Saratech Inc Blog: Title Fight Saratech Inc Blog: Title Fight

Title Fight

“I’m not a machinist.” I must have heard my brother say this a hundred times. It is usually after I compliment him on some awesome feat in the machine shop. Jamie and I worked together at a toy development company in Chicago. He taught me how to cut gears using an indexing head on a manual Bridgeport. The gears were easy to cut but a bear to set up. There was a ton of math involved before you even put the stock in the indexer. But he showed me how and now I became pretty good at it. But I would always tell him that he had some serious machining chops and he would always reply, “I am not a machinist. You are a machinist. You went to school for it.” At this I would just kind of laugh, knowing that we didn’t come close to covering specific applications like this in school. Then I would respond with, “That’s right I am, chump!”

I was thinking about this the other day when I was talking to a longtime customer of mine. He has a small machine shop where he runs mainly prototype parts for the medical industry. He has two CNC mills, a CNC lathe and a manual mill. It is really the stereotypical machine shop; band saw in the corner, music playing in the background, the smell of strong coffee and machine coolant fill the air and a mini fridge full of Red Bull and beer. But if you were to ask him what his title is, he would say engineer. This is because he has a mechanical engineering degree. I often joke with him and say I wish I was much of an engineer as he is a machinist. I asked him straight up, “You own a machine shop. Why don’t you consider yourself a machinist?” He told me, “Because I am a hack. I was never really trained and I have no idea if what I am doing is the right way to do it.” So is the right to a certain title, no matter what it is, just a question of experience and confidence?

Being in the product development field for as long as I have, I have met hundreds of engineers and industrial designers. Some were great, some…not so great. But they all had that sheepskin on their wall so they got the title. Now, I am not knocking higher education. I feel that achieving a degree shows not only intelligence, but also fortitude and dedication. Sitting through those thermal dynamic classes teaches lifelong skills in mental toughness when faced with insurmountable boredom. But does it make you an “Engineer”? I say no.
So what does make someone an engineer? Experience and confidence. Think about what you do on a daily basis and think about how much of that was covered by a professor. I am talking about the real important stuff like filling out work orders, processing revision changes, making coffee, material pricing, vendor relations, drinking coffee, learning five different CAD softwares, filling out timesheets, making more coffee and working the office alarm system. These are the things that make someone an engineer. It is the same with being a machinist. I learned a lot during my apprenticeship, both in class and on the job. But it is impossible to count the things I learned over the years that I feel truly make me a machinist. I really think the same could be said for just about any vocation. They don’t have a “Bedside Manner 101” class for doctors or a “How to Sell Your Art” class in art school. These are things that the most successful people in their field stumble and learn on the job.

With all of this experience also comes confidence. I remember the first year of machining education. We would be handed a stack of about a hundred drawings for a mold and we would have to sift through them and come up with a plan to build it. I remember my stomach dropping as I sat there with my mentor hoping he wouldn’t give me any of the hard stuff. But every single time he would take the most challenging pieces and give me the mold bases. I used to think he was being nice to me. But after a couple years we were fighting over the more difficult parts. Not because we wanted to show off, but because making those hard parts is what a machinist does. I have seen the same thing with engineers. The more experienced engineer views a difficult design requirement as type of personal challenge. It seems to me that engineers that have been around the block never say, “That can’t be done,” they always say, “How about trying it this way?” This is a sign of confidence. Confidence in ones thought process and problem solving skills. Confidence knowing that this is the reason this company hired me; because I am an incredible engineer.

With all of this being said, I do feel we fall back on titles too much. I think titles limit both personal and corporate progress. Any contribution to success should never be limited to what is printed on a business card. Machinist, engineer, CEO, MBA, assembler or receptionist, to let your title define you isn’t fair to you or anyone around you. Because the second best machinist I know showed me how to cut gears and he is just an Industrial Designer.

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