4 Replies Latest reply on Mar 14, 2012 8:40 PM by DAB

    What to focus on in school for a Bachelors in Electrical Engineer, open letter to a friend

    Cabe Atwell

      A friend of mine is going back to school a bit late in life. She wanted to know what she should learn in school that would be the most beneficial in the career path. I wrote the guideline below as a starting point. I feel it is a work in progress. So, if you can add to it or charge it around, please reply. Every little bit will help her better down the Electrical Engineering path.


      My original letter --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


      With my many years in the EE career field, I can share what has been the most beneficial for when you enter the work force.


      First off, you may never use what you learn in college directly, just so you know.


      However, school can lead you to having a deep understanding of certain areas of your craft. (If not taken seriously, your time in school will only give you the paper the degree is printed on.)


      I will break down what I believe is the most beneficial to know as follows:


      1. Circuit design - the basics. Deeply learn how to use op-amps, FETs, and inductors to make small systems, alongside the usual basics of resistors, capacitors, and LEDs. Sometimes a simple circuit can do what a processor based system can do.

      ● The first job I had made me learn everything I could about op-amps for audio warning system devices. In the designs I built MOSFET triggered buttons for choosing which alarm to set.


      2. Circuit simulation software - Your best friend in design. Multisim is standard. Learn about SPICE models, etc. Build your circuits first in software before building. This will speed up your development abilities.

      ● After learning simulation software out of school, I wished I learned it years prior. Every troubled design I designed and build could have been done so much easier and faster.


      3. Power supply design - both linear and switching. I cannot count the number of jobs and situations I needed to know this. Few truly know how to build one.

      ● Every single job has had me build a power supply of some sort. Off the shelf supplies work well, but occasionally the device is so small that build one is the only option. Each circuit, from the beginning, had at least a power regulation section of the design.


      4. Microcontrollers - This is the foundation of many projects I have worked on. You cannot know them all, but pick one to focus on. For example PIC micros, they are one of the simplest to know. Learn assembly for the chip, and "C". The same rules apply to all the different chips, only the syntax changes. The industry is leaning towards ARM centric, so delving into that may be useful.

      ● I first learned PICs, which the design knowledge translated over to a multitude of other processors that each job has demanded I develop on. However, sometimes you can steer a company to use the processor you choose. Knowing a great deal on one chip will help leverage the company your way.


      5. Software - Related to microcontrollers, but few know how to design software. It is critical to start with a flow chart of how the program should work. Then it is just a matter of writing the code to fulfill the blocks requirements.

      ● One company I worked for literally said that I should not design software from a flow-chart. "Just sit down and code," is what they told me. It became a mess, following their direction. Later, the government forced them to follow standard practices, ISO software design rules. My flow-charts were status quo. If is like an outline for a research paper, get into the habit of making flow-charts.


      6. Learn how to lay out a schematic in a program like OrCAD, EAGLE, or similar packages.

      ● They will ask if you can lay out a board, so learn it.


      7. CAD software - Although not exactly EE work, it has been a critical tool to know for jobs. I would have to draw enclosures for projects all the time. I designed machines to work with my electronics on numerous occasions. 2D and 3D CAD drafting is critical.


      8. Communication - Having a base to work from for all forms of communication is key. Again, people spend a lifetime learning the nuances of RF communication, you will never get to that level in school. So, know how all forms work. Being experienced with serial, USB, CAN-bus, and RF modules like Zigbee will go a long way.

      ● CAN is essential for the automotive industry, it will help if you go in that direction. You will use everything else.


      After school, the only way to describe your experience will be "purely academic." But what you do know, try to know it well.


      Finally, everything you learn beyond your schooling is icing on the cake. The more knowledge you have,  the better you look to future employers. For example, I taught myself to be a machinist and how to use CNC machinery. I have made countless parts for various jobs. I have even built my own CNC machinery and started a small company around the idea. You never know where knowledge can lead, you may want to explore the option of working for yourself someday.


      Hope this helps.


      End of my original letter --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------





        • Re: What to focus on in school for a Bachelors in Electrical Engineer, open letter to a friend

          Hi Cabe,


          I would add one very critical skill to your list, communicating your technical information to the non technical managers and decision makers.


          One important skill that set me apart from my peers was the ability to describe technical issues to non-technical people.  Seldom will the engineers make the decision, so you need to educate the decision makers as to why your approach will work better than some other solution.

          Take a public speaking course.  Do presentations in front of your classes.  Learn how to read an audiance and change your presentation accordingly.


          If you cannot communicate, you might as well sweep the floor.

          If you meet someone who cannot explain their ideas in simple terms, avoid them, they do not know what they are doing.


          Engineering skills are important, but only if you can use them and explain them to the un-educated.


          Just my opinion.


            • Re: What to focus on in school for a Bachelors in Electrical Engineer, open letter to a friend

              Excellent addition. To yours I would just encourage engineers of all stripes to take a course in creative writing or journalism. Often times you will be called upon to contribute to propsals and design review documents. Clear concise writing can be the difference between winning or losing a contract.

              • Re: What to focus on in school for a Bachelors in Electrical Engineer, open letter to a friend
                Cabe Atwell

                DAB & Robert,


                I agree, communication is important. However, I believe that can be learned over time on the job. Every student learns how to write, speak, etc in college, but how to say it at an engineering job does differ.


                Learning how a company wants info delivered is learning standard operation procedure on a case by case basis.


                For example, I would make copious reports packed with all the information I could provide. I was following Mil-spec standards at the time. The company said I was being too elaborate. So, I toned it down. Though, I do not think I was creating fully concise reports, I did what they wanted. They were happy, and I just followed the current.


                Keep in mind, some geniuses had a hard time making their points clear, but they still finished amazing work.




                  • Re: What to focus on in school for a Bachelors in Electrical Engineer, open letter to a friend

                    Hi Cabe,


                    I disagree, new engineers seldom get adequate mentoring on how best to document and communicate technical information on the job.

                    I often interviewed new engineers and their inability to communicate well held many back from getting into the organization.  Before you can dazzle a new employer with your engineering skills, you need to demonstrate that you can think, write and talk.  If you have the engineering degree, it is assumed that you can "learn" the company's way of doing engineering, but if you cannot interact with the members of the team, you can be seen more as a liability than an asset.


                    Plus, I still remember when one of the "Geniuses" left the company with 5000 lines of undocumented assembly language software that needed to be finished and implemented in short order.  His code told me what he had done, but without any design notes, I had no idea about what he thought he was trying to build.  Communication is a necessity almost equal to your engineering skills.


                    Just my opinion.