I’m sometimes googling questions like this one because I want to better understand how people perceive roles and terms like this. Though there are as many opinions as there are people, and every company might have its own definition, I still want to know the right definition. So let’s check this together and find out the difference between a technician and an engineer.
The etymology of the term “technician”
Where does the term technician even come from? If we check the Online Etymology Dictionary we find two definitions. A source from 1833 defines the term technician as a “person expert in the technicalities of some question”. There is a slightly newer definition from 1939 that explains that a technician would be a “person skilled in mechanical arts”.
The etymology of the term “engineer”
The term engineer goes back further in history. It’s derived from the Latin term ingenium, meaning “cleverness” and ingeniare, which could be translated as “to contrive, devise”. The International Association of Engineers (IAENG) writes on their website, “It was created in the 16th century and originally described a profession that we would probably call an artistic inventor. Engineers apply the knowledge of the mathematical and natural sciences (biological and physical), with judgment and creativity to develop ways to utilize the materials and forces of nature for the benefit of mankind.”
Two parts of STEM?
There is a subject that bundles four aspects being science, technology, engineering, and math which is commonly known as STEM. Sometimes there is another part added which is arts and turns the acronym into STEAM. How do they relate to each other? I think that technology is the application of results we learned from science in order to solve problems or increase one’s life quality.
Engineering leverages scientific principles to design and build solutions and math is the science of numbers and calculation. Yet, I wouldn’t say that a technician leans towards the scope for technology and the engineer leans towards engineering. It could be but, that’s not the definition for me.
My personal experiences
Throughout my AV and ICT career, I held positions that included both technician and engineer in their role name, without a degree for either. As a technician, I worked on physical things. Devices you can touch, open, repair, install, uninstall, connect to other machines, switch on or off. As an engineer, things became more virtual. I worked on a computer and managed these devices no longer on-site but from a remote operations center. Of course some of the assets were still physical somewhere, but some were entirely virtual and helped to run the infrastructure and the services that involved these devices.
So in a nutshell, I’d say the work of a technician focuses on endpoints with deep knowledge about devices, while an engineer focuses on services and infrastructure which the devices use or run on, with deep knowledge about global processes on maintenance, incident management, problem management, change management and other aspects of IT service management. In a world outside of IT or ICT, this might be different though, but this is how I learned the ropes myself.
Crowdsourcing the answer to the question
I also asked the fantastic community on Twitter about what they thought about the difference between engineers and technicians. I tend to agree with some of these, others I don’t agree with that much, but all in all, they are all relevant and interesting standpoints.
Engineers design solutions, technicians are more hands-on – they make these solutions possible and functional
— KateS (@ThisIsKateS) July 2, 2021
Der Ing. verdient mehr
— Wendelin Isak (@apakos) July 2, 2021
(My dad chimed in and said, “the engineer earns more”)
Engineers can be technicians but technicians can't be engineers.
Why? Because engineers make precise guesswork based on unreliable inputs/data provided by people with questionable knowledge/intellect.
— Ashok Nellikar (@AshokNellikar) July 2, 2021
Engineers design (and other things), technicians do. A perceived different level of expertise is at play, I think.
— Shelly Kramer (@ShellyKramer) July 2, 2021
Design. An engineer’s job has some element of design, whereas a technician is involved in production, maintenance and repair.
— Mark Coxon CTS-D CTS-I (@AVPhenom) July 2, 2021
A technician relies on practical expertise to build, maintain and repair systems. They rely on their functional knowledge of a system.
— Frank Padikkala, CTS-D, CEH, CHFI (@frankpadikkala) July 3, 2021
I remember a BBC engineer friend of mine recounting what she had been told … both a technician and an engineer know where to hit the recalcitrant kit, but only the engineer knows how hard to hit it. Thanks @AlisonWilson09
for that one from 1976.
— Ivor Macfarlane (@ivormacf) July 5, 2021
In general engineers design, build and improve and technicians troubleshoot, maintain and repair.
— swords and beer (@JimBlackheart) July 2, 2021
None. Both make me think way to hard. Same, not different, in my opinion.
— The Cleanse Expert (@CleanseExpert) July 2, 2021
Maybe it is not very healthy to make such distinguishment as scopes of individuals matter more than titles, yet ; engineer: create solutions, technician: keep the solution running.
— Semih Korkmaz (@semih_korkmaz_) July 2, 2021
Think versus Do
— Bart Van Brabant (@vanbrabantb) July 4, 2021
Hopefully at least 25k
— Larry Darling, CTS-D, AV Superfriend (@Lsdarling1) July 2, 2021
It's a matter of degree.
— IngeniousChiHuaHua (@IngeniousChi) July 2, 2021
Great question. My father had a foot in each camp even after completing the engineering qualification that applied at the time. He’d answer the what do you do question by talking about projects rather than own role.
— Paul Wiggins (@paulwiggins) July 2, 2021
Engineer designs, technician implements
— wjtopp (@wjtopp) July 2, 2021
In these tweets we can spot a lot of thoughts that support my personal experiences as state above. There are also some who managed to break it down into a matter between think (design the concept) versus do (implement the physical fix or change). I think this sums it up pretty nicely.
I hope you found this article about the difference between a technician and an engineer useful. There is never one single answer to the question of how to define a term or how to differ between two roles, but it should help as a general rule of thumb. Thanks so much for reading and also thanks to all the great people on Twitter who took the time to share their own thoughts with us all.
Also interesting: What’s The Difference Between Consultants and Advisors?
I also included a video below by Jake Voorhees which might also enrich your view on the question at hand.
YouTube: Engineering Technician vs Engineer | Engineering Technology vs Engineering
Photo credit: The images shown have been taken by This Is Engineering.
Source: Douglas Harper (Etymonline) / IAENG / various Twitter users as indicated