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Jobs for Mechanical Engineers

May 4, 2012

A little update on the jobs front, supposedly hiring for mechanical engineers is on the upside. The article linked did a study on the most in demand skills and certifications for mechanical engineers if you are curious.

The Major Wars

May 3, 2012

If you’ve read more than a few posts on here you know one of my favorite topics is to discuss the various college majors and their effects on the kids who are choosing them and going off into the world. I also talked about software “engineering” in particular. Mostly that there are two to four times the number of open software jobs versus any other discipline. Unfortunately, this message hasn’t hit the college advisers yet. Engineers are still pretty evenly spread in college majors despite the huge demand for software developers.

So knowing all this, and knowing that if the STEM job market is supposedly so great, Bloomberg is publishing a pretty counter intuitive article; Software Engineers Will Work One Day For English Majors. The article admits that as far as college majors go software developing is extremely lucrative.

The article then complains that by age 40 most software engineers are out of work. Employers don’t like hiring “older” developers. I also agree that as the article states H-1B Visas become a problem as well. These workers tend to be temporary and so are younger than many Americans looking for jobs. By the 50s as the article states you can move into management but the jobs are fewer and fewer.

The author, Norman Matloff, a professor of computer science, writes a very smart article with a lot of good points. A lot of issues that I have lamented: the ceiling on engineering salaries, the preponderance of H-1B Visas, and the difficulty in engineers transitioning into management and the lack of senior level technical positions available for engineers. But Bloomberg was wrong to title the article that software engineers will one day work for English majors. On the contrary, software engineers and English majors will keep working for engineers. Engineers with higher salaries will always have an advantage over staying in the middle class and paying off their student loans over their liberal arts counterparts. There are definitely a lot of problems in engineering and in software engineering and how it’s respected (or rather, not respected) in the workplace. But for many, it might still be a better choice than encouraging more people into majors that don’t necessarily have jobs. (Photo from jot.punkt)

Doctors, Engineers, & Paperwork

May 2, 2012

Since I’ve been so busy with work stuff lately it’s only appropriate I pop back on here and talk some more about work. Not my job, but doctors. Apparently many doctors would not choose medicine again. In the last year those who would still choose their career has dropped from 64% to 59%.

From the article the suspected reasons are anything from too much paperwork to not enough reimbursement from Medicare patients. I’m sure depending on your political swing you could try to make a compelling argument that it’s the “new healthcare laws” creating the bureaucracy to scare doctors away (or high taxes against those poor, poor doctors) or as stated bluntly in the article that the lack of a single payer healthcare system places the burden of care on patients’ and on doctors’ shoulders entirely.

The part that caught my attention was the complaint that “33% of doctors spend more than 10 hours a week on paperwork and administration.” Only 10 hours? I spend 10 hours in meetings. I probably spend 80% of my working hours on project management type of work rather than actual engineering.

I’m definitely sympathetic to doctors and the changing landscape that they’ve had to deal with. But in general doctors make quite a bit more than engineers, especially the specialists. One could argue that medical school being so many more years out than an engineer that that’s worth it. And it may be poor time management that we put these doctors to work with up to 10 hours a week of paperwork rather than actual caring for patients. But I can’t really feel sorry for them, I just blame the system and wonder why they aren’t trying to change it and fix it rather than letting politicians take the reigns. (Photo from rosmary)

The Golden Child

February 15, 2012

In a brief part 2 to yesterday’s post about women entrepreneurs there’s a NY Times article talking about Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook executive in case you’ve been living under a rock). Now I like Sandberg okay. She’s a very talented business woman and I enjoyed her TED talk on why she felt there were too few women leaders. It’s pretty good advice taken from one woman to another. Still some of the things she says I listen to and am thinking, “Yeah that’s probably a good idea, but it’s not going to work for me.” Then I shrug my shoulders and walk away. Even more when I keep hearing about her being a “successful woman in tech” I want to roll my eyes out of my head.

Look she might be the most brilliant woman ever. But if she’s a woman in tech than apparently any one of the office assistants in my building are “women in engineering” or maybe the hardworking folks who empty the trash cans and clean the bathrooms should also be counted as “working in tech”. No? (Photo via creative commons)

Right. Because a BA in Economics and then some business-y job at a “tech” company does not qualify one as representative of women in tech. Or no more so than the head of your marketing your HR department qualifying as an engineer. From the NY Times article:

“I’m a huge fan of her accomplishments and think she’s a huge role model in some ways, but I think she’s overly critical of women because she’s almost implying that they don’t have the juice, the chutzpah, to go for it,” said Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the Center for Talent Innovation, a research organization on work-life policy, and director of the Gender and Policy Program at Columbia University.

