There are people who say I have an enormous ego, not that I disagree. I’ve gone so far as to write about my ego, although in that post I attributed my ego to being an engineer. There are even a few people who believe I deserve to have a big ego. So much for truth in advertising. Still, as much as my ego doesn’t allow me to admit I sometimes fail, most of my knowledge started with failure.

I sometime wonder if this is one of the defining traits for an engineer, learning from our failures. We don’t like failure but we don’t fear it either. We spend an inordinate amount of time studying a problem to avoid failing. When we do fail, we want to understand where we went wrong.

Think of all the attempts Edison made in developing the incandescent light bulb filament. If he had been randomly trying different materials for filaments, somebody else would have eventually developed the light bulb. Instead, with each attempt he took careful notes on why it failed before he tried a different filament. We try to learn from our failures and that sets engineers in a class by themselves. 

As a teenager, I picked up a copy of George O. Smith’s, Venus Equilateral. I think it was this book that made me understand why I wanted to be an engineer. It’s a collection of short stories written between 1942 and 1945. The stories center around a space station manned with a number of bright scientists. Okay, Mr. Smith described them as scientists but it was obvious they thought like engineers.  At one point the engineers and the villains, (lawyers I believe, he was even right about that) have identical components of an alien technology. The villains are afraid to do anything to their piece of technology because they might break it. The engineers realize they probably will break the equipment but know they have to risk failure in order to improve the technology. Fear of failure was no reason not to try.

Even as a teenager, it was a foregone conclusion to me that the engineers would win, there were at least six more stories in the book and I was sure these weren’t stories about lawyers trying to patent alien technology. What I took away from the story was don’t fear failure. You can often learn more from your failures than your successes. It was that concept that sealed my desire to become an engineer. Well, that and if you don’t push the boundaries, you’re no better than a patent troll.

In a world where the concept of zero defects is being pushed into engineering because the accounting management embraces the concept, failures seem to be relegated to the same class as unspeakable evil and taxes. When it comes to production and accounting, these mistakes are definitely bad. On the other hand, if Engineers were not constantly pushing the boundaries, undaunted by failure, we would all be reading by candlelight. There will be failures and vilifying them will only cause the engineers to cover them up the same way a cat treats his litter box. The key is to keep these failures out of production.

I’m not here to denigrate Samsung. With my phone, tablet and monitor all made by Samsung, I’m almost a poster child for them. I even bought my tablet after seeing the dying throes of their Note. Consider this, were the Note problems caused by a failure or a less than fortuitous success?

essDid the engineers push the battery into failure in order to see what their safety margins were or did they verify that the battery would operate correctly in the specified environment? I don’t know but given current management trends, I’m betting on the “operate correctly in the specified environment” theory. It saves money and you don’t have to spend any time explaining that the failures were an expected outcome and provide you with far more information than success does. Of course, as we saw with the Note and its exploding batteries, the potential for disaster in this approach is high.

Failure happens but it doesn’t mean you have to endure the ridicule of your co-workers (maybe a little) or become a patent troll. Learn from your mistakes, yes, but make your failures serve as incentive in learning new skills or developing old skills. Most of my knowledge started with failure because I wasn’t about to let the failure beat me.

Don’t let me mislead you, there are some failures you can’t overcome. I still don’t understand my wife, fashion or current trends in politics. Some mysteries will always elude me.    

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