Why I Became an Engineer

June 24, 2007

Jack Ganssle-June 24, 2007

Some years ago my son was tasked with a high school assignment to build a circuit to re-encode a bank of switches. The teacher expected a simple diode-based design, but I suggested tossing an embedded computer in, so if the problem changed the solution would be trivial.

Also, of course, the thought of tweaking the instructor was appealing. When Graham got the thing working, the flash of excitement in his eye was a tremendous reward. He built the project, he wrote a little code. And it worked.

That's exactly why I became an engineer.

Engineering is the art of solving problems. "In order to make a machine that does X, I have to figure out how to design some hardware and firmware that does Y." Puzzling out these solutions is both an intellectual challenge and a game. Am I smart enough to do this? What will I have to invent?

Problem solving is its own reward. But it's not enough, for me at least. I want to make something that works. Not push paper, not write proposals, not document someone else's creation, though all of those tasks are an inescapable and wearisome part of this profession.

But I want the thrill of seeing the motor turn, the LEDs blink, or a message marqueeing across the display. No doubt that "I made that work" satisfaction is rooted somewhere in the same brain center that rewards gamblers and addicts.

A lot of developers work on large projects that take years of effort. More power to them, but I could never do that. I want to see something work, relatively soon. Invent solutions, see them implemented, and move on to the next project. You can have those big government projects that consume entire careers; the thought of being caught in that mill horrifies me. Thankfully others are more patient and will see these efforts through.

I sort of fell into the embedded space as it didn't exist in the late 60s when I was in high school. An obsessive interest in electronics morphed into ham radio, but the important thing to me was always building something. First, learn the material, absolutely. But do start with just an infancy of knowledge and build a small project to get feedback, for fun, and to get a visceral learning that does not come from books.

Later I learned about programming (rather, became consumed with it), and when the first microprocessors came out was accidentally and fortuitously positioned with the right skills and interests.

To me, embedded is the best of all engineering fields. One person can design circuits. Write code. Often figure out the science, or at least its application. And then make something that works.

In the olden days some companies didn't let engineers work on the hardware. Technicians soldered, scoped and instrumented under the direction of an engineer. Screw that - half the fun is working with the hardware!

The irony now is that hardware can be so hard to manipulate - I have a sub-inch-square chip on my desk with 1500 balls on it - that the required special equipment becomes a barrier to that intimate physical manipulation of a circuit that can be so satisfying. If that sounds like some sort of foreplay, well, perhaps there is a connection between those two parts of the brain, too.

What about you? Why did you become an engineer?

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 His website is


The following excerpt of your fine article nicely summarizes why I became an engineer. Also, it summarizes nicely the joy of solving problems and doing new stuff: "... the flash of excitement in his eye was a tremendous reward. He built the project, he wrote a little code. And it worked."

Now ... The following excerpt, (again of your article) Very nicely summarizes what pays the bills, and eventually what most of us wind up doing later in our careers! "... push paper, not write proposals, not document someone else's creation, though all of those tasks are an inescapable and wearisome part of this profession."

... not an inescapable and wearisome ... usually the path to more responsibility, more headaches and inevitably a bit more money!

- Ken Wada

Wait, didn't finish the story about your son's project and the teacher's reaction. I remember my first project...two decade counters and BCD to seven-segment mother wasn't impressed..."What does it do? It just counts?"

- Vernon Davis

I owe my embedded engineering career to a flat bicycle tire....

When I was around 13, I got a flat tire on my bicycle. I had to walk my bike all the way to the repair shop. On my way, I happened to pass by a news stand that was selling a new magazine called "My Computer" (a 12-book encyclopedia sold weekly by issues, in a 2-year period, back in 1984). I had no idea was a computer was... I got curious... ask my parents and they help me buy it.

Every week I was anxious to get the new issue and read every single article (programming, applications, hardware, etc). Then one day I asked myself: How does a computer really does its operations.? This lead med to the electronics field (and/or/not gates and so on).

I ended up getting a Master's Degree in Electronic Engineering, and currently working as an embedded software designed.

Some days I wonder what would have happened if I hadn't got that flat tire...

- Alexander Ribero

I think "become" might be a problem. From what I've seen over the past 25 years, most of the best engrs were "born" with the wiring already there. Like you, their hobbies turned into careers.

I think "nurtured into the profession" is probably a more accurate rendering, at least for me. My father bought (for himself to help with bookkeeping he did) a TRS-80 Model I Level 1 when they first came out, then quickly upgraded it to "real" computer (Level 2). Within a year we were doing assembly language, and by the time I was out of high school I was making add-ons and OS extensions and applications to use them.

College was just the place to get a formal understanding of what was going on, of knowing the theory behind what I was already doing, and learning more theory for what was coming soon. It's been a marvelously interesting life - creating needs to fulfill, making gadgets to fill them, and seeing my own stuff "come to life."

And now, sharing that with at least one of my boys who just learned that Xandros has a command line prompt ...

