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Engineering Faculty Debates Generalists vs. Specialists

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Charles Murray
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Re: Generalisr vs. Specialist
Charles Murray   12/17/2012 7:12:06 PM
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I think you're right on target, AGHock. We need both types of indivduals. For some people, it definitely makes sense to specialize, especially if they've found their technical passion. But many engineers change jobs and careers more than once and may not always use a specialization. Still others end up filling jobs outside of engineering, where their technical accumen may be useful as background only.  

ttemple
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Physics... Interesting
ttemple   12/17/2012 7:25:46 PM
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naperlou,

Your comment on starting in Physics is interesting.  An observation that I have made over the years is that in general engineers don't seem to understand physics well enough.  Or if they do know physics, they doesn't seem to BELIEVE physics.

 

naperlou
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Re: Generalists or specialists?
naperlou   12/18/2012 10:56:04 AM
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William, the situation you mention with the FPGA is an interesting one.  Frankly, if you have a job that is quick turn around for a parrticular part what you need is a consultant, not an employee.  Frankly, the idea that you need years of experience with something that specific is a bit of a problem.  In the current technology environment there is really not very much that is the same for that long.  Witness the promise by chip manufacturers that a particular part will be available for ten years.  This is for areas such as automotive, where a model may be built for that long and the manufacturer does not want to have to certify a new chip during that time.  Let's just say that the guy who has five years working with one part is not that likely to innovate (I have lots more examples).

I have run into the situatioin similar to you mention where headhunters want an entry level person with six years experience.  It was a while ago, but it was not unusual.  The request was for a consultant with five years experience in a particular operating system that had only been out for a year or so.  It was a standard requirement.  Most headhunters have no idea of what they are recruiting for.  They are only there to take the load off the hiring manager.

I agree with you that what is useful is a grasp of general engineering principles and techniqies.  Many projects do not fit neatly with one area or another.  I know several people in the aerospace and robotics fields who, while starting with one degree (mechanical or electrical) get a master's in both fields.  In the FPGA example, I recently ran into one organization where FPGAs were used extensively.  They were programmed by both electrical engineers and software engineers.  It seemed like whoever was available at the time.

naperlou
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Re: Physics... Interesting
naperlou   12/18/2012 10:59:16 AM
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ttemple, interesting observation.  Another aspect of the debate, in addition to generalist vs specialist, is the amount of theoretical vs practical training should be required.  Some time ago, it was deciced that many engineers did not have a good enough grasp of the science and mathematics behind their fields.  As a consequence, many programs added more science and math classes.  I guess it is not enough.

Nancy Golden
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Re: Generalist
Nancy Golden   12/18/2012 4:18:55 PM
I agree with GTOlover's statement, "Specialization seems to follow the engineers work." I started out as a product engineering technician working on NVRams at one semiconductor company at the beginning of my career and ended as Test Engineering manager at another semiconductor company at the end of my career. Along the way I also worked both in product and test engineering on hall effects (Only spent 5 minutes in school as part of a section on sensors), pbhotologics, LEDS, VCSELS, switched to IEEE programming and test set hardware and software design...before going into business for myself and doing some web page design, PIC programming, and horse trail obstacles design. As you can see, my interests have been all over the place - but the key to my success was not having learned a specialization in school, most of the time I was a complete newbie to the areas I have mentioned. The key for me was getting a good foundation in electronics and then having the initiative to find out information as I needed it. I think having a strong foundation and a desire to learn is very important. When I started school I didn't even know what a resisitor was and I didn't know when I left school that I would eventually become a test engineer but it seemed to me that being exposed to different areas in industry guided me towards my interests, then I worked hard to learn from the variety of resources available to become successful at what I was trying to achieve. I think if I specialized from the beginning, I would have been much more limited which isn't bad if you already know your passion - but I enjoyed all of the different things I have tried and I have been able to use so much of what I have learned in other endeavors...and generalist or specialist - we can't ever stop learning.

Charles Murray
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Re: Generalist
Charles Murray   12/18/2012 6:44:42 PM
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Very good point, Nancy. Engineering design is changing at a much faster pace now than it was 30 years ago. Today, if you stop learning, you'll soon be out of work.

