Friday, April 8, 2011

Ode to Old Engineers

Good Friday morning, everyone!  In my case, it really is a good Friday morning!  Robby left!

He actually vacated Bart's house before the three week mark.  Albeit he stayed five days, but he actually left of his own accord.  He left his air mattress in Bart's previously empty spare bedroom.  That makes me nervous of course.  I'm afraid he's coming back soon.  I'll let you know.

Right now, he's headed towards West Virginia.  He's going to visit another old friend.  Bart said that guy is, "Home now."  I have no idea what that means.  Hope Robby didn't rig the guy's car with some tracking device and now that the car is home, Robby is coming for a visit.  Too bad.  Better him than Bart!

So last week, not only did poor Bart have Robby to contend with and our rained out weekend at the beach, he had another rude awakening.  Bless his heart!  Bart came back to work from our long weekend to find out one of his last old engineer buddies was the end of the week.

I know I have used the word "old" twice already.  Let me clarify.  When these guys have been in engineering a minimum of 40 years, I think that qualifies them as "old engineers."  This is a bit of a tribute to them.

Bart, like all engineers of his generation, learned engineering the old fashioned way.  They learned design drawing on their drafting tables.  They learned to compute with a slide rule.  When computers came around, they learned how to program them to do what they wanted.

These guys hate modern computers.  They hate that the technology "does it for you." That isn't what they wanted in the first place.  They want to "tell" the computer what to do and when to do it, through old style programming.

Old engineers have a love-hate relationship with technology. Technology enables them to build things better, in some ways. It also causes a lot of problems, in other ways.

If you want a problem solver for issues caused by technology, you gotta find an old engineer.  Since these guys learned how to engineer the old fashioned way, they are natural problem solvers.  Why? Because they know how to go back to basics.  They know how to look at the root of a design and figure out the problem from the design level up.  Bart is this kind of old engineer.

Bart uses his engineering skills on my farm nearly every week.  I'm sure you can't imagine what a mechanical engineer, who worked 25 years in the defense industry and 15 years in railroad equipment manufacturing, can possibly find to do on my farm.  Easy.  The man is familiar with all kinds of systems, all kinds of machinery, and can fix anything.   I mean anything!

Bart can fix a faucet, a mister for the horses' stall or paddock, a toilet, a fence, a horse trailer, a flat tire, lawn mower, tractor, build a new ceiling...and on and on and on.  The man can fix stuff.  I sit by in awe and watch.

Comparatively, I can't fix a thing.  The scary thing is, when I was married, I was "the handy one."  Now, I need a picture dictionary to figure out the terms and tools Bart is talking about.  He amazes me.

These old engineers understand design in such minute detail that it makes my head hurt.  I'm a fairly smart cookie.  I don't have ADHD.  Yet, I cannot bear to follow Bart's thoughts through a problem at that level for more than a few seconds.  It just gets to me.  My eyes start to go cross.  It's more minutia than I can effectively deal with.

So, if your brain works in a way that you can understand virtually every moving part on every moving thing you encounter, well, you can fix things buddy.  Now you understand how Bart is able to fix anything on the farm that breaks.

I'm sure he wishes I didn't know that sometimes.  He has an infinite "Honey do" list. I can never break up with him.  Who would know how to fix all of this stuff?  I'm not about to break in another old engineer.  As smart as they are, they can be a handful! No, I've broken in my one.  I'm done.  I'm happy with him.

Now that you know these facts about old engineers, it will not surprise you that the problem solving division at Bart's company was comprised of four old engineers.  There's a boss, who is not an old engineer.  There is an administrative assistant.  And, there were the four old engineers.

The boss farms out the problems, he doesn't solve them. The boss is a good guy, Bart says.  He goes to the meetings.  That's good because old engineers would rather be busy on a piece of equipment than in a meeting.  A meeting is likely their version of Hell on Earth.

This also explains why Bart is not in management.  He would have to sit in meetings.  He'd rather be crawling around on equipment in the shop, problem solving.

Bart's department is called "Methods" which is perfect for such a methodical group of men.  Yes, I said, "men." The only woman in the department is the admin.  Bart has never worked with a female engineer.  He didn't go to school with any female engineering students.  Albeit Bart went to an all male college, so naturally, no women in the engineering program either.

Women in engineering are about as rare as hen's teeth.  You won't find many.  Heck, I only know two female engineers.  One of them went into real estate.  The other is still vaguely in engineering, but doesn't do engineering work, per se, she's more PR now.  So, if you think old engineers are rare, if you find an old female engineer, well you should hold a parade in her honor.

So, Bart being in the "Methods" department, should tell you something about him and the other old engineers.  As I said before they are methodical.  They can figure out any problem you can throw at them.

