What I Love About Engineers

Having made a snide comment or two about engineers earlier, I feel like I should relate a positive experience today:

Over the Christmas break, there was a power outage in my lab. Not an accidental outage, but a planned outage that nobody told me about– a contractor cut the breakers in order to do some work down the hall. After the outage, a piece of laser diagnostic equipment wasn’t working. After exhausting the really sketchy information in the manual about the particular failure mode of this device, I tried to call the manufacturer. Of course, the original company got bought by a different outfit, and doesn’t really support that product any more, blah, blah, blah.

I started Googling around for a modern replacement, and making phone calls to get prices (because for some reason, scientific equipment manufacturers seem to regard their prices as state secrets). In the course of one of those calls, a sales guy asked what I needed the product for, and I told them what I was replacing.

“Oh,” he said, “everybody here is from [Original Company], and [Engineer] was the lead guy on the development of that product. Let me see if he’s in.” Then he transferred me to [Engineer], who said “Oh, I’ve got a broken [Product] right here, let me open it up, and refresh my memory.” Then he (along with a colleague in the same lab) spent half an hour on the phone with me explaining the various things to try to fix the error, and offered to take a look at it if none of that stuff worked.

I guess I provided them with a puzzle that was probably the most interesting thing they had done all day. That’s the nice thing about small companies, where you can get directly to the technical people– most of them are great big geeks, and will provide free support, just because they enjoy it.

(The advice they gave didn’t actually fix the problem– in fact, I seem to have made it worse in trying one of their suggestions– but it was a refreshing change from the last couple of days of frustration…)


  1. #1 Ron
    January 8, 2008

    I routinely take customer support calls. Since most of the folks are math teachers, it’s fun to talk with them.

  2. #2 perry
    January 8, 2008

    See if students were “customers”, you would have to solve their problems for them, i.e. office hours and lecture as “customer support”. That ain’t teachin………..

    I just heard a talk about “active” learning, and how we need to have clickers in the classroom to keep them from falling asleep. I agree you should make it lively, but isn’t listening, writing notes, reading before class, and God forbid coming to class instead of trying to read a months worth of material from the website the day before the test, considered active???? Yes I am an old fart.

  3. #3 Melissa
    January 8, 2008

    Can we get some of these guys over at [insert utility/service company here]??? Gee whiz.

  4. #4 Rob Knop
    January 8, 2008

    Over the Christmas break, there was a power outage in my lab. Not an accidental outage, but a planned outage that nobody told me about

    Gotta love those.

    There seem to be a whole cadre of people at colleges and universities, including all of those inside the decision making and notification chains for power outages, who believe that “on the weekend, nobody is working so power outages won’t inconvenience anybody.” I once had to throw a fit to get one such power outage stopped when I learned about it just a few days before a supernova search run– you know, when we have to decide within days what the Hubble Space Telescope will follow….

    The same logic seems to apply over holidays.

  5. #5 a cornellian
    January 8, 2008

    Having them around also provide a much needed grounding to real life for a university. cf Cornell, University of Chicago

  6. #6 Unistrut
    January 8, 2008

    I was working in a computer lab at a school and the IT network people decided to take a print server off-line without telling anyone. During the week. The print server that served the student computer lab. During finals week, which was also the week all the seniors had their thesis due. I can evidently do a pretty good “Angry Drill Sergeant” impression when I have to.

  7. #7 milkshake
    January 9, 2008

    I called and HPLC instrument manufacturer about a problem we had and they quoted the cost for the on-site repair for $5000. My reaction was “Please where does this number come from – would you kindly give me a line-by-line repair cost estimate?” Then I got a second quote – for $2000. And bunch of excuses about “we don’t have a crystal ball to know beforehand whats wrong so we like to quote you little higher…”

    I could not get an engineer on the phone – all of them just custommer support folks trying to talk us into a service contract (5k per year).

    I waited for their engineer to show up for unrelated work, I brought her some bagels and I asked her about the problem. She was thinking for about ten seconds and then said “It sounds like a worn-out checkvalve, it costs about 80 bucks. There is an instruction video on the web so you can do it yourself. Meanwhile switch to channels C and D to see if you can still use the instrument because these valves wear out unevenly”

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