I’m pretty good at stressing myself out. Not for any particular reason; normally just because I find it’s more productive than watching TV. How, you ask?
Well, starting podcasts could be one. While they are exciting at the beginning, there is invariably some work that needs to be done. I’ll want to figure out how to get the recording setup to work or make the website more reliable or try and find some kind of funding for it. In the end, it’s driven by my desire to put my voice on the internet, but at the base of it all, there’s no reason I need to be doing this stuff.
Which brings me to my most current project. Learning about CNC machines and later purchasing one was driven from my interest in 3D printers. Yup, those shiny new machines that now seem like a walk in the park (they’re not). My interest in trying out materials outside the 3D printed space, cost vs accuracy calculations and a variety of other factors pushed me towards a CNC milling machine. Subtractive instead of additive. Metal instead of plastic. But the end result was the same as podcasting: I stressed myself out.
This isn’t a new phenomenon by any stretch. Really any kind of hobby is based upon similar principles. There’s no reason anyone needs to build model trains or crochet funny little figurines or do artwork of Star Wars characters. Some end up on Etsy or other marketplaces that pop up, but that’s hardly ever where those people start from. No, they start from being interested in the subject matter, getting into it and stressing themselves out. In a good way.
You see, when I’m talking about stress, I’m actually talking about the good kind of stress. The kind that just kind of tickles your brain and makes you want to scream and/or stay up all night figuring something out. Hell, I’m writing this post right now to try and distract my brain from thinking it needs to do just that. But this kind of stress is the basis of learning. It’s necessary. It’s healthy. And sometimes it sucks. The best I think I can do is to recognize the feeling, accept it and realize that there will be a treasure trove of knowledge on the other side of my struggle.
I had an interesting conversation today with a few friends about the exodus of young people from the workplace back to school during this recession. It seems as though people in Generation Y are bailing left and right on current jobs and diving back under the safe covers of academia. And who can blame them? You get to work on interesting research (hopefully), you get a stipend (maybe) and you have better prospects when you’re all done (eh, doubtful). But that leads me to ask, “Who’s going to do all the work when the economy is in full swing again?” Let’s survey the current demographics, starting from the top:
The bosses — Not to sound deriding, but they aren’t doing the type of work I’m talking about here. The never have and never will…mostly because they actually have better things to do. For real. They have to meet with other big wigs and figure out where to steer the company and where the market is going and hopefully how to react in time. The work I talk about is more a “down-in-the-trenches” kind of work and I never really expected them to do that kind of work, just thought it was necessary to actually start at the top.
The elders — The elders are those who aren’t necessarily in charge but those that have been around for a long time and really understand how a company or industry works. They won’t be doing the work when the economy recovers…because they’ll be retiring. Think about it. How many people were likely planning on retiring in 2008 onwards who suddenly saw their investments vaporize? No, they decided they better stick it out. And though they won’t see a huge return to the days where their portfolios were bulging, I would venture a guess that if the conditions are good enough and they feel that they can squeak by on portfolio growth after they retire, a lot will take the out. If you’re pushing into your 70s, I’m guessing you’re ready for a break. Even if they stay on part time, they won’t be doing the grunt work.
The smart ones — The smart ones are those that drive ideas and new products. Even though they may have been around and producing good work for a while, they aren’t allowed to go anywhere. They are the geese with the golden eggs. Where would they go anyway? The people in charge of promoting them would have to replace themselves. Not likely. So they will have to do some work still, but you can probably watch for this group eying the social security line on their weekly pay stub longingly and starting to stick a pinky toe out the door. If you’re looking for a technical mentor, get ’em before they’re gone.
The middle — The middle is all those people that were doing the grunt work 20 years ago and did a good job. They may have run out of salary headroom and jumped over to management or maybe they needed a new challenge (I can only imagine dealing with engineers or other similar underlings from a management perspective every day). Either way, there’s little likelihood they’re planning on stepping back into lesser roles. No, they have their eyes on the upper management jobs of the elders and the other aging boomers.
