Some things never change, but you can't say that about electronics engineering. At least that's true when you ask people who have been doing it for a while. Young EEs with only a few years experience also have some thoughts about what the future holds for them professionally, and those views aren't necessarily the same as their "senior" mentors.
Differences often exist in education, working style, general outlook of the job, and job expectations. Speaking from the more experienced side, Michael Lauterbach, director of product management at LeCroy, believes that one of the changes over the years may be the result of competitive pressures. For one thing, he says, there is much more emphasis on scheduling today. "Time-to-market is extremely important. No one wants to get a generation behind its competitors' new products," he says. One result of this, he adds, is more stress on the job and more jobs to be done in less time.
"I don't believe the microwave industry has changed too much over the past 50 years, except in size and technology," says Harry Rutstein, who runs Seattle-based Dorado International. "Fifty years ago, I was working in a lab at Johns Hopkins University with one project to complete about every six months. My goal was to win the Nobel Prize in physics. This would give me fame and fortune. This would come only after a doctorate degree and a lot of original thinking. I felt I could get closer to my goal of fame and fortune by instead going down the sales and marketing road. So, I left the research lab and started a manufacturers representative company \[Dorado International\]. This gave me 10 projects a day instead of two a year, and to me it was much more challenging. I have had my own microwave business ever since—not much has changed."
One thing that hasn't changed a lot is the emphasis that engineers place on continuing education. "As the undergraduate department chair told us at our senior banquet, education is like shaving," says Robb Myer, who joined Agilent Technologies right out of school just over three years ago. "If you don't do it at least every few days, you'll be a bum before you know it."
Myer, who is now working as an application/marketing engineer, plans to pursue an MBA in the near future. "I am continually called upon to understand technical topics that I have no background in," notes Myer. "I am continually doing research and teaching myself new things."
Bryan Kantack joined Agilent right out of school just over two years ago as a sales developmental engineer on the Mainstream Oscilloscope support team. Armed with a BSEE, he is now working on an MBA, taking night classes around his work schedule for more than a year. He expects to finish the program in December 2004. "The education that I am receiving through the MBA program is invaluable to my career success, and I only wish that I hadn't waited until now to start business courses," he says.
Several of the engineers at Tektronix are working on their master's degrees with company assistance. Tek's Andy Byers, who holds both a BSEE and MSEE, has no immediate plans to work toward another degree, but that could change. "An MBA," he says, "would be interesting."
How about the new crop of engineering talent? Marv LaVoie, a "senior" engineer at Tektronix who has a BSEE as well as an MBA, is impressed. "I think the graduates we have hired in the last few years may be the best ever," he says.
As for working styles between the "senior" and younger EEs, Kantack says, "I think my generation has a little different perspective on job appreciation than new engineers before us."
Kantack believes the new-hire orientation period is shrinking as job responsibilities increase and headcounts dwindle. "Because of this," he says, "I think that new engineers are expected to adapt more quickly to changing market demands and be more flexible in taking on multiple tasks, sometimes at very challenging levels."
"Some people have a schedule locked down, stick to it, and that works fine for them," notes Byers. "I am much more flexible in my private life, so I can work late if I have to, and then come in later. Also, I wear flip-flops to work sometimes."
The downside, he says, is being "trapped" in a cubicle for large portions of the day. "Young EEs tend to be quite active, dynamic, and enthusiastic people," says Byers, "and in order to cultivate this energy and creativity, the typical office environment will have to eventually evolve into something quite different than what we see today. Transitioning \[from college\] to the typical cubicle setting is not an easy thing to do, and all of the young EEs I've known have commented on this."
Another Generation Gap
There's a bigger picture that reflects a more dramatic generational change. Michael S. Adler, the president of the IEEE, reminisced about the good old days—about 20 years ago—in his column in a recent issue of The Institute, the IEEE's monthly newspaper. In it, he suggests that the "glory days" of most corporate labs are probably gone forever. In every company today, research is closely aligned with the company's business and its bottom line. "Research," he says, "was the corporate touchstone, and labs—and the engineers who worked in them—were revered."
In very general terms, according to a recent survey, it seems that those with the least experience are the most positive, while older workers come off as more passive. That's according to a recent survey of almost 28,000 employees across several industries by research firm ISR.
Employees under 25, the survey points out, are the most optimistic about company leadership and career development. Conversely, the Gen-Xers, those between 25 and 44, are the least satisfied and most pessimistic about their corporate futures. Late Gen-Xers, in particular the 35- to 44-year-olds, are the least satisfied with their companies and the most worried about employment security. Baby boomers who are now 45 to 54 and veterans, those over 55, tend to split the difference in opinions of the two younger groups. However, the veterans, who ISR says should feel empowered to challenge traditional ways, do not seem to exhibit this behavior.
Teks' Byers may reflect the attitude of many young professionals, particularly young EEs, when he says, "I expect to stay hungry, stay aware, and stay productive." Kantack at Agilent has a similar hard-charging attitude: "Almost all customers in the world working on electronic products are using an oscilloscope to validate their designs, and in talking with these customers, I get to see some of the most advanced technologies in the world coming to life." But Lauterbach, the senior member of his company's product development group, doesn't really sound much different. "At LeCroy, we have more ideas than engineers," he says.