Yes, yes, I know: You are neither the inventor of the implantable pacemaker nor the cofounder of Apple. What I’m asking really is what’s your preferred engineering philosophy? Because, superficially at least, these two titans of technology, who died within weeks of each other, talked about two very different approaches to engineering.
I’ve had Wilson Greatbatch’s book The Making of the Pacemakeron my shelf almost as long as I’ve been at IEEE Spectrum. But, I’m embarrassed to say, I’ve never read it. The other day, I skimmed through some sections looking for a pearl of wisdom or two and I found this on page 229:
"When I pick a project on which to work, I don’t generally look for a problem to solve. Rather, I look for a place to use something I can do very well. The medical profession is full of problems that are probably insoluble. I have known some engineers... who have admittedly made an entire career out of fruitlessly picking away at such a problem.... In contrast, one thing engineers can do very well is make pulses. We do it in radar, in sonar, in computers, and in metronomes. Where can I use a pulse? I can use it to drive a heart. And thus evolves a pacemaker."
I interpret Greatbatch as saying that you start with the tool, find a problem that needs that tool, and then build a system that will apply that tool to solve the problem.
Contrast that with Jobs, quoted in a 2006 interview with Newsweek and MSNBC (the Wall Street Journal has collected a trove of Jobs gems here):
“When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions. Most people just don’t put in the time or energy to get there.”
Jobs starts with the problem and presumably applies several different tools until he comes up with a system that applies just the right tool.
So, deep down which type of engineer are you? Wilson Greatbatch or Steve Jobs?
Samuel K. Moore
Samuel K. Moore is the senior editor at IEEE Spectrum in charge of semiconductors coverage. An IEEE member, he has a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering from Brown University and a master's degree in journalism from New York University.
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