- Andy Kunz

Wow! It's uncanny how your experience so closely parallels my own. Perhaps it's typical for our generation. I was bitten by the electronics bug when I was in the 5th grade. A friend of mine (the resident "brainiac/ nerd" type) was seriously into electronics and had project kits, radios and project books in his room. He gave me one of his project books and I was off and running. That was back when electronic projects were comprised of an aluminum chassis with "solder lug strips". Is that what they were called? They were phenolic strips with a mounting bracket to secure them to the chassis and a row of metal lugs with holes through which you would pass the leads of discrete components for soldering together. With parts from Lafayette Electronics I created my own "alarm system" with indicator lamps and relays that looked like something from the bridge of the Enterprise off of an early episode of Star Trek. I actually think the prop makers for that show used the same indicator lamps I'd chosen for my system. In high school I was exposed to digital electronics and played with my first J-K flip flop from Radio Shack in a TO-39 package! I made shift registers flash rows of LED's and built a digital clock kit but it wasn't until night courses for programming did I realize what I really wanted. A Heathkit 6800 Microprocessor Trainer, HEX codes, embedded debuggers, then S-100 bus and CP/M, assembly language, serial communications and finally "c" have led me down my career path of embedded programming and I've never looked back. I, like you, still thrill to making hardware "work". That first blink of the LED or that first character on the screen still satisfies in a child like way. While so many other things have changed in the world of electronics, the need to move a motor or activate a conveyor pusher or energize a relay or indicator lamp still motivates me to get out of bed in the morning as much today as ever. Does that make me a nut-bag? Nah, just an engineer.

- Stephen Ciricillo

It was better than experimenting on rats. Computers don't bleed.

- Bruce Levkoff

I flipped coin... heads engineer, tails brain surgeon.

- Steve King

After writing C-code for LabWindows to control the electron optics of a Free Electron Laser at Bell Labs, I migrated to developing the BSP for an ATM module in a fiber-to-the-home network. What a thrill to watch the PowerPC come to life and have text come out of the PS-232 port t MY command. Now I work on large government projects making hundreds of source files compile and link so the Integration and Test team can do their thing. I was recently promoted to a manager and I am starting to miss the hands-on work already.

You are right... I crave the ability to be creative. I relish the chance to be a detective to find the hidden defect. I am thrilled by the ah-ha moments when some obscure bug or anomaly is uncovered. THAT is engineering!

Now back to the paper...

- Rob Chichester

I'm inclined to agree with Andy K. I was pulling watches and clocks apart, poking my nose where it shouldn't be at about age 5. I found electronics at about age 10. I was building stuff a few years later and got into an electronics class in high school... and caught a lot of grief from my guidance councelor for taking a "shop class" when I was college bound. Well, same guy who didn't want me to take a typing class.

I think engineers are born this way (at least it saves me from creating excuses) but need to be nurtured.

- Steve Nordhauser

I became an engineer to solve problems. After I was a manager for 2 years with 4 full time software engineers, and 2 contract software engineers, and 2 hard ware engineers all reporting to me. I left the company to develop software for imaging, I have always remember my experience as a manager, and never have gone back.. To be sure I enjoy , ENJOY mentoring, talking co-solving problems with other engineers, but I always remember the poster on the model makers wall when i was just out of college. A person is on a toilet, and the caption reads "The job is not done until the paperwork is done". I keep this in mind when I have to write specifications, user manuals, DICOM Conformance statements, correct any of the previous from others. My atitude for paperwork is the same atitude I have when doing stuff I enjoy, leave a great legacy for someone to enjoy, and ask yourself; "Am I proud to have my name attached to this device, paper, document, or software ?"

- Steven LEach

My first experience was a Bell Labs demo of a laser in my 5th grade science class in 1968. I just had to know how that worked and I wanted one of my own. After that I started rummaging thru neighborhood trash cans looking for anything electronic. Ah, the good old days of vacuum tubes. Then mowing lawns to get money to buy the Radio Shack electronics kits at $2-5 each. I never looked back or considered doing anything else. I love making inanimate objects come to life.

I do have my own lasers now.

Also, he could have done that project with an EPROM, simpler, faster and more reliable.

- Bill Mills

I've always believed you don't choose to be an engineer, it chooses you.

- Bruce E

I started off adding LED torches and 555 timer blinky lights (Fireplaces) to my LEGO castles growing up. I knew the LEDs would only light up one way, but I didn't know why at the time. I was also encouraged to become and Electrical Engineer buy an older Computer Engineer who taught my C programming class in High School.

- Eric Holland

Thanks for the great article. Indeed, the biggest joy of being an Engineer is when I can say "I made that work". But I would disagree with you a little bit on the part of "documenting, writing proposals" etc. This is an integral part of "Engineering". For example, documenting some one else's creation does teach you how to do things and also how not to do things. For youngsters coming into Embedded Engineering careers a more encouraging message would be to consider each part of the project with equal importance. [That is probably the difference between Engineering as a hobby and career]

- Satheesh Sadanand

When I was 10 my Dad gave me a Radio Shack "10-in-1 Electronics Kit" for Christmas. It was such a rush to hook up a bunch of wires to spring terminals and actually create cool things. Morse code buzzers, light flashers, even radios that ran without batteries, wow!

Life as I knew it would never be the same. Before long I had wired my tree house with trip wires and an intercom. Nothing containing electronics was safe from my voracious curiosity, although I was better at taking things apart than putting them back together, sorry Dad.

Is engineering built into us when we are born? I think definitely yes. When asked if I enjoyed my first merry-go-round ride, I proceeded to explain to my Mom how the big gears made the horses go up and down. It's just built in. I couldn't be an accountant if I tried.

All kids have innate curiosity. By adulthood, most loose it. Somehow engineers retain it.

I do wonder about the next generation. I see a lot of gray hair at embedded systems seminars. Will my kids retain their curiosity? Will they pursue engineering? How will they pay a quarter-of-a-million dollars for college? After they earn a degree, will there be any engineering jobs left in America?

Kids are astonished when I describe a childhood with no VCRs, cable TV, video games, PCs, Internet, cell phones, iPods, seat belts, or tricycle helmets. My generation had to play outside (gasp), use our imagination, design our own games, and build our own tree houses and bike jumps from scrap wood. These were real accomplishments, requiring no false praise to boost our self-esteem. A well designed bike jump yields success, while poorly designed ones yield scrapes and bruises. Instant feedback! Extreme design!

- Paul L

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