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Talking with an Engineer in Silicon Valley

March 17th, 2015 | Posted by pftq in Society | #
A memoirs of sorts reflecting the talks I've had with most engineers that I met in SF the last few years.  It's funny to encounter at first, but when you're living it everyday, it really drains one's patience.  Maybe I'm having the worst of luck meeting people here, but this has been the bulk of my experience.  All responses are based on real conversations I've had; many are actually toned down from the original statements while others are pretty much direct quotes (besides obvious name changes, etc).  
Sam: Hi, I'm Sam. Nice to meet you.
Engineer: Hi.
Sam and the engineer shake hands.
Engineer: Sorry.
Sam: Hm?
Engineer: I shook your hands for 4 seconds.  The ideal handshake should only be about 2.5.
Sam: Um.. ok.  Is this your first time joining a group for a camping trip? I'm pretty excited.
Engineer: Yes.
Sam: So... it looks like we're going to be on this trip for a while.  Why don't you tell me about yourself?
Engineer: I'm an engineer.
Sam: ...
Engineer: *silence*
Sam: For?
Engineer: A startup.
Sam: ...
Engineer: *silence*
Sam: Okay... Well, that's cool.  I'm mainly freelancing.  First time being in the city for me.  I previously studied finance though, so it's a weird mix.
Engineer: *silence*
Sam: This is my first time going hiking at Yellowstone as well. Can't wait to see it. You?
Engineer: *Checks Yelp* I guess it should be fun. It's 4.5 stars only though. We should have gone to Yosemite. It's 5 stars.
Sam: Yellowstone should be better, in my opinion. Much more to see.
Engineer: Where do you get that? I don't see any reviews saying there's more to see at Yellowstone.
Sam: Well, it's way bigger and has a wider variety of landscapes due to the volcanic activity.
Engineer: Just because it's bigger and has more variety doesn't mean there's more to see.
Sam: I guess... So what do you like to do?
Engineer: I'm an engineer.
Sam: Yeah, I know... I mean what do you like to do outside of work? Me personally - I like to do a variety of things like tennis, acting, dancing... Right now, I'm trying to get into music composition.
Engineer: Are you getting paid for it?
Sam: No.
Engineer: Is it for a project?
Sam: No.
Engineer: Then why would you do it? It seems like an inefficient use of your time.
Sam: Inefficient?
Engineer: You should better value your time.  Time is limited.  Anything wasted is opportunity cost.
Sam: I just enjoy composing music.  It's not about opportunity.
Engineer: What is your goal?
Sam: Goal? For music?
Engineer: In life.  What is your goal in life?
Sam: Oh... well I have many.  Why do you ask?
Engineer: How does making music help you towards that goal?
Sam: It doesn't have to.  Like I said, I just enjoy making music.
Engineer: Are you taking classes?
Sam: No, I'm teaching myself mainly.
Engineer: But you studied finance.
Sam: So?
Engineer: How do you know you're actually making music?
Sam: What do you mean? I just compose what sounds nice to me or whatever I want to hear.
Engineer: People study years to learn music. It's an entire field of its own. You can't just make it up.
Sam: There are people who learn to compose outside of school. I mean - what about the first composers? Or even composers that get far without schooling?
Engineer: Such as?
Sam: There's plenty. If you want someone famous, there's Mozart who was self-taught.
Engineer: But you're not Mozart.
Sam: Yeah I know... I'm not saying I'm a musical genius, just that I think I can get pretty far without a teacher.
Engineer: How? You wouldn't know if you were doing things right.
Sam: Look, you've done artistic things before right? Creative stuff...
Engineer: Yes, I'm creative.  The judge said so when I was doing a tech presentation.  I won an award for the best slide deck.
Sam: Right.  See, it's common sense.  It's like intuition, logic. You just know when you have something that sounds nice.
Engineer: No such thing as common sense.  Also, you can't test logic, so you can't know it's true.  The only thing that's true is what's backed by data or agreed by everyone.
Sam: What if you were alone on an island with no connectivity? Then you have no people around and no data. You'd use logic to figure out what's real and what's not.
Engineer: No, you don't know that. Neither of us have ever been alone on an island.
Sam: Hypothetically. Use your imagination.
Engineer: How would I know? It's not real.  It's made up.  Why do you ask these pointless questions?

* 30 minutes later. *
Engineer: You should drive a little slower.
Sam: Feeling carsick?
Engineer: No.
Sam: ...

