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Going Back to Engineering? 65

JoeLinux asks: "I am a Systems Engineer for a Big Engineering Company(tm). I've been in the position for four years after getting my undergrad in Electrical Engineering. I've finally come to the conclusion that I will never see any form of technical challenge despite the continued promise of such. The problem is that almost all engineers usually make the transition the other way (E.E. to Systems). Seeing as Systems is looked at as a possible gateway to the dark side (Management), is there any going back to 'real' engineering? Have any readers successfully made the transition? How do you justify what would typically be considered a step back?"
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Going Back to Engineering?

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  • Get a hobby (Score:4, Insightful)

    by BadAnalogyGuy ( 945258 ) <BadAnalogyGuy@gmail.com> on Thursday December 07, 2006 @06:35AM (#17143710)
    Either get a hobby doing challenging projects or strike out on your own and do consulting in a field that you particularly enjoy.

    Join an OSS developers list and start hacking. Buy some hardware and get to porting. Write the next great killer application.

    Whatever you do, don't move backwards in your career. If you think a move back to development is a step backwards, I'd recommend you adjust your attitude a little.
    • by AuMatar ( 183847 )
      I know plenty of people who took backwards steps in their careers- usually form management back into engineering. None of them regretted it- they were all happier as engineers.
      • But do they see it themselves as a step backwards? That's the point I was making in my closing remarks.

        If you see what you do as inferior to what you are doing now, can you really be satisfied?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 07, 2006 @06:41AM (#17143744)
    Quit your job, it'll be outsourced by the end of the year anyway. Instead, start a Sourceforge project for a next-generation text editor. Use your newfound freetime to beg for donations on the interweb and be sure to cultivate a dirty GNU/Hippie beard. Don't forget to watch plenty of tentacle hentai for inspiration!
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by nonsequitor ( 893813 )
      be sure to cultivate a dirty GNU/Hippie beard
      GNU/Hippie beards are passe these days. What you need are F/OSS Facial Piercings and some visible GNU/Punk tattoos.
    • Hmmm, I think I've been forced to work on some code where the author used tentacle hentai for inspiration - at least judging by how violated I felt for days afterward.
  • by sane? ( 179855 )

    Although I can see how you might yearn for those 'challenges' you haven't seen, you are in a much better place that you would if you went backwards into base EE engineering. Of course that depends on just kind of SE you are doing. If its the paper chase kind then I would say move on to another employer. That's not real SE. Sure SE needs documentation, but the real value comes from the other end, the understanding of the connectivity, cohesion and architecture of a solution.

    However wherever you are, you d

    • "And finally, when you get those 'challenges', be aware that a hell of a lot of worry and hassle go with them. You may end up yearning for the simpler life." mmm 70 hour work weeks.
  • I find it surprising that you are facing no "technical challenges". Rarelly should any no experience engineer be performing management type activities, beyond what is sadly the norm for all engineers. System Engs. certinally have a higher tendency to go management, but it isn't always the case.

    Have you considered that it's the company and not the profession that bother you? Any systems eng. should be able to get a job that someone with a EE degree would without "going back".

    Also, a quick question: by "r
  • by antifoidulus ( 807088 ) on Thursday December 07, 2006 @07:23AM (#17143940) Homepage Journal
    If you have saved some scratch during your gig as a System Engineer I would recommend going back to school for a year or so to get your masters degree. Most EEs that I know(anecdote alert!) anyway say that pretty much a masters is essential, if not at the very least a career booster. Plus it would get you back in contact with some interesting technology and give you a "fresh start" in the eyes of companies.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      Not all Masters programs are equivalent in terms of the demand for their graduates.

      If you're not already a member, join the local IEEE and attend the meetings. It's not what you know, it's who you know. Find as many ways to network as you can think of.

