I Quit My Job To Teach People About Hardware

This topic was discussed in greater detail in Episode 184 of to The Amp Hour. This article is more about the personal feelings that have accompanied this (ongoing) transition.

Starting Friday, for the first time in my adult life I will be without a job; at least a job as I’ve always defined it. I have been employed as a full time electrical engineer (in various roles, the most relevant being analog ones) for 8 years straight. Prior to that I had been working as a co-op for 10-20 hours a week for another 2 years. All told, I would estimate I have worked roughly 17,000 hours up until this point (in an official capacity). While that would qualify me for the “expert” category if you listened to Malcolm Gladwell and the people he was quoting in that book, it feels like I’m just getting started. It feels like I have a TON to learn and the backlog of things I need to know in the future keeps growing. And you know what? That is one of the best parts of engineering! The real story here is that I have been working for the past 8 months on an electronics education program that is currently running. It’s called Contextual Electronics.

The program launched in January and as of this writing, we are in the middle of the 4th week out of 8 of Session 1A (where we are designing a board). Session 1B (where we build the board) will start in March, a couple weeks after the conclusion of Session 1A. It has been a spectacular group of people who decided to sign up for the program and my decision to leave my full time job is largely based around wanting to serve them better. The 6 months before the program started were dedicated (on nights and weekends) to developing the 8 week curriculum. I want to be able to be forward looking with future curriculum and to better serve them on a day to day basis. But that’s not all I’ll be doing! I’ll also be working on:

  • A medical startup — This is a fledgling project with a friend, but one that I am very excited about. It’s in a new field for me as well, resetting the clock on my 10,000+ hours. It is unlikely my “nights and weekends” schedule will change any time soon and I’m ok with that, especially if I get to work on something that excites me like this project does.
  • Consulting — I have had a consulting company for about 4 years now, called “Analog Life, LLC” (sounds familiar, eh?). That was normally part time, smaller jobs when I could find them. This will be a larger part of my life now as it will help to support my family more than being a source of income to build out my lab. If you have analog work you need done (or really any electronics projects you’d like to talk about hiring me for), please feel free to contact me.
  • Giving talks — This is a new one for me, but I am currently scheduled to do two talks this year: One at the HKN Student Leadership Conference and one at SolidCon. Very different venues, excited about both (and always open to more!).
  • Running meetups — I started a local meetup group in Cleveland alongside my friend Martin Lorton. It’s a great opportunity to network and an even better excuse to drink beer and talk about nerdy stuff. It’s called Charged Conversation (shamelessly stolen from a list of possible taglines for The Amp Hour)
  • The Amp Hour — Nothing new or different, Dave and I will continue producing podcasts, ranting about what upsets us in the electronics industry and asking people much smarter than us to come talk to us. I’m excited about the potential a looser schedule has for The Amp Hour. Running a show with someone in a timezone 14 hours ahead of you can be restricting…and now that work schedules aren’t a problem (Dave is also self employed), we don’t have that restriction. Just families and the need to sleep at some point.

I also have a running list of projects and other things that have been put off as part of spending my free time on Contextual Electronics. While I don’t think I will have “free” time in any way, shape or form, I do hope some of the following will start to work their way back up the priority list (in no particular order):

  • Machining — Remember how I used to write about my new toy, my Taig mill? I started with it about a year ago and then decided I wanted to work on a part time gig that could turn into a full time gig (which it has!). Of particular interest is using my mill to create circuit boards by routing copper clad FR4. This could have lots of benefits for my consulting.
  • Run classes in person around the world — This fulfills two interests: Getting out into the world and teaching some of the Contextual Electronics content in person and also doing it in different areas (and seeing the world in the process). This one takes more planning and will be a longer term goal.
  • Writing — Sure, everyone says they want to write more, but I do already…it’s just not very visible. I do daily updates for Contextual Electronics and also did so throughout the Beta Process. I would just like to move that same consistency onto this site or others. As much as I already say online, I have a lot more opinions to air! 
  • Different Podcasts — I stepped away from The Engineering Commons to work on Contextual Electronics (and even went back to talk to them about the program). I am regularly thinking up new podcast topics and would like to explore different formats.
  • Developing more products — This is part of developing the curriculum of Contextual Electronics (each session produces an Open Source Hardware project), but I would love to do a start to finish project with the sole goal of commercializing it (without a large corporation backing me).
  • Working in different industries — This would be part of consulting, but I would love to branch out a little bit. I have been focused mainly in analog for industrial applications in the past, but also enjoy FPGAs and occasionally have been known to program a microcontroller. I would also like to try different industries, maybe working on a large scale art installation or similar. This is a very nebulous goal, but the main point is I want to continue learning by doing.
  • Sleeping/getting healthy — To say my health has declined would be a bit of an understatement. I have definitely gained weight and I can feel my mind getting cloudier from less rest. I think that was another thing that helped edge me towards this decision. I have been keeping the following schedule for the past 8 months:
    • Up at 8:00 am
    • Get to work at 9:30 am (flexible schedule)
    • Short/no lunch
    • Leave work at 6:30 pm (on a good day)
    • Dinner with family 7:00 pm
    • Start working on CE or recording The Amp Hour at 8:00 pm
    • Collapse into bed at 2:00 am. Lather, rinse, repeat.
  • Playing music — This one has fallen completely off the map and represents true leisure time for me. I used to play in bands and I really miss it. I doubt I’ll ever get back to where I was as a drummer, but I would love to be active musically again. If I can, it will be a sign that I’m moving towards a simpler, more balanced life.

