When you're a kid, people ask you, "So, what do you want to be when you grow up?" When you're a little older, people ask you, "So, where do you see yourself in ten years?" I never had a good answer to either of these questions.
When I was in high school, I did fairly well in math and science, so people told me, "You should go into engineering." The only problem was that I had no real idea what engineering was.
After high school, I went away to college in New Orleans, and decided to major in civil engineering. I thought it might be a good idea, since I had worked in construction, but didn't really understand what it involved. I wasn't really excited about it - after all, how can you be excited about something when you don't know what it is? - but it seemed like the thing to do at the time.
The classes I was taking just seemed like an extention of the math and science I had taken in high school. At first, they were boring, and I was able to get decent grades without really trying. There were a lot of things in New Orleans which were more exciting than freshman physics or C++. Then, when the subject material got a little harder, I promptly flunked out.
I played guitar on Bourbon Street for a while, where I was able to earn enough to live on, provided that I slept on other people's couches. After a few months of that, I headed back to my hometown of Chicago.
I started to attend a local community college, and enrolled in the engineering program. This time, I worked harded and got "A"s in all my classes, but I still had no idea what I was getting into.
Meanwhile, I was working in a restaurant, where I had been working since my junior year of high school. It wasn't a bad experience - it paid a little better than playing the blues on Bourbon Street, it helped me become fluent in Spanish, and it indirectly led to meeting my wife - but I knew it wasn't what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Maybe I didn't know what I wanted to do, but after a few years of cleaning tables, serving sandwiches, and making espresso drinks, I was pretty sure about what I didn't want.
I decided that I wanted to work in a lab. What kind of lab, I didn't know, but that didn't stop me. The idea of doing something hands-on, working independently, and not having to constantly interact with customers or make lattes appealed to me. I applied for every job that had the word "lab" in it: photo lab, clinical lab, chemistry lab, etc.
I wound up getting a job in a R&D lab for a company which made refractories for the aluminum foundry industry. I knew nothing about metalcasting and had no idea what refractories were, but I was willing to learn.
All of a sudden, a whole new world opened up to me. I started to learn about materials and their properties - and discovered that there was an entire field of engineering dedicated to materials and their properties. Everything needs to be made out of something - but how do you decide what to make it out of? Where do these materials come from? How are they processed into a useful form? What determines their properties, and how can they be improved? The engineers who I worked for actually knew about these things, and were willing to answer the thousands of questions I had.
I was completely fascinated. This was what I wanted to do! All of a sudden, there was a reason to learn the things I was being taught in school - if I wanted to really understand what I was doing at work, then I needed to build a firm foundation of basic knowledge.
There were a lot of twists and turns from that point on - getting laid off as a result of asbestos litigation, getting accepted into the Illinois Institute of Technology, teaching 11th grade math, a detour into failure analysis of plastics, and somewhere along the way, an internship with the Department of Energy - but that was when I realized what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
For me, my aptitude has always been electronics. I remember one of the old 501 electronic kits from Radio Shack and trying to get a radio circuit to work. I was having trouble with it and so I decided ot borrow my father's alarm clock radio and started dismantling it. Well, I got in trouble for dismantling the radio, but I did get the circuit I was working on to operate!
As I became older, I started getting into Amateur Radio and decided that I wanted to work around RF. Here I am today, a Design Engineer for a company that makes amplifiers for a wide range of devices from RADAR to WIFI.
I evidently was an engineer out of the womb. Took everything apart and put it back together again at a very early age. More that the usual incessant asking of "WHY" and "HOW". A tinkerer since before kindergarten. Knew what a BTU was in elementary school as my dad and an uncle were looking at an A/C and were puzzled by the BTU rating. I spouted accurately, they walked away seemingly stunned. I got sent to the corner in 1st grade art class because I dared make my piece of art articulate and move (I DID NOT follow the herd instructions...BORING!!!). I had a vendetta against my knuckledragging teacher for the rest of the year! Probably why I have a thick skin when it comes to such things in business today. It was her problem, NOT mine!
Photography for me was more than taking pictures, it was "WHY" and "HOW" does it work and tinkering with the development chemistry. Model Rocketry was more than building the kits, it was doing my own thing, with bigger payloads, more engine clustering, unconventional designs that failed miserably and laughably as well as those that worked great. My buds and I were not merely mischievous, we did what we called scientific mayhem. Everything we did as juvenile delinquents had a scientific twist to it, to the cops dismay (how did they do that?) and we never got caught (we didn't hurt or destroy property, just tended to mildly upset folks with big bangs, pranking, etc.)