“I think she’s had a golden path herself, and perhaps does not more readily understand that the real struggles are not having children or ambition,” Ms. Hewlett continued. “Women are, in fact, fierce in their ambition, but they find that they’re actually derailed by other things, like they don’t have a sponsor in their life that helps them go for it.”

Thank you Hewlett. I’m pretty young and I’ve already come up against the glass ceiling being lowered over my head. Or maybe the unending tide of sexism and stereotyping would be another way of putting it. I get tired swimming against the tide. And I don’t have any children, or any plan to ever have children. So it’s not my procreation that’s making my life difficult.

Sandberg reminds me of a female quasi-mentor I have in my real life. She tells me laughingly that I am too negative. That I need to be confident and get things done. That I’m not presenting myself well or playing the political game very well (okay that last part is very true). But this idea that if I just buck up and show some confidence and I’ll move up through the ranks is pure drivel.  I mean really, we’re not going to start recommending women in the tech field start reading The Secret, right? We’re just not putting enough positive thoughts out to the universe is that it?

I respect Sandberg. And I respect my female mentor. But they are both golden children. Both had sponsors. I’ve seen many more women without sponsors who have not succeeded. Who get a “rep” from one group of boys and couldn’t shake it. Management chose to believe the gossipy sensations of a bunch of insecure young men over trusting the woman’s actual work output. And it’s not just women, right? If you don’t fit into whatever your cool club is at work you’re left out. And having these confident golden children tell us we’re just being too negative or as Sandberg puts it “slowing down” shows they don’t understand how lucky they’ve had it. That not everyone else will walk the same path.

Blaming Women Entrepreneurs

February 14, 2012

One of my favorite writers over at Forbes is talking about Why Women Are to Blame For the “Pink Ghetto” of Entrepreneurs. Don’t worry, Meghan Casserly is not really blaming women. She is, as always, defending women (which is why she’s my Intergalactic Space Hero of the week. Okay I just made that up). But she brings up a tweet from Jolie O’Dell that sure seems to be blaming women:

“Women: stop making start-ups about fashion, shopping and babies. At least for the next few years. You’re embarrassing me.”

Casserly is sympathetic, pointing out that she receives many emails on start ups from women that all focus on makeup or kids or clothes. But Casserly points out that we often tell women to do that which they are passionate or knowledgeable about. To go start a business on some challenge they have fixed in their own lives. And this very well might have something to do with fashion or raising kids. Maybe the problem is then that these businesses are not seen as “real” businesses by the rest of the community. They are looked down upon.

Many industries as soon as they gain any good number of women are considered “soft” businesses: like teaching or nursing. A century ago these were a man’s occupations and women not serious enough for them. Now we encourage women to go into these fields because they allow for a woman’s “caring” or “sensible” side, let her “give back” to the community.

Anneke Jong from Daily Muse posts a similar article where she discusses Why I (Used to) Hate Pink-Collar Startups. At first Jong reacts much like O’Dell’s tweet above (with her own tweet as well). Then realizes she is diminishing other women’s accomplishments. She points out that not every start up needs to be tech driven.

As someone in a very non-soft field (engineers have their own hardness criteria) this all continues to be very amusing to me. On the one side, the “tech” most of the folks are talking about is software. As a mechanical engineer, the software side is very soft to me (it’s in the name! I mean come on!) Also, I blogged about the lack of women at tech conferences more than a year ago after the famous TechCrunch shortage. I have yet to be invited to any tech conferences. I have also yet to be given my medal for going into a male dominated field. I’m still waiting.

The point is, I did all the right things. I went into a very “technical” and male dominated field that was supposed to be higher paying than many of the female dominated fields. Every day I had to deal with the dinosaurs and doubting men who I work with, many of whom scarily enough in the 21st century honestly think a man’s brain is better attuned to being an engineer. Maybe where I’ve failed the female community (and why I haven’t gotten my medal yet) is that I haven’t gone out and started my highly technical business yet. You know why?

Starting a business is like getting a job. It’s more about who you know than what you know. Many of my male colleagues have networks and contacts built up within the industry. Their opinions are trusted more on technical matters than mine are. As a weird example, my male boss does not follow football any more or less than I do. But he gets comments about it all the time. People automatically assume he follows The Sports and discuss it with him. When they try to talk sports with me it’s more a test. They try to see if I watched the particular game they are discussing. I actually have to know more than a man about sports to be allowed to discuss sports. Same is true for engineering or any technical proficiency. Men have networks built up and have a serious playing field advantage here.

