From Techie Kid to Qualcomm

My Path to Electrical Engineering

As a kid, I was always fascinated with technology.

Whether it was playing video games, chatting online with friends, or downloading music, I was constantly amazed at what these tools could do. Growing up I became more and more interested in hardware and learning how it worked. I upgraded my graphics card, overclocked my CPU, added a RAID array, and built several custom machines. Eventually, my friend and I even started a business where we built custom PCs for folks around town. We offered troubleshooting and network installation support. Starting the business was an awesome experience for both of us, since in the process, we learned how to make a website, manage accounts—and we even gained some local publicity out of it, being featured in The Bend, Oregon’s biggest newspaper.

When the time came for me to start thinking of colleges and majors, I realized I had never put much thought into it. I always just assumed I would do something related to math and science. After realizing this was way too generic, I made the obvious choice: Electrical and Computer Engineering. With both my father and grandfather in the semiconductor industry, my interest in computers, and my solid math and science grades, choosing EE seemed like a no-brainer. 
But in hindsight, did I know anything about what an electrical engineer actually does day-to-day? No. 
Did I even consider the fact that there were many completely different types of engineers and jobs within the field and that I should pick classes that catered to what I wanted? I didn’t have a clue.
Which is how, like so many other people, my college education began with not much more than a basic understanding of what I was getting into.

At the end of my sophomore year at Cornell, I was at a crossroads.

I needed to decide between staying in Electrical & Computer Engineering or making the switch to Operations Research & Industrial Engineering. I was pretty confused at the time, having underestimated the challenging and demanding curriculum of my current program, and getting pressure from friends and frat brothers to go into Finance. Compared to having all of my time swallowed up by homework and labs, finance seemed fun and exciting—and it was a field that supposedly paid even higher salaries than the one I was in. Since Operations Research was one path to finance (many big banks hire engineers to run statistical risk models, among other things), I decided to make the switch.

But that next summer, I got my first internship at a semiconductor startup in Silicon Valley. And the company was everything I didn’t expect.

I was actually able to apply some of my new programming skills during the internship. The people I worked with were laid back and happy—which was the complete opposite of the stressful environment surrounding the finance roles I was now studying for. The following two summers I continued to work for the same startup while my friends got internships at big NYC banks. I was beginning to think that I’d made the wrong decision when I changed majors two years back. But I didn’t know what to do about it since I would need to complete the major I chose in order to graduate on-time. In a last-ditch effort to squeeze in some engineering courses, I decided to change all my electives to EE courses. This proved valuable later on, though at funny times. And of course, I can still remember the confused look on various professors’ faces when as an Operations Research major I walked into classes like Integrated Circuit Design.

My senior year I was back to applying to banks, but because of the less-than-great job market in 2009, I didn’t get any offers. Soon however, I heard back from the one tech company I had applied to—the startup in Silicon Valley.

In January 2010, they offered me a job as a Product Engineer and I took it. The product engineering role was a good fit for me as it didn’t require expert-level skills in power electronics, yet it also made good use of my programming experience. Working in the product engineering role required me to test every data sheet parameter of my company’s products, which in turn helped me to learn how they worked. As time went on, I became more and more comfortable in the role and was able to automate some of the processes within the company. And although I was learning a ton , I could still tell I was missing some essential pieces—having not completed the traditional course of study for this role.

After one and a half years as a Product Engineer, I was offered another opportunity within the company to join the Applications Engineering Team. I didn’t think I had enough technical background, but after talking to some other people, I ended up taking the role anyway. It was the best decision I could have made.

I pushed myself into uncomfortable territory and was forced to learn.

I asked questions when I had to, and spent countless hours in the lab learning by debugging issues and pouring over data sheets. I got to the point where I could go to customers and help them troubleshoot problems, and I could even explain most things about how our devices functioned.

A year later, Qualcomm acquired our company.

Following the advice of my manager I decided to take advantage of the education reimbursement program. I enrolled in the Professional Power Electronics Certificate program online through the University of Colorado, Boulder. Taught by renowned professors Dragan Maksimovic and Robert Erickson, this course was perfect for me—being fine-tuned for those interested in power electronics. Two years and quite a bit of schoolwork later, and I could finally say that I felt not only comfortable, but confident in my technical abilities.

Looking back on it, I don’t regret my decision to change majors. As a Staff Engineer managing Qualcomm’s Battery Charger System Group, I think my experience as a non-EE helps to bring diversity and a different style of thinking to my team. Back in high school, I never would have thought my career path would take me to a point where I’m defining power management products, patenting new technologies, and shaping the industry for fast battery charging in smartphones.

People rarely know exactly what they want to do when they’re young.

I think the key is to keep an open mind and be willing to make changes as careers and interests evolve. Don’t be too easily swayed by the popular choice, and stay humble enough to listen to more experienced people in similar fields. And most importantly—don’t sweat it. Changing majors, and even careers is O.K., and in many cases even necessary in finding your career path.