I think one of the things that excites me, is that this inadvertently moves me closer to a post I wrote about 5 years ago called “Engineering The Perfect Day“. Some of my personal goals have definitely changed and music has definitely faded in my priorities, though I still like the feel of that post. It feels like what would be a good life. Only time will tell if it will actually be my future. More than anything, I made good on what I’ve often said about my future when people asked me, “What’s next?” I always respond that my next employer would be me. I don’t know if I’ll be my last employer, but given my increasing restlessness with corporate engineering culture, it seemed like an inevitability. That said, I am sad to leave my current job (which I’ll possibly talk about in the future, as the company is also a good one and I’d like to promote their end goals). I believe I’m leaving under good conditions, though I had asked to stay on part time and was denied for now (more about that in The Amp Hour episode linked at the top). But since I’m leaving and because I want to capture the emotions I’m feeling during this process, I thought I would do a quick list about the things I will and won’t miss.

  • Things I’ll miss

    • Co-workers — Always first on my list, I wouldn’t be working there if I didn’t enjoy the people I work with. I’ve learned a lot from this group and learned a bunch from the ones at the job before. For the first time I won’t have any co-workers and coming to terms with that will be odd. I suppose Twitter folk will be my office mates (as well as my slightly less verbal dogs).
    • Structure — I was warned about this from consultants in the field now and ones that have come back to the workplace: the lack of structure can be difficult at the beginning. I can see why. It feels like I have an extended vacation coming up to work on whatever I’d like. In reality, I need to purchase food and keep my house in the future.
    • Large scale projects that require skills beyond my own — We talked about this a little bit on The Amp Hour a few weeks back. Large companies often work on larger projects and the accompanying budgets. This can present (though doesn’t guarantee) more interesting problems to be solved. It also allows me to lean on skilled co-workers to help me along on new tasks.
    • Seeing my work out in the world — Similarly, when the big projects get out into the real world, they can have some impact. Engineers (myself included) take great pride in pointing at a piece of hardware and saying, “I designed/tested/built that”.
    • Non-billable time — As I move into consulting, I recognize some of the finer points of how to bill clients and give them The Warm Fuzzy Feeling™ (one of my favorite articles on the internet). This also means I won’t have as much non-billable time that corporate jobs allow for training and researching new topics. Sure, I track my time at my job, but as a salaried person it is more based upon the result of my work than the number of hours on the project.
    • Leverage over vendors — As a hardware person, this can be a big one. Having a large company name behind you (and the associated dollar amounts) can really get a vendor’s attention. Now that I’m a shop of one, that will be much more difficult when I need to talk to someone inside a chip company. Hopefully I might be able to use my previous industry connections and my role on The Amp Hour to garner a little extra attention. Every bit helps when you’re in a bind.
    • Significant resources (travel, prototypes) — Basically having a budget from my employer and being able to use it to build the stuff necessary in any hardware business.
  • Things I won’t miss 

