When you think of what an engineer does on a daily basis, what comes to mind? Do you think we sit around and solve math problems all day? Maybe you think we sit in a cube and work on our projects alone.
Well, I have to confess that I don’t perform calculations all day. I’m sure that there are some engineers who spend time “doing the math”, but most of the calculations I do are either relatively simple or I rely on software to do it for me.
So, what is life as an engineer like? What do I do in a typical day? Considering that engineers aren’t typically known for their communication skills, I spend a considerable amount of time communicating via emails, in meetings and on conference calls. Oftentimes, I am communicating with colleagues around the world. (It gets really interesting when you have an engineer in Mexico explaining an issue to an engineer in China speaking all in English when neither of them is a native English-speaker! I am amazed that they can understand each other, but they manage.)
The engineering work I do includes design, implementation and testing of my part of a given project. I design both hardware (electronics – think circuit boards) and software for each project. I review the requirements of the project (what does this need to do?) and come up with a solution. Many of our projects are related so it is common for me to re-use pieces from old designs and then create new pieces to fulfill the new requirements. This part of the project requires me to spend time in my office thinking, planning and drawing up my ideas. If I hit a roadblock, it is common practice for me to go talk to other engineers in my group to see if they can offer some suggestions. Although we work individually on projects, we often discuss our work with each other and share ideas. (We have a shared lab space and end up talking to each other quite a bit) Around our office if someone tries out a new concept that works really well, they will be enthusiastically showing it off in the lab.
One of the great things about working with electronics is that I generally get to “play” with my design in the lab and tweak it. You can’t really do that if you design roadways for a living. So, when I design a circuit board, someone (a technician or factory) will build the board and send it to me. Then the fun of troubleshooting starts. The board gets plugged in and tested. Then, if something doesn’t work as expected, I get to play detective and try to figure out what is going on. Although it can be tricky to troubleshoot when the design isn’t working, I usually learn a lot from the effort. Troubleshooting sometimes requires me to be clever and creative to get to the root of the problem.
Once my design works for me and I send it out for it’s intended use, I still have to support it. This usually results in my trying to troubleshoot problems with it remotely. This can be challenging and frustrating, but if you can fix a problem that is happening at a factory on the other side of the world you feel like you can fix anything!
Most of my work takes place in my office or lab, with the occasional trip to a factory. Other types of engineers do their work in other places – factories, oil fields, electrical substations, nuclear plants, to name a few. Most of us spend at least some time in an office working in front of a computer. To read a little bit about other engineering fields, you can check out the Engineer Your Life website.