***Editor’s Note: We’re starting new weekly section called “I Became An Engineer” that will run every friday. To share you story email firstname.lastname@example.org***
This week’s story comes to us from ECN reader Dave Telling:
As far back as I can remember, I have always been fascinated with technical/scientific things.
As a very young boy, I loved airplanes, and since my dad was in the USAF, I got to see many of them on the air bases. I learned to read fairly early (my mom tells me that I was reading cereal boxes when I was 5 years old) and loved reading books about a variety of science/technology subjects. I can still remember one Christmas when I got two books that I read over and over – one was about the ocean and the deep-sea creatures that lived there; the other was about the history of rockets.
I was also interested in biology, astronomy, amateur photography (I built my own enlarger as a kid), cars, motorcycles (although I couldn’t yet drive), etc. However, there was one thing that really changed the direction of my life. My parents were not wealthy, and with 6 kids to feed, there was not a lot of money for Christmas gifts. One thing that they did, though, was to find a gift that “fed” my interest in science. When I was 10 years old, they got me crystal radio kit. The feeling that hit me when I put that radio together and tuned in our local AM station, (KRRV in Sherman, TX) was indescribable! I was listening to music on a radio I put together myself!
After that, although I still enjoyed things having to do with aviation, astronomy, and so on, electronics became more and more my area of interest, and I continued to build projects using vacuum tubes (as it was easy to get parts and tubes from old TV sets back then). When I was in high school, I studied for, and passed, my test for an amateur radio license, and I’m still on the air as an Extra-class ham.
Things got interesting for me in junior high and high school. I found that I was not very good at math. For some reason, many concepts just did not seem to “stick”, and I struggled so much with algebra that I figured I’d never be able to be an engineer. I did OK with geometry, but after that, I didn’t pursue any math, and figured that I’d settle for being a decent electronics tech.
After graduation, I joined the US Coast Guard, and got good scores on my evaluation tests, and ended up as an electronics tech. After my discharge, I took a job as a tech with company that manufactured telephone equipment. I then worked as a two-way radio tech for a bit. By this time, I was married, with a young son, and even though the GI Bill was available for education, I had figured that, since I couldn’t do math, there was no point in going to college, as I would never be able to pass those courses, and I had no interest in any other educational path.
I continued as a tech, now working for United Airlines. I was laid off from that position, and a found that a friend’s wife worked for a division of Fairchild Corporation, and she said that one of the other divisions was looking for an engineering tech. I applied for the job, went for an interview with the manager of the engineering lab, and figured that it would be a week of so before I heard back from them. To my surprise, they called me that afternoon, and said that they wanted to hire me, not as a tech, but as an assistant engineer. Of course I said “yes” and soon found myself doing engineering work in the lab.
What surprised me was that I was being asked to design circuits and systems that would normally have been assigned to degreed engineers, whereas the techs, who had associate’s degrees, were building breadboards and other lower-level tasks. In one particular assignment, the design lab was asked to program a fairly complex test system that the test engineering people couldn’t get working correctly, and one of the degreed engineers and I were assigned to fix the problems and get the system working. I ended up writing the control program in BASIC (using a TRS-80 clone!) and we successfully got the system up and running. My boss was very frustrated because he wanted to promote me into a full engineer’s slot, but company policy was that you had to have a 4-year degree for that.
After about 2 1/2 years, I heard from one of our product engineering people that an automotive ignition company in Nevada was looking fro a design engineer. Since our main focus at Fairchild was automotive ignition systems, I applied for that position, moved to Carson City, NV, and have worked until very recently as the senior engineer for Mallory/ACCEL ignitions. My boss at Mallory was a German man who has a MSME, but he always told me that he knew I could do the work, and trusted my expertise in the electronics area.
I worked with many degreed engineers at Mallory, and all made it very clear that they did not see my lack of a degree as a detriment to doing my job, and in fact, I was often asked to help with technical issues in their projects. Also, because I was the sole electronics engineer, I did all of the design functions – circuits, enclosures, wiring harnesses, PC boards, and ultimately (when we started using microcontrollers) firmware. However – I still felt that I wasn’t a “real” engineer, because I didn’t know enough math. So, just before I turned 40, I signed up for courses at our local college, and started taking college math. I was pleased to discover that, for whatever reason, I was able to “get it”, although it was still hard work. After trig and pre-calc, I took calc 1 & 2, and got a 4.0 GPA. Unfortunately, other scheduling conflicts prevented me from immediately continuing further (the classes were only offered during the day, and that did not fit my work schedule) but I was amazed when one of the professors (and, interestingly, the one who seemed least friendly) said that I was very good at this, and should consider a degree in math!
At that time, I felt that I had proved to myself that I could, in fact, deal with the math, but since I would have to start my college studies pretty much from scratch (in talking with the assistant dean of the engineering school, I was told that I could not challenge tech courses, and the university offered no work credit) to get an engineering degree, I decided to continue with my present position. I had always been interested in computers, and started incorporating microcontrollers into our products, so I developed some programming skills (although in no way am I an expert at this). At this point, I am now a semi-retired independent consultant; we’ll see how that all works out.
So, in summary, in my case, it was something I was apparently born with.
As I said, as far back as I can remember, I was fascinated with the “whys” of things, and yes, I took apart clocks and radios and toys to see what was inside, and often, I didn’t get them back together again!
Hopefully, this gives you some insight into a somewhat “non-traditional” engineering career.
Read the other stories, here:
A Note From The Editor: An Engineer’s Story
I Became An Engineer: Because Of A Lunch Box
I Became An Engineer: Because of Christmas Lights
I Became An Engineer: Because Of The Cool Jackets
I Became An Engineer: Because My Dad Said Not To