I spoke about what I call the "Iron Man" myth exactly three years ago as a 20min "TIMTalk" at MIT, titled "No Engineer is an Island." The video is no longer available online (at least for now), but a transcript is below.
TIMTalk Grace C. Young
Theme: Collaboration and Engineering
Title: No Engineer is an Island
You know the movie Iron Man? The rock-star engineer of the film creates an incredible machine, alone, while squirreled away in a glorified basement. Not to dis superheroes or Marvel fans, but that really is fiction. I don't know anyone who works like that... and I go to MIT.
At MIT I’ve found engineering to be extremely collaborative. On a daily basis, engineers work together to solve complex problems all over the world. We may be "nerds" that have our own quirks, but in order to do our jobs right, we need to be people persons too - constantly interacting with others. We shouldn’t be ashamed of working in groups, of not accomplishing things purely on our own, and then having a "team," rather than an individual, be recognized. This is an important idea to get into people's heads, especially engineers.
DaVincis or Edisons may come along once every 500 years or so. But as a rule, successful engineering requires teamwork.
Once I met a girl at a Christmas party and someone asked if she wanted to be an engineer "like Grace." She said “no,” because she "liked working with people.”
I wish I could convey this to her that as an engineer, you do work with people! A lot of people! Really, everyday; it’s necessary. She thought a “people career” was being a doctor, or working at a store. Too many people think this way, that engineers are somehow anti-social, working alone in basements. It’s an unfortunate misconception because it inhibits some, especially women, from entering, or trying, engineering because they want to “work with people.”
Honestly, part of me was that girl at the Christmas party when I first got to MIT. I remember as a freshman, reading a problem set question and having no idea how to solve it, yet I thought if I really focused and put a ton of hours into it I could do it; but I wasn’t really successful. Then, I remember staying up late working on problem sets with classmates. A group of us would sit down and, working together for several hours, we’d somehow manage to find a solution, even though each of us on our own couldn’t figure out how to solve the problem earlier.
I remember hearing about a guy in our physics class who did the whole PSET we were struggling over in just two hours by himself. I was so jealous! I thought, “I want to be that guy.” But I realize now that I was missing the point. Collaboration is necessary to solve real problems. I’m grateful that MIT has taught me that lesson.
I discovered then that to succeed at MIT you really need both introverted and extroverted qualities. There are times when it’s better to sit on your own, straighten things out in your own head, do practice problems, or just teach yourself a new skill. But you also need to know when to work with others to find solutions.
This summer I used that working style on a real project. I was working in Hawaii to re-design an autonomous robot for monitoring the health of commercial fisheries. Building the robot was a perfect project for an ocean engineering student, like me. Here I am on deck of a research vessel with the robot I worked on [referring to photo].
Sure, for this project I spent some time alone at my desk, making a SolidWorks 3D model and reading relevant papers, but a huge amount of my time I spent soliciting input and communicating with others; so I really had to be a people-person, too. I’d be on the phone with a machinist, for example, almost daily, about what parts to change to make manufacturing faster. Or, I’d be talking to the crew who deployed an earlier version of the robot, seeing how I could change the design to make their lives easier. They said if the units could stack on top of one another, like Ikea boxes, it would make their work more efficient. I incorporated their feedback by adding simple pegs in the corners that allowed units to stack.
I wouldn’t have known these things, about the machining or stacking, without reaching out to those people. So collaboration and communication was a huge part of the project, and quite frankly one of the challenges.
This dynamic working style - I’m calling it the mix of intro and extroverted – comes into play in many areas of like, not just on engineering projects like building robots or solving problems sets.
I first practiced it in ballet class.
This is me four years ago [refering to photo]. Before MIT I danced with a ballet company. In high school I spent just as much time in the ballet studio as I did doing math problems and working in my school’s robotics lab.
When you’re training at the ballet barre it’s easy to stand there and be jealous of the dancers around you. Maybe they have a higher développé, or longer legs, and so on… But at some point for you to get better, you need to put blinders on, and focus on your own improvements. You need to let yourself be inspired and motivated by the people around you, but also know when to focus on your own development.
I’ve had to do the same thing at MIT; it’s easy to be jealous of the guy who finishes the 6.01 PSET in an hour, or started in advanced physics freshman fall. But that’s not always productive. To succeed here you need to let yourself be inspired and motivated by your peers, and work with them to solve problems, and then know when to focus on your own learning.
I hope the girl at the Christmas party, and other people stuck in her mindset, will soon consider engineering a career that lets you “work with people,” that the Iron Man-working style is a myth.