“It always seems crazy, until it’s not” — Larry Page
It seemed crazy that two weeks before college applications were due, at the age of 17, a deadline was going to decide the fate for the rest of my life. Little did I know, that this was going to be the adrenalin infused decision making skill I would come to rely on later. Did I dismantle cars and put them back together, before I learned to walk? Did I reprogram my computer? (No, I thought Windows 98 was the coolest thing ever just like you.) Do I like my food with an extra dash of “grease?” No. But I decided then, that I was going to learn to look like an engineer.
Of course this decision was welcomed with open arms by my parents’ career prophesy: “A girl should be anything she wants in life, a doctor or an accountant.” But I had fallen much too in love with the laws of Newton and wasn’t going to settle my debts for granting me life, by budging with this decision.
When my older brother decided to pursue a career in civil engineering, it was called applying for college. When I applied for the mechanical engineering program at my university, it was called defiance; as I went on to be accepted with a small scholarship and still is today; as I enter my final honours year.
I’m periodically reminded how I will not get a job, (yeah me and the rest of the unemployed youth — unemployment doesn’t discriminate) how I will have to work cleaning gears in factories (let’s just say after 2 months of vacation work in 2 different factories — there’s very little that scares me anymore) and reminded by nobody in the field of engineering what my career entails. So, why is everyone telling me about the horrid challenges I am going to face at my future job? I’ve come to the profound conclusion that an asteroid travelling at the speed of light multiplied by pi squared… I’m a girl, and unlike my brother before me, being an engineer would be seen as a burden not a blessing to those around me.And somehow the glamorous accord that surrounded my brother’s career and rapturous talk of job security (in a high rise, designing a high rise) didn’t apply to me. (Maybe there’s an economic recession I don’t know about.)
I’m not going to deny, I didn’t pick up a spanner until my first year of engineering, but look around you the world is built by a multitude of people and some are skilled in the art of spanner-ism and others not. But, the real conclusion I’ve made, is that people are afraid of the unknown. We take the same routes, order the same food, choose the same stores, because it's familiar and safe. However, when clichés become your core source of information you enter a narrow path called naivety. Where the unknown scares some, it is what drives me, fuels my curiosity and guides my lifelong thirst for knowledge.
I shall now attempt to educate everyone, by addressing a list of issues I come across, the next time you find yourself afraid of the unknown, I don’t have to prevent my eyes from Fibonacci spiraling out of control or justify my decision in an open court where the jury is already wondering if I can assist with engine trouble. (For the record, I cannot. Why? Because I’m not a car mechanic. )
Lesson 0 — #ILookLikeAnEngineer
Yes, I’m a petit, 1.7 m, female with short sighted vision, where even my toes are a bit of a blur. I’m assisted thankfully by my black aluminium framed glasses. But, I have no idea what an engineer looks like, so I’m going to be one whether I look like it or not. SPOILER ALERT: The helmet, yes it fits. And the safety boots too. (They make size: girl. Who knew?) Do I dress like this everyday and is this the little black dress of engineering? No, it’s for my safety. And if you visited a construction site or a hazardous environment, you would have to wear it too. And no, that would not make you an engineer.
I too, adjust my choice of clothing to the weather. Becoming an engineer has nothing to do with your appearance or gender. It has everything to do with your personality traits, and your ability to solve problems and welcome complexity with open arms. (or open pliers, yes I’m still on to you, spanner-isms) You need to learn to make decisions where sometimes it is not clear what’s right or wrong, only what works and what works better. You will need to be able to draw strengths from a team and simply do the best you can with what you have.
I didn’t grow up showing traits of a future engineer, nor do I go around tinkering rockets in my spare time. I still jump at every door slam and am a little afraid of uncontrolled fires. (safety first!) So, I must admit maybe my decision was slightly shocking to those around me. But, what I did grow up with, was a home filled with resources that taught me about the world and how it works, and more importantly how to make it better. Maybe I didn’t build an internal combustion engine in a cave with a box of scraps, but it always fascinated me and always will, on how we keep 300 tonnes flying in the air. And as I entered areas of increased pressure, I was able to lift myself out of the challenges of studying a degree in engineering.
