Design Con 2015

Who needs a degree?

July 06, 2005

JackGanssle-July 06, 2005

In my experience some engineers are plodders. They just don’t get it. Sure, they can crank some C or design a bit of logic but their creations are leaden, devoid of style, crude, slow and just not elegant.

Then there are the superstars, those few who establish a mind-meld with the code or electronics. Have you ever worked with one? When the system doesn’t work and mysterious bugs baffle all of our efforts, up comes the guru who licks his finger and touches a node and immediately discovers the problem. We feel like idiots; he struts off in glory.

Who are these guys, anyway? An astonishing number of them have "unusual" academic credentials. Take my friend Don. He went off to college at age 18, for the first time leaving his West Virginia home behind. A scholarship program lined his pockets with cash, enough to pay for tuition, room, and board for a full year. Cash--not a safer university credit of some sort.

A semester later he was out, expelled for non-payment of all fees and total academic failure, with an Animal House GPA of exactly 0.0. The cash funded parties; the late nights interfered with classes. His one chance at a sheepskin collapsed, doomed by the teenage immaturity that all of us muddle through, with varying degrees of success.

Today he’s a successful engineer. He managed to apprentice himself to a startup, and then to parley that job into others where his skills showed through, and where enlightened bosses valued his design flair despite the handicap of no degree.

Then there’s my dad who breezed through MIT on a full scholarship. Graduating with a feeling that his prestigious degree made him oh-so-very special he started working at Grumman in 1950 as a mechanical engineer working on aircraft. To his shock and horror the company put him on the production line for six months, riveting airplanes together. This outfit put all new engineers in production to teach them the difference between theory and practicality. He came out of it with a new appreciation for what works, and for the problems associated with manufacturing.

What an enlightened way to introduce new graduates to the harsh realities of the physical world! A grizzled old machinist, hearing of my engineering desires while I was in high school, took me aside and warned me never to be like “those” engineers who designed stuff that couldn’t be built.

Experience is a critical part of the engineering education, one that’s pretty much impossible to impart in the environment of a university. You really don’t know much about programming till you’ve completely hosed a 10,000 line project, and you know little about hardware till you’ve designed, built, and somehow troubleshot a complex board. We’re still much like the blacksmith of old, who started his career as an apprentice, and who ends it working with apprentices, training them over the truth of a hot fire. Book learning is very important, but in the end we’re paid for what we can do.

In my career I’ve worked with lots of engineers, most with sheepskins, but many without. Both groups have had winners and losers. The non-degreed folks, though, generally come up a very different path, earning their “engineering” title only after years as a technician. This career path has a tremendous amount of value, as it’s tempered in the forge of hands-on experience, far more than gathered in a handful of school lab classes.

Technicians are masters of making things. They are expert solderers - something far too few engineers ever master. A good tech can burn a PAL, assemble a board, and use a milling machine. The best--those bound for an engineering career --are wonderfully adept troubleshooters, masters of the scope. Since technicians spend their lives daily working intimately with circuits, some develop an uncanny understanding of electronic behavior.

In college we learn theory at the expense of practical things. Yet I recently surveyed several graduate engineers and found none could integrate a simple function. None remembered much about the transfer function of a transistor. What happened to all of that hard-learned theory?

Over the years I’ve hired many engineers with and without their bachelors, and have had some wonderful experiences with very smart, very hard working people who became engineers by the force of their will. Oddly, some of the best firmware folks I’ve worked with have degrees, but in English! Perhaps clear expression of ideas is universal, whether the language is English or C.

We’re in a very young field, where a bit of the anarchy of the wild west still reigns. More so than in other professions we’re judged on our ability and our performance. If you can crank working designs out at warp speed, then who cares what your scholastic record shows?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at jack@ganssle.com. His website is www.ganssle.com.

Reader Response


Jack,
Why keep raising this issue? It seems at least once a year some journalist in the field brings this up. As if today's engineers didn't have enough to worry about. I, for one, worked my butt off obtaining my EE degree from the University of Minnesota, while also paying for most of it by working as an engineering aid at a local manufacturer. And yes, I had excellent experience when I graduated--as good as technicians I worked with.

All things being considered, I would posit that in most cases a degreed engineer is more valuable to a company. Of course, there are exceptions. Can't we just leave it at that? Successfully graduating from an electrical engineering program takes a lot of discipline, hard work, and persistence in the face of setbacks. These are exactly the sort of qualities that are also very valuable in the corporate world.

I would offer you the flip side of what happens when non-degreed 'engineers' rise to high positions in companies: they make poor decisions (due to their lack of a deep understanding of technology), which, in a position of engineering manager, for example, can have devastating effects on a company. I have experienced this phenomenon, myself.

- Art Felgate
Consultant
Digital Widget Development


I couldn't agree more with your take on whether a degree is necessary. I took the path of practical hands-on experience to get where I am today and have always been well respected for my troubleshooting ability and the quality of work I produce. The one area a degree helps is, perhaps, in getting an interview for a position where the firm insists a degree is necessary.