The lazy ones — They were the ones on the team that did work every once in a while but in general only contributed when the workload really picked up. They were the auxiliary fuel tank of your company as an airplane–useful when you need it but really just weighing things down when not in use. And although we know it’s not really true, we have an inkling some of them got the ax when it fell last year. Even if you were deluded enough to believe that all the dead weight in your company was gone, the ones in this category that aren’t gone are really good at two things: not doing work and looking like they are. Count them out.
The young upstarts — This group has a shot at doing some of the beefy work. In fact, this group has the highest likelihood of doing the majority of the work. I should mention I also feel as though I am a part of this group and therefore have a lot of interest in studying it. “What’s that?? Jim, Allison and Mark are all going back to school? Why? Trudy is going too? What the heck? Who’s going to do their work?!?”, you say (the answer: whoever is asking that question). This newfound love of the classroom is the other reason I am interested in my own demographic. We’re all jumping ship hoping to leapfrog into the next part of our career! There doesn’t seem to be any paying of dues, does there? Welp, that’s because there isn’t. But you can’t do anything about it because everyone in this demographic is back in classes learning about managerial accounting or tort law and not actually doing any work. Now the real question: when everyone pops out of school at the end of the recession, who will be better prepared? MBA Marty or Experienced Eddy? I’d be inclined to say the second, but again, I’m biased here. If you’re in this group and not going back to school, expect more work coming your way. Lawyer Larry is busy studying.
The new grads — Quick! We’re running out of people that have any interest in engineering and menial tasks! Get me some workers! “Waaaaaait a second,” says Bob the manager. “All we’ve got is the new grads. There’s no way I’m hiring them without any experience.” Well Bob, too bad, you’re running out of options. Just hire these new kids and try and push them to learn faster and work harder. And do this even though those new grads have higher expectations of what employers will give them and the hours they are asked to work. You’ll probably end up giving it to them too, because what other options do you have?
The overseas workers — Well, there’s your answer. It’s really been more of a circular process, figuring out who will be doing all the work. Think about what’s been said and how people have reacted. “Foreign labor is taking all of our jobs!”, the workers said at the beginning. Then they thought, “Oh! I better go back to school and learn how to manage people overseas and the remaining labor in the US!”. Then they get out of school three years later, lobby for a shiny new management position and ask “Ok, where are my underlings? Hunh? No underlings?!? Well crap, hire more foreign workers, we need to get this project out the door!”. Lather, rinse, repeat.
I want to be clear about a few things. First, I don’t disagree with going back to school. I plan on doing it myself some day, in some capacity. I just disagree with the timing. I liken going back now to pulling all your investments out of the market at the lowest point back in March (maybe to pay for school?). You remove yourself from the market at a time when the most growth can occur. You remove yourself from situations that include working long hours on hard work but it’s with a team that affords you more responsibilities. I feel that the next few years will provide some great opportunities for innovation and growth in certain positions and companies. Second, I realize that some people are going back to revamp skills, especially when they feel that they cannot find employment. This is understandable and expected based on enrollment numbers from past recessions. I would only remind these people to remember to keep up their real-world skills so they can be hired right out of school. Academia doesn’t have room to hold onto you and they have a similar hierarchy as above except for one catch: those tenured professors don’t plan on giving up their cushy position until they are forced to or decide to leave on their own. If you do choose the academic track, get a comfy couch to wait/sleep/eat/live on. Finally, I’d like to speak to my targeting of MBA and Law degrees. It’s not that I think they aren’t important, because I feel that a lot of really important concepts are taught in both management and law classes. I mostly take offense to the idea of you being my boss in 5 years because of a piece of paper. I respect the people around me who are working hard and have better vision than I do to tell me what to do. If you plan on “managing” me without first working by my side or in a similar position, expect to work extra hard to gain my respect.
I believe the solution here is what a lot of people are actually doing: sitting tight and getting some work done. You need to continue to show your company you are a valuable and contributing member while maintaining boundaries on how many peoples’ work you are willing to do. It sometimes seems bleak when you see others stagnating in their career progression right in front of or next to you. However, I believe hard work and tangible results will be the true indicator or advancement and success whenever the economy rebounds. If you think your hard work should go towards a more noble cause, strike out on your own. If companies end up short on talent when the economy comes back, a savvy consultant could be flexible and fluid enough to be exactly the solution customers and companies are looking for.
