Physics Caused The Sparks

Unlike the hobbyists I interact with all the time on The Amp Hour (or our recent guest blogger Paul Clarke), I didn’t start working on electronics at a young age. Nope, my story is much closer to that of Fluxor’s; my story began in high school. In fact, it makes me wonder if there is a separate class of engineers that didn’t consider the profession until entering college. I’d also wonder how they might differ from the hobbyist type, but that seems to be a discussion for another time and post.

So how’d I decide which career path to try? Physics!

I loved physics. I still love physics. I love simple models for really complex things. I love having well defined problems (though those rarely occur these days) and later exploring more intricate details as necessary. And most of all, I loved that feeling of “getting it”. It’s like a drug and it still feels good when I finally begin to grasp a new concept. So all of that, mixed with an awesome physics teacher (Thanks Mr. B!) pointed me towards a scientific future.

But engineering? Physics is hardly electrical engineering, right? In fact, I should think after seeing my friend shock the crap out of himself in physics (OK, it was funny I admit), you would think I’d be more reluctant to do that for a living. But no, the decision to try to become an EE was inspired by cell phones. I recall being allowed to pull apart my dad’s old cell phones and how much I enjoyed it. Sure, I had zero clue what was going on in there, but I sure as hell wanted to! Mind you, this was in the late 90s, so the phones were hardly a glimmer of what they are today. And cost waaaay more. It was that sense of wonder over such a complex device and wanting to be a part of the construction of future devices that really pointed me down my career path. Thinking back, I recall drawing out plans of how in the future people would only need a “screen” that they could interact with. An electronic note pad of sorts. Sounds familiar, but I can’t quite place where I’ve seen that sort of thing recently…ah well.

Throughout school, I struggled. Not to the point of failing, but enough to push me to wake up and smell the fact that engineering isn’t easy. Some days I still struggle. But that’s how I know I’m learning. When I began to get my hands on electronics, I started to shape up as an aspiring young engineer. I got a co-op halfway through my years at the university and went to work for 8 months. I learned way more than I did in school and returned more confident in what I was doing and choosing EE as a career. I really liked what I was doing. I got a second co-op, which only reinforced my decision. I started using higher level math on the job and saw some awesome concepts come to life while working on a team.

Since leaving school and starting work, I’ve learned about some of my strengths and more of my weaknesses. I’d say a strength is understanding people in a profession that is sometimes oblivious to the social aspects of the job. In the age of the rising maker and citizen engineer, being able to communicate between different social groups and skill levels (and especially among your own team) will become an increasingly important skill. And though I haven’t entered the cellphone market as a designer (as originally planned), I have touched two auxiliary industries: chip fabrication and test and measurement design. From how I’ve seen the consumer market transform and how I’ve realized how unlikely it is that I’d ever get to design any significant portion of a cell phone, my plans have changed. I’m OK with serving non-consumer markets and touching on much more in-depth concepts.

From where I sit, I really have been enjoying my place in the industry, both in person and with the people I regularly interact with online. While I’m sure I could have succeeded in many professions, I’m not sure any of them would have held my interest like engineering has for all these years.

4 responses to “Physics Caused The Sparks”

  1. P. D.

    “it makes me wonder if there is a separate class of engineers that didn’t consider the profession until entering college”

    Are you serious? you’re basically describing my whole graduating class, most of whom got their BS in EE without never having used a soldering iron (I think it’s quite common in Europe, someone correct me if I’m wrong). Actually the people who enjoyed doing electronics in their spare time were a very rare exception, and were usually those who had technical diplomas and used to do this stuff at school.

  2. Bill

    I followed a similar path, having no idea what I wanted to do until taking a Physics class my senior year in High School. I don’t think I then realized how much I loved engineering until my senior year in College (when we got to make stuff) which makes me feel extremely lucky to end up in an occupation I enjoy. This makes me think our school systems do a horrible job exposing students to the joys of engineering at a younger age. It seems like many engineers either have engineering Dads or were lucky enough to have an inspiring Physics teacher in High School.

  3. Dino Segovis

    It started for me at age 13 with a crystal radio build. It didn’t work.. BUT that was why I kept going. I wanted to know WHY it didn’t work. I remember in my freshman year of high school doing a paper on my career choice. It was “Electronics Engineer”. I had to write a paper then give a presentation to the class. I was passionate about my belief that I would become this thing!
    Well, social pressures and life intervened. I went down a dark path for a time. I never went to college. I entered the streets alone, young, and naive. It wasn’t until I was in my 40’s that the spark re-ignited.
    I got laid off from an awesome job with great pay as a maintenance engineer, and at the same time ended a relationship with a woman. Now what?? Well there was a lot of time on my hands so I got back at the electronics bench. It was perfect timing! I was getting an unemployment check so I could survive. I was looking for work but to no avail. So, I started to “tinker” again. Before long I bought an Arduino and started playing with that and eventually built a simple robot that won an award at Maker Faire 2008. Then I built a multi-touch table and developed a technique for part of the process that has become a standard among builders. Now I’m making videos and building and hacking stuff and I hope I might finally realize my dream of making a living doing what I love. Anybody need a prototyper with mad skills? :)

    My point is, you can start anytime. What matters is your passion for what you do.

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