Preparing for an Engineering Career

19. November 2010

By Stephen D. Fantone

 In this era of rapid technological, industrial and economic change, it is challenging to build a technical career. Engineers entering today’s workplace can be assured that many of their skills will soon become obsolete. So the challenge for future engineers is not about mastering specific tools, but rather learning how to think and approach complex problems. Here are some recommendations to help students gain a competitive edge.
 
Develop problem-solving skills. Virtually all companies need engineers with problem-solving skills that transcend disciplines. I'm not talking about typical “homework” problems; I’m referring to problems that defy easy quantification; that involve ambiguous situations; and that require nuanced judgment.
 
Try to put yourself in situations where you must solve problems on your own. As an employer, I often assess problem-solving skills in young engineers. For example, I might ask how many gas stations there are in the United States. Nobody knows the right answer, but anyone with a mathematical inclination should be able to give you some process by which they can come up with an estimate. An example of a good process might be: "I came from a town with 40,000 people and we had about 20 gas stations. The population of the U.S. is around 250 million, the equivalent of about 6,000 towns like mine. So I guess there must be roughly 120,000 gas stations."
 
Few problems in the real world are as clean as those presented in textbooks. Some universities offer courses outside the normal curriculum that focus on a case-study approach of how to solve product design problems. Take them if you can.
 
Study successful people. They probably succeeded for good reasons. In watching successful engineers, I've learned that they tend to have an intense personal interest in—and even a personal relationship with—their technology. They're not in it for the money. They have a passion for their work.
 
Study hard while you are in school, for learning will never be easier. As your career progresses, there will be less and less time for classes and training. More than anything, in school you are acquiring and refining your ability to learn. Certain areas may seem irrelevant to the career you have planned. However, even those subjects present a challenging opportunity to improve your skills.
 
Acquire an interdisciplinary education. Companies need optical engineers who understand electronics; electrical engineers who are sensitive to packaging problems; and mechanical engineers who can deal with optics and electronics. For almost any product development, you need some understanding of mechanical, electrical and optical engineering. Narrowly educated people can't understand the context of a problem; someone else has to explain that context and establish a framework for them to work in. That's inefficient.
 
In addition, many of the most important problems that a technical specialist must address are non-technical in nature. Narrow technical skills may get you in the door, but what moves you up the ladder will be the ability to communicate, to cooperate, and to understand the context, both inside and outside the corporation, for the area in which you apply your technical specialty.
 
Interpersonal skills are also very important in a technical organization. You can't do it all yourself. You have to be able to work effectively with people from other specialties to negotiate interfaces and deal with all of the system-level problems that crop up.
 
Develop practical hands-on skills. It's possible to get through engineering school without developing the hands-on skills that are basic to your profession. Don't fall into that trap. All of us see some mechanical engineers who can't read blueprints; electrical engineers who don't know how to solder; and optical engineers who don't know how to grind and polish a lens.
 
These people become a burden to their first employer. When I was in graduate school, one professor told me I was spending too much time in the optical shop. I answered him by quoting Bob Dylan: "Time will tell who has failed and who has been left behind as you go your way and I go mine." I left the discussion and went straight to the optical shop. I'm not proud of that remark, but I tell the story anyway to emphasize that you might have to insist on preparing yourself adequately for what is essentially a hands-on profession.
 
Finally, let me add that students with relevant summer work experience have a distinct advantage over others. These experiences tend to motivate the student during their schooling and ensure a minimum level of engineering competence.

Stephen D. Fantone is OSA’s treasurer and the president of Optikos Corporation in Wakefield, Mass., U.S.A.

 

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From Science to Policy: New OSA/SPIE Congressional Fellow Shares Early Lessons

12. November 2010

By Marcius Extavour

After a busy day at the office last Monday, I settled in for a long night of poll-watching and punditry. As I scanned the Web for ballot results, comments and analysis about the U.S. mid-term election, I realized that, more than ever, I have a real professional stake in the results. Regardless of the exact political outcome, the nature of my job in energy policy with the United States Senate will certainly be affected.

I am only a few months into my term as an OSA/SPIE Guenther Congressional Science and Technology Fellow on Capitol Hill, but I have already learned a great deal about the nexus of science, technology, policy and politics. I am spending my fellowship year in the majority staff office of the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources. This committee’s main function is to write, review and research legislation within the broad scope of energy policy, minerals and natural resources, public lands and parks.

My day-to-day work includes writing memos; summarizing technical and policy issues for the Chairman and other committee members; planning and organizing committee hearings related to emergent issues or pending legislation; and meeting with subject matter experts from academia, industry, government, and other stakeholder groups to ask questions and hear public concerns.

I have learned a few valuable lessons the hard way, even on the first few weeks on the job. Mostly, it’s been about shifting from the priorities of a laboratory scientist to the priorities of an active policy staffer. Here are a few lessons I’ve taken away from my experience so far. 

Get to the point. Concision is a virtue; verbosity a vice. Many of my assignments consist of summarizing complex technical material or policy history for a Senator or their staff--in one page or in a few bullet points! There is a tremendous appetite for accuracy and detail, but little tolerance for expansive treatises, no matter how eloquent.

