Engineers as Mr. Fixit

June 20, 2016

Jack Ganssle-June 20, 2016

In response to my article about zero-transistor autopilots, Bob Snyder wrote: “I only sail a little, but I like it a lot. I wonder... Is this a pattern? Are other embedded folks also into sailing? Perhaps we need to plan a Barefoot ESC Conference aboard a Windjammer somewhere in the South Pacific! Who says nerds can't have fun?”

Over the decades I have met hundreds of engineers who sail. Many of those were engaged in long-distance sailing. They were off to places far over the horizon, from the Caribbean to round-the-world. And I think I know why so many of us do this.

In 1979 I chartered a sailboat in the Virgin Islands. Charter companies want to be sure their vessels are in capable hands so require a sailing resume (or, at least they did back then). For some reason they also ask about the customer’s profession. I was seated across the desk from one of these employees as he read over my history. He suddenly blurted “oh, great!”

(Source:Jack Ganssle)

“What’s that about?” I asked.

“You’re an engineer. Engineers always bring the boats back in better condition than when they left.”

A couple of years ago we moved my parents from their single-family home to assisted living. Mom had wanted to make this transition for a very long time, but Dad always refused. The reason? He didn’t want to lose his workshop and tools.

He was a mechanical engineer.

This morning Marybeth and I saw off a friend who is sailing from Baltimore to Rhode Island. One of his crew expressed some concern about potential mechanical breakdowns. Scott snorted “there’s always a way. We always manage to fix things.”

Scott is an engineer.

We were once in Cape May preparing to sail to Bermuda and ran into a sailing school teaching two couples about ocean sailing. I grumpily said to Marybeth “what they need to learn is how to bleed an injection pump at 0300 upside down in the engine compartment in 15 foot seas.”

On an ocean-going sailboat one must be an electrician. Plumber. Diesel mechanic. Rigger. Woodworker. Navigator. Sailmaker. Oh, and a sailor. Because stuff does fail. And my observation is that engineers gravitate to this avocation in no small part because of the challenges presented by the never-ending set of problems that crop up.

Bad stuff does happen. I’ve had to abandon ship at sea a couple of times. But generally there is a fix. We carry an enormous number of spare parts and random material (fasteners, metal, wood) to patch things up. One summer my son was digging through the snack locker and said “Dad, we have four spare injectors in here!” I replied, “yup, and a spare transmission, alternator, complete gasket set, rigging wire, and much more.”

It’s a hugely satisfying intellectual challenge to find ways around the mechanical ills life throws at us. Engineers are uniquely suited to these sorts of tasks. We’re trained to think analytically. When a problem surfaces our first instinct is not panic, but to invent a solution. And have fun doing so!

Engineers are often quite skilled with tools. Many of us have tool-centric hobbies. That might be building circuits. Or woodworking. Machining. Building houses. I believe that the use of tools shapes our brains. Learn to turn on a lathe, and suddenly everything looks like a round problem. A machinist might immediately think about the milling machine when tasked with fixing something.

The Maker movement purports to be a new thing, but most of the best engineers I’ve worked with over the decades have been hopelessly-addicted makers. The word is new; the idea is ancient. Edison was not theoretical; he probably knew nothing about calculus. But he understood how to manipulate the physical world. When his first idea didn’t pan out, there was a second. And a thousandth.

The reason I became an engineer is that I like to make stuff. Electronics is a ton of fun. I like design, implementation, and seeing the result work. Watch a firmware newbie as he makes his first LED blink. His eyes light up brighter than the lamp.

Sometimes there’s a down side. Around 1980 I realized we had three VW engines in our little apartment that I was rebuilding for friends and family. That was enough; after finishing those I swore off being the village mechanic. But life takes interesting twists. At 15 my son wanted an old VW microbus, which violated all of my stultifying rules about high school kids owning cars. (Kids taught me many things, one of which was that pretty much everything I knew about life was wrong). He was persuasive; he had the money and he’d learn so much! Eventually I relented and he bought two busses with seized engines and a host of other problems. The two of us spent a winter companionably together making one that worked from parts from both, and, yes, two engines were in the house as we did a rebuild. The most interesting part of this was that all of his friends, without exception, predicted he’d never make a working vehicle.

Once most young folks were shadetree mechanics. It was common to see someone repairing their car on the shoulder when a problem cropped up. That’s less possible today as bailing wire doesn’t help much when the engine control unit fails. But it seems there’s now, in many people, an attitude of failure. Or perhaps they’re overwhelmed by the complexity of modern products and have given up trying to understand them.

Get on the subway and you’ll find nearly everyone staring into their mobile device. How many are Googling about how it works? How many even wonder? Frankly, I don’t understand most people. How can one go around not at least trying to understand how stuff works? The world is so damn interesting!

I salute anyone who is willing to at least try to fix something. Who makes things. After all, we’re toolmakers; abstracting ourselves from that reality abstracts ourselves in some measure from an essential part of the human spirit.

What about you? A maker? Does the family call you Mr. or Mrs. Fixit?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges, and works as an expert witness on embedded issues. Contact him at His website is


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