Students arent made the way they used to be

A recent talk at Berkeley about the Engineering mentality, Freedom and Patents blew me out of the water. Here it is, transcribed. The author wished to remain anonymous.

I don’t want to talk about going to grad school or which classes to take. Go talk to you faculty adviser for that. This is a talk to get you to think. I titled it:

“Reflections on the story of the Engineer and the Guillotine”

The joke goes like this:

It’s the french revolution, but a modern engineer is standing in the long line to be executed. ahead of him is a physician and a businessman. First up is the physician. The executioner ask him – ‘Any last wishes?’ The physician says, “i’ve been really watching what i eat, so i would have a nice meal”. When the guilloine falls after the meal, it sticks and he is not killed!

Next up is the businessman. Same question – and he replies “I’ve been saving my money my whole life. Let me look at them now.” Again, when the blade comes down, it sticks!

When the engineer comes up, they ask him the same question. He says “I’ve lived my life the way i want to. But i wish to lie facing upward.” They’re happy with this, and they ready to execute him. And as they want to execute him, he says “Wait! I see the problem with the blade!”

My dad, a retired engineer, also likes this story when I told it to him, and he reflected on how true this story is of the engineering mentality.

As engineers we are so concerned with how this mechanism isn’t working, that we miss the big picture. But there is another side to it. Behind this story is a kind of sweetness, and gentleness to Engineering that is reflected in this engineer’s perspective. you might not appreciate this yet, but i remember i started to notice it around my senior year in relationship to my friends in other areas. They grew hard in their approach to life, those who would not help those around them for fear of their grades. That would not happen in engineering, we would look down on those who didn’t help each other. This attitude of really feeling that your contributions are part of a larger whole, and that everything else will take care of itself. This trust is so strong that, in the story, engineers believe that their contribution and solving of a problem is important, while the chain of command will take care of them.

We engineers expect to be taken care of – there is a sweetness and a naivety to us. and this is no necessarily a bad thing.

Lets think about this kind of trust and mentality.

Think back to the idea of the story of John Henry and the steam drill. Its a song, I believe. What, none of you guys know this? Man i had to learn it in elementary school. John was a driller, and he was competing with the new mechanized driller, and he dies in competing with it. Engineers welcome mechanization, since we believe we make the world better for everyone, since those benefits will be shared amongst everyone. As a 1950s approach, the engineer says – in a world of mostly women trapped in a life of domestic drudgery, the invention of a vacuum, of a laundry machine, dishwashers, so forth, are an unmitigated liberation. You no longer have to be stuck in this life! your time is free! The engineer’s perspective is “OK Great!”. Someone else would say – how would the engineer look on the story of the average person saying “I can now divorce my old wife and marry one that is more useful in other tasks…” *laughter*

The engineer believes that he is making the world better, yet mostly people’s reaction is often “great, i’m going to grab a bigger part of the pie for myself!”

So in today’s context – teamwork is very important. Economies of scale – you can imagine that for a particular company, value is not added additively by different agents, but adds multiplicatively. One person brings some percentage gain, the next brings another percentage gain, and this multiplies up to make something exponentially bigger. That’s where the value of teamwork comes from.

If we think of this value adding up of how the pie is made, how will we divide it up? How can we share it so that people can measure it with their contribution? How do we do this fairly? How do we measure their contribution? How would you think about it?


As engineers you should be thinking about this!


Once is – we divide the entire pie and divide it equally amongst the contributors. But is this fair amongst people contributing differently? How do we do i proportionalize it to the amount of people?

*person*:normalize it!

OK, sure, so person A bought 10%, does he get 10%? But if 50 people each had a 10% marginal contribution, you can’t give each of them 10%! It adds up to more than the total! So there’s some problem already… Now what?

*person*:Do we know each person’s contribution?


*Person:*so how about we normalize the percentage values and divide it then?

So if we want to satisfy some axioms of neutrality, how do we do that? what would those be?

*Person:*lets look at the ratio of percentages

That is assuming that 10% increase is worth 10 times a 1% increase. Is it? No matter how we segment it, there is a concept of fairness. We should think about this particular principle – the idea of a symmetry. Something over here should behave the same as that same thing, divided up somewhere else. What does this mean?

Someone should get this – anyone? One person with one amount of contribution should get the same amount as two others with a net same contribution? What’s that someone’s whispering?

Yes! Take logarithms! That takes this into an additive problem, which we know how to divide up equally, and you feel a little thrill. And now does the world work like that?

NO! The world does not work like that! Why?

*Person:* We’re not all engineers!

