Thursday, December 18, 2008

Choice Careers

Would you advise smart young people to go into Engineering? It's a question our profession often ponders.

Consider the alternatives. Why not use one's attention to detail to become an attorney? Why not use one's mathematical prowess to go into finance? Become a "rocket scientist", a "master of the universe". I hadn't looked seriously at Wall Street careers, but the compensation described in The Reckoning - On Wall Street, Bonuses, Not Profits, Were Real - Series - is truly staggering:

The bonanza redefined success for an entire generation. Graduates of top universities sought their fortunes in banking, rather than in careers like medicine, engineering or teaching. Wall Street worked its rookies hard, but it held out the promise of rich rewards. In college dorms, tales of 30-year-olds pulling down $5 million a year were legion.

Admittedly, now isn't the best moment to go into finance. Wall Street financiers are going to have to lay low for a while, lick their wounds, and make some pay for the Ponzi scheme(s) that will come out. But in the end, won't it come roaring back? From a monetary perspective, won't it always be more lucrative to be close to where money is changing hands, rather than cooped up in an R&D lab designing the next big thing? I'm not saying it's right, but that seems to be the way it is.


Anonymous said...

Sure, you can make more money doing something else. However, if the only thing that motivates you as an engineer is $ then you're not going to be a very good engineer anyways.

I could never imagine myself ever doing anything other than engineering. Growing up, I was obsessed with programming, electronics, and just a general drive to figure things out. I wanted to know how and why things did what they did. As an engineer, I truly enjoy the work that I do because of these aspects of the job.

If my kids turn out to have the same passions, then who am I to try and direct them into a career that I know that I would hate?

John said...

Hi Anon,

Point taken, you need to have a passion for what you do to be very successful at it.

But, is "financial engineering" so different from traditional engineering? Is using mathematical models to optimize return/risk that different from any number of EDA problems? Might it not provide the same intellectual satisfaction at the mathematical problem solving level? And it seems, rightly or wrongly, that Finance is more lucrative than EDA.


skmurphy said...

I would advise high school students to consider an engineering education in college. It's good preparation for a number of careers, and if current trends continue they will have a half dozen to a dozen different careers in their working lifetime. I think K12 and college education needs to adjust to teach students how to learn: my sense is that a grounding in engineering and the sciences do a better job of that.

Nick said...

Hi John,

I guess having a discussion on ones career choice is analogous to having a discussion on a person's name.

There is no right or wrong in it and it's a matter of choice, liking, training in the chosen field and capability.

As far as money is concerned, it can be made in any sector (computer software, electronics or financial sector) by revolutionizing the products which we deliver to the end customers.

Sometimes there is more risk (financial sector) but the rewards are great when the times are good.

I live in one of the world's major financial hubs and I see many finance guys who have been made redundant in recent times express their dissapointment and wonder as to why they didnt get into engineering (and join google/apple/nvidia/intel and contribute to marvellous technology) and admire and express their awe and appreciation at what we as engineers do.

DtownEngineer said...

As engineers, most of us (at least in the US) probably got into the field because of some underlying interest or perhaps even an outright passion for the field. But there's a tradeoff between pursuing that passion and making significantly more money. The same analogy could be made between technical sales and pure engineering. Of course there are other tradeoffs involved, but money is one example.

However, I think unless you're in academia or are a hobbyist, we engineers have already ventured onto the path of seeking wealth by creating products that meet society's needs/wants in return for $. Of course there are various levels to this; if you're an entrepreneur, you might be more monetarily driven than a 25-year veteran at a major electronics firm. But the main point is that we're not doing this out of sheer intellectual curiosity - we are driven by the need to see a tangible result of our theoretical knowledge and hypotheses (i.e. making "things"), along with the need to feed ourselves.

I do think we engineers are sometimes a bit too purist and keep our head in the sand when it comes to compensation, and need to empower ourselves a bit more in modern industry. We've made too many managers, executives, and passive shareholders rich and are thought of as cogs. Do you realize how much money goes into share buybacks? And to what avail? The damn market sucks it all out with a couple of bad down days. But of course the execs need to keep the stock afloat just in time to bail out on their 0-cost options. This leads to lower engineering salaries and more people steered to other fields through sheer monetary prospects.

Outsourcing-hungry execs often don't appreciate the engineering challenges that are overcome to developing successful products, and instead hail all praise (along with promotions up the corporate ladder) to the highest-grossing salesperson or high-level manager. The technical knowledge is then freely sent to engineers abroad, whose lower labor costs then justify laying off the engineers who came up with the products to begin with. Unlike bankers, we don't reap the rewards of periods of high profit-making unless you're an founder at a startup.

Another way to look at this is to say that the field of engineering has been shaped by the free market, and not being compensated enough will only drive engineers to go independent and develop the next blockbuster technological or application breakthrough!

hchoudh said...

I grew up in NY, worked in finance for a bit, then moved to Silicon Valley to be a real engineer.

Let me say that in my personal experience getting $5M a year is not the norm. That would be like someone hitting it big by joining a successful startup. Of all the people I know who got jobs in Wall Street, not a single one is wealthy, and most are doing jobs that they really hate for the promise that one day they will strike it rich.

Actually, now that I think about it, it really is a lot like a startup.

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