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Technician Vipperman considers becoming an engineer.
It was 1983. I was working with another contractor on a job for a large company. We were designing a wafer probing system to characterize the output of a new gallium arsenide wafer fab. Working there with the regular employees, I became friends with many and enjoyed the several months I had with them, but I was considering what to do after that job expired.
Then I saw an ad in the newspaper for a test engineer in a different division of the same company, but actually right across the hall from the clean room where I worked. I applied and was granted an interview.
The day of the interview, I was working on the wafer probing system as usual, so I just took off my bunny suit, walked across the hall and introduced myself. It turned out that the job they had in mind for me was not test engineer (as advertised), but a technician job calibrating scopes and meters. I inquired about the discrepancy and the interviewer politely told me that I could not be considered for an engineering position because I had no four-year engineering degree. So I thanked him for his time, walked back across the hall, put on my bunny suit and continued my engineering work at an engineer's pay.
Are you an electronic technician who would like to become an electrical engineer, willing to do the work and study to achieve that goal? Good! Many do it every year, and in many ways. I did it right inside a company that refused to hire non-degreed engineers. Knowing my work but not my education, one MSEE there even asked where I did my graduate studies.
This article series is for techs who desire the title and responsibilities of engineer, and are willing to put in the hard work to obtain it. I will describe the engineering job, what's required to get there, and what's required to stay there.
You have a great future ahead. I have heard often that the best engineers are the ones who were first technicians. They get the job done, regardless the problem. They know which end of a soldering iron is hot, how to use a scope, and they have great detective abilities. With the addition of an engineer's general background they are unstoppable for one reason: they are successful.
From the outset I am assuming that you want to be an engineer for the right reason -- you love electronics. If you want to be an engineer just to take home a bigger paycheck, you should be working on your real estate or insurance license, or working for a non-profit company (a dot-com). Those afflicted with and addicted to electronics, read on.
Good Engineers Practice Fire Prevention
Just to establish my position before the flame emails start pouring in, I think that the best route to the title 'engineer' is the BSEE degree. However, not all will choose that path, and there are other paths. As a preemptive measure, I will now state the objections of the large group of engineers who wince at the thought of anyone gaining the title 'engineer' without obtaining a BSEE degree from Big Name U. In the following paragraph, select one or all of the options in [square brackets] as the mood moves you.
"It [burns my biscuits] [toasts my transistors] [makes me really mad] that some [low life] [ignorant] [gen-x] [low IQ] [calculator toting] technician could be called engineer without having the proper education. I worked [hard] [really hard] [super mega hard] in engineering school [sleeping only 4 hours a night] [holding down two jobs] [flipping burgers] [being a co-op student]. The experience of the technician counts for [little] [nothing] [less than nothing]. If he does not earn the title [the way I did it] [the canonical way] [by paying his dues], the he does not deserve the title."
Don't we all feel better now? If you are just itching to launch a flame war, please refrain as we have read all that before in the IEEE editorial columns. Your core exhortations to techs to earn a BSEE are noted, applauded, and admirable.
On the other hand, if you are a technician looking for an easy title upgrade, you do not have my encouragement, either. There is no substitute for knowledge, experience and wisdom, not even a degree. Certainly not a title. You might even get the title before you are ready. There are lots of MBA engineering managers who have never designed a working product, and they are ready to promote anyone to engineer who can make them look good. If this happens to you, start working fast on your knowledge base because you are in a very dangerous position.
Since I have just dissed half my readers, who then has my encouragement? The tech who has the right attitude and is ready for loads of study and hard work. With that and some experience you can get the title, the fame and the fortune. Well, maybe just the title.
In the next section, we will define the terms engineer and technician, and after that we will look at what an engineer needs to know and do, and how to get from here to there. Your training and experience as a technician is an excellent starting point. That plus a well thought out plan of action has launched many a successful engineering career. But remember, there are no short cuts!
