Interview of an Engineer

(Guest Speaker)


The Pre-Engineering students at Langley High School came up with the following list of questions for the guest speakers.  These questions were part of The Engineering Profession section of their class.   As a guest speaker, you should be able to cover most of these in your initial lecture.  It’s OK not to answer a question you don’t like. 


1.     What type of engineer are you?  What background do you need?

I am a Software Engineer.  Software Engineers have backgrounds in Computer Science, Computer Engineering or Electrical Engineering.

2.     What is the latest technology in your field?

As of November 2006, I would say the latest technology has to do with the migration from legacy 32-bit applications and operating systems to the new 64-bit environments (Windows Vista, Solaris 10, and various 64-bit Linuxes).

3.     When did you decide to be an engineer? Why did you become an engineer? How many years have you been working in the field?

When I was a freshman in college, I was interested in a mixed Liberal Arts/Engineering program offered at Penn State.  I ended up staying in a pure Liberal Arts major.  Shortly after graduation I enrolled in a Master’s degree program in Computer Science and have been doing Software Engineering ever since.  That would be about 23 years.

4.     How many hours per week do you really work?  Include all work related hours.

Over the course of a year I think it averages out to a normal 40 hour work week.  Being self-employed, I have the luxury to choose when to work billable hours (those I get paid for) and when I get to do fun stuff like visiting schools to promote Engineering as a career choice.

5.     How much do you get paid?  Average over a year.  You may choose not to answer this one.

I get paid by the hour for every hour worked. So if I work a lot of hours in a year, I make a lot more money than if I take a lot of time off.  My hourly rate is somewhat controlled by the market – when jobs became scarce in 2001, I had to take a 30% pay cut to stay competitive.  Since then I have gradually increased the rates as the job market has improved. I fall in the “upper middle class” designation – but not high enough to be subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax according to the IRS.

6.     What company do you work for? 

I have my own consulting firm called Critical Software Systems – the name comes from the idea of  Software Engineering for Mission-Critical Systems. I provide my services to client companies in the aerospace and defense industries. Most of the software I write is for “embedded” systems – microprocessors and microcontrollers that don’t have typical user interface software like a Windows or Linux application.

7.     What is your working environment like?

I have a home office that I enjoy working from; I also work quite a bit at my client’s sites.  That varies from scrounging a desk in a lab, to cubicles, to an actual office.  Mostly embedded software development is done in a lab environment, as there’s specialized test equipment necessary.

8.     What previous projects have you worked on?  What is your favorite / most interesting so far?

I have worked on a wide variety of systems, both government and commercial.  Working in the aerospace industry is always exciting because the risks of failure are always prevalent and this increases the engineering challenge.  However I think my all-time favorite was writing software for a DirecTV set-top box ... when my software worked, I got to watch TV!

9.     What programs do you use to complete your job?

Typically a microprocessor or microcontroller will have a dedicated software development environment (compiler, assembler, linker).  I like to use MS Visual Studio to manage C and C++ source code, even if I won’t ever build it as a Windows application. Tools like Excel and Matlab are also invaluable for analysis.

10.  What other job(s) could you qualify for?  Both engineering and other.

One of the advantages about working in such a broad range of application areas is I get to a certain level of expertise in those areas.  So I think I could be an anyalyst in intelligence processing systems. I also like teaching and coaching so maybe a job as a trainer would be good.

11.  Do you like your job?  What is the best thing that’s happened in your career / best personal accomplishment so far?

Being self-employed is the most satisfying part of my career.  Not only does it allow me to work exactly the way I want from a technical perspective, it also allows me to make decisions about how I balance my personal and business life.

12.  What did you do before this job?

Before I started my consulting practice, I worked a number of software development (programming) and engineering jobs.  I was fortunate to get into computers in my first job out of school, even though I didn’t have a computer-oriented degree. Getting the Masters’ degree in Computer Science really helped me move into the more challenging engineering jobs too.

13.  What classes did you take in high school?  What classes did you take in college?

What’s ironic is that I was an A/B student in high school with the exception of what was then called “Computer Math” – a programming course.  It was the only course I ever flunked! Mostly I was more focused towards literature, writing – the kinds of things Liberal Arts majors are known for. I did take AP Math (calculus) as a HS senior though I didn’t pass the AP test. 

As an undergraduate I took a mix of Engineering, Math and Liberal Arts classes. A lot of the Engineering and Math classes ended up being elective credits.

14.  What did you focus on in college?

My focus was Economics, which out of the Social Sciences is perhaps the most mathematically rigorous. I enjoyed seeing how what I learned in Math class could apply to real-world problems.  At that time, we just saw the computer as a tool to do math – nothing like as pervasive in society as it is now.

15.  Which ones helped you the most in college? 

Definitely the emphasis on science and math; but the flip-side of that is that the Liberal Arts tends to favor exploratory thinking.  Most engineering problems have an aspect that requires innovation and ingenuity – “thinking outside the box” as the cliché goes. The successful engineer will have a mix of both in-the-box and outside-the-box skills.

16.  What college(s) did you go to? What college(s) did you graduate from?  How long were you in college?  Include all, full time and part time work.

