Recently, I got a letter from an “engineer” with a problem. “Dear Mr. Pease: In my company, engineers who don’t have a bachelor’s degree were recently demoted. I am, unfortunately, one of those ‘demoted’ engineers, as I possess a non-traditional BSEET degree. The lack of a conventional degree is stated to be the only reason for the demotion. I have gathered the following information as ammunition to fight this tyranny:
1. Per my past performance reviews, my supervisors have indicated that my work has been very good, with performance recognition.
2. Other departments affected by these new rules have ‘grandfathered’ their current employees. Only the Engineering department has had demotions.
3. Several years ago, I chose to pursue the BSEET degree because it was, at the time, accepted by my company as an engineering degree. Also, I could attend classes in the evening (which I could not do for any school that awarded the traditional BSEE). This was supported by my company; in fact, they even offered incentives in the form of partial tuition reimbursement.
So it has come about that due to the ‘type’ of degree I possess, I no longer have the title of electrical engineer, nor the work responsibilities, even though my work assignments remain the same. I do the work, and then another engineer with a ‘real’ degree approves it. I now have a project engineer who receives all of the credit for my work.
What upsets me the most is the fact that I dedicated over twelve years of my life to this company, working my way up from test technician to electrical engineer, and now some bozo demotes me to a technician with no opportunity for advancement. And there’s no reasoning with the Chief Engineer who made these decisions.
Maybe by discussing this subject in your Pease Porridge column, we can heighten the awareness of people. And maybe even bring about some change.
Maybe this isn’t an isolated case. If it’s not, how should we deal with it, and where should we turn to? Most people advise me to look for another job. Eventually I will do that, but first I want to explore my options. Meanwhile. I appreciate your comments on this difficult problem.
(signed) Mr. X. (Address withheld).”
Well, I’ll share with you here the ideas I quickly fed Mr. X to help him resolve his problem.
First of all, I talked with some people in the Human Resources field. They had never heard of this “demotion” happening to engineers, anywhere. But on the other hand, they thought that it was probably not illegal.
Then I suggested that Mr. X get in touch with the IEEE. It’s not entirely clear if anybody in the IEEE would want to get involved, but they might be able to show what happened in similar past cases.
I also gave Mr. X the address of several organizations that have taken over the work of Irwin Feerst—the American Association of Concerned Engineers and the American Engineering Association. They surely would be concerned and interested, whether the IEEE was interested or not.
I suggested that while he may not want to eventually hire a lawyer, he should do as much research as possible by himself, as it will be less expensive and more effective.
I pointed out that even though this is very sad for him, and for everybody else at his company, it’s also sad for his company’s customers, and he will be doing the profession of engineering a service if he can solve this problem.
I also pointed out that, while he can quit at any time, he can postpone his departure until he has all of the conditions right for him—he may even be able to line up his next job. OR, he might decide to outlast and outsmart the Chief Engineer. If nobody else has run into this problem, it may just be a matter of time until that stubborn, unfair boss discovers he has to change his mind. I noted that there are lots of very good design engineers who never got an engineering degree—or any other degree.
Now, I respect the Bachelor’s degree because it shows that a student has a lot of perseverance to complete a big project. But exactly the same is true of a BSEET. On the other hand, I’ve seen reports that claim there is indeed a correlation between an advanced degree and creativity—a NEGATIVE correlation. And that’s consistent with many people I have met. Some of the most creative engineers I know never even get through a year or two of engineering school. I don’t have to name any names.
So I sent off a letter to Mr. X, suggesting he do a lot of homework. A couple of weeks later, I was talking this over with Frank Goodenough in Boston. Frank insisted I write up this column, to tell the story of the problem and my suggestions for a solution just in case anybody else in the world has this problem. As I began to re-read his letter, I spotted one more element and quickly banged out a letter to Mr. X pointing out this: When he embarked on his BSEET studies, his company encouraged him to consider this the equivalent of a conventional BSEE degree. Now the company is trying to change the rules in the middle of the game. Quite unfair!!
