Engineering lessons from Dirty Jobs

Mike Rowe of TV’s Dirty Jobs was a surprise guest speaker at the opening day of SolidWorks World 2012. Hidden inside his folksy presentation were lessons any designer or engineer can appreciate. 

Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Job on the Discovery Channel. (Source: Discovery Networks)

There is a tradition of having surprise guest speakers show up at SolidWorks World. Movie stars  like Leonard Nimoy and Kevin Bacon, and TV personalities like Mythbusters’ Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman have wandered on-stage to an unsuspecting but appreciative SolidWorks World audience. Today, on Day One of SolidWorks World 2012 it was Mike Rowe, host of the popular Discovery Channel show Dirty Jobs.

Rowe has become more than a popular TV personality; he uses his celebrity status to promote the nobility of work and has become a crusader for ending the widening skills gap in the US, where more and more skilled labor jobs go unfilled in an era of high unemployment. His website has information on his foundation and his off-camera work.

He shared his passions with the more than 5,000 attendees at SolidWorks World and later in a press conference. He complimented the engineers gathered, whom he referred to as men and women who stand in the gap “like a muddy boots architect,” people who are comfortable behind the computer in white collar work and equally at home in the shop getting hands-on to help create new products.

It may not have been his intention, but woven inside his remarks were lessons engineers and designers would be well served to follow:

Innovation and imitation are equally valid paths to a solution. Rowe talked about a Nevada pig farmer who figured out how to process the tons of leftover food he picked up daily from Las Vegas casinos. Without formal engineering training he designed and built a machine to cook and prepare this food as pig feed. What he created was more about imitation of various ideas and schemes and ideas he had seen elsewhere, but for this farmer, it was an innovation that solved a tough problem. Rowe argued there is not enough emphasis on imitation as a valid methodology for problem solving in our society.

You can never have too much data. Every person on the six-man Dirty Jobs production crew shares cameraman duties, including Rowe. There are no second takes, no re-dos when they cover a dirty job, because as Rowe said “you never know when a key moment will happen.” Most TV production teams try to shoot as little as possible, Rowe said, but his crew can’t shoot enough.

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It is easy to over-think a project. One reason Dirty Jobs shoots as much video as possible is to avoid over-thinking an assignment. “Most TV shows overproduce,” says Rowe. The act of trying to plan ahead for ever contingency or possibility causes them to miss the spontaneous event that makes a good story great. “The same happens in design,” Rowe said, encouraging engineers to go with an original idea as long as possible and not get caught up in the minutiae of detail. Expanding on this idea, Rowe reminded the press corps of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle from quantum physics, which he summarized as “observation changes things.”

The most expensive tool is not always the best tool. The first time his production crew worked on a North Pacific crab boat, they took along a $90,000 camera. But the camera was built for pristine conditions, and seized up in the cold, salty environment. The fall back was an inexpensive Flip Video camera (discontinued in 2011 by Cisco) which worked like a champ in the extreme environment. “We celebrate the failures as well as the successes,” Rowe noted, saying the lesson about cameras taught them a lot about the value of simplicity.

The processes of production can be the enemy of authenticity. Rowe has discovered that to keep Dirty Jobs fresh and entertaining today as it was eight years ago when the show started, he must separate himself from the production process. He no longer asks questions about his next assignment. “I must go to a new site unprepared.” The lesson here is perhaps the most profound of all Rowe’s observations: it is too easy to let processes become a rut from which no fresh creativity can emerge.

“Not all knowledge comes from college, but skill is always a matter of degree,” Rowe reminded his listeners.