What about you? What category do you feel like you fall into? Take the poll below or leave a note in the comments!
I find myself sitting around these days trying to catch up on knowledge I feel like I missed in school. Worse, I feel like I learned it at one time but it all fell out the other side once I took the exam. Pretty standard really, when you don’t think you’re going to need to the knowledge some day. Haven’t you ever sat in class wondering if you’d really ever use the material you were expected to learn? How much did you pay attention?
I feel that a requisite of every college class should be at least an entire class devoted to how you can use the knowledge contained in the remainder of the course material. It should probably happen close to the beginning of the semester or quarter. I have always lobbied for this kind of explanation and have always tried to include it whenever I am teaching something. Better yet, if someone from the field come in and explain how they use the knowledge in their working lives it would really drive the point home. When you know that you will definitely use certain knowledge, you’re more likely to sit up and pay attention.
Some of the material that I have been relearning lately has been tangential to the actual material we covered in classes back in my school days. Some of this is because I needed to go back and re-learn the absolute basics, such as semiconductor physics. I didn’t quite need to learn why a PN junction behaves as it does, only how it behaves and how it relates to larger devices such as transistors (basically a couple PN junctions specialized for certain behavior and placed in a certain configuration). I also don’t need to know why certain materials carry magnetic fields, only how they do and how you can use them to build a transformer. Other than re-learning the absolute basics, it’s driven by things I encounter in my daily work where I feel I was lacking. Very general topics but things that have very specific application in my job. Transformers are an area where I felt it was necessary to get more info, so I used my favorite resource (OhioLink) to get some textbooks based on co-workers recommendations. Hey, you just end up reading the textbook in some classes anyway, right? So why not?
So I guess that’s all I have to say about this topic. If you don’t know something, go to the library and and figure it out (I love libraries). And if books don’t show you what you need, ask a friend. Most importantly, find out where you might use the material you’re learning the first time you see it. If you’re not being directly told why you will need a certain piece of information, do the legwork yourself and figure out why you should care (someone saying “because it’s in the course outline” isn’t good enough). The application of the knowledge is much more important over the long term.
Got something you can’t figure out? Ask me in the comments.
More importantly I’m still employed. I actually had a blog post planned out for early January in the event that I lost my job. Hey, if you’re not going to promote yourself, who will?
I was reviewing my new years resolutions from last year and I realized the only one I really followed through on was finding new employment. And since finding my new employment and starting a blog and all of those details, I have come to some important realizations, mostly about work:
If you’re doing it right, there are 3 sections to your life: sleep, work, other.
Sleep is unavoidable. At least for now. If there are ever advances in sleep technology that allow people to sleep less per night (besides coffee), I will be the first in line. Plus, I have come to the realization that without the sleep component in your life, you enjoy the other 2/3 much less.
Other is everything you’re not doing when sleeping or working. The most important thing you should be doing (in my opinion) is building relationships in your life and enjoying those relationships. Sure, there are hobbies and time for relaxing and whatnot, but really it’s the connections in your life that will enrich your “other” time. And in this economy, you shouldn’t be planning for too much “other” time, so savor what you get. Heck, I consider this blog to be under this time category and in the event sleep and work and my family and friends get in the way, the blog will fall behind.
So work takes up that last 1/3 of your life…probably more. What I’m trying to get across is, it’s important, much more so than I was ever told when I was deciding what to do with my life. It’s important to enjoy what you do, who you work with, how fulfilled you are by the things you accomplish and having an employer that respects your non-work time. For me, I continue to tell myself that on mornings when I’m walking the dog in the snow or when I glance at the forecasts for my old hometown. I think about how I enjoy my job now and how I let that trump some other things when deciding whether or not I wanted to change my life around and move up t0 the blustery north. And given the choice, I would do it all again and have advised others to do the same (pick up and move across the country for a job they might like).
A job that pays you to learn is probably one of the best jobs in the world–I’m not talking about being a grad student (although that’s not bad either). I know those jobs and assistantships pay you (sorta) to learn and do research and such, but my experience has been in the private sector; jobs where the real expectation is that I produce an item that can be sold for the company. However, the important thing is that you learn in the process. My job is particularly well suited to learning, mostly because I am handed problems and then told to start fixing them. Jobs that require thinking on your feet and quickly adapt to your situation will give you the steepest learning curve and you should relish the opportunity to be challenged like that.
