Monday, January 25, 2016

Mindful Engineering: An Introduction

Ever at the forefront at achieving maximal mind/body superhealth, the high-octane elite of the tech world increasingly integrate meditation and mindfulness practices.  "Mindfulness" is a form of self-awareness and intent that guides a person through their day with a holistic view of themselves and the world.  A budding trend in Silicon Valley, it has taken such big name giants like Google and Apple by storm.  Mindfulness and meditation are touted as a remedy for the frenetic environments that dominate tech culture, allowing high-strung engineers to vacate their mind jungles (with scheduled regularity) into more peaceful pastures.

However, the running theories behind mindfulness miss out on an important, and potentially critical, point: mindfulness does not need to involve separating ones self from his/her engineering mind; rather, it can be integrated into the practice of engineering.  Mindfulness in engineering is a powerful tool for building awareness, leading to more intuitive problem solving and process efficiency, not to mention its potential for optimizing the strengths of a collaborative team of engineers.

At a most basic level, mindful engineering is about tracking details.  Call it a practice of being habituated to a detail-oriented existence.  This isn't to say that we should be fixated on details and so data-driven that we operate like robots (no disrespect to robots intended).  Instead, it is the ability to give import to minutia that otherwise might get lost in the fray.  This type of holistic approach, giving value to the mundane, can also be called "thoughtful engineering".  An anecdotal example:

A few weeks after joining a research group in grad school, I was in the lab with one of the senior students watching him perform a simple experiment.  I was completely overwhelmed by the newness and complexity of everything surrounding us in the lab, and felt like that I would never be able to handle the equipment with the same nonchalance he was demonstrating.  Between steps of the procedure he paused to inculcate this important thought: "You have to remember," he said with gravitas, "everything different is the devil."

At the time we certainly didn't know each other well enough to engage in a theological conversation (though many did occur in the years that followed) of who or what precisely was the Devil, or the level of evil it represented.  But his statement, which was both intentionally silly and accidentally insightful, made an impact on my graduate career.  Succeeding in the lab depends on the ability to pay attention to the details and pinpoint the small changes.  Variations in procedures, minute operational deviations, and the subtlety in the sound/look/feel of the equipment could be the difference between a completed useful experiment and another wasted late night.

The reality is that it is easy to turn the majority of what you interact with on a daily basis into white noise.  Sitting in a room and not finding awareness in the subtle aspects is much easier than paying true attention.  But the benefits of resisting getting comfortable with your environment can pay off.  It makes a major difference in outcome: knowing the sounds of a lab so well that you can hear a pump starting to struggle, or to realize quickly that a necessary water chiller is off, or that the clicking sound of a valve means that it's not functioning properly.  --And all this above the continuous wall of sound created by the properly functioning equipment.   Without listening and being cognizant of the normal, hearing the (sometimes subtle) abnormal is much more difficult.  This analogy goes far beyond the relatively narrow example of aural-based diagnostics for research laboratories.  Any programmer worth their salt will tell you that debugging code is a practice of avoiding repetition and habit.  A missing semicolon can make or break even the most beautifully written code, and is as easy to miss as an ill-timed blink while scanning through the lines.

Successful intuitive engineering takes more than learning to follow steps with developed muscle-memory. Rarely does an experiment or task proceed with a desired normalcy.  Reactionary problem solving works to an extent, but leads quickly to a life of putting out fires.  Mindfulness enhances the intuition by adding an anticipatory and preventative level.  A mindful engineer is not only efficient at forensically deconstructing a problem to determine root cause, but can also learn to pay attention to the symptoms of preventable mishaps and danger by staying above the noise.

So, how does one reduce the white noise?