On Certainty

My ultimate goal by blogging is to raise awareness that Target hires engineers, and to do that I first want to compare and contrast a few things to shed some light on what it means to me to be an engineer at Target. In upcoming posts, I’ll show what day-to-day life is like in Product Design and Development to give you a more detailed sense of the experience.

Engineering at Target is unlike anything I have ever experienced in my previous work history and education. As an engineering student sitting through four semesters of calculus, materials science, physics and chemistry, I was always operating with the understanding that there exists one correct and final answer to any problem. Think back to any final exam you’ve taken in these types of classes – there’s no room for discussion, estimation or “feel”, only a problem to be solved and one correct answer. Right and wrong, black and white. To a certain degree, that carries forward into an engineer’s first job. While the problems are substantially larger and more complicated, we continue to operate under the assumption that there is one perfect design out there waiting to be uncovered through the right mathematical steps. We might never find it, but we know it’s out there. Assumptions like this are enabled by the fact that the universe is bounded by laws – it’s predictable and repeatable. If I design you a wing to lift 100 pounds, it will. In fact, I can guarantee you that it will because it’s bound by physical principles to do so. (My engineer friends will bristle at this gross oversimplification, but the point remains.) Furthermore, I can measure the design’s performance against an ideal state and gauge my success (efficiency).

Now, take for example Target’s core guest (Mom, roughly) shopping for dinner plates or picture frames. By what physical principles is she bound? By what mathematical formula can you predict her behavior? What is the perfect state of a dinner plate? Loaded questions, obviously, because there is no right answer. I can’t design you a lamp, formulate you a hand soap or knit you a sweater that I can guarantee will sell 100 units, let alone 10,000. Even if it sells 10,000 units, couldn’t it sell 100,000? 1,000,000? There’s no definite ideal and there’s no practical maximum.

So, what’s an engineer – trained to leverage predictability to his or her  advantage – do if there is no certainty, and no final answer?

Collaborate. We pick our heads up out of our notebooks and start taking partners. The category buyer knows what sells, the sourcing manager knows what it costs, the designer knows how it should look, and the engineer (that’s me) knows how it should be built and experienced by the Guest. In the absence of certainty, we collaborate with our teammates to arrive at a best solution, not a final solution. We consider indeterminate factors, make the best decisions we can, and apply our experience in subsequent designs.

Wrapped up in all this is the opportunity Target offers engineers – the chance to leverage your analytic thinking skills and inherent knack for problem solving to tackle soft, round, undefined problems. I can’t say that this is technically more difficult than building bridges or airplanes; it’s not. However, Target engineering experience is possibly richer because of what it lacks.

Interested in a career with Target? Learn more about opportunities in engineering or product design and development

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