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By Jack Ganssle

Engineers Without Borders

Published 11/14/02.

I wish I had never become an engineer.

Don't get me wrong - it's a great profession, a wonderful outlet for my woefully non-artistic creative streak. But advancing middle age confronts one with mortality, and a certain dissatisfaction with not having done enough that's truly good and important in this troubled world. We create wonderful products, but few of these really have much impact in people's lives. How many lift people out of disease and poverty? Many of us create the playthings of the affluent or short-lived instruments and devices to maximize a company's profits.

Watching the TV program "ER" I realized that those emergency room doctors are much like us, but have the best of all jobs. They get to profoundly help people, but without living in squalor in a third world country or without even sacrificing a nice income. A win-win situation.

These doctors are akin to hackers. They go in and do something quickly, without a lot of paperwork. They see the results of their efforts in minutes or hours. Multiple gunshot wounds, a car accident, a fall, all sorts of traumas mobilize the docs. By the end of the show (yeah, yeah it's only TV but we're allowed to dream) the patient is out of the ICW, healing and happily surrounded by family and friends. Sounds rather like programming in Forth or writing a quick C app to me. Jump right in, furiously do our software magic, and presto! We're done, the product works, it's time to move on to the next task.

Contrast that to your family physician who deals with non-specific infections and long-term vague problems that defy understanding or solutions - rather like cranking out a product with a million lines of code. Fun? Hardly.

But with neither the desire nor ability to go to medical school, I'm left wondering what I can do for others.

Charity is one important outlet. This week Bill Gates is in India, kicking off $100m in anti-AIDS donations. Though this company is oft reviled in our industry, I admire the man for his generosity.

Years ago I realized that the typical American model of charity is flawed; we're too private in our giving. Example is the best way to lead, so over dinner one night I talked to the kids about one of my favorite organizations, Save the Children (http://www.savethechildren.org/). My at-the-time 8 year old daughter was entranced; she wondered if it was possible to help an individual child. A little research proved that true; since then she has given up half her meager allowance to help feed a Bangladeshi youngster named Jewel. I am proud of her for that.

But just giving cash isn't satisfying. Engineers are do-ers, we work with our hands and minds. Writing checks is important, but what can we do to help others?

An organization named "Engineers Without Borders" (http://www.ewb-isf.org/), patterned after Doctors Without Borders (http://dwb.org/), is just the ticket for people who want to get involved. Their goal is to harness engineers, from students to professionals, in projects aimed at helping poor communities around the world. Typical projects include creating small systems to pump water in villages, improving lighting for classrooms and creating energy-generating microturbines.

Each year a few intern positions open for student engineers to work in-country. What a great opportunity for a young person! Especially in today's economic climate - why not head off to some fascinating corner of the world for a year, do some good, and learn a lot?

Engineers Without Borders, like most such organizations, doesn't do their work with the drama of a TV show like "ER". They go about improving the lots of people's lives slowly, without fanfare or much acclaim.

They are a Canadian organization with no chapters outside that country. Times are tough now, people are focused on hanging on to their jobs. But when things improve and the economic panic subsides, I'd sure like to see them expand south at least, and then even more internationally, to harness the worldwide engineering expertise. We can invent cell phones, space shuttles, and the Internet. as well a way a village which has lived for generations with cholera to get a clean source of water.

So what do you think? What is our responsibility to improve conditions throughout the world? Isn't it reasonable to expect that our first world wealth creates a higher obligation for us?