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Richard Hamming, Acorns and the Engineering Mindset
August 31, 2021

Table of Contents

Introduction

Richard Hamming was a pioneer in the fields of electrical engineering, computer engineering and computer science. You might not know he has also had a positive and significant impact on engineering culture with his talk “You and Your Research”.

Richard Hamming

You and Your Research

Richard Hamming is most widely known for the Hamming code used in error correction. He also gave us the absolute gem of a talk titled You and Your Research. In the speech he outlines thought processes, habits and behaviors I refer to as the engineering mindset.

The engineering mindset consists of the following points:

  1. Managing Ego
  2. Taking Risks
  3. Luck is Preparation in Disguise
  4. Office Etiquette

Managing Ego

You have a limited amount of sand in your hourglass. How do you want to spend your grains? Do you want to chase fame and feed your ego? Or do you want to do important work?

1. What most people think are the best working conditions, are not. Very clearly they are not because people are often most productive when working conditions are bad. One of the better times of the Cambridge Physical Laboratories was when they had practically shacks – they did some of the best physics ever.

2. I am an egotistical person; there is no doubt about it. I knew that most people who took a sabbatical to write a book, didn’t finish it on time. So before I left, I told all my friends that when I come back, that book was going to be done! Yes, I would have it done – I’d have been ashamed to come back without it! I used my ego to make myself behave the way I wanted to.

3. If you really want to be a first-class scientist you need to know yourself, your weaknesses, your strengths, and your bad faults, like my egotism.

Taking Risks

If you want to do important and meaningful work there are going to be risks involved.

1. One of the characteristics of successful scientists is having courage. Once you get your courage up and believe that you can do important problems, then you can. If you think you can’t, almost surely you are not going to. Courage is one of the things that Shannon had supremely.

2. If you do not work on an important problem, it’s unlikely you’ll do important work.

Luck is Preparation in Disguise

Richard Hamming and Louis Pasteur agree that fortune favors the prepared mind. Throughout your career you will have to do things that seem small and feel below your stature but with some foresight and creativity can turn into a significant finding which is what Hamming refers to as planting acorns.

1. The prepared mind sooner or later finds something important and does it. So yes, it is luck. The particular thing you do is luck, but that you do something is not.

2. The people who do great work with less ability but who are committed to it, get more done that those who have great skill and dabble in it.

3. ”Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former.

Office Etiquette

You are going to be spending 8 hours a day, five days a week for forty years working. You will be spending more time with your coworkers than with your family. Investing in social skills and understanding office etiquette can create new opportunities, turn your coworkers into friends and make office life much more fun.

1. We are not getting the recognition for our programmers that they deserve. When you publish a paper you will thank that programmer or you aren’t getting any more help from me. That programmer is going to be thanked by name; she’s worked hard.

2. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important.

3. By taking the trouble to tell jokes to the secretaries and being a little friendly, I got superb secretarial help. … By realizing you have to use the system and studying how to get the system to do your work, you learn how to adapt the system to your desires. Or you can fight it steadily, as a small undeclared war, for the whole of your life.

4. You should dress according to the expectations of the audience spoken to.

Conclusion

The engineering mindset gives you a mental framework for success in your career. Managing your ego allows you do to the low-level work of planting acorns. There is risk involved in that many of the acorns may with not take root but only one is needed grow a tree. Once the tree of success has grown others may look on and claim luck but in reality it is due to preparation. Office etiquette is the necessary lubricant for making the office environment run smoothly, efficiently and allowing yourself to have fun along the way.

Check out these other pages on mindset:

Please do yourself and your career a favor and read through the full speech or watch the video below:

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