Deadlines matter. In my academic career, a deadline could be sacrificed in the name of accuracy, improved analysis or added nuance; the focus was on producing the best product, even if it was delivered a bit late. Around Capitol Hill, timing is everything, and late material quickly becomes irrelevant. Accuracy and speed are both prized and expected.

Networking is key. A network is a group of trusted colleagues who can be counted on to give good advice in a pinch. As a new Fellow, this has meant introducing myself and my skills broadly to colleagues, and then finding out how we can work together. Career-wise, it has meant approaching people whom I admire and respect, and asking them how they got to where they are. I’ve found that most people who are good at what they do and who enjoy their work love talking about it!

With the national campaigns over and done with, policy discussions will likely intensify as electoral politics and strategy retreat. I hope that developing new skills will serve me well as I work with colleagues to advance the conversation on issues related to science, technology and especially energy policy.

Marcius Extavour, most recently a quantitative risk analyst at Ontario Power Generation, is currently serving on Capitol Hill as the OSA/SPIE Arthur H. Guenther Congressional Science and Engineering Fellow.

 

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A Guide to Structures for your Small Business

4. November 2010

By Bill Greener 

Thinking about a start-up? More and more enterprising scientists are applying their knowledge of technology and industry to their own new businesses. What does it take to shape one’s vision into a sustainable business? A solid business plan is obviously important. However, even before that, you must figure out which type of business entity will best suit your needs. This decision will affect everything from the amount of taxes and paperwork you’ll face to your personal liability to the bottom line. Here are the major options you have, along with their advantages and drawbacks.

Sole proprietorship: Someone who owns an unincorporated business by himself or herself. The main advantage is ease of formation. To get started, you need only perform a simple filing with a County Clerk’s office.  The tax implications and reporting requirements are straightforward, involving taxation at individual tax rates and standard IRS Schedule C filing. There is no separate entity tax. 

However, as your own boss, you are the sole risk manager and the profit/loss center—for better or worse. Your liability is unlimited, but you may have restricted sources of capital and funding.

General partnership: An association of two or more people who co-own a business for profit. These partnerships are generally easy to form at the state and county levels. Partners agree how to share profits and losses, which flow through the partnership to each partner’s individual tax return via a form K-1. General partnerships are typically not subject to federal or state business entity taxes. The general partners, however, are jointly liable for the obligations of the entity.

Limited partnership: One or more limited partners and at least one general one. Limited partners cannot be active in the business management; if they are, they risk losing their “limited” status.

Limited and general partnerships are similar in areas of taxation and what is referred to as “special allocation of income and loss.” Government fees for partnership formation may be higher for a limited partnership than for a general one, however. State regulations may require notices about the partnership formation to be published.

C-Corporations are your large business “Inc’s.” Corporate business entities provide greater segregation between their owners and the entity itself than is provided for in partnership arrangements.

Taxation issues are comprehensively addressed by the IRS, under subchapter “C” of the Internal Revenue Code. C Corporations require corporate officers and directors whose identities must periodically be reported to the state.

On the plus side, a C Corporation is taxed for income purposes as a separate corporate entity at both the federal and state levels. In addition, the number and types of shareholders are unrestricted. Shareholders have limited financial liability even if they participate in corporate management; rather, the corporate entity becomes the liable party. In a C Corporation, the retained corporate earnings can be kept in the business.

On the other hand, C Corporations are subject to double taxation; corporate income is taxed at the corporate level, while dividends are taxed at the individual (shareholder) level. The formal requirements of a C Corporation include government formation fees, significant record- and book-keeping, shareholder meetings and corporate elections, the issuance of stock certificates, and the sale of stock for raising capital.  Financial losses are only deductible at the corporate level.

S Corporation: A small business entity that makes a valid election with the IRS to be taxed differently than a C Corporation. S Corporations generally pay no corporate income taxes on their profits. Instead, shareholders pay income taxes on their proportionate shares of the corporate profits. Thus, an S Corporation is considered a pass-through entity similar to a partnership, but shareholders enjoy the limited liability of a corporate structure.

Among the limitations: These entities must be domestic corporations organized under state law, and shareholders are limited to fewer than 100 and to certain entities such as individuals, estates and trusts. All individual shareholders must be citizens or residents of the United States. Unlike a C Corporation, an S Corporation cannot have retained earnings.

Limited liability companies, or LLCs, are formed by filing Articles of Organization with a state’s secretary of state. The IRS taxes LLCs as if they were partnership entities.  There are no restrictions on the number or types of owners or the extent of owner participation in management. An LLC will be dissolved when certain events occur; for example, bankruptcy, the death of a member, or the incapacity or withdrawal of any member unless otherwise voted upon. Annual filing fees are required.

Bill Greener is a U.S. registered patent attorney who practices in Ithaca, N.Y. and is a partner in the firm of Bond, Schoeneck & King, PLLC. This blog post is based on an article that appeared in the May 2007 issue of Optics & Photonics News.

 

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