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By Jack Ganssle

Why Did You Become an Engineer?

Summary: Fame, money or fun? Why did you become an engineer?

There's a mildly interesting article about getting kids into engineering at sister site EETimes (http://eetimes.com/news/latest/showArticle.jhtml;?articleID=223000196 ). As of this writing there are two responses; the one from betajet is both very well written and extremely insightful. He laments that engineering in the USA is a dead-end career, but writes about how his childhood obsession with knowing how things work drove him to this calling.

It's fun to ask people why they chose this path. Some answers get quite involved. With me it was and is simple: I like to make stuff. As a kid it was all about banging nails into boards. Then it was forts in the back yard, which became such an obsession my grandfather regularly hauled salvaged boards over for me. Around 8 years old, oh happy day, my dad gave me his old electric drill. What havoc I wreaked with that aluminum-cased Craftsman!

We moved to Maryland two years later and I claimed a small corner of the basement for a "lab." Pretty soon people were asking me to repair their TVs, an easy task then when most of the problems were bad tubes. The drug store tube tester was just a short bike ride away. Ironically, after a lifetime in electronics I doubt I could repair a modern TV given the mass of high-integration chips.

The TVs were a treasure trove for parts and pretty soon my friends and I were building vacuum tube amplifiers and Morse code ham radio gear. My best-ever contact on the radio was when the FCC picked up my second harmonic clear across the country. Their stern notice led to some modifications to the transmitter, but I was so proud of a 3000 mile contact I pinned the official letter on the wall next to the other QSL cards (postcards hams mailed to each other to confirm a contact).

We built rockets. Rebuilt engines, cars, eventually boats. Various projects led to the use of transistors and ICs; by late high school there was no doubt that my major would be electrical engineering, a term that still sounds odd to me. Shouldn't it be "electronic engineering?"

Why EE? Simply because it was so much fun to build stuff, and the EEs I knew used a soldering iron as much as a drafting table (uh, for the younger readers, we used "pencils" and "vellum" before the CAD era). Designing circuits was an intellectual challenge, and working with my hands on the prototypes satisfied my need to build stuff.

A very close friend, also an embedded developer, recommended "Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work," which I have ordered. The book's thesis is apparently that working with one's hands connects us in important ways to the world around us. I hear he dismisses cube dwellers for their disdain of the trades. But we engineers, prime examples of white collar office workers, make stuff. It could be an iPod or a well-crafted ISR. Maybe specialists assemble the circuits due to the high-density SMT. But turning an idea into a device, picking up the scope probe or loading the debugger to make it work, and then seeing a product emerge, is a hugely satisfying endeavor. What do you think? Why did you become an engineer?

Published February 19, 2010