Believe in Yourself (And Your Major)
I’ll be honest and say that lately, I haven’t really been feeling stoked about work and career in the midst of this global pandemic and all the difficulties attached to it — I am content and incredibly grateful in my current position, but I find it agonizing to think about planning for the future or thinking about 10 years from now. I also sometimes feel bitter and resentful about early-stage career trauma that has still affected me mentally until now (they never tell you about the startups that crash and burn and take everyone down with them, or that high risk high reward can also mean catastrophic downside). But reading my own draft of this blog post made me feel a little bit better, so I thought I’d finally share it. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the “good news only” effect common in professional circles (*cough* LinkedIn *cough*). Overcompensating everyone else’s good news by sharing all my bad news may have a poor effect on my reputation, but I know that it definitely makes me feel less alone, so maybe this will do that for you too.
— DEAR HARDWARE ENGINEERS,
I know we’ve all had the thought — the “maybe I should have just been a software engineer” moment. Maybe some of you are already more than adequate coders despite your official title, and thinking about switching — a valid option, of course, and one that can even still be hardware-related in the embedded systems, controls, or kinematics areas of software focus. Or maybe it’s another thought, about management consulting or finance or other greener pastures.
The reason for the thought often arrives when you find out a former classmate or another colleague is making nearly twice as much as you at a company twice as large, or when you are frustrated that the job market and salary data is so much harder to assess when your role is a lot more specific — or sometimes, when it is a lot more broad. There’s much less of a beaten path for you to follow in your career, particularly now that majors like my own, Mechanical Engineering, pretty much encompass everything under the sun. There are enormous differences between career paths of people with this same undergraduate major who go on to work in different industries, differently sized companies, in different locations, and with different personal preferences.
Of course, some of that (locations and sizes of companies in particular) affects everyone regardless of field of study. But it seems particularly all over the place for hardware engineers of various disciplines. There are far fewer metrics online about the job market and they seem to be a lot less accurate.
I struggled (and still struggle) to find my way in my career as a person who took on a very wide range of responsibilities in my roles, and chose an interdisciplinary, dynamic field. I used to think of that as a detriment — not focused enough — rather than as a benefit. But since I’ve kept developing a rather broad skillset, from roles that were more CAD and mechanical design oriented to those that had a lot of software, project management, and operations tasks, I retain a flexible profile, rather than pigeonholed into a specialty I don’t actually like that much. I absorbed a lot of breadth early in my career
My goal immediately out of undergrad was to go out into the world and see if robotics as a field was mature enough to allow someone with only a bachelors’ degree to participate in its workforce. This also presented its own challenge — I did eventually land positions of course, but many specified MS or PhD requirements. I think that is now changing — or at the very least, the requirements have become softer.
I flip-flopped between mechanical design roles and more software feature oriented roles. One important benefit I received is that over the last 3.5 years, I’ve learned how to build pretty much anything. How to bring virtually any product from prototype to production — although I admit I’d need some help with the internal electronics, but I’ve become confident that I could take virtually anything from “0 to 1” — ideas to prototype and early-stage product.
Whether what I was doing was explicitly “robotics” is another interesting question. The day to day tasks of robotics, when they are not controls and kinematics, are somewhat discrete. In my first position, I was building a gripper to the spec of another engineer’s designs. Then I was constructing a smart shelf that automatically sensed when objects were placed into bins (the objects were placed by a robot arm). Then I was working on a tick-robot project for the Defense Health Agency, which involved a lot of intense mechanical design and troubleshooting someone else’s partially complete work. Then it was learning a lot about ROS and SLAM algorithms as part of the same project. Then it was letting go of some of my mechanical design responsibilities to get better at embedded software, computer vision, and systems-level design to integrate a sensor with a portfolio of robots.
I’m pretty happy calling all of my work “robotics”, particularly as it all fit my goal of trying to make it in the industry with only a bachelor’s degree. But the day to day tasks were sometimes more discrete — since every company I have ever worked for had fewer than 100 people, I was often doubling as a technician, soldering electrical components and assembling mechanical ones. I was sometimes a machinist (although honestly a pretty bad one — slow and imprecise). I was (am) frequently, begrudgingly, a software engineer, sometimes the only dedicated one on my projects. I have talked to customers and written thousands of words in grant proposals and always, I have expanded to fill the corners of my position, the nooks and crannies that are hard to reach by merely overlapping two teams or people — helping operations transition some documentation, filling in for a person here, nagging finance there.
There’s a saying that when you’re driving in the dark, you can’t see the path ahead of you much more than a few feet. But somehow, you can make it all the way home that way.
My career has been a lot like that. I recognize that, had I made different choices, my path could have been easier or at least more straightforward. I could have tried to find a position at a really large company, and “climbed the ladder” so to speak. I could have gone to grad school. And of course, I could have chosen a different major or used the skills I gained working to switch fields, ones that are more specific and better defined.
But there were a lot of things I did not know at the time, like what exactly I wanted or what I liked doing and didn’t. This freedom to explore came with the territory; it came with Google never providing good answers to my queries about my career. You can’t be trapped in a box because there is no box. Nothing seems impossible — although I have to tolerate uncertainty about pretty much everything in exchange for that freedom.
These circumstances force me to ask deeper questions about myself than “salaries for w position at x location with y years of experience and z degree”. What am I worth, and how can I determine that? What roles have I been performing that are not necessarily what my title is? What value have I delivered to my company? Where do I want to go next (if there’s a “next”) and why? What value does my position provide to me? What have I learned that I enjoy and do not enjoy? What motivates me? What accomplishments am I most proud of?
The lingering pull of the money vortex in other kinds of positions has not gone away, and I don’t blame anyone, particularly those who don’t feel there’s a particular area of focus that calls to them, for pursuing it for solely that reason. And I am in really no position to complain — which is a good thing!
I get frustrated sometimes by the pace of my development, a kind of paranoid discontent with the status quo that, to be very honest, is probably in part what got me this far in the first place. But sometimes, we have to lay down the binoculars we use to compare ourselves to others and think about what would make us happy, irrespective of anyone else. I joke that being an MIT alumn comes with the iron man curse — the idea that we should be magical geniuses able to singularly construct a flying suit by ourselves, after 4 years of undergrad, instead of with a team of PhD’s at NASA.
And who knows, maybe I myself will one day find I quite like management track roles or being a VC analyst or who knows what else. We are living, breathing human beings, allowed to be dynamic and change our minds, and spend whatever time we need to just figure it all out.
There is no right answer, or correct path.