has given the public the wrong description of engineers.

What does an engineer look like in the real world? 

  • Do they all wear glasses with a narrow tie?
  • Are they all skinny?
  • Is their hair a mess?
  • Are they all socially awkward looking?
  • Are they all single men?

I can add a bunch more questions that I’ve heard over the years. Frankly, each of them gives me a good laugh.

Truth is, engineers are just as diverse as the number of colors you’d find in a flower house.

So there’s no way I can definitively answer, “what does an engineer look like?”

To take a stab though, there are both male and female engineers. I know some super amazing and exceptionally smart female engineers.

Not only are they great engineers, but they’re more tenacious than many male engineers I know. This is a great quality to have as an engineer too because you’re zeroed in on completing your work.

Then moving on, there are engineers of every race and color.

Remember when Forrest Gump famously said,

“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” 

It’s the same in engineering. Engineers aren’t any specific race, gender, color, height, weight, and the list goes on.

You’ll never know who you’ll see when you walk into an engineering company.

In the end, engineers are humans like anyone else. They just have an exceptional ability in certain types of work. That’s all!

NASA’s engineering workforce 

apollo 11 moon work
Apollo 11 moon work (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Investigative journalist A.J.S. Rayl said the following about the NASA program:

If your image of a NASA engineer or scientist is that of a white male in a crisp white shirt with black clip-on tie and pocket protector, think again. NASA has evolved and so has it workforce. Drawing on the talents of individuals from all nationalities and cultural backgrounds, NASA is looking to acquire the best of what humanity has to offer.

The point is, there’s no one size fits all look for engineers. And this is coming from NASA, the pioneers in space travel.

I’d say at one point, they were the cream of the crop in certain fields of engineering.

They’re the same agency that brought us the Apollo missions. The missions of taking humans from Earth to the Moon!

In return, all engineers everywhere received amazing NASA engineering mindset lessons. Lessons that have inspired so many new engineers of all races and colors.

What do I look like?

Most people never guess I’m an engineer. I’ve been working as an engineer for over 15 years, and it’s still the same.

I simply don’t tick off the engineer description markers that the media puts out.

Plus, I’ve been bodybuilding since I was 15 years old. This alone is a huge curveball that throws people off.

Below is a photo of me from a competition I had in Los Angeles when I was in my twenties.

muscle mayhem competition
Muscle Mayhem Competition in 2010

I was a hardcore engineer at the time. But at the same time, I lived a full bodybuilding lifestyle.

I weight trained 5 times a week, and I had an offseason and competition season. All the while, I ate 6 to 8 meals a day, and I weighed everything I ate down to the last gram. It’s pretty nuts, as I think back about it now.

In short, people thought my life revolved around fitness.

When people asked me about my profession, and I answered, I received all types of wild responses. Almost every person was in shock.

The following is a shortlist of the responses I received:

  • “No way, man!”
  • “Stop bullshitting, you’re no engineer!”
  • “Bro, you’re a personal trainer. I see you in the gym all the time!”
  • “No way you could have gotten through engineering. That shits hard!”

I was by no means offended. It’s human nature to judge others using data you’ve accumulated through your environment. In other words, you judge a book by its cover.

Shattering preconceived biases

I found it amusing how people had preconceived images of engineers and I didn’t fit the bill.

It got to the point where they wanted me to prove I wasn’t bullshitting. It was a tad annoying though, as nothing I said convinced them…

I could care less what others thought though. It made no difference to me if people thought I was a full-time bodybuilder or fitness enthusiast.

I just loved everything I was doing, engineering and bodybuilding-wise. That’s all that mattered to me!

But, helping shatter the preconceived image I found to be important. Because it helps encourage a younger generation to enter the field.

In the end, I was able to teach and inform others to not judge a book by its cover. So it worked out in helping shatter preconceived biases, even if it was for a small group of people.

What do other engineers look like?

diversity in engineering

To many people’s surprise, many competing bodybuilders are engineers. In fact, many of my engineering buddies are bodybuilders.

