Sniffen Packets

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Why do we do Engineering?

Some colleagues asked me why I’m not retired yet. Good question, and one I ask sometimes myself! One easy answer is available from FireCalc. I have a 30% chance of a successful retirement from here, and a >99% chance in 2030, so here we go. But that’s silly; it’s not like I’m actually going to stop working in 2030. I could no more stop working than I could stop breathing. Why not?

In service to Order

There are people who go through the world experiencing it as it is. That’s most of us! And nearly all of us have days where we slip and make things a little worse: we cut someone off driving, or we drop a piece of litter and leave it there. I figure every human does some of that, sometimes. But then if you look carefully, you’ll see some people who reliably add a little bit of order back into the world: they take a menu from the stack and straighten it; they open the gate to the park and be sure it’s closed and latched child-proof behind them; they clean as they go in the kitchen; they pick up litter as they hike. Listening to a few of these—and they’re over-represented among my friends—I mostly hear them brush it off. “It’s nothing,” they say. Or, “It’s what anyone would do.” Empirical evidence says anyone does not do this. “Okay,” they fall back to, “I have to.”

“I have to.”

I have to too. And for me, it’s a prayer. Every little element of order I add to the world is one more brick in the wall for the fight against the last enemy. Every opportunity missed is a waste of the sunlight that grew the plants that fed me today.

The Sons of Martha

There’s a name for people who feel like this. Kipling understood, and told us so in The Sons of Martha. Canada understands—they had Kipling adapt his poem to the Obligation of an Engineer (but go read the poem first):

In the presence of these my betters and my equals in my calling, I bind myself upon my honour and cold iron, that, to the best of my knowledge and power, I will not henceforward suffer or pass, or be privy to the passing of, bad workmanship or faulty material in aught that concerns my works before mankind as an engineer, or in my dealings with my own soul before my Maker.

My time I will not refuse; my thought I will not grudge; my care I will not deny towards the honour, use, stability and perfection of any works to which I may be called to set my hand.

My fair wages for that work I will openly take. My reputation in my calling I will honourably guard; but, I will in no way go about to compass or wrest judgment or gratification from any one with whom I may deal.

And further, I will early and warily strive my uttermost against professional jealousy or the belittling of my working colleagues, in any field of their labour.

For my assured failures and derelictions, I ask pardon beforehand, of my betters and my equals in my calling here assembled; praying, that in the hour of my temptations, weakness and weariness, the memory of this my obligation and of the company before whom it was entered into, may return to me to aid, comfort, and restrain.

What a challenge, to let no bad workmanship pass. What does it ask of us, if we truly commit to leave a world of proper materials, properly installed? Constant vigilance, surely. And I find it spills over into those little prayers of order and of shoring up society. As Kipling tells us:

Not as a ladder from earth to Heaven, not as a witness to any creed,
But simple service simply given to his own kind in their common need.


So first let’s pray to Vulcan, ugly god of forge and flame,
And also wise Minerva, now we glorify your name,
May you aid our ship’s designers now and find it in your hearts
To please help the lowest bidders who’ve constructed all her parts!

As we’re lifting off it’s Mercury who’ll help us in our need
Not only as the patron god of health and flight and speed
We hope that he will guard us as we’re starting on our trip
As the god of Thieves and Liars, like the ones who built this ship.
—Steve Savitsky, A Rocket Rider’s Prayer

For all the reasons above, I’m an engineer and I’m an engineer every waking hour. And for reasons I don’t really introspect on, I’m a communications engineer. If the Twelve Olympians descended from their thrones, nearly all of my engineering brethren would follow Athena or Hephaestus. And I love their ideas and their work! But I’d be off with Hermes, messenger and healer and psychopomp. It’s why I’m fascinated by amateur radio as a hobby. It’s why I work on the Internet:

We get to connect people.

It’s why I landed at Meta: WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram connect billions-with-a-b of people daily. Billions of expats call home for free using WhatsApp. That’s incredible; that’s a public service on a scale that leaves me nothing for comparison. And it’s the kind of work I expect to continue to do as long as my hands can hold a pen.