While studying Engineering, the majority of students are taught rules, whether rules of thumb or hard and fast rules, most of the life of an engineering student is governed by absolutes in the form of equations, tables, constants, methods, design software and a lot of straight lines, (or absolute curves). On top of this, there is almost always a “right” answer, while every other answer is substandard, whether by failing to optimise a solution or because it would create something downright dangerous.
The shock for most engineers when they reach the real world is that outside of the design software and air conditioned office, there are no straight lines and the absolutes are blurred by constraints, whether financial, spacial or material. This is where engineering and science depart, the engineer is to find a workable solution given the absolutes and the constraints, but I find that there are many engineers (and people who have expectations of engineers), who just don’t get it.
I started my engineering degree in the Australian Army, studying at the Australian Defence Force Academy, but unlike most engineering students, Field Engineers in the Army don’t have the expectation of perfection or the luxury of a design team equipped with world class design software, and the attitude of simplicity and functional design take designs out of iterative processes, or inane details, and into rapid construction. Sometimes good enough is enough, and any additional effort is wasted.
Now this doesn’t apply when life-safety design is encountered, or for novel construction techniques, or architecturally designed structures that look like they almost float. But for building roads, sewers, water systems, lighting, retaining walls, sidewalks and many of the other civil engineering items that are part of my bread and butter, good enough is often enough. Part of being an engineer is knowing where the risk lies and designing for it in the simplest manner. Doing this in a consistent and competent manner is at the core of engineering.