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To be an engineer

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Question from student:

Hi, saw your posts on the Should I go to UT engineering thread…

I’m graduating from grade 12 this year and am in somewhat of the same situation you were in… albeit my parents are somewhat educated (college). I also have no connections to the industry. I’m trying to decide if I should go into engineering and where I should go (mac vs western). I really don’t have to much of an idea what the industry entails…

I’m not sure how much of your knowledge applies, but I was planning to go to either Western (hopefully dual Ivey degree) or Mac (hoping to get engineering management)… Do you think these dual degrees are worth my money in terms of employability?

Would an interest in the in design and optimization aspects of engineering make the degree worth it? I’m not sure I want to go all the way just yet, and have considered other grad/professional school options (business/law)… I love to build and design things, but is this a feasible thing to go on? I mean building/optimizing the mini Baja/solar/formula racers are something I’m really interested, but do you think I should save that as a hobby rather than a profession?

I saw that you mentioned that you’re currently an engineer with the Toronto Star… but you mentioned also that there could have been an easier path to get to where you are. How can you be an engineer without being an engineer or is this in regards to the pay?

Thanks for your help!

Really, the one thing I wish everyone would do in the summer between grade 12 and first year university is to work in a field related to what s/he wants to study. Be around professionals, see what their day to day operations are, and understand what the industry is all about.

Even landing a boring office administrative job (like filing, data entry, phone reception etc..) in a technology company would be a great start. You can converse with engineers, technicians and managers. You will overhear discussions on budget constraints, shipment of defective hardware, project deadline extensions, upcoming technology conferences, office politics etc… Being in the environment, you get to see what professionals have to deal with on a daily basis. After a couple months or so, you will be able to pick out an employee and say, “When I graduate, I want to be him. I know what he does, and I want to do what he does.” That’s when you can approach them and ask, “how did you get to where you are today, and how can I do the same? In hindsight, what would you have done differently?”

I can’t offer you much more advice than that because each engineering discipline is different. But one thing that’s a given is that you have to be 80% certain engineering is what you want to get into. You have to acknowledge that only 20-30% of grads go on to work in a field relevant to their studies. And even within that 20-30%, there are different types of relevant jobs, and you might not find yourself immediately working in the one you originally desired. Here’s an example from my graduating year, let’s say for every 50 engineering grads, there are 5 engineering jobs. Of the 5 engineering jobs, 2 will be in optical systems, 1 will be in laser technology, 1 will be in software systems, and 1 will be in power systems. So if you want to do optical systems engineering, you’re competing against other students for just 1 job, not 5. So don’t be fooled when people say, there’s X amount of engineering jobs. Well, out of the X amount of jobs, you’re only interested in a fraction of X. So be prepared you might not get the type of engineering job you originally wanted. And it’s NOT EASY moving from one engineering discipline to another without starting from the bottom.

For me, I ended up in software development, even though I studied Elec. Eng. at U of T. I consider myself to be one of the 20-30% of grads who went on to work in a technical capacity, but not in the type of job I originally wanted, which I think was microwave circuits, I can’t quite remember. The problem was that out of all the engineering jobs available, not many of them were microwave circuit design, testing or implementation. So I just settled for whatever I got.

I do enjoy my current job. But if I were to do things again, I would have taken computer science with some entrepreneur courses instead of engineering. In software, the title software/systems engineer is used loosely and anyone can adopt it provided s/he takes on the responsibilities.

If you want to get into management, remember this: As long as you’re capable in doing whatever it is you’re doing, and if enough of the “right” people think of you in the “right” way, you can become anything you want. So this is all soft skills that engineering doesn’t teach you, and it shouldn’t take 4 years of any university program to teach you. When the time comes (when you’re in your mid 20s to late 20s), you will know if an MBA is necessary to advance your career.

So my final remarks. If you want to be a software engineer like me, take comsci. If you want to be another type of engineer, find a paid or volunteer job in the relevant technology company (doing anything). Seek out the professionals you wish to one day become, talk to them and figure out all the challenges and benefits of becoming an engineer.

Written by John Lai

May 2nd, 2008 at 8:55 pm

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