    • Corporate culture (from all sides) and hierarchy — Blah blah blah, Chris doesn’t like large corporations. But more than experiencing an Office Space environment, it’s more about the slowness that large companies move. If there is a new technology, it’s less often the case that a large company will be a first adopter. As a small consultant, I can take that risk (either on products I design for sale or with a client’s approval on their project).
    • Time restrictions — While non-billable time is nice, it does also mean that I am sitting at the office when I could be out working on a podcast or developing more course material. One of the key parts of having a larger workforce is having flexibility in your workers so they can jump onto new projects as they pop up. This also can mean that workers get a little restless when underutilized.
    • Commuting — Working in Cleveland in the winter, this comes into sharper relief. I bought a house near my first company for a short commute and promptly changed jobs (brilliant!). Now my 25 mile commute is a drain on the wallet, my car, my sanity…and most importantly my time. My new commute will be down the basement stairs with a much lower chance of slipping and sliding on the snowy roads.
    • Profit restrictions — While a salary is a nice guarantee to a steady amount of money throughout the year, it is also by definition is a limited upside. You’ll never earn more than your salary (plus a possible bonus, also usually limited). As a consultant, and more so as someone starting a business, there is “unlimited” upside, meaning there is a potential for making more money. Sure, there is also risk of making less (or no) money. I think Paul Graham captures this idea well in his article about wealth.
    • Job roles — Just like having available labor in their workforce, large companies like defined roles so that it is easier to identify who should take on work as it comes down the pipeline. They also like that there is efficiency in one person becoming a subject matter expert (the theory being they get stuff done quicker). Yes, I like analog electronics. You could even say I love the field. But as mentioned above I want to branch out and try new things. And these days, it feels like engineers need to branch out in order to stay flexible and employable (even as a consultant).
  • Noticeably absent from both lists

    • Meetings — These will still happen in my new ventures and may even become more common as I need to get to know new clients and assure them I can do the work. The best case scenario is to minimize the stupidity of all meetings by keeping them short and to the point.
    • Benefits — While healthcare was one of my largest concerns going into this decision, it’s really not as big of a deal. I pay either way. You do too! I now will be responsible for paying my corporate premiums as part of any healthcare plan I’m part of of; if I take COBRA, I’ll pay what the company paid for me while I worked there. I’ll still need to pay my personal premiums and put money into an HSA. Yes, it’s a significant cost, but the entire amount paid towards healthcare can be viewed as a lump sum, regardless of who pays it. If my company didn’t pay part of my health insurance now, I would expect them to pay me more per month to match my compensation package to the rest of the market. Now I expect my personal company to pay for my health insurance. The big difference between this year and last is I now have an option if COBRA is overpriced or (in the past) wasn’t guaranteed coverage: I can switch to Obamacare. I like Mr Money Moustache’s take on the new regulations.
    • Having a dedicated place to do work — Yes, I also complain about loud co-workers near my cube at work and the fans that blare in the servers near my desk, but my home office will be no different; I’ll have distractions that range from puppies wanting to go outside and play to wives who ask me to do laundry during conference calls (and I’ll listen because she has been so supportive of me!). Unless I get an isolation tank and a waterproof laptop, I likely will have some kind of distraction to complain about.

Really this is all just the beginning of a journey on my own. I’m really appreciative to everyone who listened to my nervous whining about making this jump and still reassured me. I’m very grateful to all the people I’ve worked with in Cleveland over the years and am optimistic that people in other parts of the country are as friendly and helpful. And I’m happy you read all the way to the end of this overly detailed brain dump. Hope to do more of this soon. Thanks to Theen Moy for the cover picture of the caps.

Engineering Jobs Learning Life

How To Write A Resume For Electronics

I’ve looked at a lot of resumes for electronics positions, so I thought I’d share some of my opinions on what should or shouldn’t be on there. Nothing formatting specific, so much as how to get across your interest and passion in electronics. I used examples that are resumes meant for engineering internships, but a lot of the info can be generalized to anyone. Hope you enjoy the video!

Here are those two resumes, if you’re interested: The bad (1st) version and the better (2nd) version.

Analog Electronics Engineering Work

My Electronics Workbench

Aside from the 555 contest I mentioned in my last post, my February was spent building the workbench I drew in Google Sketchup. It was built partially for The Amp Hour, partially for circuits I plan on building and showing off on here and partially for my new business, Analog Life, LLC.

So for today’s show and tell, I’ll premier the first video ever with me in it on YouTube:

I also had a couple snapshots of the bench in progress:

So my bench is done now and I’m off to put it to good use!

Consulting Life Podcast

So Chris, Where Have You Been?

Well,  a lot of places.

But not around here too much. And when I’ve been here, it hasn’t been the most in-depth writing I’ve ever done (except my unusually thought out post comparing engineers to a fictional character, check that out if you haven’t, not many people noticed it). I can’t say I will be writing again full time in the near future, but maybe in the future after that. So here’s a quick rundown of where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing if you don’t already know:

The Amp Hour

Reading through a few posts or sidebars on this site and you may have noticed The Amp Hour, my weekly radio show with Dave Jones of EEVblog. It’s been going really well so far I think. We just finished episode 23 and have about 1000 regular listeners. It’s been really interesting getting my thoughts out in a different manner than writing and I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that I’m now spoiled by getting my thoughts out “Off The Cuff”. However, there is still a place for planned out articles and this is the place I intend to put those thoughts.


