One vivid memory I have from my student days was dropping by the lab of a good friend who had gotten involved in medical research. I was curious to see what he was up to, because his new obsession seemed out of character. Outgoing and popular, into jazz and athletics, the guy didn't fit the techie mold. The night I stopped by the lab, he was there alone, working on a hunch about why cells become cancerous. As he was showing me his experimental apparatus, he confessed it was there in that lab, pondering cell metabolism into the wee hours, that he was happiest.
I understood immediately what he meant. Technical work isn't glamorous; often it's tedious. But there's satisfaction in focusing on a problem, educating yourself, mustering the discipline to embark on an uncertain journey toward some unknown revelation.
I understood--but those who have never had the experience themselves, whether in an academic lab or with a hot startup, might not. And that goes to the heart of the engineer's "image" problem.
The image of scientists and technical people as eccentric, socially inept, obsessed with impersonal mechanisms and arcane ideas, is probably as old as scientific pursuit itself. The modern stereotypes range from the adolescent geek to the corporate drone to the mad scientist, staple of the horror film.
This is cause for concern, because as engineers happily pursue their satisfying careers, the fruits of their labor continually create disruptive problems for society. Instantaneous access to information threatens personal privacy. Advanced medical technology is affordable only to a privileged few. Advanced weapons systems--an attractively high-growth area these days--are attaining frightening levels of lethal effectiveness.
In an ironic twist, the brilliant work by electronics engineers that enabled modern computing and the Internet now threatens their own jobs and well-being. The Internet facilitates the outsourcing of software and, increasingly, hardware design. That has had a direct impact on tech-job security while eroding the prestige and bargaining power of technical specialists. At the same time, the pace of the market is continually accelerating as engineering tools become more effective, and the speed with which systems have to be developed has become a major source of stress for engineers.
Who EEs really are--their likes, dislikes and job satisfaction--is, of course, a matter of concern to us at EE Times. We conduct plenty of surveys, run focus groups and maintain feedback channels to take the pulse of the profession, in order to know our audience better.
Last year, we conducted a major survey of EEs' attitudes about their work and profession ("Dispiriting days for EEs," Nov. 14, page 1). As the headline indicates, the image of the dedicated engineer happily engrossed in a fascinating, innovative project doesn't tell the whole story. And the geek label stings.
Reading through the report, I was struck by how much the survey seemed to reflect my own job experience. These days, the press doesn't get much respect either. The Internet has greatly accelerated publishing schedules and has made it harder than ever to find some story or angle that hasn't already been covered. The new world of multimedia--cable and satellite delivery, iPods and other portable, low-cost media devices--has fundamentally changed the publishing business model. We're game, but we are racing to keep up, and much of the time it leaves us a little frazzled.
Indeed, that's a problem that cuts across most businesses--and it's the result of seemingly limitless technological innovation. Open-source software development, facilitated by the Internet, is enabling sophisticated systems that let upstarts challenge major corporations.
So what do we say to the EE glued to his oscilloscope? Get out there and relate, get an image makeover? I'd hesitate to give that advice, because I don't think engineers are all that concerned with image.
Image is absolutely critical to marketing and business, of course. How your company is perceived is central to how many people will buy your products. But in a real sense, image is noncritical to engineering. Who you are, what you look like, what your friends and family think of you may be important on one level, but they're not going to get you through the workday.
And the work is still what counts, because most of the time, the benefits of the resultant technology continue to outweigh the negatives. I certainly wouldn't trade in the information tools I work with now to go back to a telephone and typewriter, just to get a little peace of mind. I have experienced firsthand the benefits of some amazing feats of engineering as the tools of my trade have evolved, in just a little over two decades, from the typewriter to the minicomputer-based publishing system, then to modem-equipped desktops and on to the ever-shrinking portable with Wi-Fi card.
Next up, the pundits say, will be wearable computers and truly fashion-oriented electronics. It's the new face of technology, we are told. Advanced electronic systems become image makers.
None of this would be possible without the hard-won engineering work that has focused on how to organize matter at nanometer scales. A modern electronic product is made from a hefty proportion of the 98 elements. Polymer chemistry, liquid-crystal systems, lithium battery technology, immensely complex ICs--all of those had to be understood by engineers sitting at a lab bench, focusing their intellect on the world of materials. Somebody had to put aside the complexities of modern life for a time and become immersed in that rarified level of reality. And it is at that level that engineers gain satisfaction from their work.
Here at EE Times, we promote the image of engineers as innovators and creators of technology. Nothing wrong with that; it's what they are. The fact that they debate--in a language understood by few--burning issues that will only be understood 10 years from now is just part of the package.