If you learn new skills, you’re not a commodity anymore–Let’s face it, we’re all afraid of losing our jobs at one point or another. I’d say a higher percentage have that fear now that we’re in a recession. I was talking recently with a friend that just lost her job and she mentioned a similar thought: to stay employed, you have to be valuable to your employer. A simple but powerful concept. In the end if you’re not learning and are not contributing (or not showing off what you do contribute), you are expendable. So in the event that you are in a job that does not allow for learning (either mentored or self-learning), push your employer to let you start new projects that will allow you to do so. If they say your workload is too high, offer to work overtime on your learning project. I think it’s that important and it might just help you save your job.
The recession will deepen. But even in the Great Depression, with 25% unemployment, that meant three out of four people were working. I plan on being one of those 3 by continually increasing my skillset in my work projects or in my “other” time (reading new books, working on my piano and blogging). What are you doing to make yourself more valuable to your employer or to any future employer?
The other morning I heard a great story on NPR about people in China and their interest in basketball. I was really interested to learn how they believed basketball allowed them to express their individuality. One of them dreamed out loud of being able to dunk and how this was their ultimate dream of freedom.
Aside from the question of how many different ways there are to dunk, it got me thinking about Chinese culture and how it has contributed to their success over the past 8 years or so. It is no secret that the Chinese culture, and specifically the government, stresses conformity. One might think that this would hinder the technological progress in China, but they are quickly becoming a technology leader in the world (it is important to note that a good deal of the continued success of China is companies outside the country driving progress…but not all of it). Add to that how more and more design work is being offshored, due to the low cost and higher supply of design engineers. A slew of questions have popped up in my mind when I think about these kinds of things.
Does conformity hurt a culture?
I would argue that when it comes to academics and business, conformity helps. In school, this is obvious. If you are in a classroom with 50 other students, every student is expected to know that 2 + 2 = 4. Sure, this is a simple example, but the academic system is usually based upon reaching a solution that someone else (the textbook, your teacher, the government, etc) wants you to reach. Further, the extremely competitive nature of academia in China has parents encouraging this behavior, even outside the structures of academia (no, I am not suggesting that 2 + 2 does not equal 4, nor that you should tell your teacher so to be unique, just that conformity can travel beyond the walls of a school). Academic stress happens in America too, I just feel like it is more ubiquitous in China.
What about in business? This too has some benefits. Think about a production line in China, cranking out iPod after iPod, all made to be the exact same, with the outliers and the bad production techniques tweaked to remove these expensively bad units. The faster each unit can be made the same, the cheaper that unit will be, and the happier the company selling it will be. The concept was created in the wake of World War 2, when the Japanese began to focus heavily on quality control; today, the Chinese benefit from these methods of conformity.
So business and school both seem to be havens for conformity. But what about situations that require some ingenuity? What happens when the product that is made so fast and becomes so cheap and ubiquitous that the public is clamoring for a newer and shinier device? (an iPhone instead of an iPod, for example) Who will create the technology that will drive the next revolution? What about when there are students that rise to the top of their class and go on to get a PhD? What happens when the smartest student goes to the best school and gets the highest degree possible after conforming to all the standards placed before them? Then they stare out into the abyss and try to figure out something new, only to realize that no one is there telling them what they need to figure out. I’m not saying this happens, only that it is an interesting scenario and it begs the question: is absolute conformity a good thing?
Is the academic system set up for failure eventually?
This is an extension of the above idea about PhD students. I know many PhD students (in the US) who tell me about their research being only that which their advisor wants. Further, while they are working on their research, they are hoping and praying that there are not any other students about to publish similar results as their own. Perhaps this is why we see more PhD students who are from outside the US (studying at US schools) or are getting PhDs at international institutions–because the fastest paper published is the most important, not the most creative. Perhaps the conformity aspect of academia extends beyond the simple math equations into the upper echelons of higher education. I think the scariest part is the students who eventually become the teachers. If you think about the rigor involved in obtaining a professorship these days, it can include 1 or more PhDs, multiple post doctorate positions and continual paper publishing throughout one’s career. This basically means that the most astute students of the system (those that best navigate the conformity requirements placed upon them) are the ones that become the teachers. These same people then expect the same (or more!) out of the rising students. One has to wonder when this sort of thing will stop.