So I encouraged Mr. X to quickly do as much homework as he conveniently could, on the outside chance that something good would turn up, but mostly to get a large mass of facts and information. Then he should hire a lawyer to explain politely but forcefully to the president of the company that in view of this rule changing in the middle of the game, the president had better rescind that rule PRONTO, with apologies for all, or be slapped with a MASSIVE lawsuit.
I haven’t heard back from the engineer yet. But I have no doubt he will prevail. After all, every company has employees who are occasionally capable of doing something truly stupid and/or wrong. Fortunately, in most cases, someone has the wisdom and perseverance to correct the mistake. How about you?
All for now. / Comments invited! / RAP / Robert A. Pease / Engineer
I just wanted to write and say thanks for writing your Pease Porridge column, “What’s all this Applications Engineering Stuff, Anyhow?” A colleague dropped a copy of this on my desk the other day and I gobbled it right up. I thought I could’ve written it myself. Everything you say is so true. Having worked in both Design and Applications, I can say that there are benefits and disadvantages.
Coming out of Cornell in 1984 with an M.Eng EE, I started as a design engineer with a company in Sunnyvale, Calif. My entry into Applications was not by choice. Nine months into my design career, I was told that I was laid off but they had an opening in Applications. Wanting to continue to eat and pay my rent, I said sure, I’ll do it. Hence my introduction into the Apps world.
Here is where I found out about the toughing part of Applications. Lots of times, you are expected to become the instant expert for a product line. At least, that’s what is expected from the poor soul on the other end of the phone line begging for my help. In my case, I was supposed to support a video product line (consisting of about 150 products). Believe me, for someone who was just getting familiar with diff amps, bandgaps, current sources, and emitter followers, CRT drivers, NTSC to RGB converters, and Genlock converters was a bit of a leap.
Unfortunately, there’s just not enough time to go to the lab and play with the parts to become an expert on all of them. Many times, the customer knows the part better than the Apps guy. Why? Because he focuses on that one part, spending endless hours in the lab trying to get it to work. And finally, when he can’t do any more, he picks up the phone and calls yours truly to get some kind of tip to make his circuit work. Talk about frustration!
After three and a half years in Applications, I took an opening back in the IC design group and worked on a project with two more senior designers on a fiber-optic receiver test system. This approximates more closely the case you described in which the design people become their own Apps engineers.
For a year and a half, it was a good time being in the design group until the division marketing manager saw all the good work I was doing on the applications side of design. I was moved into the group full time. This was the second time in five and a half years I was forced out of design and into Apps! So I left the company and joined Elantec in Milpitas as a Design Engineer.
I thought, “Now I can be a Design Engineer again.” After about a year, the current Applications Engineer left the company and they had an opening they wanted me to fill. So, for the first time in nearly seven years, I moved out of Design into Apps. As my wife says, “Maybe somebody is trying to tell you something. Maybe you should stick to Apps. You seem to be suited for it, otherwise why would they keep putting you there?”
So here I am doing Apps for the last year and a half. Sometimes you don’t get any respect from the designers because you aren’t actually designing ICs. To the marketing people, you’re just another engineer.
I believe, however, that I’m one of the most important people for the designers and the marketers. For the designers, I debug lots of the chips by solving the customer’s problems, and try to make sure changes get incorporated into the next design revision. For the sales and marketing people, I’m golden. I get called by many sales guys because they might lose a lot of design-ins if the customer can’t get the part working correctly.
One of the biggest advantages of Apps over design is that there are a lot of daily victories. In design, and IC could take 4 months to design, 2 months to layout, 2 to fab, 1 to characterize, and 1 to release. So from the beginning on the project, it may be a year before the previous work gets justified. In Apps, you multiplex so many problems, you sometimes forget how many good things you actually get done because they’re not a concrete thing like a part in a databook.
So Bob, thanks once again for bringing little publicity to those guys in the trenches saving designs.
Michael J. Sadayao