- David Kanceruk


I agree that a few years of experience is usually more valuable than the university course work required for a degree. I also have seen very good people (and not so good) come from both the university training and from the school of hard knocks. However, my experience is that those who come from the university side generally have a better ability to take a "systems-level" view than the non-degreed. Generally, the non-degreed have been very skilled technical people who can solve a problem, but are not the ones that ask, "Is this the right problem to solve?" To use another old analogy, the non-degreed may be very quick to climb a ladder, but usually aren't the ones that make sure that the ladder is leaning against the correct wall. Also, with some exceptions, the non-degreed have been less desirous to establish solid procedures and processes than their degreed counterparts. This has been my experience from telecom, to DoD, to medical, to security.

- David Wright
Software Engineering Manager


Jack,
You pushed my button! I'm one of the NDE's (non-degreed engineer) of which you spoke. I did spend years as a tech (and a ham operator) before making the switch. In my case, the 'trigger' was being hired as an assistant engineer, rather than as a senior tech, in a now defunct Fairchild division. I kept getting more and more 'engineering' assignments, until I was stuck--my boss could not move me into an exempt salaried position without a degree. I took a variety of classes related to analog design, but not much else, and I found that I am not crazy about our educational system, which seems to be designed primarily to make money for the school, rather than meet the educational needs of the students. At any rate, an opportunity opened up at the company where I've been working now for 23 years, and I've enjoyed it tremendously, mainly because I get to do a variety of things--circuit design, software, PCB design, housing design, building prototypes, production assistance, etc. However, I also know that if I were to lose this job, I would have a very difficult time finding another, especially in this area, as there aren't that many available, and virtually all require at least a BSEE. Years of experience don't seem to count for much.

Regarding the hard-learned theory, I have two stories: we hired a fresh-out-of-school BSEE as a junior engineer/lab tech. He was a friendly kid, but knew virtually nothing about device operation. When I asked if he had seen any of this stuff in school, he said that he remembered seeing it, but it was basically gone. Story 2: I took, mainly to see if I could hack it, college algebra, trig, and calculus. I got A's in all of the classes, but I remember almost nothing other than some of the major concepts. Both of these stories beg the question: Why? I think it is because (and I know you know this) we lose what we don't use. That's why I can still remember the functions of a variety of vacuum tubes, despite having last used them 30+ years ago. I think that good education, followed up with experience that uses that education, is the best combination. However, if you can't get that, I would vote for experience over formal education, especially if it in the particular design area under discussion.

- Dave Telling
Electronics Engineer
Mr. Gasket, Inc.


Great article Jack! I am living proof that being a good engineer is by force of will. I started as a technician, and like you mentioned gained more experience in the lab than in the classroom. However, it took almost 15 years to get where I am. My advice to anyone is to get your degree ASAP and get out there and get some experience. What do you think about an engineering apprenticeship program for new grads?

- Rick
Software Engineer


I worked my way up the hard way.

I decided to do software when I realized the trends in hardware would require megabucks to keep up with the technology.

Degrees are important only so far as they get there faster...not necessarily better. There are VERY few out there that understand 5 years of hard-won experience may be worth more than a degree. I lucked into a couple of those and was on my way.

The first one gave me an electronics test before even talking to me. Their last interview question was: In 60 seconds, list as many uses for a paper clip as you can come up with. The average was 5, the max was 30. I aced the test named 15 uses. It suprised 'em. (Can you think outside the box?) Those people knew what they wanted in people and how to get it. It is refreshing to know there are few out there.

- stevev vreeland
vp software development
fieldbus inc


Thanks for the kind words. Having "only" an AAS in electronics technology, I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. Twenty-something years later my business card says "Sr. Software Engineer" and people actually ask my advice on designs. (Sometimes I give it to them before they ask -- such is the privilege of age.)

There are only two situations where I miss having a bachelor's degree: when I'm trying to understand some of the signal processing techniques that my co-workers use in their designs, and when I hear of an open design position at a company that I'd dearly love to work for, but that requires a BSCS/EE/CE. But that doesn't seem to happen too often, and considering the number of engineers that have been laid off locally in the past few years I count myself lucky to still be getting paid to do what I love.

- Dave H.


Just remember, it's people with degrees that are teaching, training, and giving OJT to non-degreed people... thus making engineers out of those who lack degrees. So I'd say a university education is needed somewhere along the line. Having hands-on experience prior to a university education is a big plus and makes a better engineer than one without prior experience.

- Steve King
Engineer



What about people that start as techs and earn a degree? I learned electronics in the Navy, and then used the GI bill to graduate from UC Berkeley. In school I appriciated my experience and wondered how someone could understand a transistor amplifier based only on the equations. I credit Navy tech schools for teaching me to troubleshoot, a skill I still impress coworkers with. I've never regretted taking the long road to be a degreed engineer.