      I agree with the parent. Doing a Masters Degree is almost always viewed favorably by those doing the hiring. Where I work, you won't even get an interview unless you have a Masters. That wasn't the case when I graduated but we are seeing 'credential creep
    • by JoeLinux ( 20366 )
      Already got it. Sooo, another Masters really isn't going to help too much.
    • by JoeLinux ( 20366 )
      Already got my Master's. Navy Paid for it.
  • Peter Principle (Score:2, Interesting)

    by krotkruton ( 967718 )
    The Peter Principle [wikipedia.org] states, "In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence." Although this isn't quite applicable, it is seen all too often that engineers and such who do well at their jobs are eventually promoted to management, where many don't want to be, regardless of whether or not they are good at doing it.

    The good news is that this might be changing. I'm currently at the University of Illinois and have had the wonderful opportunity (sarcastic) to have just finished a cl
    • by imadork ( 226897 )
      I work in a Big Company with a genuine technical advancement track. It is not uncommon for a senior engineer with key skills to be paid more than his supervisor. (But not more than his manager, of course, since middle management is so important!) These positions tend to involve a lot of technical leadership: coordinating the activities of a project team, mentoring younger engineers, and providing input into the resource planning and budgeting process. But they have nobody "reporting" to them, and they make
      • by kotj.mf ( 645325 )
        Same here. We've got a management track and a technical expert track. The technical expert side generally involves a lot of project management, but they do quite often get up to their elbows in code or gear or whatever. The highest-level guy on that side reports directly to the CIO.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Bender0x7D1 ( 536254 )

      Our professor, along with a guest lecturer who runs the Career Management Offices (or something like that), both said that many jobs now are offering contracts that will "promise" to allow for engineers to stay in engineering and not get bumped to management, while also getting continued pay raises and promotions, so they aren't just getting stuck in engineering with no chance for advancement.

      The problem that I've seen is that there is the opportunity to stay in engineering, but there aren't as many o

      • From what I've seen as well, you're definitely right. I guess what I was trying to say, and didn't make clear enough, is that companies are recognizing that, see it as a problem, and are looking for solutions. From what my professor was telling us, not that that makes it true, is that companies are starting to make a shift towards allowing engineers to stay as engineers. The key word there is "starting", so it probably won't be as common as managerial positions for at least a few more years.
  • collect your paycheck and look for your opportunity to increase the little numbers on it.

    Or, ya know, join a startup and when the startup gets too big, quit and join another one. You'll have no problems finding challenges (typically impossible ones) being a startup junkie. And hey, if you're lucky, you might even accidently stay at one long enough for your shares to vest and blow it on a nice car.

  • by cerberusss ( 660701 ) on Thursday December 07, 2006 @08:11AM (#17144152) Homepage Journal
    I'd like to suggest that you look for a job in a research institute. What you're asking is NEVER going to fly in a business environment. I'm currently working at SRON [www.sron.nl], a Dutch space research institute. My current project [www.sron.nl] involves a supercooled instrument which receives waves in the 500-620 GHz range and will fly on a balloon somewhere next year. I'm the software guy for the project and it's great work. You get to work with very smart physics guys and the project has a bunch of custom-designed electronics which I'm reading out and controlling.

    I'm under some pressure right now because we're going to fly april 2007, but normally, there is enough time to creatively do your job.

    Check my website (for instance here [vankuik.nl]) to see some stuff we're working on.
    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      You're kidding right? I'm a physicist, so it's a little different to being an EE, but once you've spent time in industry, the gatekeepers of academic institutions and not-for-profit research institutes (at least here in the UK) really don't want to let you back in, even if you're one of the top people in your field.

