What makes an engineer an engineer? Cultural Differences (2023)

Since engineers are trained to focus on data and facts, they may assume that cultural differences have little impact on their professional practice. After all, no matter where you live, a car is a car, a pipe carries fluids, and the laws of physics are the same.

But since data interpretation is carried out by people, cultural differences sometimes play a significant role in the work of engineers. In particular, the kind and amount of data that engineers collect and the way they interpret it to solve problems varies from country to country. These differences can be partly attributed to what engineers learn at engineering school and how they are taught.

By comparing the mechanical engineering curricula in a few universities in Canada, the United States, France and Mexico, I found key differences in the education of engineers, which have on impact on their professional activities. I am not suggesting that one curriculum is better than another. What I am suggesting is that engineers are not all made out of the same cloth. Further, engineers trained in different countries can complement one another, once they have learned to work together effectively.

This article compares the mechanical engineering curricula of the following universities:

Theory versus practice

The French and Mexican education systems for engineers tend to emphasise theory, while the Canadian and American systems include more time for practice. This is reflected in the relative amount of time spent, on average, in university classes versus time spent on internships, as shown in Figure 1. These percentages are based on the number of weeks spent in university versus the number of weeks spent in internships or on extended vacations (which are considered suitable for summer jobs). French and Mexican students spend more time in class than their Canadian and American counterparts in order to learn more from their professors.

Figure 1: Relative amount of time spent at versus outside the university

The Latin preference for theory over practice is also reflected in the fact that French and Mexican engineering students spend more time in the classroom and less time in labs than Canadian and American students, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Percentage of time spent in classrooms and laboratories

Consequences in the workplace

These differences in educational background are often reflected in the approaches Canadian, American, French and Mexican engineers use to solve technical problems during their professional careers. Put simply, French and Mexican engineers tend to look for general solutions, while Canadian and American engineers look for specific solutions.

For example, let’s assume that a Canadian and a French engineer are assigned the task of solving a control problem on a specific process (such as a complex distillation column) within a plant. Since the Canadian approach tends to be direct and emphasise speed, the Canadian engineer is likely to first attempt to experiment on the process. If this is not practical, he or she will likely next consider building a small-scale model or simulating the process on the computer. A Canadian engineer generally focuses on solving the specific problem at hand.

The French approach, on the other hand, emphasises generality and reapplicability. The French engineer is likely to first look at a general expression of the problem, starting by setting up differential equations and attempting to solve them analytically. If this is not practical, he or she is likely to consider solving these equations numerically instead. The French engineer tends to focus on solving the problem for all like processes (for example, all complex columns of the same kind). This is based on the reasoning that solutions derived in this manner can be quickly and easily reapplied to similar situations.

When French and Canadian engineers work together, significant tension and frustration often develops. Indeed, they usually both have the same first reaction: “You are doing it all wrong. You are wasting time [solving your differential equations/building your small-scale apparatus]. Doing it my way will get us to the end point faster.”

But with time and experience, French and Canadian engineers can learn to appreciate the benefits of combining theoretical and practical approaches in a synergistic manner, since there is value in both. A good compromise between the two approaches might be to examine all like processes in the plant, thereby ensuring that the solution obtained can be easily reapplied. This approach is more general than the Canadian approach, but more focused than the French approach.

Engineering versus Arts and Sciences

The range of subjects mechanical engineering students study varies widely in the four countries (see Figure 3). The Canadian and French universities considered in this study are at opposite ends of the spectrum with respect to the concentration of credits in engineering, versus other subject areas. The percentage of credits allocated to engineering courses varies from 21 per cent at the École Polytechnique de Paris, to 64 per cent at the University of Waterloo.

