Are Good Engineers Born or Bred?

By Steve Breit, V.P. Engineering

I’ve been doing a lot of interviewing as we grow our engineering team. I often say that hiring is the most important part of my job and also the hardest part. Like any sensible technology company, Coventor wants to hire the best engineers we can find. Good engineers love engineering. They love to build, to create, to innovate, to solve problems. Good engineers are methodical and persistent, but also bring engineering judgment and intuition that helps them arrive at solutions efficiently. Good engineers can’t help doing engineering – it’s who they are. Over the years, I’ve observed that good engineers are way more productive than mediocre engineers. The difference in productivity can be astounding, in excess of 2 or 3X for the best engineers. The trick, at least during the hiring process, is to discern which candidates are the good engineers. You can’t just look at academic degrees, skills claimed, or work experience to tell the difference.

The question “are good engineers born or bred?” is very much like the “nature versus nurture” debate about raising children. Except for the perfect parents of perfect children, many parents (certainly this one) come to realize that children are born with certain personality traits, innate talents and interests. Our job as parents is to help children make the most of what they were given at birth. So too, with engineers. I believe that most, maybe all, good engineers were born with some intrinsic talents and interests that make them well suited to engineering. For instance, some people tend to think spatially (in 2D or 3D) while others tend to think verbally. Just ask someone to drive to a place they’ve never been before and give them a choice of a map or verbal instructions to figure out how to get there and you’ll learn their natural tendency. If you’re looking for a good mechanical engineer, you want someone who thinks spatially. Maybe you can train someone who doesn’t think spatially to think that way, but it will be a lot of work and may never come naturally.

Our job as parents, and the job of our education system, is to make sure that all children get enough exposure to the possibilities of engineering and science that those who have innate talents and interest will self select for those careers. I was fortunate that my father was an electrical engineer and taught me at an early age, starting at 5 or 6, to work with tools and happily explained things electrical to me. All he had to do was get me started and I was off and running. Children with non-technical parents probably won’t get exposed as early. I applaud the growing emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in the U.S. primary and secondary education systems. At least many more youngsters will be exposed to the challenges that make engineering and science so appealing for some of us.

I’ve asked and answered the question in the title. That leaves me (Coventor, really) with the challenge of figuring out which candidates for our job openings are really the natural born engineers. I’ve developed a couple questions that I ask during job interviews that reveal innate talents and inclinations. I won’t tell you exactly what I ask; suffice it to say that I look for some evidence of intrinsic interest in engineering, math, science or coding prior to college. The questions aren’t fool proof and certainly not the only criteria for hiring, but they do shed some light which, together with other questioning and tests, gives us a fairly complete picture of potential new hires. I’m really proud of the exceptional technical team we’ve built at Coventor. Their talents, interests, creativity, and collaboration are critical to our success. That’s why hiring good, make that great, engineers, is the most important part of my job.

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