Another point about the academic system that confuses me is whether or not the students who exhibit some amount of individuality are more or less successful. I would like to think that those with bright new ideas rise to the top, but I am not so sure that this happens. Perhaps instead the ones that conform the quickest and those with the best advisors do the best. Personally, I have never heard of an academic phenom that did not have a spectacular advisor guiding them through the world of academics.
What is individuality?
Well, the idea is that an individual is capable of defining themselves as different from all other people. Does this happen very often? No, of course not. Even this article I am writing now has been conceived and written about many times over. But I view individuality as the opposite of conformity; it is bucking the norm, even if others do too (some small amount of them, of course. If the majority buck the trend, it becomes the new trend).
How does individualism affect creativity?
Creativity is a nebulous and fickle thing. Further, I don’t think that individuality breeds creativity; instead, I believe creativity breeds individuality. This is important to engineering because without creativity, engineering would essentially stop in its tracks. There would be no new methods, no new products, no intellectual progress. Most importantly (and realistically), there would be no financial gain and therefore no more funding to teach and advance engineering. Of course this also extends outside of engineering; art programs, humanities, economics, language (?)…none of these would be funded if there was no creativity and new ideas. Instead, the money would focus on getting the best value from what is already being made. If this is the case, Seth Godin points out not to follow the money.
Does too much individualism breed a sense of entitlement?
I think it’s important to view the other side of this issue. What happens when students are given the freedom to express themselves and the means to do so? In the extreme cases, I think that students are more prone to laziness, replication (copying others) and a sense of entitlement. Let’s look at an American student as it is interesting to contrast the difference from a Chinese student. Many newly graduating students are demanding higher salaries, more responsibilities and have less experience. Some people justify it (and rightly so), but does that mean we’re worth the more than our last generation? I’m not so sure.
C’mon people, of course the extremes of conformity and individualism will have their faults. Of course there will be some mixing of the two that will produce the best engineers and the best students. However, I would really love to hear from you about your opinions on individuality and conformity.
These are questions that I have asked at two periods in my life. The first time was in my introductory circuits class and around that time I really didn’t care (beer was a priority). The second time was when I dove headfirst back into analog electronics for my new job and had to re-teach myself a lot of things. I really appreciate the opportunity I had to re-learn everything because the second time around, I think I got it right.
OK, so let’s start simple. What is an op amp? Whoa, loaded question. For our purposes here (and just for now), let’s say it’s just a symbol.
To keep things basic, the A & B points are the input, the C point is the output.This symbol is an IDEAL op-amp, meaning it is impossible to construct one and really the expectations for the op amp are unrealistic. But this is the internet and we can do what we want on the internet, so we’ll just use the IDEAL op-amp for now.
OK, so now you know what the symbol is, but what does it mean? Well, the idea is you put two electrical signals into the inputs then the output changes accordingly. It takes the difference between the inputs and amplifies it, hence operational amplifier, or op amp. You may have noticed that input A has a minus symbol and input B has a plus symbol. So let’s say that the input to the minus, or INVERTING, input is 1 (for simplicity’s sake…this site is about analog so that value could be ANYWHERE from 0 to 1 or higher! Just thought I’d mention that). The input to the plus, or NON-INVERTING, input is 0. Now the op-amp is in an unbalanced state. The device is designed so that when this happens, the output goes as negative as it can. For the ideal case, we say this is negative infinity, but that’s not really possible. More on that later.