The process of making technicians and engineers is similar, but the course material is quite different.
To continue, and just so we all use the same terms, I present a couple definitions.
What Is A Technician?
Let's start with what you as a tech already know. A technician typically has a two-year Associates degree from a junior college, or a technical degree or certificate from a military, trade or specialized training school. The quality of education varies widely among technicians, depending on where they train. The military trains many technicians and the ones I have worked with know their stuff pretty well. I think it has to do more with boot camp than tech school. The military used to teach electron flow instead of conventional current flow, and that was one point of confusion for some techs. (Does the military still teach that?) As with engineers, the functional, on-the-job quality of the technician is only loosely related to the quality of his (or 'her' in all that follows) formal education.
Job duties for a tech include maintenance, repair, field work, and for engineering technicians, building prototypes of new designs and products. A good tech can take a sketch and build it and debug it without much help from the engineer. That is why a good technician is worth his weight in gold. He allows the design engineer greater freedom from the bench while performing challenging work in his own right.
What Is An Engineer?
An electrical engineer on the other hand is typically educated in a college or university, obtaining a Bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering, Electrical Engineering Technology (more on that later), or a related area. There is not as much variation in the format of educational programs for engineers as for technicians, but sadly there is just as much variation in quality of the result. More sadly, most victim engineers do not realize until years later they received a substandard education. There is a huge difference between an A grade engineer and a C grade engineer, though both of their business cards read the same.
Of late there is a trend toward the Computer Engineering degree. This is a curriculum that is lighter on the analog side, fields and waves, radio theory, and possibly some basic sciences. That hole is filled with more study in computer hardware and software. I will consider the BSEE and Computer Engineering degrees equivalent for the sake of our discussion, though you will prefer one or the other path. As an aside, watch out for those who argue that digital is better than analog, or communications better than power, etc. Find your area of interest and excel in it.
The main difference between the engineering and technician curriculums is the theoretical development of the material. For example, technicians need not know exactly why the semiconductors are doped a certain way. They only need know how they function in a circuit. However, engineers must be aware of the theoretical design details of each electronic component to fulfill their design duties to the fullest.
Though engineers have some coursework in the pure sciences, (chemistry, physics, biology) and considerable coursework in math, the engineering curriculum is considered 'applied' by the scientific community. Thus, you will find that scientists and mathematicians look down upon engineers as lacking theoretical background just as engineers look down on technicians in that way. I suppose politicians consider the scientists who work for them inferior as well. Isn't there always a bigger fish in the pond?
What Background Does An Engineer Need?
Assuming you are a technician, what additional background do you need? You may be surprised, but engineering and technician educations are different from the ground up. You will have to go back to the basics and effectively start over. It is a matter of depth of study in each area. But take courage! Your background gives you an excellent advantage because in most areas you will be adding to what you already know, though in some areas you will be breaking new ground. To the green engineering student, everything electronic is new, but you have a framework of understanding to build upon. You also already know how to study. Having a technician background myself, I found that I could burn through engineering courses with much less pain and agony than the other students.
Though we will not dwell too much on specific EE course material here, you can find an outline of a typical curriculum from Virginia Tech, a mid-tier engineering school at their web site. Shooting for the top of the class? Then check out Stanford's requirements. Compare those programs with the popular electronics technician program from DeVry. (You'll have to dig for the requirements because the PhD's keep moving the relevant pages!) Many universities offer EE courses online and post their requirements and assignments on the web. You might find the web site of an engineering school near you and check out the course work to get an idea of what you are up against.
Reading the requirements for an EE degree, you will certainly see some courses you could ace right now. Much of the liberal arts course work may be satisfied by your prior schooling. You need to ask a college counselor to be sure. Courses transferred from an accredited junior college are usually worth more in transfer credit than those taken in a technical school. When determining what will transfer and what won't, deal only with an admissions counselor who has the authority to sign the transfer forms. The opinion of your cousin Ernie who when to school with Edison doesn't count.
