Paradigm Shifts – My EE “ain’t EE No More…”

Electrical Engineering or EE has lost its focus, and I believe that engineering disciplines in general are mired today, particularly in the United States – distracted by a search for purpose. It is not clear what EE encompasses today, and it is even less clear what EE will evolve to in the future. What is certain is that my EE “ain’t EE no more…”

My career has moved through several paradigm shifts over the years. Some career counselors suggest that a high-tech career for someone entering the workforce today will likely undergo at least three “tectonic” paradigm shifts over a span of between 8 and 11 employers before retirement. I believe it! But I find it a little worrisome that my particular field of engineering has changed so much, and worse, seems to be currently “stalled” in a transition to something that is still a fuzzy target. Engineers don’t deal with fuzziness very well – that is one reason why this career field is currently mired mid-stride in its evolution…

It seems for some of my clients that high level project objectives are less well defined than in the past, that low level objectives are defined (often erroneously) to an inappropriately fine degree of detail, that engineers contribute less to decision making than I recall I did, and that engineers are insulated from customers more than I was early in my career. Further, when I consult with a client on hiring, the list of certification credentials and expertise elements for a position is typically huge – an overly long checklist of specific knowledge that leaves little room for “creative” or “inventive”. And often, the engineer who is hired has knowledge, but is uninterested in looking past that boundary of knowledge to learn by creating or inventing. Worse, creating and inventing have become less a part of the engineering job, or disappeared entirely for many engineering positions. From the perspective of the student/intern, I have been told time and again that engineering looks dull and uninteresting: “we all just turn a crank… I’ll be glad when it is 5:00!” Yes, many of these budding engineers are unchallenged in a job that has little opportunity for the “fun” of creation and invention. If only my profession had a mentor to instill character in the profession and point to the fun…

Let’s look at a publication that caters to the EE profession:

IEEE Spectrum 08.09 (the August 2009 edition of the magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers). This magazine “bills itself” as “the magazine of technology insiders” – is there some kind of exclusive club of technologists? Does the readership feel isolated from the EE mainstream? Why isn’t IEEE Spectrum “the magazine for engineers building the future”? In my brain, that is what engineers are charged to do – what engineering is!

A quick survey of articles in the 8/09 edition of IEEE Spectrum includes substantial content that is not EE-oriented (not from my perspective, at any rate):

Update: Jordan’s Radioactive Water Problem – not EE at all…

Update: How Software Found the Air France Wreckage – this article simply described the application of a physical model of oceanic drift – not EE at all…

Update: Foundry Giant Sees the Light – about Taiwan Semi’s compliance with Taiwan and China government LED and solar cell priorities and initiatives, and not EE aspects at all… What are US foundries doing, and what are the US Government’s priorities and initiatives, by the way?

Careers: The Rise and Fall of the Quants – about the departure of engineers to the finance industry and the impact of the finance industry collapse on these engineers – all about engineers who abandoned engineering (huh?)… I guess that these engineers didn’t see a bright future for engineering… What about the engineers still doing engineering?

Invention: What makes you an Inventor – ever wonder why your boss and also your CEO are listed as inventors on your patent? On the EE periphery…

Technically Speaking: Brave Neuro World – about the nonmedical use (misuse) of beta blockers such as Ritalin – not EE…

The LED’s Dark Secret – the cover story on a newly realized failure mode for the LED – focus on semiconductor physics – not quite EE, but close enough for me…

Empire off the Grid – about how the inventor of the Segway powers his island off the coast of Connecticut – he has lots of gadgets to generate power and strategies to use less power – not really much engineering here – this article was EE for the lay person… I want an island, too…

CPU: Heal Thyself – very interesting – about strategies to avoid computational errors when CPUs are overclocked – this Is EE!

Seeing is Not Believing (Doctoring digital photos is easy – detecting it can be hard) – purely for the lay person – not EE at all…

The Data: Europe comes to Bury CO2, Not to Praise it – no EE here, either…

This is all rather curious. Half of these articles focus outside of the EE fields, and many are written for the lay person and not the technologist…  I see, now – IEEE Spectrum “the magazine for the technology manager (who is really not an engineer)”

So, I apologize for my sarcasm. I really went overboard, I know. But what I hoped to demonstrate was that the EE profession is “championed” by a society that reflects a body that obviously includes technologically removed managers in industry, but not the engineers working in industry who are charged with building the future. All you have to do to realize that is to look at the IEEE Spectrum magazine – much of it is not about engineering or engineers, and even less is about EE. None the less, I enjoy reading this well written magazine.

What about the other IEEE publications – who do they cater to? There are plenty of excellent IEEE publications: Society Proceedings, Society magazines (there are a dozen or more societies) – they tell a story, too. What you will notice is that more than 80% of these articles are scholarly submissions sprinkled with evidence of some minor industry collaboration. There is some relevant “meat” here on these bones, but by and large, it mostly comes from academia and not industry. These articles rarely provide a good glimpse into the nuances of the engineering problems or solutions discussed – they deliver context and tell the “what” but not the “why”. I want to know the “what” and the “why”.  In a sense, the “what” is the context, and the “why is the story about the engineering – the insight into the engineered solution. The “why” is often missing in these publications…

Who champions the electrical and electronic engineer in the United States? IMHO – in my humble opinion, it is not the IEEE… No society really does, and that is another reason why the engineering profession in the US is in the doldrums – electrical engineers have no advocate… The manager is served, and the researcher is served, but the working engineer? Who cares… Who wants to be an engineer? Well, I do, and I hope that a lot of others do, too! I am afraid though that interest in the engineering profession is declining as are the rewards for doing good engineering in the US. Without an army of talented, passionate engineers, who will build the future? I think that the engineering profession is crucial for our future economic prosperity.

My EE “ain’t EE no more…”  That is quite unfortunate. The EE profession needs a mentor. And an advocate. Badly.

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