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Valuable Skills an Employee Should Have

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From my experience working with a couple of co-op students, I’d have to say the two most valuable skills a new employee should have are: 1) to be able to read between the lines and 2) to be able to program software. The latter skill is obvious. The reason it takes a backseat to the former is because by the time you get to work with me, it’s a given that you know how to code or that you’re a quick learner.

Reading between the lines and anticipating future problems are extremely important skills. Many managers are over-worked. They manage several dozen concurrent projects and reply to hundreds of emails daily. So when a manager debriefs an employee on the details of a new project, s/he may forget to mention important project details. A good employee should be alert and s/he should ask the right questions to acquire the information s/he needs to successfully complete a project.

Many new grads think, “As soon as I know Subversion, Photoshop, Dreamweaver, I’ll be eligible for the job.” No….Not yet. You also have to read your boss’ mind and be one step ahead of him.

Written by John Lai

September 10th, 2009 at 10:28 am

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Commerce vs. Engineering

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Someone asked,

hi. I am a Grade 12 student. I am deciding whether to choose commerce or engineer as my undergraduate program. More specifically, I will choose finance or ECE. Which program is easier to find a job? Which program is easeier to find a high salary job? Furthermore, which career has more opportunities? I applied for commerce in UofT. If you know some of the students from Uoft commerce undergraduate program,can you tell me how many of them find good jobs and their salary? What kind of jobs do they do?(ie investment banking or something else)
Thank you very much.

So here’s my answer:

Which program is easier to find a job?

In engineering, the biggest demand is for software development (web, mobile or desktop). Almost 90% of my electrical engineering buddies ended up in software development. So if you have an engineering degree, and have 1 year of software development experience (from coop, volunteer or hobbies), then it’s easy for you to find a job. If you don’t have work experience, you will have a hard time finding a job.

According to one of my colleagues in investment banking, he says new grad employment rate is about 50% within the first year of graduation because of the poor economy (things could be different 4 years from now). He graduated in 2004, and back then, the employment rate for commerce grads within first year of graduation was 80%. From his experience, most of his classmates ended up in marketing or accounting.

If you do not have work experience, then getting an engineering job (software) or getting a finance job (accounting or marketing) are equally hard. The more elite disciplines (aerospace engineering, investment banking etc..) are practically impossible. Getting a job depends on your reputation first, your work experience second.

Which program is easier to find high salary job?

The salaries for accounting, marketing and engineering are similar, even when taking years of work experience into consideration. However, if you have what it takes to survive engineering, but you choose to do commerce, then you will be paid more in commerce than in engineering. This is because commerce is generally easier than engineering, so you have a better chance at being top 10 in a commerce program to demand a higher salary than if you were a bottom feeder in an engineering program. If you work as an investment banker (only the elite get here), and you work your butt off and take abuse from employers like a dog, then you’ll be paid more than the average engineer who’s typically in software development or IT. There’s potential for you to make lots of money in engineering only if you start your own business. So again, high pay requires you to have a good sense of business (ie. commerce).

In the end, how much you get paid depends on how well you market yourself and how valuable your skills are. The best way to do this is if you work part time jobs in industry while studying. By exposing yourself to industry, you’ll see first hand which skills are most valuable.

Alright, I think my two answers answered all your other questions.

Written by John Lai

April 23rd, 2009 at 7:19 am

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School vs. Work

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If you’re a graduating high school student, and you are deciding which university/college program will land your dream job, then I have something to tell you. Most young adults, such as yourself, have no idea what the real workforce is like. You may think that school is the end-all and be-all to getting a job. Well, you are incredibly mistaken.

School and Work are two ABSOLUTELY different environments. You will find that much of what you learn in school is not relevant in the working world. To put things into perspective, consider this: education takes up 2 lines of a 2 page resume and 1 minute of a 30 minute interview. Sure school is good for learning the basics, but what lands you your job depends almost entirely on work experience and who you impress (important…it’s who you impress as opposed to who you know)

Therefore, I suggest you do the following:

1) Get a volunteer job or a part time paid job in the field you’re interested in.  This will expose you to the true nature of the discipline.  Then you’ll know for sure if you like it. It will also give you the much needed work experience for your future full time job.

