Good suggestions, Jon, and a very critical commitment all engineers (and professionals, for that matter) need to make to keep themselves relevant and marketable in today's hyper-competitive job market.
You mention a couple times that you paid for a trade show or training on your own. I think that is a key takeaway--with companies facing tighter budget restrictions and engineers getting more piled on their plate, the idea of a company-paid, week long trip to some vendor or society conference is becoming less and less realistic. Yet that shouldn't discourage engineers from finding the time and money to invest in personal development. Sure it hurts when it comes out of pocket and yes, your company should have a big-picture vision that employee development is a strategic asset, but they might not and that doesn't mean you can ignore it.
Another suggestion: If you can't afford or don't want to travel, the Internet is chock full of content and peer communities and even virtual conferences and Webinars (hello Design News) where engineers can trade ideas, test drive new products, talk to the experts, and brush up their skills. Truth is, today you might not have to pay too much out of pocket and you certainly don't have to leave your house.
Great suggestions. Another way to stay up to date is through podcasts where new and useful information is discussed and a lot of ideas are bounced around. The best thing about podcasts is that you can take it on the go. A new way Design News is helping to keep engineers informed is through DN radio. We are having our next broadcast: Next-Gen Factory & Industrial Automation: Time to Go Wireless?, tomorrow at 2 p.m. EDT. Be sure to register to here.
Good points, Jon. There have been several times in my career where my learning activities (outside of the technical areas I was currently working on) were (I think!) important in opening up design/job opportunities.
I think that it is important to keep an eye out for, and participate as much as possible in, both in-house and out-of-house training opportunities particularily those that involve actually getting out and meeting real people. This certainly includes the many one or two day seminar activities provided by the distributors (e.g. Avnet) and their suppliers (e.g. TI, Linear Tech).
Attending conferences, for me, has not been, usually, a reasonable alternative as that has usually involved travel, vacation days, etc - expensive both in a real $$ sense and in an adverse impact on your personal life (e.g. giving up vacation time with the family).
Internet based activities - very, very do-able these days. It used to take resources beyond what the average engineer had either at work or at home (I remember when we had a special setup in a conference room just for that purpose) but today almost every engineer has access to high speed interent - usually both at home and at work.
Another venue for training is, of course, the local IEEE society and the IEEE itself.
And we have the new social networking 'craze' such as LinkedIN, Facebook, etc although I am a bit skeptical about them.
Good points, Bob. I'm curious, though, about why you are skeptical about social networking venues like LinkedIn and even Facebook as a way to connect with the domain expertise of peer engineers and as a resource to keep up with skills.
My feelings about networking sites such as LinkedIn et al - I think that the networks tend to be too 'diffuse'. You are 'networked' but many of your network is not very tightly (i.e. specifically) tied to whatever you might be doing at any given time. And, in some cases, not even close. If the network gets large then you have the old problem of just too much 'stuff' going on.
I also find that some of the postings on such networks are a bit vague or technically in error. That is probably just a weakness of mine - I like to have some solid engineering/science going on (and of course I don't necessarily regard that as a weakness!!) and when I jump in and contribute, my contributions don't have much impact. OK, I know - it is the communications thing!
Bottom line - I use those sites - they have value and some limited involvement is worthwhile BUT not the end all, be all.
Great blog, Jon. What you're describing is really a state of mind. I can recall engineers in the 1970s who thought finite element anaysis was a monstrous waste of time that would soon disappear (a few of those engineers also refused to give up their slide rules). At the time, I couldn't understand why experienced engineers resisted new methods, but after I gained some experience, I found myself doing the same sorts of things. Once you've found an efficient way of getting the job done, it's easy to resist the learning curve of new concepts. The first step in keeping your skills up to date is getting yourself in the right state of mind.
Personally, I'm not a big fan of online webinars and presentations mainly because most run too long. I'd rather have presenters divide their information into separate 10-to-15-minute sections so I can fit them into my calendar as time allows. Also, providing a table of contents to these segments would help, so people can get a quick introduction and then jump into a section they think most applicable without having to sit through an hour-long presentation only to come away disappointed. An hour or forty-five-minute sitting in front of a computer monitor can put even those with insomnia to sleep. And, why not have some printed materials I can download and print? Diagrams, equations, graphs, and charts in such a document would simplify taking notes and let people retain information longer. I haven't seen any webinar invitations that include mention of backup information for participants.
It is easy to fall behind on technology if you let it happen. Webinars and other on-line tools are great ways to stay ahead, but it is hard to keep up with them during the work day. Strict internet policies do limit the ability to sit watching your monitor during the work day. Archived webinars are a great tool that you can use later to catch up on technology.
Speaking of IEEE, the Computer Society (www.computer.org) has a plethora of free (to members) online courses, a lot of which have CEU's attached. I believe you can join the Computer Society for a fee without having to fork over the whole membership fee of IEEE.
What's the relathionship you ask? Because when I think back how I learned as kid about design, it was through tearing things apart (and sometimes, eventually, putting them back together!) Inasmuch as we designers are just overgrown kids, I dare say that the same holds true for 'aging" engineer who wish to keep up to date on the modern technology.
1000X more fun than a booring webinar. And learning needs to be fun to be memorable.
My brother Chris and I took apart a lot of lawnmowers, washing machines, and TVs and learned a lot not only about how things worked, but how to use and care for tools. I agree that engineering students can learn a lot from teardowns and many landfills and recycle centers have places where people can drop off somewhat-useful "stuff" others can salvage. So we have a lot of raw material for willing hands and minds. Nothing like salvaging a 2-cycle engine and building a go-cart around it. Or taking home a Sun server from the metal recycle bin.
Unfortunately, many of the magazine tear-down projects analyze only what's in a product and the author does not add any insight into why the designers might have chosen one type of design over another. Were plastic molded hinges easier to make but still as hardy as metal ones? Did the manufacturerer choose processor X over processor Y because the X device included a graphic accelerator? Those are the types of questions a good tear-down writer should address for his or her audience. --Jon
You make a really good point, Jon. Perhaps if the Design News editors are listening, they would consider a version of Tear Down that includes some didactic contact, vis a vis, design intent and decisions. Thanks for your reply!
I think you are way over-rating what attending a trade show is on your skills. Yes, its nice to stay current on the latest thechnologies available but most of that is available thru the web anyway. Secondly, having knowledge of what other companies are offering for products is hardly considered rocket science or something that would set an engineer apart.
And the comment that if my company cannot afford to send me, I should use my vacation and pay for the trip myself is ludicris. So now, on top of the crappy pay and promotional opportunities engineers are offered, I suppose to pay for what a marketing guy would get monthly for free?
Trade shows offer opportunities to talk with technical people who can help you understand new technologies, suggest new approaches to problems, and answer specific technical questions. I know from experience, trying to find such a person by cold calling a company or sending a query to email@example.com won't get me very far. The personal connections I make at trade shows pay off.
You don't expect your company to pay for your gas or train ticket to get to or from work and you don't expect them to feed you while at work, so why expect them to pay so you can keep your skills up to date? You could take another job any day and take your company-paid skills with you. I'm sorry some engineers don't get paid well and don't have opportunities to advance, but life and work are what you make of them.
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