Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Mind of an Engineer

A young coworker of mine was married last summer.  Although he is at the stage in his marriage where he is probably still running into the bathroom and closing the door to fart rather than holding his wife's head under the covers, he has noticed that his wife didn't really understand exactly what it was going to be like being married to an engineer.  It was at that moment I realized that young engineers need mentoring not only in their technical careers, but that they - and their spouses - need mentoring on what life is like for an engineer in the outside world as well.

There was an article in NSPE's magazine that had a great example of the mind of an engineer.  I can't find it now, so I will have to explain it in my own words.  (If anyone remembers the article, author, and has a link for it, please include it in the comments so I can give proper recognition.)

Enter The Parking Lot
When a "normal" person enters a parking lot, the one thing that enters their head is "Oh, there's an open spot." and they pull right in.  If that spot happens to be close to the entrance to the building, all the better.

When an engineer enters the same parking lot, they:
  • Remember if the parking lot is one-way aisles with angled parking or 2-way aisles with straight slots, and any unique lanes to the pattern.
  • Determine the flow of traffic based on said parking lot layout.
  • Determine where the gridlock will be, knowing full well someone will wait 20 minutes for a person exiting the grocery store to unload their cart and return it to the corral in order to get that close parking spot.
  • Determine a search pattern to find an open spot while avoiding that gridlock lane from above.
  • Determine pedestrian traffic routes to and from the parking lot to the front door, all to avoid the extra safety issue of inconsiderate pedestrians that walk down the middle of the lane.
  • Determine the best possible egress route in order to avoid all the above obstacles while providing the most efficient means to reenter the regular traffic flow, be it road, stop signs, or other thoroughfares.  That also means how are they going to get out of the parking spot.  Should they back in, pull in, or pull through in order to make egress easier?  This, of course, is all based on the vehicle being driven, its blind spots, driver comfort, mirror adjustments, agility, acceleration, braking, turning radius, etc.
  • The weather.  Not just sunny, cloudy, windy, raining, snowy, or warm.  They will actually look at the thermometer in the car and recall the morning's weather report for any significant events that may happen between now and the time they plan on leaving the building.
  • Oh yes, all of that has been determined, too.  How long this errand will take.  Where in the store the items required are located.  How long to allow the spouse to browse all while still moving towards the primary goal of finishing the errand and returning home.
  • Then apply a weighted coefficient to all of those variables and calculate the best possible parking location, which may not be close to the entrance to the building to the befuddlement of the other passengers in the vehicle as to why the engineer-driver passed up that close spot for a two block walk.
And, they will do this all within that split second of first pulling into the parking lot.  That, spouses, is the mind of the person you married.  Seriously.  Ask them if, when entering a parking lot, they only look for a close spot or consider other options when finding a parking spot.

Enter the Grocery Store
I came across another example as well.  My wife and I were shopping at our local fruit and vegetable market.  (Thankfully, the parking lot is pretty small.)  After completing the shopping list, we unloaded our groceries onto the checkout conveyor -- which of course, in the split second of approaching the checkout area I calculated the most efficient lane to enter.  At that moment, I made the comment of "Worst check stand ever."

I got a weird look from the clerk and my wife posed the question "Why would say that?" in that voice that really means "You are such an ass right now. You better apologize immediately."

It so happened that it was quite the blustery day that day, and chilly, especially for Arizona standards.  The check stand also happened to be located right at the exit, so every time somebody walked past, the automatic door would open and the wind would whip through check stand.  Standing there, you would get this periodic chill and light articles on the check stand would blow around.  It was really quite annoying.

I answered my wife, "Because it's cold outside and when the door opens the wind blows everything around."

Apparently, this answer not only clarified my statement but also sufficed as an apology because the furrow in the clerk's brow relaxed and she was no longer bruising all of our produce with the amazing death grip of hers.  (No worries, I was going to dice up those tomatoes that night.)  The clerk even responded with some pleasantries as to how she wished she would have brought a jacket into work that day in addition to a sweater, not realizing that she was going to be stationed at the worst check stand ever.

Upon leaving the parking lot, my wife just couldn't let that episode go.
Wife: I still can't believe you said that.
Me: Said what?
Wife: That the checkout lady was really bad.
Me: I never said that.  I said it was the worst check STAND ever. I never said anything about it being the worst check CLERK ever.  I was very clear about what I was referring.
At that moment, my wife just sighed, recalling yet again what it is like being married to an engineer.


  1. LOL - Just made my wife read this.

    How about checkout lines at the grocery store? When I shop with my wife she always lets me pick the line. Why? Becuase when I walk up, I look at all the lines, then the items in the buggies, alertness of the cashiers (alert correlates with speed) and likelihood I can get to a line far away before someone else jumps in.

    Once in line I continue to monitor neighboring lines for continued information in case the original assessment was and I want to switch. Its also important to keep eye contact with chashiers opening new lines in case they give the "I'm open now" signal.


  2. I don't believe I have ever read a more accurate or correct description on how my mind works or how my wife (& other non-engineering types) perceive it! Wonderful post.