- Mark Sloan


I've met some really good designers with credentials from the school of hard knocks and I've met some who were brilliant but were pains to work with because of their lack of discipline-- which is why they never finished engineering school.

My engineering school seemed mostly to teach hard work and perseverance, I don't think it did a very good job teaching practical design. I did not trust some of my classmates to pick up a soldering iron by the correct end. I suspect that most degreed designers learned most of what they know outside the classroom.

So in the end, what's important is what a person knows, not where they learned it. But if you're looking for work, especially when the job market is tight, those letters after your name sure help getting your foot in the door of the HR department.

- Mark Dresser


This debate has a fairly obvious conclusion, and pertains to all human endeavours. People educated in the theory of a subject but lacking in practical experience have a weakness, as do people with practical experience but no formal education in the subject (people often copy bad practices as well as good). It is a well established principle that education combined with sound practical experience is the answer. Why should engineering be any different?

N.B. My advice to anyone having a degree in English, but working in an engineering environment, is to use their skills to read some good books on engineering.

- Martin Allen


Practical experience and formal education are equally important in engineering (and many other fields). The design failures of engineers who lack practical experience are a popular discussion topic, but beware of the 'engineer' with no formal education.

Lack of a solid understanding of the engineering fundamentals often leads to a lack of understanding (or worse, a misunderstanding) of why something behaves the way it does. If one can't explain why the problem occurs, then he/she can't explain why the solution fixes it. Perhaps the solution only works under certain circumstances...

I've worked with quite a few people who either lacked formal engineering education or had their degree in a field other than that in which they were working. These people often focus on what happens rather than why it happens, and they tend to have a formulaic approach to problem-solving. "I once saw a problem that looked similar to this one; doing 'x' seemed to fix it, so 'x' must be the solution to this problem." If it's a problem they haven't seen, trial and error is the order of the day.

It's surprising and more than a little disturbing that such a large fraction of respondents to the accompanying poll think a degree is only "somewhat important". I guess I shouldn't be surprised that so many products work poorly or fail quickly.

- Jason Dougherty


GREAT insights. I began my career as an engineer with a Music Education Degree.

- Dan Schreiber


Dear Jack, Much applaus on the subject at hand.Your articles are always in scope with my train of thought. I studied electronics in HS, community college and completed mechanics at vo-tech, studied HVAC at vo-tech. recently learning embedded technology at Devry university. I am a retired master automobile technitan. with 12 years of industrial exp. I can run a bridgeport and load some c if needed. You have hit the nail right on the Head. Silicon is our friend!

- Michael May


Experience means a lot rather than knowledge from the book. While doing Bachelor's degree in a college from India, we had lot of females in the class. They scored very high academically whereas in the practical world they are not doing well except for a few. But the guys who didn't even get a first class grade got very good jobs and are doing extremely well in their firms. In my company we have a guy who doesn't have any degree but he is one of the best engineers we have.

- CJ


I have met many brilliant non-degreed engineers, who came up as technicians of one sort or another. A great effort is made, in our working culture, to separate theory and practice and to denigrate practice. Too much emphasis is placed on credentials at the expense of working knowledge. I came up through the practical path - machinist, toolmaker, mechanical draftsman. More than once, I have been denied jobs solely because I had no college degree. Practice is held in such low regard, and theory in such high regard, that those with both are discouraged from "keeping their hand in." How many senior engineers have been told, as I have been since earning a few degrees," We don't want you writing code (or soldering, or machining parts). Any monkey can crank out code, we need you to oversee the process, make the important decisions, etc." We are the childen of both practice (first-hand knowledge) and theory (long-term societal knowledge). Yet, in our working lives, we seem forced to choose one parent or the other.

- Eric Starin


Jack, you are on to something here, but to N.D. EE's like myself it is no surprize. I have met guys with masters degrees in engineering who couldn't design their way out of a wet paper bag, much less assemble or troubleshoot something. Unfortunately, the answer to who needs a degree is "Everyone!" Mostly when it comes time to find a new job. Then, you really have to wrk a lot harder to find a new job because many HR types will file your resume' in the circular file if they don't find the degrees they're looking for on it. Basically you have to figure out how to do an end run around the HR types and talk directly to the hiring manager. Even then you'll have to talk a lot more convincingly than a degreed candidate. And in the final analysis you'll usually receive less remuneration for your time than a candidate with similar skill levels who has his sheepskin. Too bad many people have bought so heavily into the idea that a degree garantees performance.

- Don McCallum


What is an embedded system all ab8 If u r pursing any course of diploma level in it and have to complete a project then what type project will make me attractive for a company to hire me.

- Meghendra

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I think 'degree-less' guys are very few in number. Also, in places like India no degree means NO JOB.

- Chaitanya Lala


Times have changed. These days it's much harder for individuals without sheepskin to become quasi-engineers.

- K

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