I spent four years at Penn State from 1978-1982. After I graduated I moved to Northern Virginia; in Fall 1983 I started night school for my Master’s program at the local Virginia Tech campus. I graduated from that program in 1986, while working full time too.  In 1989 I started taking graduate Electrical Engineering and Physics classes at GMU, but never took those credits towards any degree.

17.  What degrees do you have?  What is your level of education?

BS Economics, MS Computer Science.

18.  What subject was your favorite in college?

I liked the theoretical courses in Economics best, especially those that were mathematically-based. I despised classes from the College of Business like Accounting.

19.  What was your high school and college GPA?

A’s and B’s in High School; 3.14 undergraduate; 3.23 graduate (out of 4.0).

20.  What are the job benefits (both health care & personal)?  How much vacation do you get?

Since I am self-employed, I have to pay for all my job benefits myself.  However, I do have some leeway in this area – for example, my automobile is entirely owned by my consulting company so it’s like a tax-free benefit to me for business purposes. If I take a vacation it means I am not working for a client, so I get paid nothing during those times.  It’s up to me to decide the balance between paying and non-paying hours.

21.  Who did/do you look up to?

When I was younger I’d always size people up – “is this person smarter than me or not?” The people that knew more than me, or had done more than me, were those that I looked up to.  I figured I could always do better and learn more, to become more like them.  It just takes time!

22.  What was your motivation for becoming an engineer?

I had a roommate in college who was a whiz on computers.  This was just at the dawn of the desktop computer age, and I realized that’s where I could make a good living if I could get into it.  Frankly it pays much better than being an Economist, statistician or some of the other jobs for which my degree might have qualified me.

23.  What other types of engineering have you considered?

When I was in graduate school at GMU I was interested in getting into the hardcore physics, like particle accelerators or high-energy microwave devices or something.

24.  Where do you live?  One or two homes?

I live in Gainesville, VA but am thinking of getting a property in central Virginia, such as Charlottesville or Staunton. I would look for new consulting clients in that area if I were to move.

25.  What cars do you own? i.e. sports, etc…. What kind do you want?

My business car is a Mazda RX-8 which is a four-seat sports car. I also have a full-size Dodge conversion van for hauling my family and sports equipment.  If I could find (or design) one vehicle that was sporty but still had enough room to camp in, I’d be set.

26.  What do you do outside of work?

In the summer I train for and compete in triathlon – the “swim, bike, run” sport. In the fall and winter I do a lot of trail running.


I have three kids, ages 11, 14 and 15 and I like to spend time doing family stuff with them.

27.  Do you work weekends? What do you do in your spare time?

Sometimes it’s necessary to work weekends but I normally reserve that for family time.  My daughter goes to boarding school so the only chance we have to be together is on weekends.  We like outdoors activities but also are all great shoppers – just about every weekend has a trip to Best Buy.

28.  What video games, if any, do you play?

I’m terrible at all video games though I enjoy watching my sons play.  They have Xbox, GC, DS and PS/2.  Video games are a fascinating example of software simulation and someday I might like to be involved in game software development.  In terms of user interaction they are miles ahead of the Windows or command-line paradigms; technical software could benefit greatly by employing some of the techniques that video games use. The hardware in the PS/3 is phenomenal.

29.  What sports did/do you play?  Can you complete an engineering degree and play college sports?  Who is your favorite athlete?

I never did sports as a student, and now I do individual-oriented sports vs. team sports.  However, I do believe that if you have an interest in sports you should try and participate in it – it will help you maintain that “whole person” balance in your life.  I like the sport of cycling, so Lance Armstrong is one of my favorite athletes.

30.  Are you married?  Do you have time to spend with your family?  How many times a year do you go on vacation?

Right now I am separated from my wife – not due to anything related to my career.  I have known marriages that are put under a lot of pressure by how much time one spouse – the engineer – has to spend at work.  I was fortunate enough to never have to make that sacrifice.  Usually my kids and I take one summer vacation together but with the separation this year we didn’t get the chance.  I hope to continue that tradition even after I’m divorced.

31.  What do you do?  What is the most challenging aspect of your field?

Even if you get good at writing software for a particular platform, that platform eventually becomes obsolete.  So there is a constant challenge to apply what you know to new, evolving software development environments.  You have to balance off becoming really proficient in one platform – and risking becoming obsolete yourself – versus becoming only somewhat proficient on a lot of different technologies.

32.  What skills do you need?  What are essential subjects for success in your field?

Software is fundamentally based on formal logic, so you need to be able to reason things out logically.  The process of designing and developing software is essentially “seeing real-world relationships in terms of large sets of simple statements whose truth value can be ascertained.”

33.  Were you interested in engineering in high school?  What did you want to be in high school?

My Dad is a college professor in a scientific discipline so I always had that influence.  However, the Senior edition of my high school newspaper predicted I would “lead a gang of motorcycle-riding English professors.”

34.  What are the practical applications of your field?          

Virtually unlimited, I think.  As our society embraces digital processing in more and more of our daily lives, we will have an ever-growing demand for digital and software engineers.  Our economic health and national security already depend on engineers to a huge degree.

