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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