If you peruse several degree plans from different engineering schools, you will notice some differences. Why is this? One would think that some accreditation body would have boiled the BSEE requirements down to a common set of courses at all schools. The answer is that schools focus on one area more than another. Some dwell on power engineering, others on communications or fiber optics. The school's strength affects its curriculum, though the basics of engineering are the same just about everywhere. People who have a particular area of interest find the best researchers in that field and attend the school where that work is being done.
Keep in mind that the initial education is only the first step in becoming an engineer. Though you get the title when you get the degree, understand that an engineer in title only is a dangerous thing. I could tell you horrific and humorous stories about new-grad engineers who were too big for their britches. The degree gets you just enough book learning to qualify you to burn up real components on a company payroll, and that's frightening.
Characteristics and actions of a good engineer.
What Skills Does An Engineer Need?
We have been discussing the transformation from technician to engineer. An engineer is a generalist. As such he must be capable of wearing many hats. Here is a short list of skills you must have as an engineer.
Notice that most of these skills require a measure of what you already know as a technician. As an engineer, waiting for a technician to come back from vacation to wire up a prototype will kill your schedule. Getting the job done right means having a superset of the technician's skills, not a different set of skills. That's where many engineers fall short, and where others excel to the level of superhuman reputation.
I did not include in the list the basic requirements of any job. For example, you have to show up on time, be diligent at your work, and have a smile for the boss and your coworkers. As a working tech you already have developed these skills.
How To Make The Transition
The first thing you need to do to become an engineer is to get a degree in electrical engineering. I had to say that to satisfy many readers because there are those who say "You're not an engineer unless your degree says so." Unfortunately, in the real world everyone from trash collectors to train drivers are called engineers, but the devaluation of the title is another discussion.
Notice that I said the 'first thing'. The implied second thing is experience, which will be covered later. I just don't want you to think that the sheep skin magically confers some special wisdom. (Personally, I think that new-grad engineers should be called something else for a few years until they get some experience, but in deference to my email in-box I will not belabor the point. Plumbers do it, why shouldn't we?)
In reality, there are many flavors of electrical engineer, many with respect to both education and experience. With only little experience, your education will determine the best job you can get in industry. Don't believe that you will be running IBM's R&D wing without a politically correct degree. On the other hand, with a Bachelor's degree in just about anything technical and the electronics know-how of a technician, plus engineering-level thinkability, you can land a respected engineering position, just not in a nuclear power plant. There are many shades of engineering work.
Why settle for less than a pure EE degree? Two reasons. First, employers are mainly looking for solutions to real problems. (You won't lend much prestige to the staff with only a BS, whatever your specialty, so count that factor out.) As a technician, you already know how to solve difficult problems in electronics. You need to add to that the theoretical base that enables you to think in general terms and be more creative. If you have that, you can be anything you want (within the law).
The second reason to earn a non-EE degree is that the most convenient technical degree may not be EE. It may be math or computer science or physics, depending on local course offerings, what will transfer from your past education, and how wealthy you are.
Companies also look to broaden their base of expertise. So, if you have a degree in physics with loads of electronic experience, that is attractive in several fields of applied science. There is nothing worse than an EE who doesn't know basic science, and there is nothing better than an EE who knows where electronics fits in the big picture, with the ability to converse in other disciplines.
What about the BSET (BS in Engineering Technology)? Several universities offer this degree, directly transferring Associate's Degree work from junior colleges. The BSET curriculum is typically not as mathematically rigorous as the straight EE program. However, many companies find ET grads to be excellent employees in areas such as test and manufacturing where a lot of high powered design skill is not needed. Just be ready to be the target of some nasty jokes from the 'real' EEs. I have known some BSET grads who were the equal of any EE. The real measure of the engineer is again the person and not the paper.
Why are BSETs disrespected in some companies? Because many pay BSETs just as much as money as BSEEs, which galls the EEs. In fact, I know of one four-year EE program that pressured its sister BSET program out of existence because the ET grads were getting lots of job offers. That darn food chain.