Earlier this year, I started a company, Analog Life, LLC. I began consulting for projects outside of my day job (in a non-related industry, with full approval of my day job, of course). I hadn’t really mentioned it on here before, but since it’s already linked in multiple places and listed on my LinkedIn profile, I figure I can explain myself.  This has been the biggest consumer of my time lately outside of work and has been a wonderful learning experience. From the business side of things, to the work I am doing, to the juggling of tasks outside of regular work, all have been new experiences for me.

Pondering My Future

In the remaining hours of my days before collapsing into bed at night, I have been thinking about long term plans and how it might affect the path I am on currently. First and foremost are my personal relationships. If you’re working 14 hour days (effectively) and don’t think your relationships will suffer…well, you’re probably working with the other person. And even then, the relationship can be strained. So I’ve been talking over and considering how working more will cause tradeoffs in my personal life. Am I willing to give up time with my family in order to pursue work that might advance my career? Is the work I’m doing actually advancing my career or just making me money? If it’s the latter, is the money justification enough for not spending time with them?

In talking with others in my field about this subject, other questions have bubbled to the surface, some even relating to consulting. Why am I consulting and what is the eventual goal? Will I need more education to continue in a technical role in engineering? Is consulting enough of a real world education in order to not require an MS in engineering?


There is really one question that drives all other conversations: What do I want to do (when I grow up)?

I like the idea of being my own boss and owning a business and even selling some sort of product someday (aside from design services), but right now I have neither enough experience with it to say if I like it nor any idea what kind of product I might sell someday. The latter isn’t too much of a concern, but not knowing if I desire that lifestyle could influence my present day decisions.  Here’s the highest level decisions I see myself having to make in the near future:

  • If I plan on being in a technical role at someone else’s company (i.e. employed by a corporation that is not mine) for an extended period, I should go get a Master’s of Science Degree.
  • If I plan on moving into a management role at someone else’s company, I should go target an MBA or a Master’s of Engineering degree (somewhat like a combo MS and MBA).
  • If I plan on consulting for a while longer, I should continue to build relationships and seek out new clients for more work (an ongoing struggle from what I hear from my consulting friends).
  • If I plan on trying to start my own company with a viable product, I should get on my way trying and failing (believe me, I don’t expect to succeed at that at first if I do it, but I understand the value of failing in electronics). I should also begin learning to pitch to investors, as I realize this is the most critical skill of starting a business.
  • If I plan on being a technology media personality, I need to work at it more. It would involve trying to make revenue through blogs, videos, sponsorship, advertising, etc. If this is the case, I had better post more often than once a month, eh?
  • I could not worry about this for a few years, keep my head down, keep learning and hope I’m rewarded for my efforts through my day job. While this is part of any of the plans above, I don’t really feel like this is a “plan” (though I’m sure some would advise me to do just that).

I love hearing peoples’ advice and stories about their own careers, but I’m very realistic: no path is the same and what is good for someone else is not necessarily good for me. That doesn’t mean I won’t listen though, because in talking to a just a few people, I have learned SO much. So I guess for anyone else out there wondering the same things as I’m wondering, my advice would be talk to people. Weird advice from an engineer, I know, but I’m not your standard engineer, am I?

So go forth! And chattify! Or chat in the comments. Yes, I prefer that actually. Thanks for reading.

Engineering Work

Recruiting In An Emerging Age Of Makers

I’ve started reading resumes from the bottom up.

What does this mean? It means I’m looking for passion. It means I’m looking for interest. It means I look for people who do electronics for fun. It means that classroom experience–while important–is not getting you the job. In fact, quite the opposite. If you’re spending all of your time in the classroom, how useful are you? Yes, understanding the basics are important. But if you’re going to quote me an equation you learned instead of going out and soldering and desoldering components to a board, how will I know that you’re a legit worker that is willing to get their hands dirty? (solder-y?)

Thanks to the global economy, no job is secure anymore. OK, we can handle that. But in an increasingly independent work force, we’ll see more contract work and less (yes, even less than current levels) loyalty to corporations. As such, the recruiting (and hopeful retention) of talent will become one of the most important jobs. Innovation will now be negotiated for and fought for instead of attempting to induce it in a laboratory setting. The risk takers will be encouraged to continue to take risks once they are plucked from their garages and basements.

I believe hackerspaces will be the new recruiting grounds. We’ve already seen people that are targeting them for sales (chips, discretes, software) because the projects that are made often are spectacular advertisement; the open source hardware people develop in these collaborative workspaces often become platforms to seed many other projects as well. In the future, we’ll also see recruiters hanging around hackerspaces looking to pluck talent before the person realizes they’re not just working on an Arduino for fun, they also have a future as an embedded system. You just wait, it’ll happen. For at least one person interviewing potential candidates, it already is.

