An Engineering Career

Presenter: Stuart Austin

Career: Software Engineering Consultant

What that means: A consultant or “freelancer” is typically someone who is self-employed (I have my own one-person company), who provides their services to one or more client companies.The clients need my specialized skills and knowledge to assist them in their business projects.

A Software Engineer is someone who designs and implements computer programs – sometimes on PCs, but also on web servers and embedded processors.Those are the computers that are built into other machines like TVs, satellites, toll booths and Automated Teller Machines.

My two current business areas are the Aerospace industry – I help my clients build, launch and operate satellites; and the Defense industry – I help my clients build and deploy defense systems for U.S. Navy ships.Some of my previous jobs involved television broadcast systems and statistical research systems. I’ve worked with computer software since I graduated from college.

At my client sites, I work with other Software Engineers, as well as Electrical Engineers (they design the computers), Mechanical Engineers (they design the structures, the physical part of the systems), and Systems Engineers (they make sure that all the Engineering teams are working together to build the right system).

Education: Almost all engineers have at least a Bachelor’s degree (a four-year college degree) in an Engineering subject, such as Computer Science, Computer Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Automotive Engineering or Aerospace Engineering. Some also have a Master’s degree (two or more years of additional college study).A select few have Doctoral (PhD) degrees, which requires several more years of independent college study; those people become highly specialized in one Engineering discipline.Even after an Engineer receives his or her degree, he or she will typically continue to take courses to stay current with rapidly changing technology.

I have a Bachelor’s degree in Economics (not an Engineering discipline) and a Master’s degree in Computer Science.When I was a college student, PCs were first becoming available, and I became interested in learning how to use the computer as a tool to solve mathematical problems. I pursued my Computer Science degree and jobs that involved computer programming.

Engineering students in all specialties take a lot of the same courses.This includes many classes in mathematics, computer programming, and physics.Software Engineers may also take classes in Electrical Engineering which involves how electrical circuits and electronic systems work.

What Engineers are like: An Engineer’s main goal is to create and use technology to improve people’s lives.Toward that goal, certain skills are also common – the ability to solve problems using logic and mathematics, creativity (thinking of new ways to do things), and the ability to deal with highly complex and detailed data and relationships among the data.It also helps to be able to communicate well, both in spoken and written language, and to work well as part of a team.

However, it is universally accepted in the Engineering world that some people are shy, less comfortable working in a team and would rather work alone on their part of the project. These people also make a valuable contribution because their work is eventually integrated into a larger system.In all Engineering projects, it’s the combined work of many people that determines the success of the system.

What a typical day is like: I spend time talking, e-mailing or Instant Messaging with other members of the Software Engineering team, to figure out who is doing what parts of writing, testing and documenting the computer software we’re building.I will also spend a lot of time on my own actually writing computer programs, or writing technical documents that show how to operate or test the software system.

Since I am a consultant, sometimes I work at my client’s office, and sometimes I work in my own office.When I work at client sites, I have to commute to them.I drive my car about 30-60 minutes each way on a typical day, but since my hours are flexible I can often miss the heaviest rush hour traffic.Most workdays are eight hours long but some projects require overtime.

My own office is located in the basement of my house, and I have lots of computers, network equipment and other technical equipment I use.A high-speed Internet connection and a cell phone are also indispensable for my business.I like working at home because I get to spend more time actually working and less time sitting in traffic.But I also have to spend a lot more time taking care of my own business – tax forms, paying bills, seeking out new contracts.

At my client sites, I prefer to dress in what’s called “business casual.”For men, that means a pair of nice pants and a shirt with a collar, sometimes a necktie, and sometimes even a suit, though that’s usually just for special meetings. The women will typically wear either nicer tops, pants or a skirt, or a dress.However, in most Engineering companies it’s also acceptable to dress more casually – some wear jeans and T-shirts.When I work at home I definitely dress casually!

Some of my clients have branch offices located outside of the Northern Virginia area, so occasionally I’ll take a business trip.This is usually only a couple of times a year, though I do know Engineers and Consultants who travel much more extensively than this.Some will move to another city for a few months while they work on a contract.

Career Paths.Engineering is a fairly high paying career; people just starting out with their Bachelor’s Degree will earn anywhere from $40,000 to $60,000 per year, depending on the type of Engineer they are, the company they work for, and where that company is located.Getting your Engineering Bachelor’s Degree is a lot of work – the classes can be a lot harder than in some other areas of study. For example, in your final year you are expected to do a project – kind of like a year-long science fair project, like building a computer or writing a complex piece of software like a video game.

Employers recognize that Engineering students have worked hard to achieve their degrees and reward them accordingly.Of course, they are expected to work just as hard in the workplace as they did in school.In addition to the financial rewards, as an Engineers career progresses he or she will be given more responsibility, and be making the important decisions about how the systems will be built and deployed.Eventually a lot of Engineers become managers and then manage teams of other Engineers who actually build the systems. Senior Engineers and Managers will typically make over $100,000 a year here in Northern Virginia.

As a consultant, I get paid by the hour or by the project I complete for my clients. But if I need to take time off for vacations or sick days, I don’t get any pay on those days.

What I Like Most and Least, and Would I Do It All Again: Engineers build systems that play a vital role in our nation’s security and economy.I also enjoy using logic to solve problems, then turn those solutions into a working computer program.What I like the least is when I think I have a solution but it turns out my solution isn’t practical and it has to be redesigned.If I were to do it all over again I would definitely stay in Engineering for those reasons, though I would have preferred to have finished my PhD; that credential would be a benefit to my consulting practice.

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