      The moment you step off the academic treadmill you're screwed if you ever want to go back, because the academics can't recognise professional experience - even when you've got a multi-million dol
      • I can't really speak for a physicist since I'm a software engineer. I suspect it also depends a great deal on how many candidates they get for an opening...
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by CastrTroy ( 595695 )
          I took software engineering in university, and while I'm not yet a P. Eng. I find that there are very few companies out there who want to do real software engineering. I find that taking software engineering provided a good foundation to develop good software, and that I find I'm better off than those who took computer science, but I also find that a lot of my knowledge isn't doing me a lot of good, because companies don't want engineered software. They want something good that doesn't crash all the time,
          • by rk ( 6314 ) * on Thursday December 07, 2006 @12:26PM (#17147206) Journal

            "They want something good that doesn't crash all the time, but they don't want something that's perfect, because they don't want to take the extra time necessary to do it right the first time."

            Real engineers also understand that perfection, while a laudable goal, is nearly impossible in the real world, and that engineering is a series of trade-offs and compromises in design, functionality, cost, and time. Not that I'm advocating creating shit, but the "good enough" solution that cost a million dollars and generates five million in cost savings or revenue is better than the "perfect" solution that cost four million dollars and generates seven million in cost savings or revenue.

            • by Viv ( 54519 )
              Not that I'm advocating creating shit, but the "good enough" solution that cost a million dollars and generates five million in cost savings or revenue may be better than the "perfect" solution that cost four million dollars and generates seven million in cost savings or revenue.

              Fixed. There are factors other than money, and there are factors which cannot be accounted for in terms of money. :)

              Just sayin'.
            • by jafac ( 1449 )
              I think what the GP was saying (and he understated it) was that companies don't want engineered solutions. They want "quick-n-dirty". They want cheap. They want it to work (on paper, so they don't get sued, actually working in reality is irrelevant), and they want it yesterday.

              I went back to get a CIS degree, and while I'm finding the classes very interesting, there's very little practical value to them in my current career. I'm hopeful that I'll use it in the future. Frankly, most of my co-workers who
  • It's easy, really. Act like an engineer. Think like an engineer. Constantly. Don't let yourself get sidetracked by manager speak or pper pressure. Especially in meetings.

    Whenever you encounter a number look for the error bars, and be sure to include them when you give a number ("I'll be down in five plus or minus three minutes!"). Call out peo9ple for sloppy thinking, find ways to set bounds that rule out unworkable alternatives early, troubleshoot everything.

    They'll get the hint real quickly.


  • I was recently in a similar position: I wanted to work more scientifically instead of staying on the sales / project management route I was on since getting my BSEE. What I decided to do, since I am still young, is go back to university and get an MS. I'm planning to do a PhD after that, and am fairly confident that I will get some sort of technical R&D job when I'm finished.
    • by Raenex ( 947668 )

      I've heard many stories of people going back for degrees to get a certain kind of job, and then not being able to find what they were looking for. I think the best way to break in to a field is to jump into something close to what you want to do, but without heavy experience requirements, and then excel and move up.

      A lot of what you learn in school is a waste of time, and can be learned faster on your own and on the job, by being close to the people doing actual work.

  • Since I finished my degree in electrical engineering, I've been working in a consultancy, designing products, while watching my friends dissolve into large companies, moving away from actual engineering work.
    To be honest, getting extra qualifications doesn't mean much. You have your qualifications as an electrical engineer, that is enough - what you need is a hands-on design job. So as i said, look for work in consultancies and RnD houses, there would be plenty around. What you get while working for such
    • I'm in a similar situation as he is. The problem isn't so simple. I've been trying to get a real h/w job since I was hired on (going on 5 years now... let's just say what was promised in the interview didn't occur). Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful to have a paycheck, especially since I hired on shortly after 9/11 when most couldn't get ANY job. If he's anything like me, his company outsources all of the real engineering (the true fun design work), and you're basically a project manager.

      NOBODY wants you
    • by JoeLinux ( 20366 )
      I'm in Southern to Mid-California. (I'm at work right now, and can't say). Look me up on myspace for further information http://myspace.com/joelinux [myspace.com]
  • I understand where your coming from. I've felt the same way, I have an undergraduate EE and wanted new challenges. I got a job that pays the bills and gives me enough to work on a few ideas of my own. I hope to form a company around them at some point.
  • Change Jobs (Score:2, Insightful)

    by vancbc ( 974483 )
    Get a new job, if in the second job you end up in the same position, then it is probably you that is putting yourself there. So often you are your own worst enemy.

