Over the years, I received several emails asking whether going into engineering is a good idea. It’s a tough question. Engineering is a huge field. You could study chemical, biotech, mechanical, civil, or electrical engineering. These are all vastly different and you can go into all kinds of careers. I only have experience with computer hardware engineering so my point of view is limited, but I think working for any big corporation would be pretty similar.
Now that my son is getting a bit older, this is more relevant than ever. He is good with math and learns quickly. I think he will be a good fit for a career in STEM. Should I encourage him to go into engineering? My experience with the engineering career isn’t that great. I enjoyed it at first, but got burned out and retired only after 16 years in engineering. Now, I’m a SAHD blogger and I love it. Here goes.
*Updated in 2020
Career choice at 18
It seems a little ridiculous to expect an 18 year old student to choose what they would like to do for the rest of their life. At that age, I didn’t know much about various careers. My parents had a restaurant and that was a difficult business to be in. They worked all the time and rarely had any time off. I’d rather work in a cushy white-collar job. Physical labor isn’t my strong point because I had some health issues. My parents encouraged me to get into engineering and I thought why not. I was good at math and science, so engineering was a good fit.
Back in 1989, computers weren’t ubiquitous like they are today. They were ridiculously expensive for what they could do, too. I think we paid about $1,500 for a 386 desktop. I liked learning about the computer and fooling around on it, but I didn’t know much about the career side of it. I don’t even remember why I picked hardware over software. Anyway, it would have been nice to know more about what people really do in different engineering jobs before going into the field.
Talk to some engineers
For prospective engineers, I think the best thing you can do is to talk to someone who is already working in the career that you’re considering. Ask them what kind of things they do in their job. For example, these were some of the things I did as a computer hardware engineer.
- Design. I worked in the memory interface team for most of my career. Our team figured out how the CPU communicates with the memory, then optimized for speed and power. I wrote code to specify how the logic should work.
- Validation. The code I wrote was compiled with other codes to simulate a computer chip. I made sure my part worked with all the other interfaces. There was a validation team that ran the simulation on the whole chip. They found plenty of bugs when they put the designs together. I worked with the validation team and fixed my code whenever they found a problem.
- Post silicon. Once the code was in tolerable shape, it was sent out to the fab. After a few months, we’d get a real chip back. We’d put the sample chip in a big test machine that simulates the rest of the computer system. There were still plenty of bugs to find at this stage. We’d fix them in the code and send it out to the fab again.
- System validation. Once the computer chip started working somewhat properly, we’d put it in a real test system. This looked like a big open frame desktop computer. We ran all kinds of software tests at this point.
- Corporate BS. Meetings, meetings, reorg, and more meetings. Engineers usually start out doing a lot of technical work and very little corporate BS. The more senior you become, the more corporate BS you deal with. Eventually, it’s all BS all the time.
So those are some of the things I did when I was a computer engineer. Does this sound interesting to you? If so, going into hardware engineering might be a good idea. However, if this sounds boring, then you should look at something else.
I enjoyed the technical parts immensely when I started out. It was interesting to learn how to build a computer from scratch. However, most engineers work long hours, with no extra pay. That was fine when I was young and single. Not so much after I had a family. The job was also frequently stressful. The time to market is extremely important. If the product was late, the competitor could get ahead and the company wouldn’t make as much profit. The engineers were always under a ton of pressure to get rid of the bugs so the company can sell the final product.
Anyway, reach out to real engineers and see what they do at their work. You can ask your parents or post on Facebook and LinkedIn to see if anyone would be willing to talk. I think most engineers would be happy to help. Don’t forget to ask what they dislike about their job as well.
Pros and cons of engineering
Let’s make a pros-and-cons list of engineering to help our young readers out.
Pros of going into engineering
- Engineering is an in-demand field. You probably can get a job in your field after college.
- Most engineering careers pay pretty well. Engineers make good income right from the beginning of their careers.
- If you like solving problems, then the right engineering job will keep you busy and happy for many years.
- The world will keep getting more technically complicated and we’ll always need more engineers.
- If you enjoy learning, then engineering is a good field to be in. Engineers have to keep their skills up to date and keep learning new things.
- Engineers have better job security than people in less skilled careers. Most everyone is replaceable, but that’s a lot truer if your job doesn’t need specialized knowledge. For example, it’s easier to replace a restaurant worker than a computer engineer.
Cons of going into engineering
- The engineering coursework can be very difficult. If you don’t have the aptitude for it, then you might not be able to get through it.
- In the US, there is fewer than 1 female engineer to every 10 males. This is a male-dominated field.
- Long work hours. Most engineers spend a ton of time at work. I frequently spent more than 60 hours per week at work when I was young. It’s hard to maintain a good work/life balance with that kind of demand.
- This is just my experience – Working for big corporations can be a big letdown. There is just so much overhead as you progress in your career. I spent a ton of time dealing with useless meetings, political maneuvering, tight deadlines, and BS training. I heard it is better in a small company.
- You need to keep learning new stuff to stay current in your field. I quit my engineering career 8 years ago and there is no way I could go back. It’d be tough to go back even after a year. All the tools and specifications change very quickly.
- You’ll spend a ton of time staring at a computer screen. I guess that’s true for most office jobs these days, but I spent 10+ hours on the computer every day for 16 years. It wrecked my eyes.
- Everyone is replaceable. Engineers might have more job security than a barista, but not much more. Companies have no loyalty and they’ll do whatever it takes to improve the bottom line. Every time a company lays off a bunch of workers, the stock goes up. The CEO has a lot of incentive to lay off workers.
- Salary plateau. Engineers can get raises and promotions very quickly at the beginning of their careers. However, the salary will plateau if you don’t evolve. I enjoyed the technical work and was pretty good at it. My salary increased quickly over the first 7 years then plateaued. At that point, I had to go into management to get more promotions and raises. I refused and my salary was stuck.
Engineers, please add your comment below and I’ll update the article with your input.
Your career is not set in stone
All in all, I think it’s a good idea to study engineering if you enjoy solving problems. You need to talk to several real engineers and see what kind of things they do at work. If those tasks sound like something you’d like, then go for it. Engineering is a good field to get started in. Young engineers usually can find a job quickly and they make good money right out of college. However, you have to evolve after about 10 years. Once you become more senior, you have to take on more management responsibilities or else your career will get stuck.
The most important thing I want to share is you don’t have to be an engineer forever. Most engineers I knew got tired of the job and transitioned to a different career. They moved into patent law, management, entrepreneurship, marketing, and many other fields. For me, being a junior engineer was the most fun part of the career. I got to work on interesting stuff and I didn’t have to deal with much corporate BS. I quit engineering once it wasn’t the right fit anymore. You can do that too if you save and invest a large percentage of your income. Many engineers change careers. You don’t have to get stuck in the field if you no longer enjoy it.
Good luck! Engineering is a great field to go into. However, there are some downsides too. Don’t be afraid to change course if it doesn’t work out.
photo credit: This is Engineering
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