What About Professional Licensure? Go for it! If you can earn a PE license, it can only be to your benefit. You are going to need a lot of experience, study and qualified industry references, though. The Engineer In Training (EIT) certificate is also a plus in your efforts. These steps indicate extreme commitment on your part to the engineering career path. There are several study guides and web sites dedicated to PE licensure. Do some research and see whether this step makes sense for you.
If you enroll in engineering school, you are going to need some help, believe me.
Surviving Engineering School
Let's say you have enrolled part or full time in a local engineering school. How do you survive for the next few years? I'll provide some pointers.
Shortening The Path To A Degree
Seeing as you already have some college credit from your tech schooling (even if only physed), you need to take the fastest, least expensive way to your goal: graduation. Note I am not implying that there are short cuts. But any fully accredited school has some options for compressing your education.
The first option is independent study courses. With these courses, you do the work and study on your own, reading texts and papers, and writing papers or doing other projects to demonstrate your command of the material. There is usually a lot of reading and writing involved, much more than in a traditional class. (I like to write and read so it was no big deal for me.) Such course offerings are exploding because the baby boomers are demanding that they be allowed to finish their degrees while working, paying a mortgage, and shuttling kids to soccer. The benefit to you is no wasted time sitting in traffic to and from class, and no wasted time in lecture while the professor proceeds at the speed of the slowest student.
Some professors are amenable to offering a course as an independent study even though the course is not usually done that way. I took a microcomputer interfacing course that dwelled on basic stuff I had known for years. I asked the professor if I could do a project instead of driving 40 miles one-way to class and he agreed, but on the condition that he could name the project. He chose a scrolling LED display, common today but not then. He seemed shocked when I delivered the working hardware to him at the end of the term. But I got my A and avoided about 2,000 miles on the road!
The second compression option is accelerated courses. I took a whole year of chemistry over one summer and it was wonderful. Every waking moment was filled with radicals, valences, and shells. In fact every sleeping moment was, too. Lecture was in the morning, lab in the afternoon, and in three short months I had fulfilled my chemistry requirement. The course format resulted in a lot less driving (bicycling actually) and zero opportunity to forget the material before the exam.
Some students look forward to taking the summer off. Don't do it! Especially if you are a full time student, use summer offerings to trim some of the load from your regular schedule. As with component failures, it is the peaks that kill you, in this case schedule overloads. Use the summer term to lowpass filter your course load.
Another option is the CLEP, or College Level Examination Program. When you talk with your counsellor you will find that you need to earn your last one or two years of credits directly from that institution. The rest can possibly be taken at a local junior college or you can test-out using CLEP. See their web site for information on ordering the excellent printed study guide.
The CLEP exams cover a wide range of subjects, mostly the basics taught in freshman and sophomore classes. Credit is awarded by your college on a pass/fail basis, and you can take the tests multiple times. With the direction of your college counselor, select degree requirements that can be satisfied by passing CLEP exams. The exams are given monthly or quarterly in most colleges. What's more, the exam will cost you only a fraction of what the college course costs (about $55 per three semester hours where I took them). You still have to study for the test, unless you have a natural interest or ability in the subject. You must learn as much as you would sitting in class anyway, so this too is not a short cut.
The last topic I want to cover here is distance learning. Colleges are realizing that busy adults want an education but the cost is just too high to quit work and go back to school. They are also realizing that there is are massive sums of money straining to be spent on education by these same people. The solution is distance learning. This allows mature people to take courses remotely, either through the mail, via email, over the web, or using videos or other technologies. Travel time and expense is reduced or eliminated, and other costs such as child care are avoided.