Each country tends to approach engineering education in a different manner. Here are some of the key differences:

  • In Canada, undergraduate engineering degree programs are accredited for licensing purposes. There are specific guidelines that stipulate the number and content of engineering courses. As a result, variations among engineering schools are not as significant as they are in other countries. Since the best Canadian students (honours program students) are encouraged to specialise, the percentage of courses allocated to engineering in honours programs is higher than the percentage of courses allocated to engineering in regular programs.
  • In the United States, where national engineering standards provide more latitude, engineering faculties have more discretion in choosing what should be part of their curricula. As a result, variations in the content of engineering programs are more significant in the U.S. than they are in Canada. For instance, the percentage of credits allocated to chemistry and humanities can vary widely from one university to the next.
  • Many Mexican universities are emulating the curriculum of American universities. In particular, the Tecnologico de Monterrey is aiming to be the “MIT of Latin America.”
  • French students are encouraged to have a wide breadth of scientific and technical interests, rather than specialise in one area. Engineering students at L’École Polytechnique de Paris, who are considered to be the best French students (admission to this institution is based on a country-wide competition), are expected to study a broad range of scientific topics from a mathematical point of view. These students actually take three times more mathematics courses and half as many engineering courses than Canadian engineering students. In addition, mechanical engineering students at L’École Polytechnique de Paris take courses in electrical, chemical and mechanical engineering.

Figure 3: Percentage of the total number of credits needed in each field

This difference in educational approach comes from different emphases: In France, the best students are encouraged to learn a little about a lot of subjects, because major breakthroughs are expected to come from people applying ideas and concepts from one scientific field to another. In Canada, the best students are encouraged to concentrate on one area within their field, because major improvements come from experts who know specific processes or topics inside out and can apply their knowledge to a wide range of situations.

Deciding who to hire

Differences in educational background and training become critical during job interviews and promotions. For example, French engineers seeking jobs are expected to talk about their work and past experience during job interviews. They are also expected to be knowledgeable about a wide range of topics (including arts and literature). The ability to discuss such topics during business meals is an important skill in both French and Mexican organisations.

Canadian candidates seeking work are expected to have a solid knowledge of their technical field. Questions related to non-technical and non-managerial topics are not considered appropriate during interviews in Canada (and in the U.S.).

When engineers from different countries evaluate applicants from a range of countries for a new position or an internal promotion, they may rank them differently, because the skills that they consider important for the position may be different. Reconciling these differences in values is critical to reaching consensus on the best candidate for the job.

Problem solving approaches: from general to specific

When engineers trained in different countries work together, they often think that people trained in other countries are “wasting time” by approaching problems “from the wrong angle.”

In Canada and in the U.S., people value action and speed. Canadians and Americans want to brainstorm solutions in order to find quick solutions. Actions may be taken with limited information in order to “get the ball rolling.” With limited information and a focus on action, Canadian solutions tend to be pragmatic, focusing on the specifics of the problem at hand. Canadian logic goes from the particular to the general, in an inductive manner.

In Mexico and France, people value theory and comprehensiveness. Mexican and French engineers tend to analyse problems in general terms and to seek a general formulation of them. They look for a general solution to a general problem, and then apply the general solution to the specific problem at hand. French and Mexican logic goes from the general to the specific, in a deductive manner. This is because French and Mexican engineers want to ensure that they have a good theoretical solution to the problem before starting to solve it.

Differences in approaches also arise from differences in the resources at hand. For example, higher labour costs and skill levels make process automation and the use of heavy equipment cost-effective and thus the preferred approach in Canada, the U.S. and France. Conversely, using large numbers of unskilled workers may be the preferred solution in Mexico, where labour costs and skill levels are lower. This difference in approach is often found when you compare developed and developing countries.

Getting the best of both worlds

All engineers are not created the same, and cultural differences have a big impact on the work that engineers do on a daily basis. Understanding the impact of these differences and overcoming the challenges they create are critical to the success of multinational engineering teams.

When they overcome these challenges, multinational teams can often reap significant benefits from cultural differences. Synergy can be created in the area of problem solving. Indeed, combining the French/Mexican general, theoretical and analytical approach with the Canadian/American pragmatic approach can result in better solutions, which can be implemented relatively quickly and easily reapplied in other parts of the plant or corporation.