So if women feel confident in their ability to sell children’s books or whatever than I commend them. I say if there’s something you see a need for that you are passionate and confident about than go do that. Men may question women’s heads for business but they don’t often question their knowledge of makeup. Women are assumed to have an automatic superior knowledge in these areas even if they have never worn makeup in their lives. Women, you know what I am talking about. So I’m still waiting for my gold star for being a female engineer. And tech conferences you can invite me anytime to be a speaker. If I don’t hear anything I’m going to guess you found a guy who can talk about The Sports better than me.

Afternoon with the Boss

February 13, 2012

About 15 minutes before I leave work I need to start planning how I’m going to get out of there. Start closing up whatever it is my brain was working away at. Finish up all the little things that needed to be done before leaving. (All images today, like most of my Powerpoint presentations, courtesy Microsoft Clipart). Then just when you think you are getting out of there in comes the boss.

Don’t worry, it’s not an Office Space style request to start working weekends. But the conversation goes something like this.

“Hey Frau, I need you to give me a list of all the parts that we’re behind on for Project Space Invasion.”

“So you need a list of all the rockets, spacecraft, and missiles that are currently projected to not arrive by the July due date of the project?”

“Yes. I also want to know what food and medical supplies we’ll be behind on and the space guidance computers.”

“Oh, but those are the Logistics and Electronics departments, do you want all the other department’s tracking? Like the Little Green Men Cosmetics line?”

“Oh, yeah yeah, that too. I need everything. I also need to know what it’s going to take to pull those dates in. Whether we’re missing material, or labor, or priority, or who’s responsible.”

“But the other departments should be tracking their stuff for themselves right-”

“And then I need you to call the other department heads and get them to pull back those dates. We really need all this stuff to arrive on time.”


“Oh and the ship design for the transports is unacceptable. Right now they’re using ion solar sails but that’s going to take too long. They need to be upgraded to warp drives. You should call the transport propulsion design chief and get him to overhaul is design. We really need that to be in by July.”


“I’m also going to need the ships staffed with genetically enhanced cyborg teddy bears that can recite the constitution from memory and produce rainbows as biowaste.”

Me: “So…you want me to come up with a list of everything from our department, and everything from every other department, that’s not going to come in on time for Project Space Invasion, a reason why. Then you want me to call all the department heads and convince them to get their stuff in on time. Then you want me to completely redesign the transport ships. And then you want me to design a cyborg race of teddy bears that are capable of flying our ships.”

“Yes. Ugh. I can’t believe it took that long to explain all this to you. It’s so simple. So I’m holding you responsible for all this. No excuses.”

Engineering Honesty

February 10, 2012

News is filtering out this week from the Queensland Flood inquiry. More than a year ago massive rain fall triggered flooding over most of the Queensland, Australia area. 35 were confirmed dead. A commission is looking into whether mismanagement at Wivenhoe Dam occurred during the flooding. Some of the statements from those they are interviewing are honest, so honest it surprises me. But it also strikes a chord with engineers I know and unfortunately sometimes the engineer in me as well.


The four engineers who controlled the dam are now being called to respond to conflicting evidence.

John Ruffini is the latest engineer to be called to respond to allegations of conflicting evidence.

The dam operator’s official account of events written after the floods says the engineers began focusing on protecting urban areas from flooding on Saturday, January 8.

But another report written during the event shows that did not start until two days later.

Mr Ruffini blamed that report on his poor choice of words.

“I’d been up for 12 hours, I’m an engineer and my English is crap,” he said.

I hear him. Sometimes I look back at something I wrote. Something that four more people had to sign their names to. And stuff doesn’t even make sense. Not that I’m excusing what happened, but boy can I sympathize.

Mr Callaghan also questioned whether Mr Ruffini had written down or discussed the strategies he used in the lead-up to last year’s flood.

Mr Ruffini explained he would have discussed them with the other engineers.

He was then pressed to explain which part of the strategies he would have referred to when making decisions.

The engineer stumbled through his responses at one point replying, “the spreadsheet stuff”.

Loves me my spreadsheets. And we engineers are not conditioned to sit on panels and answer questions for an inquiry. Though his non-specificity here might also indicate he lacked the real technical knowledge to make the call or to fully understand what kind of call he was making. Hard to tell. Then behind door #2:

An engineer has told the Queensland floods inquiry that keeping a contemporary record of water release strategies was “too time consuming”.