2) Go to conferences and seminars to speak with Professionals in your field. Ask them about their job. Tell them about your aspirations and your personality. They will give you insight on how to get ahead in the field. You will also be networking with some important people. If you impress these individuals (this is important, knowing someone means nothing if you can’t impress them), they may consider you for future job positions.

When I first entered university, I made a big mistake in not following advices 1 and 2. It set me back 3-4 years.

Written by John Lai

March 13th, 2009 at 11:32 am

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Get a Career in Web Development

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The following question was asked on yahoo answers:

How to get into Web Design and Development?

I’m am taking a certificate in Web Design and Development from an accredited online university. Will I be able to get into the industry with this? Can someone comment on their experience on wages with the certificate and your experiences afterwards?

My Answer:

Education makes up 2 lines of a 2 page resume. It takes up 1 minute of a 30 minute interview. That should give you an idea of how relevant school material is in the real working world.

School is ok for learning the fundamentals, but it is by no means the deciding factor on whether you’re employed or not.

I’m a web application architect who’s hired people before. If you want to impress an employers, do the following:

1) have a good portfolio of projects – if you have no work experience, then put together volunteer projects for your friends. Employers will be impressed by your commitment and sacrifice. Tell employers straight up, “I haven’t worked in a company before because I’m at the beginning of my career. But I work hard and I have potential as evidenced by my portfolio of charitable web projects for non-profit organizations, family and friends. I am always willing to sacrifice for my career and for the company I work for.”

2) network with people in the industry – go to conferences and events and meet professionals in the field. Tell them you’re a student, and you want advice on how to improve your skills.

If you do items 1 and 2, you will have no problem getting a job. By the time you graduate, you may even have enough experience to start your own web firm.

Written by John Lai

March 6th, 2009 at 12:39 am

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

Choose UT Electrical Engineering

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Speaking as a 2004 UT ECE grad, I recall 2/3 of my class detested the program because they went into it for all the wrong reasons (mentioned in previous post). Most people won’t admit it while they’re in the program, because they still hope their efforts will generate matching returns, and that jobs will fly to them after they graduate. But a year or two after graduation, they usually become disgruntled, and realize in hindisght, there were better ways to advance. Yes, even after I got my job, I kept thinking, “damn it, all that work for jsut this?”

I am now a software developer for Torstar Digital. Having been in the technology field for 4 years now, I can say that U of T has done little to prepare me for the work force. I dont know what other universities are like, but if they don’t emphasize the importace of industry experience, then the students are in for a rough time.

I mentioned the wrong reasons for entering UT ECE previously, but forgot to mention the RIGHT reasons for entering UT ECE. Here they are..

1) You are a technology fanatic. You alreayd love technology so much that you build your own A to D converters for fun while everyone else is playing video games. You dont need university to expose you to technology or help you develop a passion for it, you already have it. You just want a degree on paper to make your passiion legit in the face of your employers.

2) You know friends, family or relatives who are engineers. You grew up around engineers. Hence, after you graduate, you’ve got a network of people to work off of.

DO NOT GO INTO ENG if you don’t know what it’s all about already. Don’t expect the university to teach you what it is, because they won’t. Academia and leading edge technology companies are two totally different entities. The former focuses on antiquated theory professors ramble on about, the latter focuses on money driven and efficient development practices.

So if youstil want to go into UT ECE, make sure you spend every summer working in a technology capacity. If you can’t find a paying job FIND A VOLUNTEER ENginEERINg job! Do eveyrthing you possibly can to get a co-op job. PEY “might” be a good option, but you can probably get by with out it. Make sure to expand your business contact networks. Even though everyone is still a student now, 5-10 years form now, they will all be lawyers, accountants and engineers. And trust me, they will become valuable resources to further your career (or start your business).

in fact, that’s probably the most important thing about university. Establishing contact with potential business partners. They may be your peers, friends, lab partners or study buddies now, but they will grow to be powerful allies in the future. So make sure you establish a good relationship with them now.

