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Non-Degreed Engineers

Published in EDN, August, 1996


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A friend went away to college at age 18, for the first time leaving home behind. A scholarship program lined his pockets with cash, enough to pay for tuition, room, and board for a full year.

A few months later he was out, expelled for non-payment of all fees, and a GPA that rivaled those of the students in Animal House. The money somehow turned into parties, parties that kept him a long way from class.

Today he's a successful mechanical engineer. With no degree he managed to apprentice himself to a startup, and to parley that job into others where his skills showed through, and where enlightened bosses gave him the title and the work he's so adept at.

Over the years I've known others with similar stories, many of which ended on not-so-happy notes. The draft during the Vietnam era was, in a way, a tough burden for many smart people. They came back older, perhaps with families they had to support, and somehow never made it back to college. Many of these people became technicians, bringing their military training to a practical civilian use. Some managed to work themselves up to engineering status. Others were not so lucky.

Another acquaintance breezed through MIT on a full scholarship. Graduating with a feeling that his prestigious scholarship made him very special he started working in aerospace. The company put him on the production line for six months, riveting airplanes together. In those days 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. I've always thought this an especially enlightened way to introduce new graduates to the harsh realities of the physical world.

Most of today's new engineering graduates do have some experience with tools and methods. Schools now have them build things, test things, and in general act like a real engineer. Still, it seems the practical aspects are subjugated to theoretical ones. 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.

Experience is a critical part of the engineering education, one that's pretty much impossible to impart in the environment of a university. 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 more hands-on experience than most of their BSEE-laden bosses.

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.

Some companies won't let engineers touch a product. A tech is the developer's hands and senses. Though the engineer knows more about what the system should do, I imagine the techs have a deeper understanding of what it does do.

Too many of us view our profession parochially, somehow feeling that college is the only route to design. Part of this probably stems from the education itself, where instructors without doctorates cannot become full professors. Some comes from our fascination with honors and fancy certificates. Doctors and lawyers plaster degrees and awards over the walls to impress clients! which implies that we, the public, are indeed impressed by these paper kudos.

These same doctors and lawyers have very effective professional associations that limits entry in the field only to those people with a degree - from a school approved by the association. It's a clever way to maximize salaries via anti-competitive measures.

Electronics is very different. We're in a much younger 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?

School Skills

And yet, our creations get more complex every day. A 1975-era embedded system pushed the edge of technology at 4 MHz, yet required little of the theoretical knowledge we got in college. One needed the ability to read a data book, the experience to know how to create circuits, and the ability to make the silly thing work.

Today's designs are different. We battle Maxwell's equations every time we propagate a fast signal more than a few inches. Our products' algorithms rely on Fourier Transforms and other advanced mathematical concepts. After resisting all of the math they fed us, now I feel a little bit like the teenager coming of age - our professors, like our parents, were right after all!

Other neglected parts of a college education are becoming important. One of the most crucial: writing skills. Engineers are notoriously poor communicators, yet we're the folks building the communications age. After decades of decline, writing has assumed a new importance in the form email. We're judged by our composition skills every time we toss off a message.

Of course, few engineering programs focus on writing. It's as if the intent is to produce development androids without the skills needed to "interface" with the rest of the world.

Occasionally we hear talk of turning engineering education into more of a vocational program. Train students to design systems and nothing else! The model fits well into the 90s frenetic preoccupation with getting results today, and the future be damned. If we agree that a tech, who has a VoTech-like education, could be a good engineer, then perhaps there's value to revolutionizing our schools.

Yet, I worry for the future of our profession. Several forces are shaping profound and scary changes.

The first is simply the breathtaking rate of change. Every 3 years or so it seems we're in a totally new sort of technology. This will only accelerate, which means the engineer of the future will either have a 3 year long career, or will become adept at anticipating the change and at embracing change. More than anything it means we have to re-educate ourselves daily. By reading EDN today you're working on your future.

Yet I talk to engineers everyday who spend little to no time keeping current.

Time to market is another force that will change the profession. When designing a product there's no time to learn how to do it, or to master the product's technology. Companies want experts now. Yet how can you be an expert at new technology? This is one reason we see so many consultants working in development efforts - they (effectively or otherwise) bring new knowledge to bear immediately. Enlightened management will find a way to transfer this knowledge to the core employees. Sadly, too many can't see beyond getting the product out the door, never investing in growing their skill sets.

Finally, we see a serious pigeon-holing of skills. Are you good at x? Then do x! Do it forever! We can always get a new kid to work on the next project - after all, you're the x expert!

The complexity of software will only make this worse. Design a product, get it out the door, and there's a good chance you'll be involved in its maintenance forever.

You've got to take charge of your career. Manage it. Keep learning and stretching your skill set.

But I wonder how many techs-turned-engineers have the background to keep up in this rapidly advancing world. Similarly, I wonder how many college-educated designers remember enough math to understand what's going on. I did a survey recently of several graduate engineers. None could integrate a simple function. None remembered much about the transfer function of a transistor. Though these were digital folks who work with ICs, does this mean that the background and the theory drummed into them so long ago is worthless?

Does it imply only the youngest, those who haven't had time to forget, should work on the newest and the most complex systems?

I wish I knew the answer. I've tried not to discriminate on the basis of a degree, having had some wonderful experiences with very smart, very hard working people who became engineers by the force of their will. But over time I see fewer of these. More and more resumes are filled with BS, CS, several minors, one or more masters, and the like. There's a competitive pressure that raises the stakes in job seeking. If one degree is good, we seem to think more is better.

Clearly, any large organization will screen non-degreed people out before they can demonstrate their (possibly) outrageous abilities.

Engineering is a very diverse discipline. We need thinkers and doers, inventors and implementers, designers and troubleshooters. Sometimes one person contains all of these skills, though more often a team comes together to complement each others' skills. The whole is greater than the parts.

When it's time to hire most of us look for the standard requirements, probably including some sort of degree. I like to use the SWAN model: Smart, Works hard, Ambitious, and Nice. Though hard to gauge at an interview, these qualities almost guarantee a decent worker. When hiring a non-entry-level person, the SWAN model, coupled with what they've done in the past, is a far better indicator of success than any sheepskin.

Conclusion

As someone who rejects our fascination with form over substance, I think that good, non-degreed engineers are a valuable asset only a fool would reject. However, not getting a degree is clearly a mistake. One just cannot compete in the job market without this prerequisite.

I know - I dropped out of college three courses short of a BSEE.

For older folks who, by circumstance or bad planning did not complete college, look at other degree options. Check out High Technology Degree Alternatives, by Joel Butler, (ISBN 0-912045-61-2) 1994, Professional Publications. It's full of ideas about getting a degree without quitting your job or spending a lot of money.

 

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