* 5 minutes later. *
Engineer: You should drive a little faster.
Sam: I can't. There's a car in front of me.
Engineer: You're driving too far below the speed limit.
Sam: Please don't back seat drive.
Engineer: I'm not back seat driving! I'm in the passenger seat!
Sam: That's not... Ok, look.  I'm the one driving here.  I need to focus and not have distractions.
Engineer: You should read a book called "Becoming an Expert in Driving." You will become a better driver if you do.
Sam: I'm fine, thank you.
Engineer: How would you know you can't improve if you haven't read it?
Sam: You don't know anything about me.  I could have read it, and we'd still be having the same conversation.
Engineer: If you've read it, then who's the author? What is the first sentence in the book?
Sam: That's beside the point.  You're making assumptions about my experience when you've barely met me.
Engineer: Someone who's experienced about driving would not make the mistakes you are making.
Sam: That is your opinion.
Engineer: No, that is scientifically proven in the book if you read it.  Are you going to disagree with decades of research?
Sam: No, you just haven't given me a single reason to believe a word you're saying.  All you've done is give me your conclusions or defer to higher authority.
Engineer: You're being defensive.  You should be more open-minded to critique.  Otherwise you can't improve.
Sam: I am plenty open-minded.
Engineer: Then why don't you do what I tell you?
Sam: That's not what... Being open-minded just means I acknowledge and consider your opinion; it does not mean I have to agree or accept your suggestions.
Engineer: How is that open? That is close-minded!
Sam: If being open-minded meant everyone always agreed, then you could have people agreeing with things that are wrong.  There'd be nothing to be open-minded about.
Engineer: I am older and more educated.  You should trust that I know better than you.  I'm just trying to help you.  Don't be so argumentative.  You will never be good driver this way.
Sam: Look, I'm not trying to be argumentative. I appreciate you trying to help, but you can definitely be more polite about it.
Engineer: I am being polite! It's impolite if I start with the word "you" more than 50% of the time when giving advice, but I only used the word "you" 25% of the time.  This is according to a tech talk, which unlike the stuff you're saying is actually backed by data.
Sam: Ok sure.
Engineer: You can't just use one-off examples to make your conclusions.  That's very biased and error-prone.  Any introductory statistics text would tell you you need a large sample size of at least 20 for anything to be statistically significant or meaningful.
Sam: So do you need to get hit by a car 20 times before you know it hurts?
Engineer: Yes! Why do you ask these dumb questions?!

* A few days later. *
Engineer: The speed limit is 60. Why is everyone going 15?
Sam: Looks like there's an accident... Wow that's really sad. Did you hear that? The mom went back for her daughter after the car flipped, but the car exploded and killed them both.
Engineer: It is sad, but I don't get it. Is she stupid or something?
Sam: What do you mean?
Engineer: She survived. Why go back in?
Sam: Because it was her daughter...
Engineer: But her daughter was already dead.
Sam: You don't know that.
Engineer: The chance of anyone surviving an accident like that is so low. The mom basically threw her life away.
Sam: Well perhaps she couldn't bear living without her daughter.
Engineer: People like that need to learn to adapt.  People die all the time.  You can't live your life in fear.
Sam: That doesn't make it okay...
Engineer: There are deaths everyday.  It's normal.  Even in SF, people die to random things all the time - stabbings, falling on the subway tracks...
Sam: I just think that's a pretty cold thing to say.  Plus the Boston bombings just happened...
Engineer: That was a one-off thing.  The chance of you encountering terrorism is less than being struck by lightning.
Sam: No, those were guys literally out to kill as many people as they could.  If someone didn't act to stop them, they'd have killed many more.
Engineer: How would you know? You weren't there.  All we have is data.  In any case, people need to learn to accept and enjoy life even in the worst situations.
Sam: Easy to say when it's not you or your loved one at stake.
Engineer: Even if it was, I'd just accept the situation rather than throw my life away like that woman just did.
Sam: If everyone thought like that, we'd never have moved on from the Stone Age, Dark Ages, or even slavery.
Engineer: Actually, if you do your research, slaves learned to accept their situation and lived very happy lives. You just assume they weren't happy because you wouldn't be.
Sam: I don't need a book to tell me how people feel.
Engineer: I think you do though. You should learn to have more empathy. Build up your EQ. Then you can understand people better who are different from you.
Sam: ... You're the one who just minutes ago couldn't empathize with a mom going back for her daughter.
Engineer: No, I did empathize with her. I said it was sad.  You're the one without empathy. The book said the slaves were happy, but you couldn't feel it. You can't relate. You can't empathize.
Sam: That's not... That's sympathizing, not empathizing. There's a difference. Do you even know what empathy is?
Engineer: Yes. I empathize all the time.
Sam: What does that mean?
Engineer: I watch movies, I watch TV, I play games... And when the characters are happy or sad, I feel the same way. I can empathize with them.
Sam: That's not... Okay. Feeling what the movie tells you to feel is not empathy.  You don't empathize with a fictional character.  That trivializes the word. You're sympathizing, not empathizing. Feeling sad for someone is not the same as putting yourself in their shoes. There's a back and forth interaction to it.
Engineer: You're just saying that because you can't empathize with them.
Sam: No, I'm saying that because the definition of empathy requires interaction with real people.
Engineer: But I *empathize* with them. You just can't. Do you empathize with TV characters? Do you feel sad when the characters are sad?
Sam: I feel sad, but I am not empa-
Engineer: There! You just said it! You can't empathize! You're the one who can't relate!
Sam: Choosing not to call watching TV empathizing is not the same as being unable to empathize.
Engineer: Because you can't.

