In my career as an engineer, I’ve noticed one thing that separates the engineering cream of the crop from the rest. It took me a long time along my engineering career to recognize it, but once it finally clicked, it was like whole profession came into focus for me. It became blindingly obvious why some engineers are head and shoulders above their colleagues, but it’s not obvious at first.

Most engineers, including myself until recently, think of engineering as being a profession whose job is to solve problems at all cost. While that may be true, it’s only true to a point. That’s only half the equation, and arguably the lesser half.

The second half is the most important ingredient. The most important quality the best engineers possess in the world is the ability to see and visualize the problem at hand. It’s not just about seeing a problem to be solved but it’s about having the ability to see the problem beyond imagination and thinking outside the box. The best engineers in the world waste no time in solving wrong problems or discussing solutions to the wrong problem.

Think about this for a minute. Without the ability to see and understand problems, the ability to solve problems is useless. Without being able to get to the root of a given issue by conducting a proper and fair root cause analysis (RCA), you can never truly solve it.

One example that illustrates this is the invention of the first car, the Ford Model T. Henry Ford is famous for declaring that had he asked people what they wanted, and they would have told him they wanted a faster horse. Ford saw the real problem – the need for safety, fast, affordable, reliable transportation. The best engineers think the same way as Ford. The best engineers don’t waste their time trying to make a faster horse. They look for ways to solve the transportation problem. The best engineers think and ask questions like why am I here? What can I do to change the present situation, what are the contingency plans? They believe that I am capable that is why I have been called to attend to the problem. The best engineers don’t talk plenty on issues but like solving issues with optimum and safer approach.

Many engineers think of their job as being to address the technical issues that their managers bring to them. Today, I’d like to invite you to break this mentality if you hope to achieve true greatness in your career as an engineer especially the young ones. You need to ask yourself if the problem you’re solving is the real problem. You need to stop and think to yourself: “Am I trying to make a faster horse, or solve the real issue?”

Never get tired of solving the right problems many times because it will present you with a different approach and skills to your engineering career.

So, this should bring an important question to mind. If you don’t already have this mentality, how do you develop it? Luckily, it’s not as difficult as you might think. The simple answer is a three-letter word: why. You need to start asking why. Why are you being assigned a certain task? Why is the company pursuing a specific project? Why is the most powerful question an engineer can ask to become better at what they do?

So my challenge to you is this: start asking why. Don’t ask with the intent to challenge your bosses, ask with the intent of getting to the heart of the issue. If you can master this skill, you’ll make great strides in becoming a truly great engineer you ever thought.


Written by: Ishmael Ansah