It must be a common trait of those who choose engineering as their main academic track: this willingness to fix the world.
I count myself as one of these people.
Making the world a better place has always been quite high up in my life targets.
The clerk who loved me
In my first job I fixed so many things, revolutionized so many arcane processes, and generally made the world so much better a place, that few could believe it possible. A certain office clerk loved me with all her heart: the fixes I implemented transformed the way she had been working for 20 years, and for the first time ever, she was able to fit all the demands of her job within her normal working hours (the poor thing was used to an average of inhuman, non-paid overtime, 14-hour-days). After my efforts, her work became so efficient that she was quickly doing many other tasks as well. This trend was so generalized that the whole department was downsized to half of its size. In my crazy little mind, I was doing humanity a service: making things more efficient.
The scientist I've never met
Lots of people intend to make the world a better place. Have you ever heard of Dr. Sujoy Guha? He is a retired Indian scientist who has spent over 30 years developing a new vasectomy method that would revolutionize the world. It is a less intrusive process; it is more efficient than the current method; it can be reverted with a simple injection and it is not susceptible to the pains and discomforts experienced by those who have a traditional vasectomy. Sounds too good to be true, right? But it is true. It is actually so good that it would change the world in drastic ways. This scientific discovery could be the most important development since the birth-control pill.
Dr. Guha wants to change the world. Make it a better place. But there is a problem. This new vasectomy is too simple. It is indeed so simple that the cost of the chemicals involved is smaller than the disposable injection used during the procedure. Moreover, it is a one-time only procedure: you only need do it once. But pharmaceutical companies, they prefer to sell repeatedly and make money in every transaction. So, they would rather have birth-control still being taken care of by means of pills or condoms, because those require constant purchases. And constant cash flow to the companies selling them. Their interest in Dr. Guha’s research is therefore financially minimal and will hardly be seriously considered outside of India during the next decades - even if it would make the world a better place.
And the board member who hated me
Back to my first career project. The same thing happened: a board member representing a big consultancy company was concerned. He preferred the mounting operational costs in order to be able to offer external consultants to take care of all the accumulating work. Better process equal less people, which means less revenue for his consultancy endeavors. Having a system that would save money was against his plans and after five years of struggle he finally won. Costs went through the roof and employees went back to working obscene amount of hours every day.
The lesson I learned
Dr. Guha and I have both learned an important truism: the world is just an awfully difficult place to fix. But we are not just going to give up yet.