Pittsburgh, PA--What kind of talent is coming out of engineering schools these days? To help answer that question for this careers issue, I thought I'd start with someone I've been tracking since the day he was born--my godson, Ben Bostwick.
Ben, whose home is in Ridgefield, CT, recently earned his undergraduate degree in electrical and computer engineering from Carnegie Mellon University. This summer, he'll begin a year's work as a research assistant, which, along with additional courses, will lead to a master's degree in electrical engineering.
As I chatted with Ben about his years at CMU, I was struck with how confident he seemed--not the least bit intimidated by starting an engineering career at the dawn of a new century that will surely bring a fresh torrent of sweeping technological changes.
Perhaps his self-assurance stemmed from the practical nature of his schooling. In electrical engineering, he studied and did lab work in subjects ranging from semiconductors and chip design to signal processing and computer programming.
One of his favorite courses was designing an application-specific integrated circuit. "We worked with field programmable gate arrays to download matrices from RAM and then upload them to RAM. We had to fit it all on a chip and make sure it worked. You could download the design onto the FPGA and do the tests before fabrication."
In computer science, he worked with assembly language, wrote device drivers, and did programming for embedded microprocessors. He especially enjoyed the courses involving embedded microprocessors and would some day like to work for a company like Motorola. "There is such a huge variety of applications for embedded microprocessors," says Ben, "and I like the idea of a job that would involve many different projects."
At CMU, Ben got a first-hand look at the kind of projects he would face in the real world from industry veterans, including one who described how he had designed embedded microprocessors for disk drives, radar processing, and the control of aircraft engines. In another instance, an Intel engineer, who led the design of the 64-bit microprocessor, described the chip's development.
But, at this early stage, Ben might just as easily choose a career in computer programming. During his junior year, he spent an eight-month stint as an intern with IBM in White Plains, NY. There, he helped IBM veterans design new Windows-based software for tracking credit approvals for customers. Not only did he learn a lot, but he returned to school with a job offer from IBM.
When he wasn't designing chips or honing his programming skills, Ben was playing his trombone, both in jazz groups and in the school marching band. In fact, he took enough music courses during college to earn a minor in jazz performance. And he wasn't alone. Says Ben: "You would be surprised how many of my engineering friends are musicians."
In the coming months, Ben's research projects will include assisting a professor in developing software and user interfaces for multiple palmtop computers linked to a central computer. Object: allow eight palmtop users to work simultaneously and observe each other's input on a common display. If time permits, he also wants to take a course in technical writing.
To hear him talk, most of Ben's experiences at CMU have been very positive ones, and he is proud to be entering engineering. "Maybe there isn't as much glamour as being a Wall Street hotshot," he says, "but engineering is well respected in America. Technology is one area where this country is really leading the way."