On the farm methodical means that fixing something I thought was simple, can take a long time.  Why? Because Bart has to do it right.  No quick fixes.  No monkeying it up so it will "make do."  The man does it right. That's how the Methods department works, too. Un-monkey it up and do it right.

So, Bart and the old engineers at his company are a dying breed...literally.  Bart is now the last of those dinosaurs who could fix anything because they had learned engineering the old fashioned way. The guy that retired, my dad hired him straight out of college 44 years ago.

Yeah, my dad was the HR director at that company before Bart's time there.  That's good, because if he had hired Bart, it would have been too weird.  We couldn't have made a relationship work, it would have made the age difference too pronounced.  I couldn't be dating my dad's peer.  Bart feels like my dad is his girlfriend's dad, not his peer.  That's a good thing. Much less complicated.

Anyway, of the four old engineers in Bart's department, one died in the past year or so.  One had a stroke and is on permanent disability.  And, this guy who just retired.  Bart is a lone old engineer now. Imagine the theme song from, "The Lone Ranger" playing and Bart, the lone engineer, with his old slide rule and drafting table.  Lone old engineer.

They've hired some new guys.  They may only have 10 or 20 years engineering experience.  Engineering changed a lot in those intervening years between when Bart was trained and when they were trained.

They don't know how to draw plans by hand.  They don't know how to use a slide rule.  They can't figure out the problems in the same way.  The old guys learned the new stuff.  They did continuing education classes along the way. But the new guys, well, it's hard to teach new guys how to do old engineering.

Bart says they are nice enough people, but they slow down the process.  They can't always figure out the problem.  He ends-up figuring out the problems they can't solve.  It makes his work harder.

Even worse, Bart and the old engineers go out to lunch every Friday.  Now, it's just Bart.  Last Friday, we went to lunch instead.  I told him I know I'm not as sexy as Wayne, but maybe I'll be good company.  That got a laugh out of him.  I never met Wayne, but I've never heard Bart or my dad use the word "sexy" to describe him.

Life changes and it ain't always easy.  Technology evolves and it's not always for the best.  I wonder what companies like Bart's will do when all of the old engineers retire or die?  Who's gonna solve their problems then?  The folks straight out of engineering school? No.

Bart says the new engineers in Engineering can't even get a part number in the right sequence or spell it right.  Then, they don't understand why the computer threw it out.  Or, they design something that can't actually be built.  Well, they only designed it that way because Marketing sold it that way.  But, it doesn't make any difference to the guys in the shop.

The people who actually build the equipment are "the guys in the shop."  They are a motley crew.  Mechanics, welders, heavy equipment guys--men's men in uniforms that have grease on them and dirt under their fingernails.  They like the old engineers.  Those guys call in to the Methods department and say, "You know we can't actually build it this way, right?"

Then, Bart and the old engineers had a project.  They would bridge the gap between Engineering and the guys in the shop.  Whatever that machine was became "their machine."

Bart is very protective of "his machines."  That's why we had to come back early from the beach.  Two of "his machines" were shipping out.  He had to make sure no one had monkeyed them up before they left the plant.

As I've said, they don't build 'em like they used to. They also don't build engineers like they used to.  I can't imagine 22 year old recent grads caring enough about a piece of equipment to cut a long weekend short to see it shipped off safely.  I know my employees wouldn't.  They are good people, the work ethic just isn't the same.  And, I know my herd of little Christians has a much better work ethic than most of the next generation.

I feel sorry for the managers in American manufacturing when the old engineers are gone.  No one will be able to replace them.  We don't make engineers the way we used to in America.  It may be why our industrial  sector has suffered so much.  Industry is a hard place to work.  And, we don't make it any easier.

We don't marvel at old engineers or old welders or all the old guys who made great things that make our lives easier.  We pass them by.  They are old.  They have dirt under their fingernails.  Their shirts have grease on them.  That grease and dirt, is from working for a living--not sitting in an office on a computer.  We would not have become the nation we are without those fellas.

Folks, old engineers and their counter parts "out in the shop" are worth their weight in gold.  Next time you see one, thank him.  If you are in line at McDonald's with him, buy his Coke.  You are probably driving something or using something or waiting on a train to cross and that fella had something to do with it.

I promised you this would be an Ode to Old Engineers.  I admire them.  I admire Bart especially.  I'm lucky to have him.  We are all lucky to have those old engineers.

Good luck Wayne!  Good luck to all of you as you retire.  Fix old sports cars.  Go fishing.  Enjoy your life.  We'll miss you, but we won't be able to replace you.  Thank you for your hard work.

Finally, as far as the old engineers are concerned, this is too long and rambling.  They would have preferred it be all numbers and, at most, written as a long equation.  Sorry fellas.  This is just my storytelling style.  I'm grateful for you anyway. I hope you got that point, even with all the words.

Thank you for reading.  Now, make my day and go thank an old engineer.

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