Education / Minutiae · November 9, 2005

On fire

He came into the office nervously, and was invited to sit. He carried a simple folder from which he pulled copies of his resume.

Two people conducted the interview, an engineering manager and an engineer. Who were these people? It doesn’t matter. Who was the applicant? That doesn’t matter either.

After pleasantries were taken care of the manager and engineer examined their notes on the applicant while the applicant tried to seem comfortable in a suit that had seen little use.

There was something wrong with the applicant – glaringly wrong. The engineer frowned.

“So let me get this straight – you graduated with your degree in Electrical Engineering five years ago?”

“That’s right.”

“And you’ve been working for our company since graduation?”

“Uh huh”

“What do you do for us?”

After further questioning the engineer determines that the applicant has been working in product assembly, assembling items that couldn’t be put together in an automated fashion. The skills required for this job are so basic that the company could use anyone in this position. The applicant is at the bottom of the wage scale for the company.

“So why did you apply for the product assembly job five years ago?” The manager asked. “Why didn’t you apply to be an engineer?”

“I did apply for engineering – but the company wasn’t hiring engineers back then. I applied for assembler thinking that perhaps I could be promoted within the company at a later date.” At this point it becomes obvious that the applicant is frustrated, but hiding it well.

“Five years ago there were plenty of jobs in Silicon Valley or in other parts of the state for qualified Electrical Engineers – did you look for work elsewhere?”

“All my family is here – I didn’t want to move away from my and my wife’s parents. They’ve been a big help in taking care of our kid when we need a babysitter – and we’ve helped them out too.”

The engineer looks over the resume again. Education wise, the applicant is okay – his grades are acceptable, but nothing seems to stand out.

“Did you work in the internship program while in college?” The engineer asks.

“No, I wanted to but I just never seemed to have the time for it.”

“Can you tell me about your senior project?”

A senior project for engineering students is a good way to distinguish them. A good senior project will be difficult, requiring the engineering student to stretch and learn. It can be a badge of pride. Students are allowed to do a project alone, or in conjunction with a partner or several partners.

Working on a senior project together with a partner can force two students to challenge each other – or it can cause all kinds of grief when one student doesn’t work as hard as the other.

In discussing the applicant’s senior project, the engineer and the manager realize that the applicant didn’t learn very much out of it, although his partner may have. There wasn’t much enthusiasm by the applicant toward this project either.

So far, the applicant seems to be less than adequate for the position.

“What kinds of things have you worked on since graduation?” Asked the manager. “Have you designed anything?”

The applicant shakes his head no. “I don’t have the tools to design anything – Computer Aided Design software is expensive, and I don’t have any test equipment. An oscilloscope is way too expensive. Also, with my job here, and my family, I just don’t have the time.”

The engineer and the manager exchange a glance. Disappointed, the engineer gives the applicant one final chance.

“What are your hobbies?”

“Well,” frowns the applicant, “I like to fish. I work around the house. Play Nintendo. I also work out.”

The final nail has been driven into his coffin – the interview is over with only closing comments to be made.

It was such a waste. Why did the applicant even bother to get a degree that he never used? His excuses were only a cover – the truth was that he didn’t want to be an engineer. He had no love for it – no fire.

Expensive design software? I’ve designed complex projects using nothing more than a pencil and graph paper. Also there are companies that give away CAD software, a simple Google search will uncover them. Lack of an oscilloscope and other expensive equipment? All you really need is ingenuity and a ten-dollar volt-ohm meter.

How do you know when you’re an engineer?

It’s like how you know you are anything. If you can’t keep yourself from playing an instrument, you’re a musician; if you can’t stay away from dancing then you’re a dancer. An artist is someone that just can’t help drawing something whenever a pencil or pen is in his hand.

If you have a need to take apart everything you own, just to see what makes it tick, then you’ve got engineering in your blood. If you can put it back together again, or make it better than it used to be, then you are already an engineer – you just need the required schooling to give you the proper tools to do what you are already doing.

If you love something, you’re on fire for it. It shows in everything you do. You breathe it and live it. This is especially important in the field of engineering where things change so quickly – if you don’t live in this world your skills quickly become outdated.

If this applicant wanted to impress, he would have explained how he takes apart electronic toys in his garage – how a broken TV at the side of the road would make him stop and scavenge for parts. He would be involved in making, designing, learning, or keeping up with technology. He’d subscribe to, or at least read in the library, magazines such as Circuit Cellar, Nuts and Volts, or Electronics Design.

He doesn’t even read Popular Mechanics.

Why is he frustrated? He thinks he is frustrated because someone won’t give him a job.

But I know the real reason.

He’s frustrated because he wasted a lot of school to learn a career that he doesn’t love.

What a waste.