Written by John Lai

April 29th, 2008 at 2:16 pm

Don’t Choose UT Electrical Engineering

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Unfortunately, I, like the majority of UT ECE students and grad, regret going into the program. I was even part of a focus group of 12 randomly selected students from the 2004 UT ECE program and we all said the same thing, UT ECE sucks.

The average student hates the ECE program because of its tough competition. The program rewards hardworking sleep deprived students with mediocre to barely passing grades. Students can put in an equivalent effort in other programs and obtain stellar grades.

The average student goes to UT ECE for the wrong reasons. Reasons like:

1. Engineers are prestigious, especially if they’re from U of T.
2. U of T ECE Grads are highly valued and they will get a job immediately after school.
3. I want to prove to everyone I can hang out with the smartest of the smart
4. U of T is just so cool and world reknowned that I’d be a sucker not to go for them

If you want to work in a technology job, be aware that most companies don’t care which University (or even which program) you graduated from. Companies only care about two things: 1) how you help them make money and 2) how you help them save money. These two things translates to, “How do you load balance these front end servers? What kind of systems architecture will support a million financial transactions per hour?” In other words, most companies want work experience! MOST UNDERGRADS DON’T REALIZE THIS!!! There are hundreds of thousands of smart people with a degree but there are only a handful of jobs. What makes you so special?

Most companies want work experience

Almost 90% of what you learn in UT ECE is impractical (it’s ironic that an applied science program does not teach application). I was allowed 2 electives in my four year program, the remaining 38 courses were technical engineering courses. In those 4 years I learned things I never used again…things like quantum dot theory, extreme low temperature semiconductor physics, optical engineering, surface integrals, stochastic processes, recombination mechanisms etc….When I graduated, I was surprised that employers did not care about my homework assignments, exam questions, weekly labs or study projects because the material was too fundamental to be of practical use.

It was as if I went to an expensive karate school to learn street fighting. The karate school would charge an arm and a leg for four years to teach me fancy jump kicks, pretty somersaults, contrived armlocks, all of which were “good in theory under ideal condtions” but none had real world application. I’d graduate from this lame karate school full of pride and ready to fight anyone, but the first punk I meet pulls out a gun and caps me in the ass. That’s the efficacy of four years of fancy karate school. UT ECE is the exact same rip-off. (By the way, your tuition fee pays lazy unionized workers who sit around and watch youtube all day…i know this for a fact).

UT ECE does nothing to expose students to the workforce. This is a tremendous problem. Yes, a student is responsible for his or her actions, but let’s be realistic – can you seriously expect most immature undergrads, ages 18 – 22 from middle income backgrounds, to do this? Most still live off of their mommy and daddy! They have no idea what the real world is about!

So with that being said, what should a student do? Here’s what I suggest:

1) if you want technology job, focus on getting work experience, and just get a passing grade from any university. Work experience is 5 times more valuable than your academic record.

2) Know exactly which technology field you want to get into and what your chances are. If you want software or IT, choose computer science NOT computer engineering. In Com Sci. you will have more electives, meaning you can study business and finance, things that will get you far in the industry. You also get the chance to meet pretty girls which is not possible in engineering.

If you seriously want to go into electrical/computer engineering because you’re fascinated by the more exotic subjects like photonics, artificial intelligence, power system etc…, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but only 10% of ECE grads find themselves doing things other than software or IT. You have more of a chance at becoming a successful actor than you do becoming an engineer for CSA or NASA.

Salaries for ECE grads generally range from 40k to 55k. You can expect to move up to maybe 60k or 70k after 3-4 years or work, provided you take on more responsibilies like project leader, or management.

Have no illusions of being rich. If you want to be rich, take commerce.
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Written by John Lai

April 29th, 2008 at 2:15 pm