Engineering: Career or calling?
In a recent blog by Colin Walls, he ruminates about his decision to become an engineer, a decision he's pretty pleased with after many years in the field. (I'm not sure how many, though he cites being of "a certain age".)
A recent "5 Engineers" blog post on EDN.com (which I can't find) netted a lot of comments from those unhappy -- sometimes desperately unhappy -- with their careers. That's a theme at least as old as the microprocessor.
Yes, this profession has its problems. The mad rush to inflate this week's profits means work goes overseas, or to low-paid local workers. A relative lost his job this month; he is a hardware/software engineer who had worked for a large defense contractor for a third of a century. I wish him well, but imagine a long, probably fruitless, search for work in his field. Despite the equal opportunity laws, it's very difficult for an engineer over 50 to get a job.
Another relative is a mechanical engineer who hates his civilian job with the Navy. When I asked why he doesn't leave, he said that he never has to work overtime. An awful lot of companies demand more than 40 hours work for that 8 hour/day paycheck.
Employers consider engineers fungible. "I can get two newbies for the price of this old fart!" Or they use mass layoffs when business turns down, figuring there will be no problem restaffing later. We learned the folly of that after the dot-com crash, but it seems each generation has to painfully relearn old lessons.
With a few rare exceptions, this career won't make you rich. Salaries top out rather quickly and then often don't track the cost of living. But comparatively speaking, we do pretty well. The average family income in the USA is $50.5k. That's for the entire household. My 2012 salary survey found that with 15 years experience a US engineer will make double that.
Like Colin, I, too, am of "a certain age." After a 40-year (so far) EE career, I remain just as excited and delighted by engineering as ever. Many of my friends are talking about retiring. (That's all some of them are thinking about.) Not me. It's too much fun to give up. I have a number of other passions, but working on an embedded problem is much more intellectually challenging than reefing a sail.
It's cool to build stuff. Even better is to see your design go into production. I like straddling the worlds of firmware and hardware; each has its fascination, but in conjunction they have a synergy that is completely compelling.
Colin found his calling early, as did I. Like many, I was fascinated with taking stuff apart. And later putting it all back together. Eventually that morphed to putting something together from a bin full of parts.
Some people complain about the effort needed to stay current in this quickly-changing field. Yet, to me, that's one of the best parts of engineering.
Being of "a certain age" my wife and I go to more funerals than weddings, and increasingly attend to family and friends in their last weeks. It's natural to wonder what one would do given an unhappy short-term prognosis. I'm pretty convinced, though only time will tell, there will be a stack of engineering, science, and math books in my hospital room.
How about you? Has your career been satisfying?
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, and works as an expert witness on
embedded issues. Contact him at email@example.com. His website is