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Salam Aghaye Mohandes!

My childhood images of engineers were totally off

May 6, 2002
The Iranian

The other day I was at a mehmooni. Minoo Khanoom who is super keen to call everyone by their job title, approached a group of us entering the house and said "Salam Aghaye Mohandes." Having been away from Iranian formalities lately, I was taken a bit by surprise. I looked around and indeed, I was the only engineer amongst the group, so it had to be me!

Iranians are a funny bunch when it comes to greetings. After all, how often do you see other nationalities call one another by their job titles and place you on the top of their eyes and wish your shadow to stay on them forever? But I guess, you need a mehmooni to be reminded of all the details. But there is also something else that doesn't feel right about the word "Mohandes", something I can't put into words.

I was merely six-years-old when I officially declared that I want to be a "Mashty Mohandes"! Having seen the life of medical doctors and not liking it one bit -- and having seen people talking about how smart and good looking my Mohandese-Barghe-Sherkat-Nafti uncle was, my mind was made up! I had to be like him, the talk of the ladies with all those fancy diagrams!

Of course, it never helped that during the years I attended Iranian schools, I was always teased for being from a medical family. I also found Iranians to be strange, for they all want to be doctors and then tease the hell out of you in school when they find out that "bale, you are bache doktor"!

I never lost sight of my childhood goal, despite all the globetrotting. The reasoning changed over time, but I was so determined, that despite all parental advice, I never took any biology courses in high school, just to ensure that I would never be fooled into anything medically inclined! Every once in a while my dad, knowing my sensitivities, would come and tell me "haalaa ye biology va ye meecrobilogie baradaar deege."

So finally, the grand day came upon me to replicate my aging uncle! And so I began my quest to be "Aghaye Mohandes", in the early '90s, just around the time Canada was recovering from a huge recession and computers were completely taking over my profession.

Every spiring a student who talks about entering into "gear" school tells you he is good at math and physics. Ironically "gear" school makes sure you have enough of both. In fact, no one will probably have to FORGET more math and physics than most engineers do!

Like all brothers and sisters in crime, we spent countless hours, running from lab to lab, writing silly lab reports and impossible assignments and brutal exams. Along the path, I realized that no matter what, I could never be like my uncle with all those fancy diagrams because I could not even visualize a door in 3D! But luckily, this was the 90s. No need for the old drafting board anymore. AutoCad was there to save my butt!

Soon, the co-op work terms rolled around and I got my first taste of this grand old profession of mohandessy. As I soon found out, there weren't any employers looking for my math skills and nobody really cared if I knew the Maxwell theory by heart, especially coming out of a recession with some new grads working at Radio Shack stores.

And no matter how much I claimed proficiency in this and that programming language, it never worked. So, round and round and round I went, from co-op office to regular student employment offices to government employment agencies and collected probably a few hundred PFO letters along the path.

Eventually, somehow, my lucky stars all aligned or at least that's what I thought back then, and I ended up in the grand daddy of all Canadian technical firms. All those Iranian proverbs from "Aaghabat jooyandeh yaabandeh bovad" (seekers, eventual finders) and "Paayaane shab siaah sefeed ast" (the dark night ends in a bright day) now really made sense. Well, at least for a few days or weeks!

I had heard various Iranians talking about their kids working for this and that firm in their "ghompoz" sessions and I figured this was my time of glory. I always figured this would be one hell of an experience, but little did I know that my mind would forever be changed about the dynamics of my profession.

So I entered the firm and here I was in this huge mess of people and offices stretching over multiple countries and continents. I was all but this little nonexistent entity. I was not even a "bache mohandes"! I was the lowest of the low, the little pee-on that would get pushed around like all the other co-ops.

Of course there were the good times when I was learning lots and there were bad times when I was burning stuff! Along the path, I earned the title of "sparky" for burning a few too many fuses and some mentors joked that they had forgotten to make everything "co-op" proof!

There were good times when I would work with a nice engineer and then there were bad times, when I would get stuck with the most geeky engineers who would make you think about a career change! And then, there were times were you would sit there and do nothing for weeks and wait for the managers to fight for territories.

By the time I was getting ready to embrace the glorious engineering title, I knew that both of my childhood images of engineers were totally off. In 1990s and on this side of the world, in the eyes of commoners, we were more or less, little nerdy people clicking away behind the computers.

Most my co-workers were known for their lack of social skills. And to succeed in this ever changing profession, I had to study, upgrade and upgrade, until I would give up or die. Plus, as expected, all those grand old stories by Iranian parents about their children, their amazing instincts and gifted qualities and high ranking positions were not true either.

Then came the final phase of the journey -- finding your first job out of school. To me, the funniest part about the North American style of hiring has been the fact that you get hired with a lot of "Ehem o tolop", lots of handshakes and fancy company catalogues and pages after pages of glowing pictures of the firm and many handbooks telling you how important you are. But as soon as you walk in, reality kicks in.

Having finished co-op just recently, you feel you will no longer be treated as insignificant. But now as a junior, you are thrown into the fire, that is if you are lucky and you have to prove yourself or die!

Mentorship has typically been an unknown entity in a lot of areas I have gone. It has meant you had to learn from sticking your fingers on the oven. And so I did. I burned my fingers a few times and learned every time.

But the twists and turns of the journey don't end there. Just when you become "comfy cozy" and have forgotten enough of your university stuff to be actually effective, it's the end of your technical days. You are too expensive and you have to move on to management and learn the tricks of that trade.

And if you blink as a manager or the fortunes of your firm takes a slide, you are told that you, along with junior members of the firm, are the most disposable people, because after all, management doesn't require any special hand to find technical skills! And on and on and on, it goes!

Yesterday, walking back from work in my gym clothes, running shoes and backpack, I ran into , Mahmood Agha, a family relative of ours. He looked at me in a bit of shock and surprise, and said, "Baabaa, zamaane maa, maa montazer boodim mohandes besheem, ke ye keefe dorosto hessabi begeereem o jest beegeereem... mohandesaam mohandesaaye Iran."

I have come to love my profession, with all its imperfections and instabilities. But for a second I had to agree with Mahmood Agha. Those old Iranian engineers with their strange "sherkats" and fancy Samsonites and lifelong jobs, had it a lot easier. Maybe it's because of how far away its North American version has been from my early imaginations. That's why I still have a problem with "mohandes"...

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Ali Khalili

By Ali Khalili

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