Quick review: “Built”, by Roma Agrawal

Built: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures was a pleasure to read. Authored by Roma Agrawal, a structural engineer who worked on the the “Shard” skyscraper in London, it’s truly a love letter to her profession, and to the structures it involves.

Throughout the book, Agrawal describes a wide variety of engineered structures around the world. From skyscrapers to bridges; from clay bricks to steel; Agrawal’s writing goes into detail on the materials and techniques used to build the constructed world we all walk through.

In each case, Agrawal finds fascinating stories to tell about the cultures and individuals who pioneered various techniques. And throughout the book, it’s clear how much enthusiasm and love she brings to her work.

As someone trained in physics and materials science, I was especially happy to find such an engaging read that talks about such properties as ductility, elasticity, toughness, compression and tension. It’s a rare thing to find someone who can describe how fun these topics can be.

While Agrawal occasionally touches on her difficulties working in structural engineering, as someone who isn’t “traditionally” white and male, she doesn’t dwell on these concerns. To the extent I have a criticism of this work, it’s that she doesn’t spend more time on how she experiences being a professional engineer — including both the positive and negative aspects of the profession.

However, that’s a mild criticism, as that’s clearly not what the book is about. As I said above — this isn’t a memoir, it’s a love letter to her work. And to the extent it is that, it succeeds very well.

Some thoughts after reading Vincenti’s “What Engineers Know and How They Know It”

A few weeks ago I watched Hillel Wayne’s recent talk “Are we really engineers?”, where he looked at the idea of whether software engineers get to call themselves “engineers” or not. (Spoiler: the answer is yes!)

During the Q&A, Wayne mentioned that while he had seen a lot of “philosophy of science”, there didn’t seem to be much “philosophy of engineering” out there. I remembered noticing the same thing, and on Twitter I asked for book recommendations on the topic. The always-reliable Lorin Hochstein obliged, and a week later I had some reading to do!

Just as a disclaimer: this post is very much in theme of “thinking out loud”, and got a little long. 🙂 This is mostly me discussing my experience of reading the book and some thoughts on software engineering I had after reading it. Very likely nothing here is at all original, and I am not an expert, but I wanted to get my ideas down in text after finishing the read. And having done so, I thought it might be worthwhile to share.

Ok, let’s dive in.

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