Disclaimer: I speak with the naivety of a third year undergraduate trying desperately to make sense of his impending professional demise.
There is something that really bugs me on the college campus, particularly in mechanical engineering communities. Bright, motivated freshmen, when asked why they are interested in pursuing mechanical engineering as a major, often say the same thing:
“I like to work with my hands.”
In recent days I have reflected on the huge disparity between the fast-paced, excitement-filled project courses in engineering programs and the mundane, menial tasks that real engineers do on a day-to-day basis all around the world. I’ve come to the conclusion that, quite frankly, college is one large, clever disillusion. We pay tens of thousands of dollars to receive a higher education and bear witness to four years of wonder in the variety and depth of our immersion into science, math, engineering, teamwork, and leadership, only to be kicked out the back door with a diploma that admits us into companies and corporations where, alas, that magic of the classroom is nowhere to be found. Instead of working on weekly problem sets filled with diverse problems, you’re forced to implement a single solution to an already-understood problem multiple times every day for ten years. Or, instead of brainstorming brilliant new ideas with prototypes in your hands, you’re forced to sit in front of a computer and model a part that has already been designed for you, that you simply have to detail and inspect.
I cannot say that I have lots of credibility in this matter, but I have definitely experienced both sides of the coin, as well as talked to many engineers who have to a greater degree, and the story is always the same. It’s not fun anymore. It’s not changing anymore. I don’t love it anymore. I ask, what’s the big difference between a college student’s perception of his or her future job, and the reality? They always go back to that same statement, that same painful misconception. I like to work with my hands. Everybody likes to make things, to discover new ideas, to shape, to form, to create something out of nothing. But this does not happen – almost ever – for about 99% of professionals in any engineering industry. No, most of us are doomed to work from 9 to 5 on someone else’s idea, on somebody else’s design, with clearly defined tasks to complete every single day, every single week, on top of repetitive meetings that get nowhere, billions of emails, distressing evaluations, and carpel tunnel syndrome.
There’s only one thing you are bound to do, and you will do that almost endlessly. In fact, I think I will just go ahead and get to the fact of the matter.
“As an engineer, your future job will have nothing to do with using your hands, or making things. Your job will be based entirely on the use of a computer.”
And these are the three things you will most likely do at your future job, on your future computer:
If you’re a mechanical engineer, guess what? No post-its, or paper prototypes for you. You will be working on CAD 8+ hours a day. If you’re a chemical engineer, don’t expect to be mixing toxic chemicals and watching things explode. You’re going to be sitting on your ass and modeling those reactions on a digital interface for 8+ hours a day. If you’re a civil engineer, you will be doing exactly what I did for two months in New York, in a field office for a construction project: writing requests for information, modeling, and writing emails for 8+ hours a day. When my peers often ask me what engineering they should pursue, I tend to answer that it doesn’t matter: you’re going to be using the same machine anyway.
There are safe havens left. Electrical engineering, while seemingly the most repetitive and mundane of the four mentioned already, actually still thrives on a hands-on approach to designing and testing circuits in the workplace (although the modeling tools are slowly taking over). Bioengineering holds on to some of the thrill of the lab environment, something that chemical engineering gave up long ago. But even there we see movement towards computer software and a desensitization to the tactile product, to creativity.
Then what’s the solution? Engineers in colleges all around the world are holding desperately onto the thrill of innovation, of ideas that change every week, of projects fully realized and goals fully understood. What kind of job can they find that will keep the dream alive, the inspiration overflowing?
“The answer is computer science.”
Ironically, the engineering profession closest to the computer is the one that breaks free of its constraints and gives engineers true freedom. The mastery of this tool allows you to overcome it, to wield it to your own design. And the scale of projects in the profession are dramatically smaller than just about every other engineering profession. Look at Facebook, and its incredible growth. You would never find that kind of fast, game-changing innovation in the lab of a chemical engineer, or the machine shop of a mechanical engineer. It’s because those projects bring in too many people, too many resources, and too many interests. Computer science is simple: you have a problem, you solve it simply with text, and you test it often instantaneously.
And so imagine yourself working at a small start-up, or in a lead position of a mid-sized software company, discovering new opportunities every day, keeping your knowledge and skills fresh, finding the kind of beautiful problems that keep you up all night, every night. While other engineers have found themselves cheated by the beautiful business of higher education and working at repetitive tasks they deem to be manual labor, your fingers are flowing in new directions every second, and learning all the time. Their minds trace back to dreams of paper prototypes and hand models and colorful post-it notes. All the inspiration you need is on the next line of code. It’s not a job, anymore. It’s a career.
To be honest, there are great jobs everywhere, in every field and in every company. They’re called design jobs. The key is this: unless you have creative power, you will never truly be happy in your profession like you were happy as a student. There is just no way to keep the spark of innovation alive, working on realizing somebody else’s idea. And so pushing to that goal is the way to go. Only problem is, there are so few of these jobs, and the vast majority of others are in servitude to the few and proud. And the road to those positions are long, daunting, and complex. Not with computer science. Grab a laptop and learn on your own. Watch videos, take notes. Take the free computer science classes offered at Stanford this year. No laboratory need, no machine shop required. Hey look, those were just disguises of freedom for those engineers, after all. The real engineering is not in your hands, or at your fingertips, but in your head, the creative spark, the language of communication and implementation. If you want to make beautiful products, don’t settle for an engineering position with Apple. Become the chief designer. And if you think that’s too lofty of a goal, go to a smaller company where you can be designer. Or just start your own. Wherever you decide to work, just make sure you are an engineer that doesn’t just solve problems, but discovers them.
“And that’s how to make yourself truly indispensable.”