Engineering Jobs

Just Colorado Jobs

Dr. Dave from was nice enough to drop me a note recently. He is also in the field of analog electronics, but much more experienced and has written some really solid technical articles (such as this recent one about low noise discrete amplifiers).

He also mentioned that a friend of his (Bruce Gammill, no relation) was the chairman of a group dedicated to promoting Colorado’s tech region. While I’m not here to say whether the area is the next silicon valley or anything, I do appreciate the fact that it is another resource available for electrical engineers. Specifically, the “beta” section of the site shows a wonderful map of all the companies that are located on the 40 mile corridor from Denver to Fort Collins.

The reason I even mention this at all is that my previous post about where the technical areas are in the US completely glossed over the state of Colorado. While I blame my primitive search capabilities and the fact that the informal survey was based only one who is hiring now, I think it’s still important to point out where there are potential jobs for electrical engineers (and others!). Thankfully readers both here and on the ECE thread of reddit where I sometimes plug my posts were sure to point this fact out to me.

Does anyone know of other “chamber of commerce” type organizations that promote other technical areas in the US or even abroad? Having information about relevant companies in the same location can be a powerful tool for any job search. Using targeted company searches and good job hunting/interviewing techniques, the time searching for a job can be cut down considerably. Looking forward to seeing everyone’s tips!

Analog Electronics Work

Where Are Technical Areas in the US?

I was recently talking to my girlfriend about if we ever moved and needed to find jobs, where the most likely place would be to find work as an electrical engineer. It was interesting talking out cities that may or may not sync up with places she could find a job. Now, I don’t have much interest in leaving my current job, and while I hope to work on my own some day, I’m still quite dependent on employers for my livelihood.  So I did the fast/easy thing and went to and checked available positions under “electrical engineer”. Simple enough. So where are the technical jobs these days? (obviously this data is meant to change over time)

A map I made over at

    1. San Diego, CA (1059)
    2. Houston, TX (970)
    3. San Jose, CA (723)
    4. New York, NY (670)
    5. Santa Clara, CA (571)
    6. Phoenix, AZ (564)
    7. Washington, DC (543)
    8. Austin, TX (539)
    9. Sunnyvale, CA (529)
    10. Chicago, IL (472)
    11. Dallas, TX (471)
    12. Fort Meade, MD (424)
    13. Atlanta, GA (384)
    14. Los Angeles, CA (377)

The number in the parentheses are the number of positions listed online. It’s fair to assume some significant number of those are repeats ( is a scraper, not some manual entry site), but we can assume that all the cities listed have a proportionate number of repeat listings. It’s also interesting– but not surprising–to note that certain areas are dense enough with jobs and location (i.e. silicon valley) that three of those cities (3, 5, 9) only show up as one tag.

Now, this isn’t to say these are the best jobs or the easiest to fill nor does it even point out how varied the positions can be! For example, an embedded developer and an analog system engineer might all be under the title “electrical engineer“. If you have experience working on electronics on an oil rig you’re much more likely to get a job in Houston than Fort Meade, regardless of how many jobs are available in either location. But these numbers do  point out where there is a considerable enough chunk of industry to have this many job listings.

So I ask you to respond in the shiny new comments section: are these really the only areas employers are hiring these days? Is there a significant long tail that I’m not seeing on Indeed? (i.e. 30 more cities with 250 listings each?) Are there any obviously booming spots that are left off the map? What about outside the good ol’ U S of A? I know there are a couple of readers, writers and witty commenters from outside my home country. Looking forward to your responses!

Engineering Learning Work

Back to School?

Much like I’m not going to say that I’ve been too busy to post anything for the past 2-3 months, I’m not going to say that I’m definitely going back to school to get an advanced degree. However, I’ve considered saying both.

Really, I’ve considered going back to school as soon as I started my first job and was dissatisfied. I mean, who hasn’t? Aside from the fact that I was previously on a co-op cycle of (work, school, work, school, and so on), I really felt nostalgic for school; I found myself saying things like: “It’s so much less work when you’re in class for a few hours a day!”, “I’ll definitely love all those new subjects I’ll be studying!”, “I’ll have lots of free time during the day to get things done and then study at night!” and many others. They’re all complete bull of course, none of those things are true for full time grad students. In fact, school can be much harder at times. I often found myself so overloaded between (continued) work and school that I would be sleeping four hours a night; plus I’m guessing I would have been sleeping those same four hours had I not been working, the waking hours would have just been spent more effectively on my classes.

