May 24th, 2020


who's engineering?

sherlock999 asked me a question about what I do, but before I can write that entry I feel like I should write a whole entry about what I DON'T do, because it's been on my mind a lot lately. Well, maybe forever. And that's engineering.

This week I had a nice online conversation with a children's museum director who also holds a 4-year degree in industrial engineering. She dances around it a lot though, does not call herself an engineer, talks about having the degree but wanting to talk to "real" engineers about what they do. but the more I thought about it, what she's doing is no less engineering then what I'm doing. I'm managing a product support team, answering questions about what kind of adhesive we already approved to bond a seal to a doorframe. I look things up.

Something that haunts me in the back of my head is my total lack of component-level electrical engineering capability. In school I learned to calculate output impedance and impulse response of different amplifier circuits, I took 13 hours of calculus and differential equations, I learned where to add capacitors and pull-up resistors. That knowledge is gone now. At a SWE conference a college student had a FE exam sample question book (FE = Fundamentals of Engineering) and the questions might as well have been in Japanese - none of it made ANY sense. I absolutely cannot do electrical engineering. What if I needed a job in electrical engineering? Oh my god I'd be screwed.

I went straight from college into systems engineering, which is a fancy way to say "plugging things in". Making drawings of boxes in airplanes and which pins the wires go to. Think of your stereo system - hdmi to the TV, speaker wire to each channel, power cord. There is not math. It was a big day if we used trigonometry. So I never really got into component design in the real world, and immediately forgot it, and now I'm in management which you could argue is even further away from "engineering".

What do you have to do to call yourself a real engineer? What would I consider real? Well, designing new things. Using your calculus. Having a big credential like a PE, and having a stamp with your name to approve designs, some authority vested in you by the state to ensure the safety of the world, maybe?

I wonder what percentage of people with engineering degrees actually do that stuff?

I look around and I see engineering-degreed people all over the place... teaching classes, selling connectors, managing people at all levels. I'd say 95% of the engineers I know are doing this "other" stuff.

If that's where the jobs are, what the world needs, and what everybody's doing, maybe I should not be nervous about my inability to do calculus-based circuit analysis. Maybe we are all engineers, or maybe we have no idea what engineering is or what they do or what they should do. Maybe every career drifts a lot, and we should just let it drift and not worry about it?

There's a common question in forums about "are you doing what your degree was for" and that's where you hear about english majors running banks and theology majors running computer companies, and I usually say oh yeah sure I got an engineering degree and I became an engineer, in title. now its not even in my title anymore, and I still say I'm an engineer, but with an asterisk... maybe those questions should only apply to your first few years out of school. After that it's anybody's guess. Go forth and find a job, and don't overthink it.