Thanks for asking! There are several versions of this joke. This is my favorite:
During the French Revolution there was a custom that if the guillotine malfunctioned, it was considered an Act of the Supreme Being and the accused would go free.
One day they were executing professionals. First they brought up a lawyer. The crowd booed. They put the lawyer on the machine, pulled the lever, and... nothing happened. The machine just shuddered but the blade didn't come down. So the lawyer went free.
Next they brought up a banker. The crowd booed even louder. They put the banker on the machine, and the same thing happened. So the banker went free.
Then they brought up an engineer. He looked the machine up and down and said "You know, if you don't take that knot out of that rope, this thing is never going to work."
But is being a skilled project manager and leader the same as thinking like an engineer? Being able to deal with complexity?
I'd say no. There are many aspects to complexity, as well as many aspects to project management, including "people skills" for instance. And certainly being an engineer doesn't guarantee any more willingness to blow whistles, or for that matter, to be a virtuous human being.
But I think it's most imperative for engineers to think in terms of what makes systems tick. Spouting slogans to describe how some program will work, just because the slogans sound good, and then insisting on them, would make one a really bad engineer.
Take the Obamacare example. Engineers are supposed to know intuitively that in ANY system with a given transfer function, if you feed it certain inputs, you can expect certain outputs. The transfer function of the system converts the inputs to outputs.
If you feed the system different inputs, you normally expect different outputs. Although some systems may be designed to be self-regulating, so outputs might not change too much, if inputs vary between certain limits.
So what happens with Obamacare? The inputs are changed rather drastically (50M more people to be covered, irrespective of pre-existing conditions and ability to pay), and the outputs are different from previously (many more people, including people who were already covered, given more complete coverage than they may previously have had).
Okay, so the most basic systems analysis will say that the system's transfer function, i.e. the health plans, MUST change. Said another way, "something has to give." You can't make big changes in the inputs and in the output, and then promise everyone that the transfer function, i.e. their health plans, will stay the same.
Lawyers can pretend that way. Engineers had better not, if their designs are expected to work. So how is it that this obvious result, i.e. individuals and corporations will be required to change their health plans, came as a surprise to the Administration?
Because, he and they are not engineers. This outcome should have been intuitively obvious.
I think the best way to characterize engineers is the Guillotine Joke. The point of that joke is that an engineer's passion is solving technical problems and presenting solutions in an honest way, even at high personal cost. So Jimmy "I will not lie to you" Carter most assuredly qualifies. Politicians who are more interested in deceiving the public than solving the real technical problems the world is facing? Definitely not engineers.
DDE qualifies as a good engineering manager and advocate. NASA and the Interstate Highway System are excellent examples.
P.S. If you haven't heard the Guillotine joke, I'll be glad to post my version.
I agree about Hoover and Carter being maybe most direct examples of engineers who became presidents. The premise is vague on this piece, so it naturally, perhaps purposely sparks debate. Often the case, the debate is more interesting than the original argument. Being a tinker, having a curious mind, staying up on scientific trends seems part of our vague definition "thinking like an engineer." But is being a skilled project manager and leader the same as thinking like an engineer? Being able to deal with complexity? Is that thinking like an engineer? A lot of jobs need those skills. Do engineers think they would be more willing to blow a whistle and warn others doing the right thing, like Dwight did in warning the US about the military industrial complex? Yes Dwight would have been good to include.
Now remember, to some lawyers the Law as written is merely a starting point. There's a creative challenge to making a law perform a function it was never intended to perform, and even more of a challenge to make it perform opposite to its intention.
Engineers often repurpose parts in clever ways, taking advantage of obscure features to implement a clever solution. For example, I once took advantage of the fact that you could assert a TTL flip-flop's preset and clear inputs at the same time and make the Q and not-Q outputs both high. (Just be sure you don't release them at the same time.)
Now, this doesn't mean Obama is an engineer. Engineers do this for good (usually). Using things in ways they weren't intended is also a hallmark of saboteurs, poisoners, and safecrackers.
The list is great up until that last entry. The argument that his use of cool devices and he happened to be the preseident during a term when the NSA stuff leaked... doesn't make him an engineer. He doens' think like one or act like one. My father worked for HP for many years. He thinks like an engineer. President Obama does not nor acts like one in any sense of the word.
Obama didn't even learn from his years as a Constitution professor. He used a copy of the US Contitution in his studies, presumely, but he's shown that none of that type of thinking has rubbed off. His inclusion insults engineers and does a great disservice to them.