Nancy Golden
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Re: Generalist
Nancy Golden   12/18/2012 6:51:58 PM
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That's so true Charles and its also a bit ironic - in the same company we would be struggling to keep up with current technology and having to explain to our bosses why we wanted to buy this software, that book, or go to that seminar or tradeshow so that we could meet customer requirements. But we also had test sets that were built 5-10-15 years ago and part of our job security was being able to work on the old stuff and keep it going - especially when the economy took a downturn...

TJ McDermott
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Even Broader!
TJ McDermott   12/19/2012 11:15:46 PM
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Industrial machinery companies need engineers with even broader knowledge.  I believe an electrical engineer needs to know about gear ratios, about making a basic mechanical drawing.  At every job, I've seen electrical engineers either turf out a simple bracket for their electical assembly, or draw it with 4-place decimal dimensions for sheet metal work that will be done in 32nds of an inch.

Conversely, mechanical engineers need to know the difference between PNP and NPN, know what voltage the controls will use so that they can specify the sensors for the machine.

Dave Palmer
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Sherlock Holmes
Dave Palmer   12/20/2012 1:08:43 PM
Lately I've been reading Sherlock Holmes for inspiration.  In the first Holmes story, "A Study In Scarlet," Watson is shocked to learn that Holmes doesn't know that the Earth revolves around the sun:

That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

"You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."

"To forget it!"

"You see," he explained, "[...] there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."

"But the Solar System!" I protested.

"What the deuce is it to me?" he interrupted impatiently; "you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work."

I think this describes some engineers' attitude towards knowledge outside their chosen field of specialization.

However, modern neuroscience contradicts Holmes' claim that every time you learn something new, you forget something you already know. Our brains are not data storage devices with a limited memory capacity.  It would be better to compare the brain with a muscle, which gets stronger whenever you excercise it.  It has been shown that every time you learn something new, your brain forms new synapses (connections between neurons).  The number of such connections increases the brain's ability to retain information.  So learning something new actually helps you to remember the things you already know.  In other words, learning new things makes you smarter.  Who would've thought?

For what it's worth, in the later Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes is shown to have wide-ranging, eclectic interests that go far beyond detective work.

My point is that the assumption that one can either know one topic very well, or else many topics poorly, is flawed.  For engineers today, it's essential to know multiple subjects extremely well.

By the way, a knowledge of topics outside of engineering (such as neuroscience, or 19th century detective literature) never hurt anyone, either.  My advice to aspiring engineers would be to learn as much as you possibly can about as many subjects as you possibly can, and never stop learning.

Ratsky
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Half-life of specialists
Ratsky   12/27/2012 2:14:00 PM
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Some have alluded to the subject line without making an explicit comment.  I'm a Life Member of IEEE (joined the IRE in 1961!).  95% of what I learned in school (undergrad and grad) that was NOT underlying fundamental science stuff was obsolete within a few years of graduation, and some by graduation itself.  In fact, I had my career path pretty well thought out in high school, but my areas of interest (and sense that thay would be the foundation of whole new fields) didn't even have names yet!  As a young ham (also a LM of ARRL) I had a strong interest in RF, but also in the infant world of digital "stuff."  Studying the new world of Information Theory (undergrad course, led to my master's field) I felt sure that the ultimate thing in EE would be digital communications, the convergence of EVERYTHING electronic!  Funny how that turned out.... sad that the IEEE has essentially bifurcated into the Communications and Computer Societies that are both so involved in my career.

To return to the subject at hand, I've seen an incredible number of "lifetime specialties" successively become the "next big thing" then quietly fade away to be replaced by the next fad.  This is nowhere more obvious than in programming languages: FORTRAN, Pascal, ADA, C, C++, etc. to name but a very few.  Caveat educator.... and student!

So, after working in the "real world" for a decade or so, I realized my forte was really high-level systems conceptual design.  Unfortunately, at that time 1970s) the title "systems engineer" had been co-opted by the (new) field of Computer Science, and meant a mainframe systems architect (which I certainly was NOT).  So I started calling myself a "specialized generalist," with the intent of demonstrating broad knowledge of (and at least basic competance in) nearly all EE areas, and depth in quite a few.  That's what I've done for about 40 years now (and am still active and fully employed doing today). 


Bottom line:  I vote for GENERALIST (usually with a full staff of specialists implementing my systems!).

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