Overcoming the 'boffin' cliché

Lord Sugar's recent assertion that he had never come across an engineer able to turn their hand to business has been so thoroughly and deservedly debunked by so many different and illustrious bodies that it is superfluous for me to add my voice to the chorus of disapproval.

Instead, it is perhaps more instructive to examine the reasons why he would hold (and apparently feel justified in vocalising) such a prejudice in the first place. To start with, of course, such a view is an inevitable consequence of a lazy stereotype that casts the engineer as a 'boffin' (invariably male), obsessed to the point of tunnel vision with the problem in hand and unable or unwilling to deal with any real-world issues that extend beyond his narrow, technological concerns.

Of course, it does not take more than a moment's thought to summon up examples that counter this stereotype, but that doesn't stop it being a persistent and pernicious image that bedevils UK engineering. In part, perhaps, this is because it is an image that has been reinforced by the fact that companies were organised for so long in such a way that engineers were separate from the 'business end' of the company, thereby turning this stereotype of the engineer into a self-fulfilling prophesy.

And, perhaps, it is even true that this state of affairs may have suited some (but by no means all) engineers? However, the days when functions like marketing, finance and even manufacturing existed 'over the wall' from design engineers are long gone. No-one can afford ivory towers any more. As a consequence, engineers not only can successfully turn their hands to business, they are doing so every day.

Paul Fanning

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