Engineering vs. Technology

In this article, I attempt to chronicle how I arrived at what I think is a layman explanation of the difference between the terms engineering and technology .

An Incomplete Devil’s Dictionary

My goal with this series is to offer layman definitions of words used in the technology industry. I try to be clear and concise, in the style of the concise (and witty) definitions that appear in The Devil’s Dictionary. The Devil's Dictionary was first published in 1911 by Ambrose Bierce.

A Long Primer

Two years ago, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Herbert Simon's The Sciences of the Artificial (SotA). In terms of information density, SotA is a phenomenal book–it is almost as dense as another personal favorite of mine: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (SoSR) by Thomas Kuhn.

Both books were first published in the 1960s–SoSR was first published in 1962, while SotA was first published in 1969. I read the 1970 edition (aka 2nd edition) of SoSR, while I read the 1996 edition (aka 3rd edition) of SotA.

Why did I choose to read books from 50-60 years ago?

A Getaway for Looming Questions

I forget where I first saw the recommendations to read SoSR, but I suspect it must have been on HackerNews.

Every once in a while, someone would leave a comment pointing out the human tendency to make assumptions about the history of science, rather than consult the actual history of science. Recommending SoSR was often the antidote to that malaise. The nudge to read it often increased when the concept of paradigm shifts which was made famous by the book came up for discussion. I finally read it in 2018.

Reading SoSR helped answer several open questions that had been floating in my head for years, and more importantly, it created a new set of open questions deserving of their own answers.

Journeying With a Clear Thinker

SoSR absolutely showed how clear thinking can elevate your writing–reading it set the bar pretty high for what I now consider a good book. Today, it's hard to find books that can match the information density of SoSR, but it didn't stop me from being on the look out for other books of similar calibre.

Journeying With Another Clear Thinker

I came across the recommendation to read SotA in this strong nod to Herbert Simon as a thinker by Alan Kay on Quora:

Try “The Sciences of the Artificial” by Herb Simon. A much stronger way to think about computing — and what “Computer Science” might mean — by a much stronger thinker than most today.

I read SotA in 2019 and agree with Alan Kay–Herbert Simon was indeed a strong thinker though I prefer the term clear thinker.

Granted, many readers will consider them old books because of the time they were written, nonetheless, I think reading them and taking copious notes will sharpen one's thinking. I strongly recommend both books to anyone that wants to learn how to think from first principles, rather than by analogy.

A Small but Asute Observation

For several years now, my daily routine often involves doing a ton of reading online about the technology industry. Topics are wide and varied, but reading SotA forced me to reflect on a subtle but important observation.

Conflating Engineering with Technology

A lot of writers, especially online, use the words engineering and technology interchangeably even though they are not synonyms. This contrasts sharply with how Herbert Simon used them in his book.

In SotA, science, engineering and technology roughly approximate to the following distinct concepts: analysis, synthesis and tooling, respectively.

An Initial But Incorrect Diagnosis

It turns out that my initial diagnosis was wrong. Or more accurately, the premise was correct but the conclusion was wrong.

Yes, writers are increasingly using the words engineering and technology interchangeably, but not as synonyms.

Resolving the Misdiagnosis

To illustrate the issue, lets attempt to answer the following question which should have a fairly simple answer: what kind of company is Google? Is Google an engineering company or a technology company?

Google describes (1, 2) itself as an engineering company on the Engineering & Design section of its careers site:

Google is and always will be an engineering company. We hire people with a broad set of technical skills who are ready to tackle some of technology’s greatest challenges and make an impact on millions, if not billions, of users.

Wikipedia describes Google as a technology company:

Google LLC is an American multinational technology company that specializes in Internet-related services and products, which include online advertising technologies, a search engine, cloud computing, software, and hardware.

While Google says it is an engineering company, Wikipedia disagrees, describing them as a technology company instead. Which characterization is more accurate, the one by Google or Wikipedia?

To answer this follow-on question, we need to agree on a layman definition for each word in order to understand how the underlying activities differ. In other words, what is the defining trait that allows us to tell apart engineering companies from their technology counterparts?

Verbose Definitions

The individual definitions of engineering and technology on Wikipedia are too verbose to be useful here for two reasons:

  • their definitions partially depend on a definition for science;
  • the definition of science is too academic to expressed in a concise way.

I remember repeatedly pausing my reading to search for a modern layperson explanation of how the two concepts differ, but none of the definitions I came across were intuitive or concise.

Concise Definitions

So I took a stab at it and decided to maintain a layperson list of word definitions on my device. By the time I had finished reading SotA, I had come up with a fairly stable definition for the terms engineering and technology. For completeness, I added concise definitions for science and mathematics, which altogether make up the STEM acronym.

STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics
A clear and concise definition for each discipline that makes up the STEM acronym.

Resolving the Question

Armed with the following characterizations:

  • engineering is preoccupied with working within constraints;
  • technology is preoccupied with transcending constraints (with tools);

let's attempt to answer our last question: "which characterization is more accurate, the one by Google or Wikipedia?"

I'd say that Google is engaged in both kinds of activities as is evidenced by the copy on the Consumer Hardware section of their careers site:

Our Consumer Hardware team researches, designs, and develops new technologies and hardware to make users’ interaction with computing faster, more powerful, and seamless. Whether finding ways to capture and sense the world around us, advancing form factors, or improving interaction methods, our Consumer Hardware team is making people’s lives better through technology.

Google is a multi-faceted entity which is why it can be referred to as an engineering company, a technology company or a monopoly. Whether a label is appropriate is context-dependent.

Essentially, the real-world is complex. Calling Google an engineering company or a technology company is a matter of perspective. Both are correct.