    If after the second job you still aren't happy, get a job at a University and pay your way through a Masters program.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 07, 2006 @11:01AM (#17145810)
    I started out as a civil engineer from an ivy league school in the 1960s.

    Based on a comparison of incomes and profits, all forms of engineering are functionally disreputable as an occupation. By that, I mean socially and financially. After contributing the costs of your half-life education, and the non-deductable costs for its maintenance (average half-life of an engineering degree is maybe 3 to 6 years on the outside and declining), a taxi-cab driver will make better profits, and an intelligent and educated one arguably will have a better chance of raising a productive family, because he can spend more time with his family and children than the "working engineer" will ever be able to.

    Setting aside the financial tom-follery of big salaries for engineers (which management will treat as some kind of joke) -- engineers are the biggest fools and therefore also one of the greatest dangers to society, based on the financial and social disrespect that they will receive from management and from society in general, in exchange for their loyalty and truthfulness (if they can file truthful reports and remain employed). Based on the comparative hours contributed to work, and on salary, benefits and bonuses received, associates who studied financial engineering or rhetorical engineering will in a short while move way ahead of you, and their up-front educational costs, which have to be contributed to 'get a job' are much lower.

    Careerwise, once you've been branded with an engineering degree, you will find you have been "branded-a-fool" for life. Decoded, the phrase "... he's an engineer ... (hehe)" means someone who cares is so stupid that he actually cares about reality and progress, rather than about getting five to ten times the money like the cracker pretty boys who manage them ... in short, being by nature scientific and honest, an engineer will find there is no place for him in the great American financial apparition.

    Even if you have superlative interpersonal, communication and management skills, as a graduate engineer, you will find yourself "niched out of necessity" -- pigeonholed into an engineered corner because no one else in your company will be able do the required emergency engineering- mathematical- scientific tasks at hand ... but international competition will require that your salary be that of a construction inspector, who will ge a company car, a pension, and bonuses for filing vague reports at the right time. In short, as an honest engineer, by the end of your career, you will find yourself divorsed, broke, and have been the world's biggest fool. You will have "invested" more up-front hard-earned money of your parents in an education with a half-life of 3-5 years (and this is a non-deductable up-front personal "investment" which you will in effect donate for free, and then spend down for free, as a contribution to your employer's balance sheet -- and you will do this in exchange for the vague promise of at-will project employment -- with no continuity, pension or overtime -- and you will work more hours per day, farther away from family, children and home, under more duress of physical emergencies, and your boss' need for you to twist your words and sign falsified reports, than any of the other form of employee in your company. In short, you will take the fall, while your politically-connected boss counts the money. By comparison to the rewards offered a mail clerk, or to your bean-counter whip-thrashing boss, you are a fool.

    Learn to think of "real engineering" the way Cheney and Haliburton think of it. Create a financial apparation as a Potemkin storefront, behind which you operate an "engineering" sweatshop (average turnover or job life for an engineer is about 3-5 years -- look at the average of resumes for engineers -- it's a disaster), invest in joining a country club rather than an engineering education, buttlick for political-military contracts, and just steal the easy money! Look at Iraq. Take Billions i
    • by ezrec ( 29765 )
      On the other hand, I have taken my mother's advice: "Find what you would gladly do for
      free, then find some sucker to pay you for it."

      I love engineering, and I'd be happy if I was paid ditchdigger's wages. (And yes,
      I have a wife and kid, and I can afford my my house at a lower salary - I live in
    • It's a shame how bitter and how accurate this is.

      Society doesn't really let you opt out of the Peter Principle. Which is even more of a shame.
    • by billdar ( 595311 ) * < y a p> on Thursday December 07, 2006 @01:53PM (#17148596) Homepage
      A couple years ago, I would have agreed with this. Life in a dilbert cartoon isn't quite so funny.