* A year later. *
Engineer: Excuse me, there's an event going on.  I'm going to have to ask you to leave.
Sam: What? I live here.
Engineer: Can you show me your key card?
Sam: Who are you? I've lived in this building for 5 years.  You're not security.
Engineer: I'm just a guest at this event, but you don't look like you belong.  I'm going to have to ask you to leave, or I'll call the police.
Sam swipes his keycard at the door and walks in.
Engineer: Oh sorry.  I guess I was mistaken.
Sam: Wait, I remember you.  We've met.
Engineer: Who are you again?
Sam: I am Sam. And this is my event.  I am the organizer.
Engineer: Oh, sorry. It's nice to meet you. I'm an engineer.
The engineer extends his hand for a handshake.
Sam: We've met, remember?
Engineer: Oh right. Sorry, I'm not good with faces.
Sam: We went to Yellowstone last year.
Engineer: Oh that was you? Oh of course I remember. Sorry, it's been a while.
Sam: No, it was someone else.  I just happen to have the same exact name and know you went to Yellowstone.
Engineer: Oh, my bad.  I'm bad with faces.
Sam: I was kidding.
Engineer: Oh, haha.
Sam: ... Did you seriously not know that was a joke?
Engineer: Well, you didn't raise your voice or anything.  How would I know unless you give some sign?
Sam: Context clues? Sarcasm?
Engineer: You're the only one that jokes like that.
Sam: People joke like that all the time.  Maybe you just never noticed.
Engineer: It's not noticeable.  You should rethink the way you tell jokes.  Otherwise no one would be able to tell.
Sam: People can tell.  It's like if I said everyone should just jump off a cliff.  It's not literal.
Engineer: That was literal.
Sam: ...
Engineer: You need to give some sign.  Like, if we were texting, I'd put an emoji or lol to signify the joke.
Sam: That's like saying you need the fake clapper on a show to know when the funny parts are.
Engineer: Well, how would you-
Sam: Don't answer that.
Engineer: Ok.
Sam: Here have some cake. How is it?
Engineer: Not bad. What do other people think?
Sam: They liked it.
Engineer: Oh. Yeah, it's pretty good.
Sam: Thanks. I made it myself.
Engineer: Wait, you can cook?
Sam: Maybe, maybe not.
Engineer: But I thought you studied finance.
Sam: I did, but I do other things too.
Engineer: But how would you know you're doing it right.
Sam: We've had this conversation before...
Engineer: Oh we did? Oh we did... But you didn't give me a straight answer. You always dance around the question.
Sam: I think I'm pretty explicit.
Engineer: See? You're avoiding the question again.
Sam: What question?
Engineer: How do you know you're doing it right?
Sam: Doing what right?
Engineer: Cooking.
Sam: ... You just taste it. Like the cake here. You like it right?
Engineer: Well I said it wasn't bad. I wouldn't know if it was that good though because I'm not a chef.
Sam: ...

* 2 years later. *
Sam: Hey happy birthday!
Engineer: Ha, thanks.
Sam: You'll never guess what I got you.
Engineer: Huh, what's this? Oh, I mean - Ooh, a present!
Sam: Yup, open it.  What do you think?
Engineer: Oh wow. It's nice, I guess.  Hm... hold on...
Sam: Haha, I figured you'd like it.  Wait, what are you doing?
Engineer: Sorry, let me check something.
Sam: Please don't tell me you are Googling the present...
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