Vicariously reliving college

Vicariously reliving college

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By Peter Clarke

As I sat talking with my son last night, memories of engineering school came back to me. He is ending his sophomore year studying a computer-engineering curriculum. According to him, that’s the hardest year. As I remember, my junior year was the most difficult. In either case, he is experiencing many of the emotions that I did back then. It brought me back thirty years to those challenging times.

Engineering is a very frustrating major. I remember the reactions when I would respond to the question of what my major was. When I said physics which eventually became engineering, eyes would roll and a groan of sympathy would come my way. Truly, it is much more difficult than other majors. There is an engineering half-life where the class size is half what it was the semester before. I can still remember the occurrence that took place after the results of the first chemistry test were handed out. Half of us went on to physics class while the other half went across to the administration building to change major.

My son’s frustration parallels mine when I was in his state of climbing the ladder of education. However, he is much further along than I was. When he was 17, he was the first in his class to achieve a Window’s certification. He then walked into a startup not knowing a stitch of Linux. Within a few months, he had pared a rack of servers down to three and combined all of the files and web pages into a much denser, more efficient space using Linux. Not many kids can say they were the company’s system administrator at age 17. I was fueling trucks at thirty below zero when I was seventeen. I am happy to have experienced every parent’s goal of seeing their child enjoy a better life than they did no matter how difficult it is to watch him agonize over an assignment. He has much better time management skills than I did. He spends his time at the gym rather than seeing how much alcohol it takes to improve one’s foosball skills.

The period of time after a sophomore year is a cruel valley in some ways. Your knowledge has increased greatly since high school however it’s often not enough to land that position above the summer job of flipping burgers or tolerating snotty-nosed kids as a camp coordinator. In addition to this disappointment he is experiencing life as it exists in the real world. He took valuable time off from work and studying to travel during rush hour traffic to an interview only to find out the guy hadn’t even read his resume. This wasn’t his first rodeo. The startup job was a baptism by fire in ways. Fortunately he has a job as an IT person. How he handles this, the gym, and his studies is a mystery although I still find myself opening the computer at 6:30am and sometimes closing it after 11:00pm.

Many of my peers recommend that their offspring avoid engineering altogether based upon the current state it is in. I have thought of that myself, however I also realize that fewer participants result in less competition. Should engineering return to its former glory, he might just hit a sweet spot in the market like I did during the Reagan era where the mere mention of the word “electronics” got you hired. Nonetheless, this grueling life he is living should set him apart from those who believe that partying is a major and texting behind your back is a job skill.

Although I specialized in analog subjects and my son is on the dark side as a computer engineer; engineering is engineering. He calls me on occasion when he gets stuck with something. This is very flattering as a parent. When children mature into adolescents, parents become less of a hero and more of a hindrance. Knowing that he has the confidence in my abilities instills pride in me as I traverse down the road of “geezing”.

The engineering college life is one of hard work that seems to have no end in sight. I remember feeling that in undergraduate as well as graduate school. You get in the middle of it, broke and working the hardest you ever have while your friends enjoy 8-to-5 and income. The difference is, you’re stuck in a grueling schedule, however you have a better chance of escaping the dungeon known as your parent’s basement.

I keep telling him: “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. Take the harder route. You’ll learn more that way.”

As my technical career transitioned from design to technical writing, I felt more of a sense of accomplishment. In some strange way I’m more proud of a well-written patent than I was of a highly efficient power supply design. Maybe it’s because the design was not seen as valuable due to being less than one hundred percent efficient while costing under thirty dollars and powering a three hundred dollar motherboard. It’s not “what have you done for me?” It’s “what have you done for me lately?” Never mind the thousands of dollars and watts you saved. Perhaps my well-written patent will set someone on their way to financial freedom and achieving their dream while freeing them from cubicle hell. I can only hope that’s the case.

One trap a parent must avoid is to try and force their offspring rather than to guide them. I’m glad my son isn’t accumulating tens of thousands of dollars in student loans studying ancient Mongolian cultures only to exit college and find out there aren’t many opportunities in that area. Of course certain professors would convince him there were opportunities in a quest to get four years of free graduate study labor. So far he’s dodged these sales schemes and seems to be on a road that has potential: programming gaming software. If anything has a future in this era of the entitlement generation, that occupation surely does for those thousands who view gaming as a Mecca. Far be it for anyone to experience the reality of life that doesn’t appear with multiple colors of pixelization on an OLED screen. You have a guaranteed market son. I once did too. I just hope yours maintains the value it brings initially. Instead of making electronics that enable weaponry for ensuring freedom, my son has the opportunity to keep his element of destruction virtual. There is a peace of mind in that.

Scott Deuty is a power electronics consultant and technical author having spent much of his career writing technical documents and application notes.

This article first appeared on eeNews Europe’ sister site Planet Analog

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