35.  Is there anything that you or your firm have engineered that we use today?

I went for a long period working on projects that eventually got cancelled.  You can imagine how frustrating that was!  The first big success I had that ended that dismal period was the launch of Galaxy-12 which is a satellite in the PanAmSat fleet.  When you watch channels like HBO on cable, most likely that signal is coming from HBO to your cable provider by way of Galaxy-12.

36.  How long did it take for you to achieve the position you are in now?

I didn’t feel comfortable striking out on my own as an independent consultant until I had some serious technical credentials under my belt – about eight years out of college.  I also had a business partner at the time too, so we kind of shared the risk of going it alone.

37.  What is the greatest failure you have sustained? 

At one point in my consulting career I decided to make a change of clients.  I found out later that the project I had been working on got cancelled. I still wonder if I had stuck with it, if it would have been a success? Was my leaving the cause of the failure, or was it doomed no matter what I could have done?  It can sometimes make you uncomfortable to think that your own actions can have such a broad-reaching effect.

38.  How do you think engineering will continue to evolve?

Students like yourselves will face ever greater challenges in learning everything you’ll need to know to solve the next generation of engineering problems.  Hopefully the tools at your disposal will continue to get better and better though.  I think computers still have a huge amount of development before they reach the kind of potential that will help us break through some engineering barriers.  I mean, who needs a digital toaster? How about focusing the engineering talent on more intractable problems, like how to assemble powerful observatories in space robotically?

39.  What influence has religion had on engineering?

Interesting that you should ask me this, as it’s one of my favorite extracurricular areas of interest.  It’s a question of very broad scope, but as a quick answer I’d say that up until the time of Darwin, religion played such a role in everyone’s lives that it was an integral part of scientific investigation.  Since then, and especially in the 20th century, science (and by extension, engineering) has been essentially atheistic.  It’s almost as if any mention of religion would “taint” the validity of the science. I feel our society has placed too much belief in the power of science and engineering to solve our problems.

40.  How are (all) engineering fields alike / different?

All engineers are faced with the same basic constraints – you have to solve a problem given the current understanding we have about the universe (e.g. physics), and you are given a finite amount of time and money to solve that problem.  One of the things that distinguishes Software engineering from other disciplines is that we don’t currently have a good quantitative model of the limits of how “smart” our software can be.  Will we ever create a machine consciousness that rivals human intelligence? We don’t know yet.

41.  How do you define engineering?

Basically the same answer as the previous question – solving problems using our best understanding of the physics of nature, but given finite resources. A simpler answer would be “using technology to try to make the world a better place.”

42.  If you weren’t an engineer, what would you do?

I would love to explore and publish my philosophy on the limits of scientific thought – trying to answer how smart our computers might eventually become.

43.  What are some drawbacks as well as benefits of being an engineer?

Despite the fact that our society increasingly depends on technology for growth and well-being, the engineering career isn’t widely recognized for the contributions we make.  Doctors, lawyers and politicians are still held in higher regard than engineers, but it is arguable that our contribution to society is at least as important as theirs.  Consequently, we do not carry the same power to effect positive social change as those professions do.

44.  What do you think will be America’s next ‘moon shot’ and will it pertain to engineering alone?  What do you think the next big thing is in engineering?

America must continue to lead the world in innovation, specifically technological (and bio-tech) innovation.  It is up to you as the up-and-coming generation of students to ensure America’s future by pursuing your interest in engineering. In terms of specific technologies, I think quantum computing and other nano-scale technologies will have as dramatic an effect on society over the next few decades as the microchip has had in the last 50 years.

45.  What extracurricular did you do in high school?  College?

Very little in high school, I mostly worked menial jobs (though that does help develop social skills).  In college I wrote for the campus newspaper and was involved in a group that organized open-mike performance opportunities.

46.  How hard is it to find a job in your field?

There are ebbs and flows to every industry, but right now the demand for software engineers is strong. Despite all the progress that has been made in better tools, software is still largely written “by hand” which is a very costly and labor-intensive process.  Automating software development is a long way off, so we still need lots of capable programmers.

47.  How many projects do you complete each year?

Some projects go on for many years.  However, to make them manageable – specifically so you know if you’re making progress – they are typically broken into smaller milestones.  Software deliveries may be a few months or even weeks apart; each delivery is intended to provide more working capability than the one before. So it’s rare that a software engineer will start from scratch and have a finished product – if the software is good, it will live on and continue to be maintained; if it’s no good it will be dropped and forgotten.

48.  Why are you here?

As I mentioned earlier, I believe that for America to be economically and socially strong and secure, we need to continue to lead the world in technological innovation.  You students are the key to that future, so whatever I can do to assist your success also gives me a more secure future.

49.  If you were a student listening to a guest speaker, what would you ask? Answer it.

Q: Will people think of me as a geek if I become an engineer?

A: Maybe, but just remember what I said in class about the “whole person” idea.  Live your life the way YOU want to and you’re much more likely to find happiness.  And yes, engineers do eventually get dates and fall in love.