If you were a member of the bodybuilding.com forums back in the day, you’d know what I’m talking about. There was a super popular forum section called the ‘Miscellaneous’ section. Many of the members were engineers.

So you can see the problem here, as bodybuilding has a stereotype of its own.

To the public, all bodybuilders are dumb stupid meatheads. So how can a nerdy engineer be a bodybuilder? It’s cognitive dissonance on full blast.

But that’s an entirely different subject though.

Moving on, I’ve visited almost every large engineering company. This includes HP, Microsoft, Tesla, SpaceX, Google, Apple, and so on.

The working engineers are all very diverse.

I will point out, the diversity is much greater in high-tech companies.

In more traditional engineering fields, the diversity in comparison is much less. I’m talking about fields like power and civil.

This is because these fields aren’t viewed as cool and sexy. But also, K-12 schools don’t properly market these professions to parents and children.

Problems with stereotypes in engineering

Stereotypes turn children off from pursuing engineering. This is problematic for many reasons.

For one, it’s limiting the future of children who have a knack for engineering. Children who are passionate about math and science.

More worrisome is what some parents have told me. They’ve said they don’t want their daughters entering a male-dominated profession. They don’t want others to discriminate against them.

Yes, most engineers are men without a doubt. But, there’s still A LOT of female engineers I know. And they’re amazing engineers!

What’s more, this stereotype leads nations to not maximizing their population’s talent pool. They don’t funnel their brightest minds into professions that’ll build their future. Where the brightest minds can be of any gender, race, or color.

To drive the point home, former president Obama said in 2013,

“One of the things that I really strongly believe in is that we need to have more girls interested in math, science, and engineering. We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields and that means that we’ve got a whole bunch of talent…not being encouraged the way they need to.”

Important Note: right now there’s no shortage of STEM graduates. In fact, I know many jobless engineers. 

Thus, it’s important only kids with a passion for engineering enter the field. Not push every kid into engineering because it’s the “right thing” to do.

Maybe little junior has a deep passion for art. If you then force him into engineering, he simply won’t succeed.   

This is one of the contributing factors to jobless engineers

Created biases in hiring practices

These engineering stereotypes also lead to biases that propagate through companies.

For example, hiring managers may only look for white males for engineering positions. This is not only wrong, but it frankly can hurt the bottom line of a company.

Let me tell you,  bad engineers come in all shapes, colors, and sizes. There are no ways to tell how good or bad an engineer is by judging the outside cover.

I can list many hiring biases I’ve personally heard over the years. For the sake of brevity though, I’ll only give you one example.

Some software engineering hiring managers prefer to only hire candidates with Russian-sounding names. For those not in the loop, Russia as a country produces exceptionally sharp engineers.

But again, hiring managers need to evaluate candidates individually. You simply can’t generalize over an entire population.

“What does an engineer look like?” wrap up

Engineers look like the person next to you when you go out in public. I guarantee you won’t be able to pick an engineer out from a crowd in most instances.

So, I hope overtime Hollywood further diversifies the portrayed image of engineers. To be fair, I’ve noticed a swing in how they’re slowly now portraying engineers.

In the end, if you have a passion for engineering, don’t let the stereotypical image sway you.

What matters is your passion for your subject.  Also, your commitment level to becoming the most awesome engineer.

Elon Musk summarized it best with the type of employees he wants at Tesla. In his below message, he’s referencing the employees in Tesla’s artificial intelligence department.

A PhD is definitely not required. All that matters is a deep understanding of AI & ability to implement NNs in a way that is actually useful (latter point is what’s truly hard). Don’t care if you even graduated high school.

The point is, Elon just wants people who can get work done. It doesn’t matter if you have a PhD, you’re the color purple, or 10-feet tall.

What does an engineer look like to you? What did you grow up thinking an engineer looks like? Do you fit the bill as the stereotypical engineer? Do you find diversity has grown in the engineering profession over the years? 

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