Conversely, in figure 3, if we put a one on the non-inverting and a zero on the inverting input, the op amp output would go high, infinity for our purposes here. The important thing to know is this:
The op-amp always “wants” both inputs (inverting and non-inverting) to be the same value. If they are not, the same value, the op amp output will go positive or negative, depending on which input is higher than the other. (Throughout this article I will continue to anthropomorphize op amps…best to get used to it now)
Alright, so how do we use this in circuits? If we wanted to find out if two signals were different, we could tie the signals to the inputs of the op amp, but then the output would go to infinity. This would not do us any good. The answer to this and many other questions in the universe is feedback. We are going to take the output and tie it back to the inverting input. Now the circuit looks like this:
First, we assume that the circuit has all points start at zero (point A being the most important). Next, we put a value of 1 (like the picture in figure 2) at the “B” non-inverting input. “WHOA,” says the op amp, “THIS AIN’T RIGHT!” So now the op amp puts its output to as high as it can, as fast as it can. This feeds back from the output (“C”) to the inverting input (“A”). So as the output moves closer to 1, the op amp is happier and backs off the output. When the input at A is the same as at B, the op amp is happy and stays there (but maintains the output of 1). The key here is that the op amp moves as fast as possible to get both inputs to be the same.
Why would someone use a buffer? Well that brings us to the next point about op amps, specifically ideal op amps:
Ideal op amps have infinite impedance (resistance) at their inputs. This means that no current will flow into the op amp.
A common use for a buffer is to supply current to another stage of a design, where the buffer acts as a gateway. So when the buffer “sees” a voltage at the input (“B”), it will output the voltage at “C”, but will also drive that voltage with current (as much as you want for an ideal op amp). This would be useful if you have a weak signal at the input, but want to let some other part of a circuit know about it. Perhaps you have a small sensor that is outputting a small voltage, but then you want to send the voltage over a long wire. The resistance in the wire will probably consume any current the sensor is outputting, so if you put that signal through a buffer, the buffer will supply the necessary current to get the signal to its destination (the other end of the wire).
What if the signal coming from the sensor is too small though? What if we want to make it bigger? This is when we turn the op amp into an amplifier, using resistors. One of the more common ways of doing so is using the inverting input, shown below:
Let’s go over what we know about this circuit. We know that the op amp wants both inputs to be the same. We also know that the non-inverting input is zero (because it’s connected to ground) and so the op amp will want the inverting input to be equal to zero (sometimes known as a “virtual ground”). In fact, since the op amp has feedback through the top resistor (squiggly line if you didn’t know), then the (ideal) op amp will output just about any current and voltage in order to get the inverting input to be equal to zero.
So now our situation. A dashing young engineer hooks up a voltage source to the point “IN” set to 1 volt. This creates a voltage at the inverting input. “WHOA” says the op amp, and then it begins to output a voltage to make the inverting input point equal to zero. Since the input is 1 volt the op amp decides it better do the opposite in order to make the inverting input match the non-inverting input of zero. As fast as it can (infinitely fast for an ideal op amp), it outputs -1 volt. The inputs are both zero and everything is right in the op amp’s world. What about current though? We remember that current cannot flow into the op amp at the inverting input, so any current will be flowing through both resistors. If we have 1 volt at the input and a 1 ohm resistor at the input, then we will have 1 amp of current flowing (according to Ohm’s law V=IR). So when the op amp outputs -1 volt across the top resistor, there is a -1 amp going through it (assuming it is a 1 ohm resistor). The currents cancel each other out at the inverting input and the voltage then equals zero. The place where the currents meet is sometimes called the “summing node”. This is a useful representation when dealing with currents as opposed to voltages.
For the last part of this thought exercise, let’s look at a situation where the resistors at the input and at the top of the circuit are not the same. Similarly to above, the same dashing young engineer puts 1 volt at the “In” node. The resistor is still 1 ohm, so there is 1 A of current flowing through to the summing node. The op amp once again sees this 1 volt and once again says “WHOA, I’m unhappy about this” and starts outputting the highest voltage it can. However, in this situation, the top resistor is now 4 ohms. In order to create the -1 amp that is required to cancel the 1 amp going through the input resistor, the op amp must output -4 volts (remember V=IR). We see that for an inverting op amp configuration, the ratio of the resistance of the top resistor to the bottom resistor determines the gain, or a multiplication factor from the input to the output. Also notice that the output is negative for a positive input, confirming that this is an inverting amplifier.
That’s the basics of it. Check back here for more about op amps, because there is a lot more to be said. Future posts might include other op amp configurations, design considerations and even the dreaded “REAL WORLD”, where the ideal op amp no longer exist.