He said technical terms used for each water release strategy meant little, if anything, to anyone except the dam’s operators until after Brisbane and Ipswich flooded.

Mr Malone even questioned if the State’s Water Minister Stephen Robertson knew the difference between a W1 and a W3 release at the time.

Oh snap you stupid bureaucrats, you wouldn’t have understood it anyways. On the other hand, I totally get the whole negativity towards tracking and logging everything. At some point when you’re trying to log all the stuff you’re doing, it takes you longer than it took you to just close the task. Dam safety and risk analyst McDonald was asked to make an assessment from the engineers’ official 1,100 page report. After hearing new information about the report:

Counsel assisting the inquiry Elizabeth Wilson SC asked: “If you assume it was based on a reconstruction of the events, would that change your opinion?”

He replied: “It likely would, because according to which strategy you’re in there’s a priority of objectives and you need that mindset to be operating the dam.” 

Mr McDonald was then shown a ministerial briefing note he had not had access to, which shows the engineers in a different strategy to their official report.

Upon seeing the note he commented that “it would have caused me to form the opinion that the operators have not complied with the manual”.

Not using the manual? No way! Sometimes a couple years into a process someone audits a written procedure and realizes we forgot to specify they re-use some bolts or something when they are replacing a part. A couple years in when someone finds this error I think to myself, well how did they do it for the last two years? Or when a part is being triggered for failure based on hitting a particular value I wonder, well didn’t this happen before? Usually it did. Usually the technician just re-uses the bolts when the manual doesn’t tell him to. Sometimes someone doesn’t pay attention to what should technically be a failure number because they know it’s intuitively not a failure value (say, when the device is not operating). I’m not condoning not following procedure. And maybe that’s a reason for why the faults occurred. But like with the tracking log, an engineer often does not have proper time to update a record. And one’s understanding of a manual needs to be on an intuitive level not on a procedural level.

New Dawn, New Day

February 9, 2012

Birds flying high you know how I feel

Sun in the sky you know how I feel

You’ve made it this far. Let Nina Simone’s voice carry you a little further.

Whistle Blowers & Heroes

February 7, 2012

Last month Robert Boisjoly died at age 73 from cancer. You may not be familiar with the name but if you have an interest in the Challenger disaster or are familiar with the hearings and investigation then you might recognize his face.

He and other engineers had been warning about cold launches for a year up to the fateful day but their technical concerns about o-rings were ignored by management and by the management folks at NASA. Political pressure won the day not safety and engineering. But what of the whistle blowers?

In 2003 after the Columbia disaster, the LA Times interviewed many of the key players at NASA and Morton Thiokol (the subcontractor responsible for making the solid rocket boosters). Many engineers and other folks spoke up. The interviews give you an idea of what has happened for these folks whose concerns were overridden.

Boisjoly, who has spent the last 17 years as a forensic engineer and a lecturer on engineering ethics, said NASA attempted to blackball him from the industry after the Challenger explosion.

Allan J. McDonald, who was Thiokol’s program manager for the solid rocket motor, also had his career damaged by the Challenger accident. He was the most senior Thiokol engineer to argue against the launch, and he became the most important critic of the accident afterward. He paid dearly for the stand he took.

When pressed by NASA the night before liftoff to sign a written recommendation approving the launch, he refused. He now says that was the smartest thing he ever did. Even after the telephone conference had ended and Kilminster had overruled his engineers, McDonald continued to argue face-to-face with Mulloy at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

“I told them I wouldn’t want to be the one to stand before a board of inquiry and explain why I launched the shuttle outside its qualified limits. I just got a blank look,” said McDonald, who is now retired in Ogden, Utah.

McDonald took the lead role in disclosing the inside story of the accident to a panel of White House investigators, who said they were being kept in the dark by NASA.

As a result, his career suffered for a long time, he said. “As soon as I broke ranks,” he said, “the company set me aside.”

And how about the management folks who did not break ranks?

Kilminster had overruled five of his own engineers when they argued on a telephone conference call the night before the launch that the conditions were unsafe. The subfreezing temperatures at Cape Canaveral, the engineers told Kilminster, could cause a failure in the O-rings that protect the joints of Thiokol’s solid rocket motors, which could lead to an explosion. The concerns were also rejected by NASA manager Lawrence Mulloy, who was in charge of the solid rocket boosters and was listening in on the debate.

