Iron Ring, Engineering Ethics

2017/01/02 writing

The other day I attended a reunion with a lot of old friends from my undergraduate engineering days. It was a great time — an "engagement party" that turned out to be a stealth wedding — and while talking with friends the fact that I don't wear my iron ring came up a couple of times.

The iron ring is a pretty neat Canadian engineering tradition. Graduating engineers, shortly before the actual degree conferral ceremony, do an extra ceremony for engineers only, where they recite some vows and an older engineer (usually a family member, or a professor) bestows upon them a plain, faceted iron ring. We are supposed to wear it on our pinky finger on our dominant hand, so that every time we sign something we are reminded of the weighy impact of our decisions. There's even a myth going around that the rings themselves are made out of smelted material from a collapsed Quebec Bridge, but this is not literally true (one could say that there is a kind of metaphorical provenance I suppose).

Unfortunately, the ring has come to serve somewhat of a dual purpose. For many people it merely signifies being part of the club that survived the program, with little attention whatsoever paid to ethics. We use it to crack open beers, make noise by banging it against tables, and it's just a minor signal in any situation.

Camaraderie is cool and all, but I worked at SNC Lavalin for a while, and though the majority of people I met there were nice and hard-working, there was certainly tolerance of unethical behavior. I first thought perhaps this was a one-off kind of incident, but as I grow older and I see my peers take on more responsibility, the overall impression I get is that engineers don't like rocking the boat much, and if this implies some flexibility with regards to ethics, most of them seem to just go with the flow. This is frustrating.

It also got me thinking about our Engineering Ethics class. In there, we discussed a bunch of tragedies, such as the Roger Boisjoly's whistleblowing over the Challenger O-Ring disaster. At the time I thought it was a bit of a bird-course, but at least highlighting some brave heroic figures in engineering that one student may wish to emulate. However, years later, discussing Edward Snowden with some engineers, I realized that talking at length about the sacrifices of whistleblowers again served a dual purpose — some of us were seeing role models, others were seeing a scary reminder of what will happen if they dare whistleblow.

And this is somewhat obvious. If McGill University had such a powerful and effective ethics class that every single student came out empowered to never compromise on ethics, there would probably be a wave of whistleblows, a quick build-up of reputation, and suddenly it would get known that hiring such engineers is an existential risk for any shady company.

Anyway, I stopped wearing it. Lending whatever little credibility I have to the tradition, when the tradition is then used irresponsibly to give a veneer of legitimacy to poor behavior, does not sit well with me. Hopefully one day I'll have my faith in the institution restored.