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5 Things I Learned From My Dentist Wife That Apply to Engineering

by Isaac Palka

Jan 21, 2022 • 5 min read

My wife and I have very different jobs. I'm a software engineer and manager. She's a dentist. I create tech products that help people. She actually helps people. I sit in a chair all day and stare at a screen. She's on her feet all day and interacts with patients. I go deep into code and fix bugs. She goes deep into teeth and fixes decay.

More seriously though, because our work lives are so different, there is valuable insight to gain from her world that I might not have realized otherwise.

One of the best ways I've found to grow as an employee, and as a human, is to observe and learn from completely unrelated disciplines. Of course I've learned the most about engineering from other engineers. But I've learned equally important lessons from fields such as basketball, chess, music, and cooking. Perhaps I'll share those takeaways in a future blog. But for now, here are things I learned from dentistry that have helped my engineering career:

1. The Importance of Continuing Education

Doctors are required by law to pursue continuing education every few years, and for good reason. Our knowledge of the human body and medicine continues to evolve, and doctors have to keep up if they're going to treat patients.

Software engineers have no such legal requirements. Some of the best that I know don't have any formal education (which I don't think matters much for computer software FYI). Whether it's formal or not, the key is that it's continuing. It's important to keep up if you want to remain useful (and competitive in the job market). Besides the obvious benefit of an enhanced resume, it will help you do better in your day-to-day work (even if you're a manager).

And just as junior doctors will learn by working with experienced ones (i.e. a residency), software engineers should consider a real apprenticeship with more senior engineers (and I don't just mean doing code reviews).

2. An Owner / Operator Should Stay Technically Sharp

Most dental practice owners are the head dentist too. Some treat all patients. Others only perform the complex procedures and delegate the rest to their staff. But it's rare to see an owner / operator who does not or cannot perform actual dentistry.

In the engineering world, it's unfortunately common for managers to be rusty and removed from technical topics. Some companies even encourage managers to be "people managers", and to leave technical matters to the "individual contributors" (which I think is asinine - you're managing engineers, not "people").

Observing dentists has been a good reality check that I am first and foremost an engineer, and second, a manager (of engineers). It reoriented my approach towards being a technical leader, rather than a generic manager, and that I shouldn't exempt myself from continuing education or from getting my hands dirty.

3. Sales is Part of Your Job

A big part of dentistry is "selling" treatments - i.e. getting the patient to commit to the recommended treatment. A dentist needs to educate patients, address objections, and *GASP* discuss money, or apparently many patients will actively neglect their teeth. A dentist who can only work on teeth, but cannot "sell", will struggle in business.

In the engineering world it's very convenient to focus only on the technical work. And your average programmer would never dream of doing anything salesy. But there is a lot of necessary "sales" that you may not realize. You need to sell your users on a new feature, or your business stakeholders on a budget, or your boss on allocating resources to tech debt. Sales is everywhere. Engineers and managers who don't take ownership of the sales side, can eventually find their project, team, and career going downhill. Sales is critical for influencing others, which is necessary in all aspects of life.

4. Master Your Schedule

A dentist's day is ruled by the schedule. Every hour should be utilized and optimized for profit. Dental software even has a "revenue calendar" which shows how much a practice can expect to earn based on the current appointments. Time is money, literally.

Dentists also have to stick to a schedule, or risk a mob of angry patients piling up in the waiting room. Engineers don't exactly have lines of code sitting in the waiting room, urging them to wrap up a task (maybe just an impatient boss).

Nevertheless, engineers can attempt to orient their day around hourly goals. The exercise of timeboxing (e.g. Pomodoro Technique) can be jarring at first, but highly effective. Even if not done perfectly, it forces you to plan your day. It makes you highly aware of the passing of time, which creates a sense of urgency and improves focus.

So control your time, or time will control you (Confucius may or may not have said that). Or don't be surprised that you are constantly behind, or that your day "got ahead of you" because of other people's meetings.

5. Produce Value ($$$)

This is very straightforward for a dentist. If the revenue you generate from your treatments exceeds the cost of your wages, your value add is clear. If not, that is clear too.

In the engineering world it's more abstract. You're part of a team. The team has longer term goals, which are part of a larger product, which eventually results in revenue for your firm. But what part of that revenue did YOU specifically contribute? Is your contribution to the business greater than the cost of hiring you?

It's hard to quantify, but you can often proxy it. For example, if the product you develop generates $50M a year, and you added features that were measured to increase sales by 10% ($5M), and you're one of 5 team members, and you're all roughly equal - then you produced $1M in value (which is most likely more than your salary).

Regardless of how to quantify it, when you're cognizant of the need to create value, you'll naturally do more of it by asking the right questions, focusing on higher priority work, and measuring output.


What I like about dentistry is that things are very clear cut. You invest X time, and produce Y revenue. The more you hone your technical skills, sales, and time management, the higher the revenue. The correlation between investment and return is simple.

In engineering (or any corporate desk job), the cause and effect is harder to see. But the more you mimic the behaviors of a dentist (or similar professions), and invest into various skills and mindsets, the more value you'll bring to your work and to yourself.