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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

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