I earned a math degree from a fully accredited private liberal arts college in Virginia, Mary Baldwin College. They have been operating a large adult degree program for over twenty years. Once again, the program is fully accredited. Don't waste your money on a non-accredited degree. There are 'colleges' on the web that will email you a degree in anything for $10, so you must be careful. (No one will respect a degree with banner ads, anyway.) The quality of a distance learning program is generally equal to the quality of the on-campus program. No on- campus program? No campus? You figure it out.
Most of the courses I have taken have been of the independent study format, though also offered are tutorials that consist of a dozen or so students. Some professors have required that I drive to campus every so often for a face to face discussion of the material. That kills some time, but on the other hand I get a private tutorial with an expert in the field, and I usually end up exploring some work related area that interests me such as error detecting and correcting codes. Of course, lab courses require the student to be on-site, unless you enjoy dissecting frogs on the kitchen table.
Distance learning (DL) is growing. I did a quick Internet search and got more hits than I could investigate in a week. The best place to start your inquiry is at the nearest college. Talk to a real person in counseling and they will give you some solid leads to investigate.
I suppose it would even be possible to paste together a mosaic degree from several colleges using distance learning. But beware that all respectable institutions have a requirement that you earn all credits for your last one to two years directly from them. I suppose that allows them quality control. And not all courses are alike. Check with your counselor before signing up for a DL course.
Oddly, DL is being accepted faster by students than by administrators. The old guard thinks of education as requiring bricks and mortar, chairs and chalk. Not many are willing to accept that a large proportion of students could do all their work from home and never set foot in a classroom (except for labs). In my city, several local colleges and universities, along with local government, have taken an old office building and rennovated it into classrooms and offices to the tune of $12 million. One of the programs moving into it is my own. This is ridiculous! With distance learning, we should be needing less real estate, not more. But that's the taxpayer in me griping.
Some engineers never obtain an engineering degree, but work their way into an engineering position with a combination of personal study and on the job training. How do you do that?
Experience is not the only factor in such a transition, but the education comes not in a classroom. If you can demonstrate the characteristics of an engineer (see above), and you are personally mature, and you have studied and applied the techniques taught in engineering school, many a company will confer upon you the title of engineer.
However, there are some drawbacks. This transition usually takes many years, and rightly so. You will not be respected by all other, 'real' engineers, even BSETs. Also, technicians moving up to engineer are not paid as well in some cases. Say the employer has an engineering position open, one that does not require a lot of theoretical knowledge. The market says $60,000, but the budget says $45,000. You are being paid $35,000 as a tech. You get the job for $40,000, and take your family out for steak. Your boss takes his boss out for steak. Everybody's happy, but you are making $20,000 less than a 'real' engineer.
If you do the math and consider the time value of money, something taught in engineering school, the income you lose as a technician working up to engineer is quite a lot. It pays to get the degree, if you can. But if you can't, leverage your experience to gain the title. Stay in the job for several years to build up a base of engineering experience before you start shopping for another job.
Many companies have a junior engineer program. This is effectively a career track into engineering. Taking the company's track is smart because it gains their blessing, which expands your job opportunities within the company.
Some companies also pay educational expenses toward a degree. Take advantage of this if you can, because paying for your own education puts a horrible load on any family, reducing your chances of graduation and happiness thereafter. The sheepskin is no fun if it comes with divorce papers. Educational expenses are not always deductible, so speak with your accountant before assuming they are.
In one large company I worked for, the company sponsored engineering students received some great special treatment. They worked on interesting projects and worked for the brightest staff engineers, a big bonus. If you can take this track, go for it.
Augmenting Your Skills
I have known many technicians who have in-depth knowledge about one or more areas and that has landed them good jobs in engineering. For example, being able to write quality, working software and get it running on a system is a valuable skill. The next embedded software engineer position that comes open may have your name on it. If you have an arcane interest in switching power supply design, that may be an inroad for you as such engineers are hard to find. Adding a technical degree to your specialty can be a killer combination. RF engineers are commanding a premium salary these days.