We’re thinking of everything statically, but things change over time. you are a collective of 10 people. You produced x. Now you add one more person to the team, who makes a 20% contribution. How much do we offer this person? If he says “i’m willing to increase your productivity that 20%, what will you offer me?”

well, we want to come out on top, so we might want to offer him up to 0.2 times of our current sharing system. he’s bringing the same amount – but suddenly he’s getting a 1/5 of the pot? and you’re dividing 4/5 amongst yourselves now! That doesn’t make sense! Would you actually offer the person the full 20%? How do you make that decision?

So, if we give him 19%, we all get a 1% increase, and he gets a huge bunch of money. So we want to go as low as we can. What is the lower limit? Well, it is set by competition. Since at some point he would go somewhere else!

what does this have to do with the engineer and the guillotine. You’ll be surprised at how this will affect your career. I was talking to some MBAs about how the economy changed. Companies are acquiring each other rather than developing in-house. This is madness in my engineering view. Startups are even acquiring other startups. There are economies of scale – a startup has a lot of overhead!

but the MBAs said – “you have it totally wrong!”. Ask an MBA – would you want to be in charge of the acquisition that brings in $5million a year by spending $300mil. Or would you want to lead a team in-house that will finally bring in $30mil a year and only spending $60mil? I said obviously the second – higher values, more efficient!

but thinking like the engineer, where we all get judged by the amount we put it. But they all said they would do option one. Why? Can anyone tell me why?

*Person:* She gets to throw around a lot more money and a lot more power?

Ah! Yes! good! She can use the money by throwing it around to some other people to get into her book, she’s building these relationships.

This is one part. What is the other?

*Some guesses follow*

When she’s done with the product development, her value is understood inside the company only. Versus doing an acquisition, it goes on her resume, it is unambiguous. That skill is something tangible for her, so she can command that value in switching. And people are biased to saying, obviously you had a lot of people helping you in that company if you just did the prod. development.

She puts herself in a larger box by going the merger.

This is related to how much do you pay that person for their value. The market says you’re not paid for your value you bring, but for the threat of what others are willing to give you.

What does this have to do with the original joke? If someone says – you add a lot of value to the company, and i want you to build a system that your value is only valued in my company. would you fall for it? Well, what about if it is dressed as a great technical problem?

what is there in the field that is like the guillotine to the engineer?

A Patent!

As a quick summary – a trademark says “dont pretend to be someone you’re not”. Think of the Aqua song “Barbie Girl” and the court case. a copywrite says “you can’t make a verbatim copy of this.”. Then there is a patent. This came from congress, saying that they may grant limited rights to the creator of inventions. This tries to prevent the proprietary knowledge in guilds where knowledge gets lots with guilds. The compromise was that guilds would share fully as to how to do it, in exchange for a limited monopoly for the full idea.

So how do I say that patents are like the guillotine? You hear phrases like “This patent is to protect yourself from the competition!”. Think like an engineer! Remember, the law does not see companies as an inventor – the order of names listed on a patent, is the people in order of their contribution. You say “I have fully and completely disclosed how to best make this idea work!”

What happens next is that the patent is assigned! Those rights are tradeable. You cannot sell yourself into slavery, that’s not recognized by law. But you can sell patents. And it is a right to exclude. Who holds this patent has the right to exclude others. Like back in the day when ancient feudal lords gave “patents” for certain trade. So what it really means is not “protect”.

Engineers have excellent BS detectors. We should ALWAYS ask ourselves “What are you TALKING about? Show me the actual worldly happenings and i’ll then understand the abstraction”. We’ve all done this by saying “great, its a constant time algorithm” versus “shit, O(4) is 4 times more wires!”.

Patents protect whom from whom? You have to understand the concept. Who has the most skill at improving this invention?



good guess, but japan is not a person! The inventor is the person most likely to improve it! So what it means is that a company is protecting itself from you, the inventor. This is a practical thing! They will try to dress it up – make the claims as broad as possible! For example, showing how to make a particular mousetrap, then saying you invented mousetraps. so they will try to get you to write the claims as broadly as possible. Those claims are then handcuffs on you. Those are legally binding!

*Person*:Is a patent lawyer involved?

Yes! So why is the engineer paid $50 an hour and the patent lawyer is paid $500 an hour, where the patent lawyer is just translating the engineer’s idea to paper. Aren’t you getting suspicious? We as engineers have the tendency of saying “we don’t want to deal with this. i’m assuming this lawyer has my back”.

So as a practical step, you have to remember that you’re signing off on this. So read the claims, make them as narrow as possible! So that it only covers exactly what you did. Now i don’t suggest you go off and take part in a mass protest. But your own interest says that you should be sure these handcuffs are made of spiderwebs, not steel!

