Engineers in politics -

Engineers in politics

I avoid political commentary in this column, as it's both inflammatory and irrelevant to the daily grind of cranking out products. Though we developers have much technology in common, when it comes to politics we're as divided as the rest of the nation.

But I suspect we'd all agree that the shenanigans in Washington on both sides of the aisle show a system that's largely broken. Little happens to improve the lot of ordinary Americans. Every issue is a fierce battle. Congress is so polarized it's becoming ever more ineffective. Whether it's filibustering Democrats or Delay-shielding Republicans the business of politics is raw politics, not working for the better of this great nation.

Though rhetoric serves a useful purpose (listen to any of Churchill's inspiring WWII speeches) ultimately any political entity's main purpose is problem solving. Take any issue: education, welfare, the budget, social security, national security–and ultimately decisions must be made that address the needs of our society.

But politicians aren't problem solvers.

In the 109th Congress there are 108 representatives with legal backgrounds. Lawyers don't solve problems; they exacerbate them. They're paid to turn small problems into expensive big ones that take years to resolve.

This Congress has just 5 engineers. Engineering isn't, as most people think, the act of building products. It's the art of solving problems.

In all the years I've been alive just one president was an engineer. Admittedly, he wasn't particularly effective, though he's widely praised as being a truly good man. But no president can accomplish much if not supported by a mostly like-minded Congress. We need more engineer Senators and House members.

What would a Congress of engineers look like?

For one, there wouldn't be a lot of jabber or off-topic filibustering. An engineer would state the problem and proposed solution concisely in about 5 minutes, using diagrams and maybe a Powerpoint presentation.

We'd still have left and right sides of the aisle, but consensus would be much more common. Without patience for emotional or qualitative arguments, engineer-representatives would find the data, discuss the numbers, and soon invent a process to reach a solution.

And there would be a schedule, one that dominates all discussions. Occasionally they may run late, but by and large things would finish on time. The budget would be approved by October 1. You'd never see supplemental appropriations; a plan, with contingencies and worst-case analysis, would accompany the budget for the president's signature.

If I had the chance to vote for an engineer, I'd do it regardless of party affiliation. We have serious problems to solve.

It's time to call in the engineers.

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. Contact him at . His website is .

Reader Response

I don't think it is the background of the politicians that's the problem. The problem is the voters.

It's a matter of “I have introduced legislations that will because of A, B ,C, D, E, F, G, H, I and J interacting with K, L, M, N, O and P giving us in TEN YEARS better health care, more jobs and better national security”


“I am going to give you a tax cut THIS YEAR and btw that will mean a 'SLIGHT' deficit in the budget”

Now which do you think your average voter will actually listen to? Who do you think they will vote for and who do you think they will fall asleep for?

– Sebastian Ip
Programmer Analyst
Telus Mobility


I had to look to see if this was your April Fool's column. Engineers for Congress? Surely you jest. Few engineers I know, except for the ever-patient FAEs, have the patience for Congress and its give-and-take ways. Perhaps you're conveniently forgetting some of the really polarizing wars that engineers have argued about for years, often without resolution: RISC vs. CISC, processors vs. DSPs, Motorola vs. Intel, assembler vs. C, Linux vs. Microsoft, and on and on. Get 108 engineers to agree? Must be April 1.

– Steve Leibson
Technology Evangelist

Perhaps to improve your politics, you could take a leaf out of Australia's book. We have compulsory voting for all citizens/residents over age 18. Our political parties don't have to appeal to pressure or fringe groups in order to get people out to vote. A turnout at an election of over 98% is normal. Where's the world's greatest democracy?

– David
Software Engineer

Having spent most of my working life as an engineer I'm afraid you're dreaming. Individually or in small groups, engineers are problem solvers. In large groups or in managment, we are just as egotistical, just as political, and just as divisive as politicians. In addition when it comes to people, the biggest factor in the social and political problems congress should be solving, many of us are totally stupid.

– William Ames
Sr. Software Engineer
Viasys Health Care

Hmmm. Engineers in Congress would definitely be different. Probably not better, but different. On the average, engineers are pretty lousy at communicating and interacting with other people. And that's what politics is all about. Can't say that I've seen any more consensus-building among engineers than in the population at large. I have seen a lot of engineers doggedly cling to their own ideas, even when they're provably wrong. Not-invented-here syndrome runs strong. I'll take rational, intelligent legislators, whatever their background.

– Jason Dougherty

How do you then guarantee that the following scenario doesn't happen:

Problem: Hunger alleviationSmart , techie , politician's solution: A virtual food machine (explained with state diagrams ,a Powerpoint presentation…and estimates if he's been a project leader!)

Most engineers turn dreamers too soon when they are in positions of authority. So Jack, if you are contesting I'll vote for you…but I'm not too sure about seeing all of them there.

– Gautam Morey
Tech Lead
Kopera Software

It initially sounds tempting to change congress so that it will pass more legislation, but when we think that more legislation is what we want it is because we are assuming that the extra laws will be laws that we would like. Many people like to see congress fighting and bickering because they feel that when there are lots of fights less legislation passed, and in their minds that is good.

– Ed Wozniak

I agree with most of the responses above. Engineers are human and when faced with the junk that goes with the political process will either cave in or quit. What seems to be the real problem is that national congressional positions provide too much free stuff for people to make really objective decisions. I'd like to see one or two terms as a limit, no benefits after your terms are up (you'll have to get a REAL job!) I'd allow each party to select a “continuity representative” who would be allowed to stay for a certain number of terms to help keep legislative continuity when there is a lot of turnover. Or, more radical–have a draft for politicians! That's right–we draft 'em and have a “performance standard” like the military. The pay scale would have to be handled correctly, as it wouldn't be fair to beggar a family during this time (although the military didn't seem to have a problem with that aspect!), but I think that if people knew that they weren't going to get re-elected, and that there would be penalties for not performing, we might get a decent government.

– Dave Telling

I agree with Jack … too many lawyers in politics!

– Ken Nies

Wasn't Jimmy Carter an engineer?

– John Davies

Editor's note: According to Wikipedia, he was a nuclear engineer, qualified through the U.S. Navy's nuclear submarine program. –sr.

Google “technocracy”. Once upon a time, some engineers thought they should run the world. I remember running into them in the early 1970s, but their high point was in the 1930s.

– Bruce Kimball
Managing Editor

First problem: too many lawyers. When you are a hammer the whole world looks like a nail–and since the law is at best a blunt instrument of public policy, the hammer analogy is particularly apropos. We need far fewer laws passed since most of them try to address problems that are either in the rightful provence of the individual states or bow to special interest groups. In any case, most have rather serious unintended consequences. As an example, how is that McCain/Feingold “campaign finance reform” workin' for ya'?

Second and related problem: congress people don't have to live by the same rules they make for everyone else. There are any number of laws from which both houses have exempted themselves because of “separation of powers” No elected official should be allowed to have any health or retirement plan that is any better than the “average” American. If congress-types had to pay into and rely upon social security as the vast majority of us are required by law to do, you can bet it would get fixed in a femtosecond.

My last point: we elected them and keep re-electing them so we get what we deserve.

– Jeff Burrell

Re engineer as President:

I believe that we have had had two engineers elected to the presidency: Hoover and Carter. Interesting that both are probably considered to have been failures (not necessarily thru their own fault).

– Mark Walter
Project Engr

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