When working with engineers who have been educated in other countries, readers are encouraged to discuss and compare differences in education systems. Such a discussion generally provides much insight into why engineers approach problems the way they do and what is important to them.

Read also: “Navigating Cultural Bumps on the Road” , Laroche L.F., Engineering Dimensions, November / December 2002.


What is the culture of engineers? ›

Like corporate culture, engineering culture is a shared set of behaviors, attitudes, values, and practices of engineers. They impact how your engineers act, make decisions, and how they feel.

How does culture affect engineering? ›

The culture will affect how the people are interacting with each other, how the processes are designed, and how things are prioritized within the company. All of the aforementioned hold power over how the technology team works, which will translate to the engineering output of the team.

What makes an engineer an engineer? ›

To become an engineer you need a degree in engineering that will provide you with a broad background in math, science, and technology, as engineers use these skills to solve problems on a daily basis. Besides the broad background, engineering students also choose a specialization in some branch of engineering.

What makes engineering different from other professions? ›

Engineering is a highly technical field that requires specialized knowledge and skills, whereas other degrees may not be as focused on specific disciplines. If you are looking for a challenging and rewarding career, then engineering may be the right choice for you.

What are 3 traits of engineers? ›

5 Characteristics of Successful Engineers
  • Curiosity. Engineers who are curious are interested in how things work. ...
  • Critical Thinker. Complex problems do not have simple solutions. ...
  • Logical Thinking. Successful Engineers have the ability to understand complex systems. ...
  • Attention to Detail. ...
  • Teamwork and Communication.

How is engineering culture set? ›

8 ways to foster a good engineering culture
  1. Use a management tool.
  2. Encourage learning.
  3. Align company goals with the engineers' goals.
  4. Foster effective communication.
  5. Leverage agile methods.
  6. Collaborate on projects.
  7. Create a culture of accountability, consistency, and inclusion.
  8. Give and receive regular feedback.
Jul 29, 2022

How does diversity affect engineering? ›

Engineers work in the world to solve a whole lot of problems from transportation, even education and you have to have diverse opinions and a diverse background which means we have to have different types of people. It's really critical for success if we're going to develop strong solutions to have diverse perspectives.

What is a healthy engineering culture? ›

Healthy cultures build great products, predictably

You're smart and your team is great. You ship software, and sometimes you even ship it on time and with high quality. But, if you're like a lot of companies, shipping high-quality software on time, reliably and repeatedly, eludes you.

What factors affect culture? ›

The major elements of culture are material culture, language, aesthetics, education, religion, attitudes and values and social organisation.

What makes an engineer unique? ›


Engineers are rigorously logical and independent thinkers. We do not just want to understand the system, but also to improve it. We want to know how and why things work, and how we can get them to work better.

What qualifies you to be called an engineer? ›

Earn a bachelor's degree in engineering from a school accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) Pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) examination. Complete at least four years of engineering experience. Pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) examination.

What defines you as an engineer? ›

An engineer is a person who uses scientific knowledge to design, construct, and maintain engines and machines or structures such as roads, railroads, and bridges. An engineer is a person who repairs mechanical or electrical devices.

How do engineers make a difference in the world? ›

Bridges, cars, phones, computers, aircraft – all are designed and produced by engineers. Most people aren't familiar with the work engineers do, because if it's working, you don't notice it. The smooth running of everything from computer systems to traffic lights is all down to engineers.

How do you think engineers make a difference in the world? ›

From smart cars to space travel; from architecture to antibiotics, engineers have shaped the way our world works – and innovation is at the heart of everything they do. Engineers find innovative solutions to our problems, and as a species we rely on them to come up with creative solutions time and time again.

How do engineers make a difference? ›

Engineering makes a difference to those most in need. That could be by making buildings safer after natural disasters, developing new technologies to detect and treat diseases, or making sure those in the most remote communities can access food, water and energy.

