CAREER MOVES: 2 CASE STUDIES

Nga Cao ( ntc718@www710.gsfc.nasa.gov)

In article #25, the importance and relevance of the first job relative to an engineer's entire career was pointed out. One of the responses was that it is possible to compensate for a bad first choice by starting over if one moves quickly enough. But what if one doesn't? What if you work 4, 5 years on a job only to find out it will not be there on the 6th year?...

This article arose out of an interview with a couple ( names changed for privacy) who are both EE's and who both graduated in the very early 1980's into a job market that was very different in substance as well as style from the one we have today. The Defense Industry was very strong and jobs for engineers seemed limitless. Then, Defense fell apart as fast as the Berlin Wall collapsed and Telecommunications took over... How this couple navigated their respective careers through these turbulent times gives us two interesting case studies in how luck and/ or a little insight can help you make shrewd career moves and stay ahead of the game.

Let's start with the lucky one, the husband. Afer obtaining his BSEE, Vo took a look at the job market and didn't like what was out there. He decided to go for a PhD in a then relatively new field, Digital Signal Processing. It was an easy decision for a single person; besides, he had always wanted to be a teacher... At the small university where he enrolled, his diligence and intelligence caught the attention of his thesis advisor. A year later, while preparing his MS thesis, Vo was one of a handful of students picked out by the EE department to take part in a cooperation project at the local Comsat plant. This part time job couldn't have come at a better time, for Vo had started to date Ly, a perky EE senior he had met through the school's VSA, and was thinking about building a family with her. By the time he obtained his MS, they were already married and a baby was on the way, so he abandoned his PhD project in favor of a job at Comsat. There, over the years, he became an expert in Digital Signal Processing, both in hardware and software, just as the telecommunications era was taking off. When he was promoted to a managerial position at Comsat, however, Vo declined and left the company to become a full time consultant. He wanted to keep the technical edge in his work, avoid the day to day politics of management and have the freedom to pick and choose his projects. It was a gamble that paid off handsomely, for Comsat later chose his company for a long term contract to provide it with DSP systems; roughly the same job he had been doing there, but at a consultant's fee. Today, he is still the owner and sole employee of his company. Although he could bring in more contracts and hire some help if he wanted to, Vo says he still enjoys doing everything himself and learning new things on the job, and he hasn't abandoned his dream of some day becoming a teacher...

Now, for the unlucky one: after her BSEE, Ly interviewed with several firms, all thriving defense contractors, and settled with the largest one. It was the money, she said, and also the fact that the work assignments seemed to be more hands-on than elsewhere. On her first job, she took part in building several digital flight simulators boards for the Navy, using standard as well as semi-custom logic gates. For this work, she had to learn to use several CAD/ CAE tools, and became accutely aware of their limitations and potentials. She started reading up on this field and, at some point, decided she would steer her future work in its direction because it was more interesting and had more commercial value than what she was doing. She learned which skills were necessary for it by scanning the wanted ads in local newspapers. Once she identified something, e.g. C programming, UNIX etc..., she would volunteer for projects at work that somehow involved them. This took several years but her efforts finally paid off: when Navy contracts started slacking off, she was able to move on to another job easily. It was a good move, for her employer eventually went out of business. Since then, she has kept on jumping ships every few years for "that was the best way to get nice raises and fresh new experiences". Nowadays, she sets up and maintains networked CAD/ CAM workstations at various engineering organizations, a job that very well suited her sunny, outgoing personality and quick intelligence but she still uses many insights and skills gained on that first "dead end" job...

In conlusion, Ly's advice to young engineers is that even it you don't have Vo's luck and business sense, there are still a few things you can do to keep current in this profession: read the newspapers often and try to acquire a few "hot" skills ( engineering and others) on or off the job. You'll never know when they'll come in handy! And, above all, never be afraid to take initiatives.

Notes:
1) the editor's email address has changed!
2) a future topic I'd like to bring up is how to prepare and motivate our vietnamese children to become engineers and scientists. I believe the best
of these are raised and not merely taught in schools. All inputs are welcome. Please use vacets-gen for discussions or e-mail to me personally. 3) please send replies to this article to vacets-jobs


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