Why Should Engineers Give Themselves Awards?

Because engineers look good in evening wear (and so does the profession)

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I recently attended a couple of IEEE award ceremonies and it got me to thinking about awards in our profession. A lot of effort and money is spent in sustaining an awards program. Why do we do it?

I’ve heard it said that awards are meant as an incentive to engineers to pursue more original and imaginative work, but it strikes me as unlikely that anyone in his or her daily work would be influenced by the possibility of winning such an award. However, in a more general and diffuse way, the acknowledgment and rewarding of achievements does contribute in an important way to our sense of professionalism and to preserving engineering history.

As I watched awards being passed out, I was prepared to be bored, but instead I was pleasantly surprised to feel proud of the achievements being extolled from the dais. Though the awards went to individuals, I thought: We did this, we engineers. These are things we accomplished together. Every great discovery or invention comes from an entangled network of contributions to which we all contribute.

How can we maximize the value of awards? Having been part of the IEEE’s awards process in past years, I remember wanting the awards to be prestigious and to be well publicized. It is an opportunity for engagement with the public, and raising public respect for engineers was something we wanted to do. So public relations people would craft press releases that would be sent out to major newspapers and publications—and then, inevitably, ignored. Unless it’s a Nobel Prize or an Oscar, the public apparently doesn’t care.

From time to time, I see full-page ads in national newspapers describing awards given out by organizations that I have never heard of, given to unknown people, and for things that I have no clue about. This is expensive, and I wonder: Why do they sponsor such ads? Very few people, other than their own members, have any interest in this, and the organizations have more direct and cheaper ways to reach their own members. On the other hand, if the IEEE awards had a page in, say, The New York Times, I’d probably be calling friends to brag about it.

Fortunately, we don’t need such ads anymore, thanks to the tech revolution and what I’ll call the “Google effect.” Now engineers don’t lack for public respect. For our own esteem, however, we would still like to have iconic, famous engineers we can look toward. Within our own community, fame is often established through publications. I still remember the names of the authors of the textbooks I used in college. Early in my career, I even felt apprehensive on the occasions of meeting such august personages. But awards also help establish and confirm reputations.

The more prestige the award has, the more reputation enhancing it is. Such prestige depends on the history of the award, who the winners have been, the amount of prize money, and the award’s place in the established hierarchy of such awards. Giving the award to a celebrated person helps gain prestige for the award, but sometimes this means that it is the organization being honored by the recipient, rather than the other way around. The risk then is that the designated recipient wouldn’t even want to attend the ceremony, preferring instead that the certificate be mailed. What a humiliation that would be for the organization!

Ultimately for me, awards are a little like the “Intel Inside” logo. Whenever I see that logo, I think what an ingenious advertising theme it is. Intel takes its brilliant but anonymous chip, lost inside the big box of other chips, and gives it a presence on the outside—just as our awards do for our “Engineers Inside.”

This article appears in the September 2016 print issue as “Why Give Engineers Awards?”

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