Engineering is just like Sudoku

Engineering is just like Sudoku

Structural and civil engineering is a lot like Sudoku.  Or, depending on which pursuit you got involved with first, Sudoku is just like engineering.  Sound a bit far-fetched?  The two have more in common than you think…

Contrary to its appearance, Sudoku is not a maths puzzle or an exercise in arithmetic.  Despite the array of numbers and a crossword-like pattern, it’s merely a logic puzzle based on nothing more than elimination.  The puzzle is solved by eliminating incorrect possibilities as you fill in the blanks.  Sudoku’s similarity with engineering becomes apparent when you look at the journey an individual goes on as they transition from novice to a more experienced player.

We’ll paint the analogy by looking at Sudoku first, and then join the dots as we compare it to the journey of discovery and development most engineers embark on as they start taking their profession more seriously…

Sudoku puzzles can be extremely easy or extremely difficult, depending on how much of the grid is pre-filled in for you.  When you start out as a novice and can attempt only the easy-grade puzzles, a lot of the work is already done for you. There are no special tricks to learn or employ, and no need to keep track of “possibles”.   A cursory glance, simple observation, and the power of deduction is all that is needed.  It’s the equivalent of starting your engineering degree, and then coasting through the early lectures because it’s just a rehash of your high school maths and physics. Things are still easy-going, and the process is enjoyable for you… but you don’t yet know what else is out there.  You don’t know what you don’t know.

As Sudoku puzzles get harder, there is less information to work with.  There are too many gaps and unknowns in the grid.  Suddenly, the techniques and strategies you got by with when solving the easy puzzles are no longer effective.  To solve the medium and hard puzzles, you actually need to learn new techniques and do a bit of training if you are to progress anywhere.  And thus, just like engineering, you dive into a world that is known only to those who have also immersed themselves in the culture.  You become familiar with terms and techniques known as naked pairs and hidden triples.   You have an understanding and speak a language that not everyone knows or appreciates. Sound familiar?

The process is similar in engineering:  When you first graduate and enter the workforce, you understand the concept of wL2/8 and the other basic formulae for simple beam bending moments and deflections. For the most part, just like Sudoku puzzles, you can do the simple things…but you need to ask for assistance as soon as the problem becomes something you’ve not encountered before. You become stuck once there are too many unknowns.

One of the key traits and skills of both successful engineers and effective Sudoku solvers as they progress through their early years is their learning and development of heuristics. If you’re a mid-level engineer with 5-7 years’ experience and you’re still using the same full-blown techniques and methods to analyse and design structures as you were when you first graduated….. then you need to pick up some tricks.  Solving a Sudoku puzzle and analysing a structure to determine its design actions can be remarkably similar: There are long, complex ways to go about it (perhaps with the odd guess involved!) or – with time and experience – you develop deeper understandings that allow you to take effective shortcuts. (Shortcuts that, obviously, don’t compromise your ability to find the correct answer!) Engineering then takes on new levels of enjoyment (yes, really!) and appreciation as you learn more about how structures behave and what you can discern.

Sudoku then reaches the expert level.  Again, you need to learn and be shown new techniques if you are to solve the seemingly impossible.  You learn about things called x-wing and swordfish; and you can actually spot a hidden quad!  You’re at the top of your game.  Where other people see random, scattered numbers, you see patterns and answers.   This, too, occurs with engineers. Where other people see a seemingly random crack in a structure, you see a defect and know exactly what sort of movement or stress has occurred, why it occurred, whether or not it’s serious, and how to set about rectifying it. In the design office environment, there are problems and challenges that the junior engineers hit a roadblock on, which you leap over in a single bound. No, you’re not necessarily smarter…most of the time, it’s simply the benefit of wisdom that’s been gained over time, diligence, and application. And repeat application.  As Homer Simpson once said, “Lather, rinse, and repeat. Always repeat.”

At this “expert” level of engineering application and appreciation, you become a “Structure Whisperer”. You know inherently which parameters to tweak in a concrete cross section to meet the required criteria. You know exactly which steel beam profile is best suited to the application; you know how and where to optimise your portal frame’s supports and restraints for the maximum performance and efficiency. You know what caused a building defect; you can spot the oversights and misjudgements of less-experienced players; you know the tips and tricks that will deliver the architect or your client the solution they desire.  Again, it’s about spotting and exploiting patterns.

Sudoku jigsaw puzzle
Engineering appreciation and perception is like Sudoku: Not everyone is capable of solving the puzzle.


Sudoku shares another trait with engineering, although it’s an aspect that’s a little uncomfortable to discuss or admit.  The skills needed to solve and reach expert levels of Sudoku require a certain brain wiring and level of patience that not all people possess.  It requires the ability to apply multiple layers of logic and it requires a level of spatial awareness and interpretation; the ability to “see through” rows, columns, and blocks; the ability to project answers and solutions. Most of these skills are left-brained traits, (e.g. logic, analytical, sequencing, linear thinking), but they also require a healthy dose of right-brained traits, (e.g. intuition, holistic thinking, imagination). For a good explanation of the left-brain and right-brain concepts, there’s a helpful article here.

The engineering profession is well-known for its tendency to attract people that are more left-brained in their thinking and behaviours, although as The Working Engineer has explored previously, simply having an analytical mind and being good at maths won’t make you a good engineer. Seriously… anyone can use a calculator!  Rather, engineering is the application of maths……structures are also designed through creativity and imagination. These are right-brained traits. The best solution isn’t always the one that was mathematically obvious, or simply the most cost-effective.  It’s been the observation of many commentators that a lot of left-brained people enter the engineering profession; it is the ones who can utilise balancing right-brain skills that tend to rise to the top of their organisations and industries.

That’s not to say that you should feel discouraged – either with engineering or sudoku – nor is it to imply that there is some higher level of illuminati or secret club that is only for the elite few.  It’s simply an unfortunate reality that we’re all unique individuals and we’re born with different natural talents and capabilities.  Just because you can look at nine squares in a row at once and pick a missing number in a tenth of a second doesn’t mean the next person can.  That same next person might be able to draft up a well-written, concise, and well-reasoned email or engineering report in a fraction of the time it takes you to bash out words on your keyboard! What’s important is that an engineering practice has a good mix of personalities, skill-sets, expertise, and experience – and then tailors the work and tasks to suit the individual strengths within the team.



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