So the dream was alive, until I failed my first test and I thought for a second maybe…
I will just take the re-write with the other 2/3rds of my class. I have a curious case of never giving up, I believe every problem has a solution — the trick is finding it. This blind optimism has cost me many troubles, triumphs and sleep. But I’m 3/4 done and I have loved every day. I am inspired by the skills I learn and knowledge I gain. I can do things like write computer programs to help me analyse data, and understand why my laptop heats up when I leave it running on my bed while I type this. (Unknown 0 Me 1)
Sometimes you need to jump into the deep end, and then figure out if you enjoy swimming or not. Sometimes your best advice comes from thorough research in this age of abundant information and not from old generational prophesies.
Lesson 1 — #WorkingLivesMatter
One of the biggest challenges I face is answering the question “What are you studying?” and very often my reply is met with a stare blanker than monochromatic light. Or if someone is curious “What do you do?” to which I am left doing the verbal rebate of a Google search, and the ultimate “Where will you work?” to which I am left wondering, do people just accept the aerofoil shape of an aeroplane wing and not wonder why or how? Where do people think technology (including but not limited to EVERYTHING) comes from?
I have not had this conversation once or twice, I am constantly having to explain myself to different genres of people, a explanation not warranted if I were let’s say of another hypothetical gender. So here it comes, one explanation to rule them all.
There are countless branches of engineering, and all come together to pursue a common goal of making the world a better a place and driving humanity forward. Some of the main branches are civil engineering, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, computer engineering and electrical engineering. Within these are sub branches that are specialists in certain arts of science. Your degree doesn’t dictate where you will work, (human resources does that, as you will soon find out) but you do. You decide what you want to make, create or innovate. You decide if the toolbox or if Linux or if a toolbox in Linux is your sidekick at work or not. And yes, it’s tiresome dodging the knowledgeable remarks of those un-knowledgeable in the topic, but you soon learn that there are things more tiresome and worth the energy, like finding a “matrix indices” error source in Matlab. (at 3 Am with a deadline at 8 Am. Yes. Welcome)
I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in renewable energy, because three years ago that was such a hot topic in my coal mining –makes -our- GDP -country. (insert sarcasm sign)
So the fear struck again, nobody knew what that meant so everybody told me I won’t get a job, I will end up doing what their version of engineering dictated and I will hate my life. Well, I hate to disappoint people, but I still and always will love what I do. And getting a job is not motivation enough for choosing what career to follow. You’ll get a job or you’ll make your own. What should motivate you is caring about something enough for it to keep you awake at night until it’s perfect.
Engineering jobs are so vast it is difficult to condense it here, but there are fields of design and testing, analysing, building and the list goes on! So do your own research. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which means living with the result of other people’s thinking (rather trust in the result of a search engine — No, we’re not referring to you, Bing.) Yes older people are wiser and they know more about life, but the world is a different place than it was the last time they had to make decisions akin to these and when people offer advice they draw on past experience, and it may be outdated.
So, if I had continued on the path of the prophesy I would have indeed hated my life and continued to internally combust at the sight of blood or agitate my eye astigmatism by balancing copious amounts of ledgers.
Instead there’s an entire world trying to go 100% renewable and I live in a country with 300 days of sunshine. (this is me wondering if I’m going to get a job)
The best advice is mistakes, make them, learn from them and move on.
In conclusion, Google is your friend- read, don’t live in the unknown in an information age. The world is an incredible place and there’s space for you in it, whatever you want to be. Based on the ancient, ever adapting and most reliable prophesy called yourself. In yourself, you must trust.
Technology is changing the world at a rapid pace and I am grateful every day to be a small part of this. (even if it’s opening the jam jar with a spanner.)