In his compelling book Play – How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul Stuart Brown tells the story of how the managers at Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) noticed that the group of engineers who had been hired in the 1960’s, engineers who had “put men on the moon and built robotic probes to explore the solar system, were retiring in large numbers.” Replacing them was difficult. Though there were plenty of candidates with superior academic credentials, these same candidates, unlike their elders, “couldn’t spot the key flaw in one of the complex systems they were working on, toss the problem around, break it down, pick it apart, tease out its critical elements, and rearrange them in innovative ways that led to a solution.” Why?
The people at JPL ultimately discovered that “those who had worked and played with their hands as they were growing up were able to ‘see solutions’ that those who hadn’t worked with their hands could not.” The older employees had spent more time in their youth, messing about, “(taking) apart clocks to see how they worked, or made soapbox derby racers, or built hi-fi stereos, or fixed appliances.” Not so for many of the recent engineering school graduates. JPL eventually “made questions about applicants’ youthful projects and play a standard part of job interviews.”
This story brings to mind a former student of mine, Mike Toborg. At the private school where I taught at the time (the newspapers always like to say “elite” or “tony”) Mike was a faculty kid. Most of the families who sent their kids to this school would have been appalled to have a car sitting on blocks in their driveway. Not Mike’s family. His father, one of the wiser teachers I’ve ever worked with, would keep a watchful eye as Mike worked on an old Packard inherited from his grandfather, or a Chevy Camaro, and yet another old Packard, a gift from an uncle.
I heard from Mike recently. He’s living in Munich, working as an engineer for a company named IAV. IAV is one of the leading providers of engineering services to the automotive industry. His business card says: Software and Algorithm Development in Powertrain Mechatronics. When BMW, or Audi, or VW needs some help they call IAV. IAV sends over Mike, or a team of guys like Mike to solve their problem. As Mike wrote to me recently, “Working in the software controls of the mechanical things of a car is pretty cool. You use a pc to interface with the computers that are in the car that control the engine, transmission, ABS brakes or whatever, and see what they are reading in for information from sensors, how that information is processed in the algorithm, and then how that algorithm/computer controls the car. I still find it interesting that you can type some lines of code differently, or put different parameters in the equation for a transmission shift process, and the car drives differently.
“The whole software/algorithm I kind of view as a modern 'Rube Goldberg' contraption. Something happens in the car, the engine spins above a certain speed and a counter starts counting up and up, and when it reaches a certain number, it flips a switch so the next gear is selected etc., etc. As far as creativity, I think in this branch, you need to be cognizant of what the mechanical/physical things are doing, and then be creative to make that Rube Goldberg contraption.
“Oh, and the German word for tinkering is 'schrauben' which directly translates to 'to screw'.”
Mike was smart, a good student, though hardly driven. A good sense of proportion, due in part to that wise father I mentioned. These days he lives in Munich, enjoys hiking, mountain biking, and snowboarding. Plus, taking the Packard he got up and running out for a spin in Munich. If you’re in Munich and happen to see a Packard driving around, give a shout. Chances are it’s Mike Toborg. A recent post on Facebook said: “spent the day tuning upshifts in the V10. Cool.” Play – How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. And maybe even leads to a career.