You won’t believe this, but within five minutes of sitting down to write this article I received an email from LinkedIn announcing that 141 of my contacts had changed jobs during 2010. At that rate I guess that, without LinkedIn, I’d lose touch with just about everybody after four years.
I remember signing up for a job for life in the Bell System in 1979. I was probably one of the last to have any hope of hanging on to that illusion. Many old saws underscore the need to be agile with one’s career vision. Nils Bohr admonishes us to be careful about predicting things, particularly if they involve the future.
We’re told that the only thing that is certain in life is change. You'll likely change careers many times — I was lucky with only five successions: from software engineer to process researcher, university professor, electronic design automation engineer, and organizational consultant. It's not only about having a new job, but a new vocation — again and again. Today a remarkably small fraction of my work relates directly to software. I’ve changed tack every two to three years, and have changed ships about every seven.
On the other hand, the more things change, the more they stay the same. More and more of commercial technology practice is driven by fads than by sound engineering. Those who roll through the fads and who prosper and lead across successive generations of technology are those who don’t let the fads distract them. The key is to focus on the timeless ideas.
I have found that attentiveness to these core concerns will serve you well. Armed with these, you’ll roll through change. They can help you rise above change. They can even help you to help those around you manage change.
Fundamentals are always important. Those who “move up the technology ladder” too easily lose touch with the reality of the physics beneath them. Many times have I seen an idealistic designer create an ingenious logic design that would consume enough watts of power to burn itself to a crisp. I remember Jack Manley admonishing me that even digital design depended on the analog circuitry beneath it.
Systems thinking must be a tool in every engineer’s toolbox. More than just “problem-solving skills,” systems thinking sees beyond the solutions of a specific engineering discipline to embrace the broader problem context, including non-technical considerations. A broad education and rotational assignments through your firm can help.
In the end, it’s always about people. Without a human focus, your working relationships and engineering results are unlikely ever to reach their full potential. Charlie Ranous taught us these things back in Engineering school in the 1970s. We found it tedious at the time; today, I understand the power of the seeds he planted back then.
Bran Selic reminded me of a quote from Albert Einstein: "Concern for man himself and his fate must always constitute the chief objective of all technological endeavors...in order that the creations or our minds shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations."
As I discussed in my previous blog, a well-developed skill set in aesthetics, and a sense of beauty, are both timeless and increasingly relevant in engineering. Stephen Perin suggested a quote from Gustave Eiffel: “Must it be assumed that because we are engineers, beauty is not our concern?”
Plan on re-making yourself every seven years or so. But stand on a firm foundation. Be a timeless engineer, and roll through the fads.