      However, since switching companies the future is great again. Decent pay, reasonable hours, not a ton of managerial overhead, and the work/industry keeps me interested.

      Its scary as hell to do, but like any good Engineering challenge you need to identify the problem(s) and systematically solve them. I didn't have the balls myself to initiate it, but luckily my previous companies sank and forced me to make a change.

      Your bitter, dejected rant really helps me appreciate what I got now. Thanks.

    • How many times can one use the phrase "raise a family" in one post? Here's the flipside of your rant, Mr. AC: not all of us
      are going to *have* children, "raise a family", or care about what "they" think about our "foolishness" so this isn't an issue. Some of us are happy with what we make (which is decent, but not amazing) and do this work largely because we _enjoy_ it, and aren't using this to support anyone but ourselves. Crazy idea, eh? If you got into engineering thinking you were going to make a CEO's
    • by Flavio ( 12072 )
      This is one of the most insightful, accurate comments I've ever read.

      I just wish you hadn't posted anonymously. I could use some advice :(
  • You want challenges and some flexibility on the problems you work on? Go back to school and get the MS or Phd. Grad schools like people with real world experience. And they are starving for applicants right now.

    And let's just face it. A B.S. degree means you will usually end up doing 'grundge' work in engineering. The interesting stuff is done by people with MS or Dr. degrees.
  • 4 years is nothing. It used to be that when you went in to a highly disciplined career that required a high level of education you still had to work as a flunky to learn the business and cut your teeth... this could take 8 even 12 years before you were considered seasoned enough to be given serious responsibility.

    So you can either stick with your current gig and wait for your big break or go back to school to get your Masters or a PhD even... either way it will be 4 - 8 years before you do challenging work
  • This kind of reminds me of a joke I once heard...the limit of an engineer as t tends toward infinity is a manager.

    I lucked out, I did Computer Engineering in college and I landed a job doing exactly what I wanted.

    However, in my search for an engineering position, I noticed that most places want someone with an M.S. and five years of experience. Does your current employer have a tuition reimbursement plan? If so, get the M.S. while working there, and when you graduate, you'll have an M.S. and probably more
  • The smaller the company, the more hats you wear. You could find yourself doing both Systems Engineering and Electrical Engineering (and half a dozen other things to boot).
    • I agree. The company I work for is not small, but its hardware design group is about 10 people out of the about 200 that work at our site (we are mostly a software house:( ). This is my first job out of college and I has a BSEE, but I was hired as a systems engineer - since our company doesn't hire hardware engineers. My boss jokes that I am the first hardware hire in ten years! Yet somehow, I am now the lead and practially sole designer of a major FPGA design and have been envolved in hardware, systems, s
  • by Anonymous Coward
    At least as far as going from management back to engineering is concerned, I think a lot of engineers face this dilemma, and so folks in management (at least the good ones) are often aware and supportive. I don't think you should have to justify the move, except to say you expect to find the work far more fulfilling. If you feel you need to make a case, you could also point out that you will therefore also be much better at it. :-)

    My related story:
    I'm a software guy, but spent 3 years as a manager recentl
  • Seriously. No 'fun' engineering can really be done with a bachelors degree for the most part. All you can really do is stick parts together that other people built and yes it gets boring and no its not all that valuable of a skill. To do anything advanced requiring research and going where someone else hasnt already gone you need a masters or phd. At my job a masters was required to even function at a basic level of knowledge of what we do. Think microprocessor theory & fab, antennas, RF circuits,
  • I've finally come to the conclusion that I will never see any form of technical challenge despite the continued promise of such.

    If they're promising you things and not delivering them, you need to take them to task for it... unless you are satisfied with the fact that they will continue to promise things and not deliver.

    It's really that simple.

    How do you justify what would typically be considered a step back?

    You justify it by saying, "This is what I want. And I'm willing to pay the associated costs with ma

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