They will come out and say “all you have to do is saying that you’re aware of it!” but you have to stand on what you are comfortable with. This is something practical in terms of the engineering community. This has to do with outside alternatives.

I’ve seen it happen – students working with Digital Fountain. And then they appeal at a conference, saying “we need patent-free versions of this!” Everyone uses JPEG. Who uses JPEG2000? Its much better! But its patented!

when I saw the rise of the Free Software Movement and this idea of saying software that is free to work and edit. This was going on during the height of the dot com boom. And people were saying, you engineers are crazy! Why are you giving stuff away?

This analysis shows you that your ideas are not crazy. It is YOUR FREEDOM that is being protected! No-one can stop you. Freedom is most powerful in the hands of the people doing the work. Certain legal instruments can be thought of as blocking your share of the pie.

This reminds me of story that Bob Dole told. His brother said “wouldn’t it be great if we had the way the fuedal system worked, and we had hordes of slaves?”. And he replied “Stupid! We were the ones who were the slaves!”. And both these ideas are very American.

In the context of the value change, you should ask – do you want to be the person capturing the value or doing something about it? In thinking about the problem of value capture – maybe these patent handcuffs are necessary – ask yourself: “Is there symmetry? Is somewhere else on the value chain an equal system?” You’re told that all you do belongs to the company, since they pay you for it. Does the same standard apply to others?

For example – apply to the CEO. If someone says – getting this person a great gift would help the company. Does he fill out a form saying “Oh, you can recreate this relationship between our company and this person? Describe!. And after you leave – you can’t talk to those people anymore.”

And that is ridiculous! And if you get that idea of “this is ridiculous” from something derived from symmetry, think!

The story of the Engineer with the Guilltoine is real. It comes from something good – but you have to use it for something good.

I’ll close with a comment.

Progress hasn’t stopped. If you think about the industrial revolution as ridding the world from slavery. Is this done? There is the issue of wage slavery. And a lot can be done about it. Engineers lead the world – but we have to accept this, and the greatness we can accomplish. And in this there is a story, from a painting. It goes like this – there was a boy and a very sacred urn. This little child fell into the urn, and became trapped. He was crying “help me!” but the adults couldn’t get the child out. And they lamented, we cant get him out. They poured oil and and tried to get him out. Then another came along, yelled at the child about how stupid the child was to fall in. Then a boy came along and whacked the urn with a stick. As the urn broke, the child was free. You have to keep your eye on what is important. We adults forget these basic thing, we lose track of the basic idea – people are more important than things. So in your life, you have to remember, sometimes you have to smash the urn. Nothing really is that sacred, except your value and your vision – that you care about this world and want to make it better. We combine a respect of the natural world with a sense of what you want to do. This will lead you to great things.


Don’t just sit there complacently! Argue amongst yourselves, shout at each other.

*Question:* Well, isnt patents good while you’re at the company?

Sure. so if you sign a patent saying that the rights are with this patent for 15 years, ask them to include a 15 year employment contract. And watch their face – and you’ll know the relationship right here.

*Question:* These ideas aren’t inherent in the law is it?

No, but your contract with the company states these things. The legal situation is complicated. The idea is more to remember… again, ask yourself about the CEO symmetry argument.

*Question:* do you have any power in this? Don’t you just get fired if you resist?

Well, if you say, “This patent it too broad. I don’t sign this”, they just made their patent worthless. You could hypothetically say that the company agrees to cover all your legal cost in any case with this patent. This would protect you even when they sue you.

And when you do this – Watch their faces. *Laughter* and you’ll know what the relationship is about.

*Question:* I agree with this, but does this close doors to you?

I agree in some sense, but what i’m saying that this should provoke thought. Since the non-confrontational nature of engineers make us lose quietly so often. If you ask them “give me the direct order in writing” or “put down in writing that i am completely protected” as a general attitude of ethical behavior, then this makes sense. If you take seriously what you do in life and you take seriously what you are signing, it will follow though. Most companies make no money from patents – its just a bean count.

*Question:* You talked about the counteroffer idea. Is this actually a good idea?

Take into account that there is actual and hypothetical value. In one company you have no track record, but if you have to shift later, you want to build on the progression of your skills. So often people say you have to shift to other companies. Just remember you will be payed for your outside value, and they will try to make up the difference. They will try to keep your inside value within reach of your outside value.

At least be aware of it!

Again, these are NOT the opinions of the University, the State of California, the Department of EECS. It is provided as food for thought.

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