On another front, the geek engineer stereotype exists for a reason: it is true. Many engineers are geeks, having meager social and communications skills. You can stand out among engineers by learning two simple skills: writing and speaking.
I have been handed reports by engineers that I had to repair grammatically before passing on to the boss. (I want to show my engineers in a good light to the boss so when I recommend one for a promotion the path is clear.) Your writing should reflect your best thought simply because you have time to ponder what you have written before pressing the 'send' button. Email is especially loose, and I receive poorly written emails regularly from people with advanced degrees. Get a copy of a writing handbook, read it and use it.
The second boost for your career is public speaking. If you are an employee whom the boss cannot risk introducing to a customer because you speak poorly, that means your chances of getting an engineering job are much slimmer. But there is hope.
Public speaking can be learned. Community colleges teach courses in public speaking and there are groups that exist to improve public speaking skills such as Toastmasters. Anyway, it's fun. Showing management that you can handle a presentation with authority, brevity, and humor will give you an extra advantage when the next engineering position comes open.
Engineering is not something done in a vacuum, and it helps to have a humanoid guide through your career. Let's talk about mentors.
Getting A Mentor
The best aid to learning to think as an engineer is being mentored by one. Sometimes this mentoring thing is formal, most often not. Usually your mentor is someone you work with every day.
My first influence was my brother, Bill. He is quite a lot older than I, and became an amateur radio operator at a young age. So I grew up with Tek scopes and dipole antennas strung across the back yard. He gave me the electronics bug.
As I look back on my working career, I can name three individuals who inspired me to expand my thinking. I'll call them Tom, Dick, and Harry.
Tom was not an intellectual, but he was sharp. The shop he ran was not responsible for new product development, but only support of existing computer systems. However, this guy was the hardest worker I have ever known. He would tenaciously pursue solutions until the best was had. And no one who worked for him did less than their best, not because he verbally demanded it, but because that was the example he set in action. He never stood still. I remember him always looking at every side of an issue before making a decision, anticipating problems before they occurred, solving them in advance as it were. I learned to work hard and think predictively from him.
Dick was the person who taught me to think in general terms. We worked in an IC test facility in a defense firm, testing all the ICs used on the various projects. We had 450 test programs at the time for everything from gates to microprocessors, including loads of individual programs for simple parts. Once while working on a test program for a combinatorial logic TTL IC, I asked him some question about the specs of the part. He took off on a tangent and eventually assigned me the task of writing a general purpose program that would test any combinatorial logic part, given its boolean equation and a table of timing and DC specs. I was nineteen years old, and it took me a while to understand what he was asking. Several weeks later, I had the program working, having been forced to stretch my brain in the process.
Harry was the jack of all trades. His training was in math, but he did not let that stop him. Harry knew something about most topics, I suppose from an innate curiosity and much reading. He had the propensity to phase out of human contact when pondering an answer to a question, sometimes for 15 minutes or more. When he returned, he generally had some workable solution. I learned from Harry that there is no compartmentalization of knowledge or science. There is no such thing as digital vs. analog, software vs. hardware, engineering vs. science. Rather, there is one continuous rainbow of knowledge and skill, each person settling in this area or that. Dissing one area in favor of another is like the foot snubbing the hand.
These people were always available to answer my questions, some of them pretty lame. They showed patience and never irritation. This is the kind of mentor you should seek. You don't have to use the word 'mentor' with this person, but you will know him when you find him (or her).
I hope that this series has helped you technicians out there in your quest to become engineers. Remember, engineering is not just another job, but a different way of thinking. It is continuous learning, because not knowing something is no excuse for not knowing something. It is not thinking outside the box, but stomping up and down on the box. Then burning the box. Then flushing the ashes. So take those technician limits off your brain and get thinking on your way to a career as an engineer!
Hank Wallace is the owner of Atlantic Quality Design, Inc., a consulting firm located in Fincastle, Virginia. He has experience in many areas of embedded software and hardware development, and system design. See www.aqdi.com for more information.