The Y generation is here. And it is here to stay. The engineers of today are not doomed to obscurity, to cramped cubicle hells. Engineering today occurs at remarkable junctures and gives spectacular experiences. Application and tenacity to achieve what you desire is all it takes.
You do not need to know how your career is supposed to turn up on day one. But when you know, it demands complete dedication, more so than does anything else in life. A volcanic eruption, for example gave Christian Antenor-Habazac his opening. He now designs and maintains a seismic sensor network to protect people. Nels Peterson always wanted to work on dinosaurs. Sure people frowned, but today he develops radical new techniques to get more information out of digs.
So, even if digging for extinct giants or staring down lava does not give you smiles, the world of technology is huge, bigger than you think it is. You must pursue your passion, be prepared to take a few risks you may just end up with a career that makes you want to jump out of bed every morning, love every moment of the day ahead.
For this generation of engineers, it is not all about the big bucks. Sure, it does not hurt, but they feel an obligation to give back, to serve, and that sets them apart, that helps them shape the 21st century and beyond. Some engineers of today, inspiration to some, awe to others, are what we shall discuss.
Andrew Paris is a forensic engineer. It is not quite as glamorous as in CSI but to someone who loves being challenged technically, it is just as compelling. Paris works for Anderson Engineering of New Prague Inc., some 50 Km south of Minneapolis. What he does is simple, really. He investigates electrical and electronic devices suspected of malfunction, using technical skills and instincts honed at the job. He confesses that he had absolutely no idea that this field even existed! He saw an ad on the Monster.com web site and soon interviewed for the post. He spends his time doing analysis of old electrical code and scrutinizing possibilities of stresses devices can take. But the interesting part is when he spends time at accident scenes and in laboratories. The best part of his job, he says is that he can help people who have been wronged and in ensuring that the products are safe. If nobody were bothered, why would you make safe products at all?
The story of Nels Peterson is especially heartening because it is closer to heart. Enrolling as an electrical engineering student at the Montana State University did not kill his childhood romance with paleontology. He now supervises paleontology digs and tries to develop new technologies for excavation and imaging. He gets to travel the world, to several exotic places and digs up old bones. He does work with other engineers when not touring with paleontologists, but when on tour he is the sole engineer, sole designer and the sole technical support. So, he runs in if it is a car’s engine or a base camp’s satellite link. His long time goal is to create a 3D image of the site so that in addition to the bones, one has access to information of habitat and actual ground conditions of the animals.
30 months ago, Mary Lou Jepsen flew to Boston to interview for a professorship at MIT Media Lab. Intead, she landed a different job in Cambridge. She was appointed chief technical officer of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project. The rest, as they say, is history. She is now spending time designing ultra cheap, versatile laptops for kids in the not-so-wealthy countries. She underwent a brain surgery to get a tumor removed, and came out of it to get herself a Ph. D. in optics and then on to manufacturing liquid-crystal-on-silicon chips for HD TV displays. That was her challenge at OLPC as well – to get a low power consuming, cheap solution for the display unit. How she has succeeded is stuff meant for legends. The new display reportedly consumes a tenth of a normal laptop-display’s power. She now travels the world – an ambassador for OLPC, meeting Heads of state and bridging the digital divide. She is truly an ambassador of what we aspire to become!
Dale Joachim designs technology for communicating with birds using cellphones, making them easier to mark. Gregory Makhov loves light; he designs laser equipment for the entertainment industry, produces light shows and gets paid for lighting ‘em up. Ian Wright loves his life in the fast lane, literally. He spends his days designing high-performance electric sports cars – and to think he majored in optical communications!
Vasik Rajlich writes commercial chess software, and he has written arguably the best chess program in the world. He gets to be a world beater at chess, without ever having to worry about Karpov, Kasporov, Kramnik or Anand. Frederic Kaplan simply invents futuristic devices – robots, interactive furniture, new forms of computers. And, he gets to explore their social consequences.
For these fortunate engineers, whose enthusiasm knows no bounds, sky is not the limit. And congratulations, for a decade, maybe two, you can be an addition to this ever- growing list. Just do not stop dreaming.
IEEE Spectrum –February 2007
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