What personality type are most engineers? ›

ISTJ makes sense for an engineer's personality type because a person with ISTJ is very organized and methodical in his or her work. ISTJs are also reliant on facts rather than big ideas, which is useful in tackling engineering problems. ESTJs are practical and detail-oriented in their work.

What differentiates a good engineer from a great engineer? ›

What sets good engineers apart from great engineers is the ability of great engineers to take the rational concepts and all of the above-mentioned abilities, and apply them in an out-of-the-box solution.

What do great engineers have in common? ›

Engineers who aspire to be great have common traits such as good communication skills, a heightened curiosity about their profession, and good analytical and mathematical abilities. Great engineers are competent, creative, yet logically practical, and incredibly influential on everyone's daily lives.

What are the signs of a good engineering culture? ›

If you want them to be motivated, happy, and produce great results, you should work on the basics of a good engineering culture — autonomy, transparency, impact, teamwork, execution, and professional growth.

How do you measure an engineering culture? ›

5 ways to measure the quality of your engineering culture
  1. Measuring if your culture is proactive, not reactive. ...
  2. Measuring if you have a culture of ownership. ...
  3. Measuring your continual improvement. ...
  4. Measuring that your culture provides autonomy with consistency. ...
  5. Measuring your team's enablement mindset.

What are the 4 pillars of engineering excellence? ›

The four engineering pillars framework covers all aspects of an engineering team under 4 themes: People, Delivery, Resources and Architecture. Strengthening each pillar and its main features helps in building an effective and productive engineering team.

Why is diversity important in the engineering profession? ›

Increased participation of underrepresented groups, including women and Indigenous people, within the engineering workforce helps the engineering profession better understand, and therefore protect and contribute to the public interest.

Who are underrepresented people in engineering? ›

The National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics defines an underrepresented minority as three racial or ethnic minority groups (Black or African Americans; Hispanics or Latinos; and Native Americans or Alaska Natives) whose representation in science and engineering education or employment is smaller than ...

Why is gender equality important in engineering? ›

Reducing the gender gap in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education areas could help reduce skills gap, increase employment and productivity of women and reduce occupational segregation.

How do you build an engineering culture What do you value? ›

9 Ways to Build a Great Engineering Culture
  1. Encourage Open Debate. ...
  2. Build Commitment to Management Decisions. ...
  3. Hire for Humility. ...
  4. Hire Smart People Who Get Things Done. ...
  5. Drive Customer Empathy into the Team. ...
  6. Encourage Exploration of New Technologies. ...
  7. Kaizen! ...
  8. Respect Their Time.
Feb 13, 2015

What makes a good cultural fit? ›

Definition of cultural fit

We define culture fit (also known as cultural fit) as the concept of screening potential candidates to determine what type of cultural impact they would have on the organization. This is based on the alignment of values, beliefs, and behaviors between the employee and employer.

What do engineering employers look for? ›

Engineers often have problem-solving skills that allow them to find solutions for issues quickly and effectively. Companies often require engineering applicants to have skills in problem-solving so they can identify what caused a project to diverge from its goal and correct this so the project stays on track.

What are the 5 cultural factors? ›

The major elements of culture are symbols, language, norms, values, and artifacts. Language makes effective social interaction possible and influences how people conceive of concepts and objects.

What are the factors of cultural differences? ›

Education, social standing, religion, personality, belief structure, past experience, affection shown in the home, and a myriad of other factors will affect human behavior and culture.

Can you call yourself an engineer without an engineering degree? ›

Does being an engineer require a degree? Most engineers tend to have traditional degrees. However, degrees are not always strict requirements to work in the field. For instance, the field of computer engineering sees many self-taught computer programmers.

What is the role of an engineer in society? ›

Engineers invent new technologies, such as the telephone or the silicon chip, and they help to make other people's ideas work, such as structural and geotechnical engineers creating technical solutions to make an architect's design for a building stand up.

