The Engineer’s Baby, Part #1

<Ultimately, this is about the trials associated with mission work and ministry “ownership” but that will be in Part #2. Part #1 is dealing with the analogy of babies and creative designs.>

My Only Patent
My Only Patent

Years ago, I was a mechanical design engineer for one of the largest defense contractors in the world. I worked on naval equipment, especially radar systems.

One thing that was challenging was design reviews. This was when one subjects one’s own design to the cold glare of criticism by fellow designers and engineers. It is a hard thing to go through. Yet it is necessary.

Part of what makes it hard is that one’s design is the product of one’s creativity. One works on it for days, weeks, months. It is the product of time, stress, anguish. Finally, the design is done and is presented to the world with pride and trepidation. It is not hard to see that there is a correspondence between this and having a baby. Some might suggest that a major difference is the lack of labor pains… but I can assure you… that a lot of labor and some amount of pain is associated with design “birthing” as well.

With babies, people don’t typically poke, prod, and examine the child and say things like, “Hmmm… rather ugly child, don’t you think?” or “Okay for a first attempt… hopefully you will do better next time.” All newborn babies are normally seen as beautiful… the criticism is usually reserved for when they are older. (Wouldn’t it be nice if the unique miraculous beauty of a newborn could be continued to be recognized in school-age children, teenagers, adults?)

In engineering, however, the design process requires periodic critiques on several levels: design reviews, customer reviews, prototyping and testing, cost analyses, and so forth. The difficulty is that the design engineer feels like he or she is the parent of the design and so criticism of the design is often taken personally.

I believe that the feeling of pride for a design is, in part, God-given… just as the feeling of pride of one’s own child. There are values in it. Shortly before I got out of engineering, I was designing a hydraulic manifold. I had never designed one before. It was not my area of expertise… so I had tried to “spec” it out for outside work. That is, I sought to outsource the design to specialists. Unfortunately, that did not work because they came back with a clearly inadequate design. Next, I tried to do half or two-thirds of the work and leave the details to the detail designers. But when my design was critiqued, they reviewers strongly recommended that I don’t do that… that it was likely to fail that way. They also noted a key problem with the design work I had done… based on a backpressure issue that I was unaware of. I decided that enough was enough. For the next three days, I lived and breathed hydraulic design… sweating, as it were, drops of blood, my blood, into the design. After three days, I was done with manifold. I gave it to drafters and the CNC for prototyping… and it… failed. But quickly it was found that the failure was a hole that was drilled too deep in prototyping. When fixed… it worked. “Hurray for the home team!!!”

What is my point? I put that much effort into the design… not because I was being paid. Actually, I was getting ready to leave the company. I did not put that much effort (blood sweat and tears) into it because of a sense of personal  duty. I did it because the design was my “baby.” I wanted to ensure that my baby, my design, would succeed and grow up healthy and successful.

Success in design requires a touchy balance of creative ownership (having a sense of owning or parenting the design) tied to a recognition that the design is not one’s own, but the product of a team that is working together to critique and modify it for its own good. The balance between identifying one as parent and not as parent in a design is a bit tricky. You want to tell the others that they don’t understand the design like you do. And in fact, you are probably right. You do know it better. But that intellectual and emotional knowledge also leads to being blind to some problems that need the help of others.

What does this have to do with missions? Everything. Mission work is a creative activity. One pours one’s creative energies into it. but then others come along and criticize the work… or challenge one’s sense of ownership. How does one deal with that? I will look at it in Part #2.

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