The only problem now is I can’t be a full-time student.

Well, I could, but all the kinds of debt I’d get myself into would be really unrealistic for the amount I would gain from an advanced degree. Since buying and fixing up my home last winter, I have taken on some markedly adult-like responsibilities in my life. And so I began investigating options. Going back to school is not something that I take lightly, nor should anyone out there; in the event that I make it back to school in the near future, it will be a long slog through homeworks and tests and unrealistic deadlines and the such. And all for a piece of paper. Luckily I had some great advice about school/work/life balance from my former boss and mentor:

Based on my experience, I would say make sure that all of your house projects are complete before you start and don’t plan on starting any new projects until you get your degrees (both of ‘em!). Also make sure your personal life is well-organized and in good working order. Don’t take in any more dogs, cats, or other mammals. You may also need to (*gasp*) scale back your musical activities.

While he was obviously joking about certain things there (no more music??), I take his advice to heart; I’ve also seen similar behavior from co-workers who are also in school right now. You really have to throw yourself into studies to get the most out of it. I think my perspective now that I’ve been out in the working world for a while will really allow me to succeed, both in the things I have already learned and how I approach problems.

The first kind of decision I will need to make is what kind of Master’s degree I would want to attain. I was actually quite surprised there was even more than one option available. The first degree I think most people think of in Electrical Engineering is an Masters of Science in Electrical Engineering (MSEE of MScEE). I already missed the boat on the BS/MS program that my alma mater offered; this was a program that allowed students to automatically segue from their undergraduate studies into an advanced degree, often taking Master’s courses early to help push the amount of time spent on the MS down to 1 year. So the next option I could have done was go back to school for a Master’s degree (the normal way) and then write a thesis at the completion of my studies. This would likely involve research with a faculty member and the thesis would be based around that research. I doubt this option would be possible for me, because of the aforementioned house, mortgage and “grown-up” responsibilities, up to and including my job (which I wouldn’t want to give up either). Yet another option would be a “project-only” MSEE offered at some schools that would involve the same coursework as any other master’s degree; however, the thesis would be replaced with a project, possibly in conjunction with day-job projects (but probably segmented in some way or another). At the programs I am looking at, this option is only allowed when working full time and going to school part time; luckily, that is one of my few options. The other interesting option is something that is called a “Master’s of Engineering” (in Electrical Engineering in this case). My alma mater offers such a degree (abbreviated as “MEng”) and has a streamlined course offering for engineers in my situation. The degree leans more towards mixing business and science, as many engineers do on a daily basis. In that regard, it could be a very helpful degree, in the event it imparts the necessary business acumen to get by in the hard business world. However, I question the degree and how it would be viewed in the working world once I am finished:

  • Will employers view it as a lesser degree if I try to stay in the technical field?
  • Will a MEng degree limit where I can go in my career?
  • Do I ever want to get a PhD or am I OK with a “terminal degree” such as an MEng?
  • Will I be able to learn all the technical things in a more balanced program such as the MEng?

I’ve also been considering which schools I would even be able to attend. Thanks to the digital age, commuting distances have been shortened to only the time it takes for light to travel down a wire. What that means for John Q Public-school-graduate such as myself is that a lot more schools are now accessible to a full time worker. And not just the University of Phoenix here either. We’re talking top 50 engineering schools. Who you ask? How about:

  1. Stanford
  2. Georgia Tech
  3. Purdue
  4. University of Florida

Even those four provide a pretty heavy hitting list of top research institutions offering the course work entirely online. Sure, this might be a more difficult way to collaborate with others in your class or work on projects or communicate with the teacher; but it also means that geographical barriers are becoming less and less of an issue. If I had an online electronics store that I ran out of a shack in the backwoods of North Carolina, I could now attend the number 2 engineering school in the country just as well as someone living in Palo Alto (assuming I was accepted). So while I do have a wonderful institution and my alma mater in my backyard (CWRU), I also have more options and more specialized coursework for whatever branch of EE I would like to explore more.

So what next? I guess now I have to take the GRE and get applying (and eventually figure out how I would pay for it all…). As much as I’ve thought about the potential convenience of going to an online version of a school, it’s applying just like any other Master’s Student. So really the online programs are more like you’re enrolled at the school, you just can’t ever make it to class because you’re sick all the time; plus the professors are nice enough to send home your schoolwork (but not in a folder like back in elementary school days).

In the coming weeks/months/years (who knows?), I’ll try not to write about school plans too much. However,  think there are some issues that merit discusion on here and elsewhere (and hey, I like getting help from people responding in the comments). I’ll probably write at least once about my potential area of studies (should they be similar to what I’m doing right now? Should they be more towards my interest in DSP?). I’d really love feedback from anyone that happens to read this, especially students who went back to school after being in the working world for a while. Please leave any tips or tricks you might have in the comments.