I'm at home in engineering and leading engineers. The closest I get to sales is as a technology wingman for the sales force. That's the way I like it. They can handle the, what to me is the mundane schitte or get off of the pot negotiating dance stuff (necessary but quite tedious to me). I'm there to make things work better...do you want me to do it or not?
I have always been blessed (cursed?) with in innate knowledge of how things work, even before tearing the item apart to verify - which I did on most occasions. I couldn't afford to go to college regularly, and worked in various body shop and automotive repair facilities for my early career. During that time, I changed my own oil as it was convenient to dispose of the used oil and we had access to lifts. After 22 years of classes here and there I finally finished my degree and added the theory and credentials to my natural ability. But now I take my car to the dealer to have the oil changed - I use my free time to build kitchen cabinetry and coach my son's athletic teams.
I was a constant tinkerer as a kid that I took my bike apart so many times as a kid that my dad hid all of the 9/16" sockets and open ended wrenches to try and stop me. It was not until metal shop in high school that I was told that engineering might be a good profession. Now I get to tinker and design and get paid for it.
I think my early interest in Science fiction had a lot to do with my choice of becoming an engineer. I always appreciated physics, my Dad called it barnyard physics. All the ropes and pulleys, levers, hydraulics and such was facinating to me.
Once I got into college I learned a disciplined approach to problem solving. That was always helpful. My college buddy and I once were working on a particularly difficult problem and he mumbled something about, well let me write down some equations with some unknowns and see where that goes....
For me it has always been, what is the problem? what do I have that can be applied? What are the constraints to the solution? Can the solution be made better?
I was once asked in an interview to describe myself. I said, I am an Engineer, I solve problems.
Like many, I'm certain that taking things apart, rebuilding them, learning the inner workings, blowing fuses, and a few busted knuckles had paved the way for me to becoming an engineer. Mechanical aptitude was a strongpoint, but it was after one of many field trips that my high school shop class took I had my answer [early 80's - we were still allowed all over the factory]. We visited a factory that made drop forged tools and after seeing the drop forges from a distance of only a few feet - all I knew is that I had to find a career that would allow me to work in one of these magnificent places 'where stuff is made'. Preferably not the job of flipping that hot metal from cavity to cavity. So off I went to study Manufacturing Engineering. I think that's really a jack of all trades and master of none - we studied everything; just a little bit. It all came easy for me. What I'd like to add, however, is that nothing stands out to me about being a good engineer better than those things I learned in a few of the general honors classes I took. I had a class that was called 'creative thinking', really. There was nothing remotely difficult about it - we even got hypnotized by our instructor on one occasion. While sound engineering is at the forefront, it has been proven to me on many occasion that 'creative thinking', 'intuition', 'common sense' and 'guts' are the basis for most great problem solving. As one statics and dynamics instructor put it "...if you can't quite figure out the problem from an engineering standpoint, use your guts plus 50%..."
My response to the question differs from all the others in the story. Although my mechanical aptitude wasn't bad, it wasn't strong enough to drive me to a career in engineering. The real motivator was the school counselor who suggested it based on academic aptitude. It seemed like a better idea than loading trucks, which is what I was doing at the time, and I figured there would be a good possibility of getting a job at the end of it. The problem I ran into was that a lot of my fellow engineering students seemed to have better mechanical/electrical aptitude than I did, so I gravitated toward a specialty in structural mechanics and finite element analysis, where that mechanical aptitude (or lack of it) wouldn't matter as much. In essence, I chose applied math over real mechanical engineering, but it got me a job with a railroad straight out of school, and I've always been glad I made the decision to go into engineering. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't change anything.
Enjoyed your short summary of why some of us decided to become engineers. I think that, for some of us, engineering is just an extension of our natural proclivity to want to understand things and to make things. Physical things at any rate.
I remember one job intereview where I was asked if I changed the oil in my own car. Although a bit surprised by the question (the job was for a radio designer), I replied that 'Yes, as a matter of fact, I did (and always had pretty much) changed the oil in my car'. The interviewer nodded and then, seeing my somewhat befuddled expression, added 'I think a good engineer is a really hands on guy and changing the oil in your car is a good indication of that'.
Wow .... OK. I agree with that but that certainly had to be the wierdest interview question I ever had (yes, I got the job).
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