What are the seven qualities of an expert engineer? ›

The most effective civil engineers will excel with the following characteristics:
  • Communication. ...
  • Creativity. ...
  • Critical Thinking. ...
  • Experience. ...
  • Technical Competence. ...
  • Project Management. ...
  • Leadership. ...
  • Reputation.
May 20, 2021

How can an engineer contribute to the country? ›

Engineers are the backbone of nation building and the purpose of engineering is to innovate, design, create and maintain products, system and equipment for the benefit and wellbeing of humans. They help improve living conditions for the common people.

What would the world be like if engineers didn't exist? ›

Without engineers, there would be no heat, air conditioning, photocopier machines, conference calls, printers, e-mail, or World Wide Web. The workday is over, and you need to stop and do a few errands. Of course, you can't pick up your dry cleaning, since engineers developed dry cleaning machines.

What is the role of engineer in development of a country? ›

The Engineer deals with the creation, improvement, and protection of the communal environment, providing facilities for living, industry and transportation, including large buildings, roads, bridges, canals, railroad lines, airports, water-supply systems, dams, irrigation, harbors, docks, aqueducts, tunnels, and other ...

What does impact look like to you as an engineer? ›

It stops being just a problem they are solving and starts becoming true impact. As a brand new engineer it is easy to get sucked into just churning out solutions. Sure it feels good to get the right answer. It's always a boost when you accomplish a goal, finish a project, or eliminate an obstacle at work.

What are two reasons for an engineer? ›

You get a chance to improve the world. You can use your creativity every day. You're always learning new things. You'll be ready for any problem.

What are the benefits of an engineer from the society? ›

Engineering is responsible for our increased life expectancy and quality, the ability to travel from one side of the globe to the other, and the ability to speak to anyone, anywhere in the world, at the touch of a button.

How are engineers viewed by society? ›

For decades, the engineering community has been on a mission to advance the public image of the profession. When it comes to the image and stature of the engineering profession, 81.3% of survey participants agree that they are positive.

What is the engineer mentality? ›

An engineering mindset refers to the values, attitudes, and thinking skills associated with engineering. Engineers solve problems using systematic, iterative processes. The technologies (objects, systems, or processes) they design address the needs and desires of people, animals, society, and the environment.

What are the 4 types of culture? ›

They identified 4 types of culture – clan culture, adhocracy culture, market culture, and hierarchy culture.

How do engineers think differently? ›

Engineers use a unique mode of thinking based on seeing everything as a system. They see structures that aren't apparent to the layperson, they know how to design under constraints, and they understand trade-offs. Adopting an engineering mindset can help you in any field.

What kind of personalities do engineers have? ›

There are several personality traits that most engineers share, among them are curiosity, critical thinking, creativity, effective communication, and a collaborative spirit.

What are the six engineering habits of mind? ›

' This enabled us to articulate six engineering habits of mind which are: systems thinking, problem-finding, visualising, improving, creative problem-solving and adapting.

What makes a good quality engineer? ›

Quality engineers must have attention to detail to ensure that products are being manufactured, installed or are operating to the required specifications. Analysis/Critical thinking/Problem-solving skills. Quality engineers review established processes in order to find manufacturing and cost optimizations.

What are the 8 main types of cultural differences? ›

Cultural Inclusion Fundamentals: Eight Core Cultural Differences
  • Individualism vs. Collectivism. ...
  • Power Distance. ...
  • Uncertainty Avoidance. ...
  • Gender Egalitarianism. ...
  • Assertiveness (Cooperative vs. ...
  • Orientation to Time. ...
  • Being vs. ...
  • Indulgence vs.
Mar 9, 2018

What are 3 examples of different cultures? ›

Examples of different cultures around the world that have captivated many include:
  • The Italian Culture. Italy, the land of pizza and Gelato held peoples' interest in captivity for centuries. ...
  • The French. ...
  • The Spaniards. ...
  • The Chinese. ...
  • The Land of the Free. ...
  • The Second Most Populated Country. ...
  • The United Kingdom. ...
  • Greece.
May 25, 2021


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