Engineering Life Work

How to Work a Job Fair as an Engineer

Clarification: When I write “work a job fair”, I mean how to get the most out of it as a student or job seeker. This could be confused with the fact that I sometimes recruit at job fairs, but I thought this should be brought up at the beginning after I re-read the article.

In talking to a fellow engineer about to attend a career fair, I realized I had some advice for him, having gone so many times in the past. I’ve even been back a few times to recruit for my current company and being on the other side of the handshake is an interesting insight into the do’s and don’ts.

  1. As soon as you realize they want you to apply online, ditch.
    • First off, this was a pet peeve of mine as an attendee and is to this day. As soon as HR departments at large companies realized they could just use computers to filter the resumes of prospective employees instead of reading them (yeah, I’m looking at you Big Blue), they did it as fast as they could. The result was that you now walk around job fairs talking to people and handing out resumes, only to assume those people will be throwing it away ten minutes later (“Why did I print that on paper that costs 50 cents a sheet?!?”). In the event you’re talking to someone from a company and you even overhear a different recruiter asking someone to apply online (assuming you hear it before you’re told directly to do so), kindly end the conversation with the person you’re talking to and write in your notes to apply later. Job fairs are to make first impressions; if the employers’ representatives are not taking notes on the people they are talking to, they really are only wasting your time.
  2. Be excited
    • Enthusiasm is contagious. It can make any conversation more exciting and in the case of the recruiters, less routine. They have many of the same conversations over and over throughout the day, often with people that don’t show particular enthusiasm for what they are talking about. More importantly, enthusiasm about your chosen field is a precursor to another trait that I feel is particularly important in any field: passion. Without it, you probably won’t be able to hold your interest long enough to become an expert in your field. And I mean a real expert, not like those silly people online that start blogs and call themselves experts. Haha.
  3. Be excited, but show a little modesty
    • Before you go off the rails and start spouting all of your best characteristics to a potential employer, remember a few things:
      1. Designing something in school is much different than designing something in the real world.
      2. No one wants to hear every single detail of your design project upon first meeting you.
      3. As an engineer, getting a design job just out of school is difficult and unlikely. The majority of engineers use their degree to launch into other types of jobs. I’m not saying you shouldn’t shoot for a design job if you want one, I’m just saying the expectation shouldn’t be that you will be handed one (and you should keep your mind open to all opportunities).
      4. If you present your past work correctly, the work will speak for itself. In fact, succinctly describing your achievements in an understandable way will help to show your enthusiasm much better than you trying to squeeze 500 words into a 1 minute time period. Show them that you are really proficient in the area you’re targeting and you’ll get recruiters clamoring to know how much you really know (and eventually what it’ll take to get you on their team).
  4. Forget the give-aways
    • The pens and t-shirts and yo-yo’s and other stuff they give away at these events are fun to get and sometimes quirky, but essentially worthless. If you want to get free stuff with a logo on it, go get the job from the company and worry about the branded crap later. Focus your time and resources on meeting people, not collecting widgets.
  5. Figure out what skills they’re looking for
    • No amount of preparatory work researching the companies you’re targeting will let you know what skills a company is looking for. Hell, it’s in the company’s interest to be vague when they list what kind of employee they’re looking for so the maximum number of people will stop by their booth. This is one of your most important tasks at career fairs; in fact, it’s one of the few reasons to stick around and continue talking to a representative from a company once you have found out they only accept applications online. Talk to the engineers that work in groups you would want to work in (wait to talk to them if there is a line) and find out what they look for in potential candidates. In fact, ask them that, “What do you look for in potential candidates who would be hired for YOUR position?”. It might sound a little weird, like you want to replace them with yourself, but it’s the most direct way to know what skills and techniques you need to have to work there. If you have those skills, awesome. If you don’t, work on getting those skills, however you can.
  6. Know what you like and don’t like and tell them about it
    • This hearkens back to being enthused about the field you’re studying. In the event you’re not very capable in transmitting your enthusiasm to the person you’re talking to, stating what you do and don’t like can help to showcase what you’re really trying to do with your career. But it’s also important because you can narrow down the companies that can actually offer you a job. If you’re really interested in embedded systems but you’re talking to  a company that only works on designing silicon, stating what you’re interested in can be a real time saver. If you’re not particularly fond of working on spreadsheets or databases and you say so, you can quickly be informed by the company you’re talking to that those things would be the main job function of any potential employees. In stating what you really like and dislike, you basically turn a career fair into a speed-dating service, quickly going through all of the options at a particular event and honing in on those that have real potential.
  7. Brush your teeth. Wear a clean shirt. Don’t be a robot.
    • I only wish this was more obvious to people than it is. I’ve already been pointing out that career fairs are only as useful as the impressions you make on potential employers; sometimes it’s also about the resume you hand them.  But if the whole ordeal is about impressions, some people don’t get it. Look decent, smell decent, smile decent. These are all things that are easy but immediately put you out of the running if you get them wrong. Remember the lollipop first question for $100 on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”? Remember some of the dodos who got it wrong and had to immediately leave the stage? Don’t be one of them.

