All of our "careers" result from some combination of aspiration and accident. The aspiration part, for me, was to make my living as a writer. But writing about what? I had studied engineering, and I had worked in a machining facility, so this background seemed to suggest the answer. I would write about manufacturing and metalworking. As soon as I began, however, I found myself also writing about subjects even more meaningful.
Other writers are less lucky, I think. Some work for current events magazines where they write about politicians. Others work for business magazines where they write about CEOs. What these writers have in common is that their work has them focus on personalities. In my work, the focus lies elsewhere.
The difference became apparent to me while I held a different manufacturing-related writing job (before MMS). On assignment for that job, I visited an automated foundry. There I stood with furnaces roaring around me, and I was entirely safe, because each furnace was cloaked in sensor beams that would cause it to shut down if I strayed too close. In this facility, natural forces on a par with the molten core of the earth had been mastered so completely that an interloper like me could stand and watch in comfort.
Now, I write about machine shops—a topic closer to my experience and affection. The work done in these shops is no less profound. Here, the mastery relates to machinery. Programmers and machinists drive that machinery so precisely, they can make it cut a shape in metal to the form the customer dictates within microscopic levels of accuracy. And with all the choices related to tool, tool path, machine type, and other factors, a shop might have a radically different story for every part it produces.
In my work for MMS so far, I have told some of these stories. And each time I see what yet another shop has accomplished—that is, each time I look at a machine tool and a machining process for the latest article I am writing—I find the same familiar themes coming through. Personalities fall away in a machine shop because the measure of success is how exactingly the customer's specifications were met. In other words, the measure of success is how well the customer was served.
I look at a machine tool and I see mastery over physics and metal, but I also see something more. I see humility. I look at a machine tool, and I see that mastery applied toward serving other people and making their ideas real.