Do I know everything about job fairs? No, I know very little. I personally never really liked them as a potential employee. I’d rather stand out to an employer  by connecting on a personal level with a recruiter and then showcasing what I know. There just isn’t time for that at career fairs. But if you or the employers you’re interested in working for consider career fairs a necessary evil, I think the tips listed above can have a positive effect on some of your interactions.

What kinds of things do you try to do at job/career fairs? Can those things be done by engineers at career fairs or are they specific to another profession? Please let us know in the comments.

Economics Learning Politics Work

Unorthodox City Development

Although I’ve been busy working on lately (thereby neglecting this site), I have been able to continue listening to my local NPR station (which, like any good nerd, I love). A program the other day spoke to a local community trying to build up the economy through the arts.

I was intrigued. I had never thought of that before. Why would anyone ever try to develop an arts community first? Where are the jobs? Well folks, we have a bona fide Chicken and Egg paradox here. It really goes both ways. What happens if a community only has day jobs and no culture? What happens if you develop a thriving arts community before there are “Economic Drivers” and jobs for people moving there?  Does the absence of one element slow the growth of the other?

I would tend to think the jobs come first. And of course when I think jobs I think of technical jobs, not those silly financial jobs that got us into this mess of a recession. I mostly think of technical jobs first because I’ve never really experienced anything else and I’ve heard technical jobs can have a multiplicative effect (helping to create some of the other jobs I’m not as fond of). But what happens in locations where there are only jobs and no culture to go along with it? Who really wants to live there?

An example is contained within Eric Weiner’s book, The Geography of Bliss (which I first read about at Get Rich Slowly). He is traveling the world, looking to explain why some locales are happier than others. In the midst of his travels, he goes to Qatar (one of the richest regions in the world) where he encounters a city booming with jobs (mostly for migrant workers) to fill the “need” of those rich from petrodollars. However, he notes the absence of culture and even references how the richest from that country travel the world buying up impressive art collections in a hope to obtain culture. The result is a city full of people being shuttled to and from chain restaurants and malls, without any interesting things in between. Even the history museum is filled with artifacts toil and struggle in the desert…and not much else. Because the jobs in the region are scarce, no one really wants to be there, but no one working there can really leave.

The other extreme is when a city has a strong art and culture community but is lacking in jobs. An example is New York City in the current recession. Even though the current unemployment numbers are hovering around 10.3%, people continue to move to the city. Why? Because you can’t find many other places in the world with a similar art and culture scene. Where else can you find so many museums in a 10 mile radius? But when it comes to being practical? No, not so much. The fact that the unemployment is only 10.3% is likely because of the high costs associated with living in or even near the city.

So back to the original example. Would starting an arts community allow for eventual development of a thriving economy? It depends. Are there other nearby communities that can feed into this new community? Are those other communities lacking in culture or interesting events of their own, thereby necessitating people in that community to travel? Are there people in the existing community that will be benefactors to the new community? And most importantly, are there people willing to move to and develop a new arts and culture based community?

If there is a willing population, both moving to and surrounding a new (or revitalized) community, then I believe it would be possible to use arts and culture to build up a local economy. I think that it is a non-standard way to draw young and artistic people into a new place and to centralize events and gatherings; this, in turn, could help to draw people that aren’t contributing to the art and cultural scene directly but want to experience and patronize it. I know that Cleveland, with excessive sprawl and thinly populated suburbs, could really benefit from a community such as this (really it will be supplementing many other creative and culturally rich regions). Although the travel required between regions is undesirable, I think creating an arts community can really help to bring people together, which is really what drives economic growth over the long term. Do I think there will ever be large corporations moving in and bringing thousands of jobs to this revitalized community? No, I don’t; but that’s not really the point anyway.

I’m interested to know if anyone has heard of other communities built first around cultural and artistic endeavors that later blossomed into vibrant communities. If you have ever heard of one or have an opinion about what they’re trying in Cleveland, please leave a note in the comments.