Kilminster and Mulloy had argued that the engineers lacked the data to prove their point.

As matters turned out, the engineers were right.

Ever since then, Kilminster, 69, now retired and living in the woods near Missoula, Mont., has spent difficult days rethinking that decision. “Was there something there I should have picked up on, something that should have been obvious?” he asks himself. Terrible mistakes were made in the Challenger mission, Kilminster acknowledged. “I have a clear conscience,” he added, “but the fact remains seven wonderful people lost their lives, and that will be with me for the rest of my life.”

Like many of the other players in the Challenger accident, Kilminster left the space program; he found solace in helping to design the explosive devices that inflate automobile air bags. “Early reports came back from highway patrol officers that people were walking away from accidents they might have perished in if not for the air bags,” he said.

Good to know Kilminster had a clear conscience. Usually when you lack data you err on the side of safety, especially as it pertains to people’s lives. Sounds like Kilminster tried to atone for his sins though in his career choice. Certainly doesn’t sound like he’s wracked with guilt though or suffering as a result. And Mulloy?

He moved to Washington, D.C., where he became a self-described Beltway bandit, a consultant to NASA and other federal agencies. He said he made a lot of money trading on his connections in the space program, and he eventually retired near Nashville.

But Mulloy still struggles to explain how the accident happened.

“You can’t build perfect machines any more than you can get perfect humans to operate them,” he added. “The political types didn’t understand that. You are dealing with people who are not perfect. We weren’t ignoring the problem, but we underestimated the risk.”

Underestimated the risk? That’s the understatement of the century. Unfortunately we can see a trend here, successful careers for those whose arrogance allowed the unnecessary waste of precious human lives. Blacklisting for those who dared speak up about the risk (even when they were proved correct) And how about those engineers who so bravely spoke up in 1986, what were they up to after the 2003 Challenger accident?

One morning this spring, 82-year-old George Bower drove four hours to meet a reporter to talk about his fear that the Challenger problems were never fixed.

“I have thought about that joint design ever since the accident,” said Bower, a retired tooling engineer at a Sante Fe Springs machine shop that did work on the solid rocket motor casings. “We were told to put a Band-Aid on the problem, and that’s just what we did. But who is going to listen to some little voice like mine when millions of dollars are involved?” Other engineers say that the redesigned joint is probably the safest part of the shuttle system.

An 82 year old drives four hours to make sure a reporter hears his concerns for safety.

“It is unconscionable, after the Challenger accident, that it would happen again,” McDonald said. “I was appalled.”

Indeed. And for our hero? Well I don’t personally believe in an afterlife. But I hope he had a peaceful passing with all his friends and family. His integrity and that of his fellow engineers and others who risked their careers and raised their voices is a stronger tribute to the engineering profession than all the profit margins of the world.

Days of a Death Star Technician: Hardware Failure

February 6, 2012

I try to plan ahead. I try to anticipate failure. Why, you might ask, when one power terminal goes down will the whole tractor beam not work? Because there are seven for a reason. While a single power terminal going down will stop the beam from working, it also stops you from having a surge that blows up your whole death star. Plus the admirals decided keeping all the coffee machines running was more important than powering the tractor beam in case “just one” of the power terminals went down.

So where was I? Oh right. Power terminal failure. I anticipated a whole lot of things. A surge in the system means you don’t bring all seven of them down at once because they’re designed to fail individually. Because if they all surged your Death Star would just turn into a giant exploding fireball in space. I planned for a lot of things when designing this terminal system:

  1. Max service life of the terminal and all its sub components
  2. Regular maintenance and inspections
  3. Ease of operating the terminal so no failures would be based on operator error
  4. Redundant systems in case of a power surge

You know what I didn’t anticipate?

5. Sneaky f@#$ing old man committing sabotage

That’s right. I sort of figure that’s someone else’s job. I even have these handy sensor readings so that if some nimrod is paying attention they’ll immediately see the power loss.

But if no one’s paying attention to that? And then the guys you hire to make sure no one’s taking advantage of my easy three step system to shut down a power terminal?

Hey! Idiots! You see that old guy in the robe? You see how he’s not wearing a badge? Maybe you should, like, stop him from messing with my power terminal. Because it really pisses me off when the admirals call me in all like, “hey, your power terminal failed and the ship got away.” And I’m like, “well actually it didn’t fail. Genius in robes over there shut it down like it’s supposed to be shut down for maintenance and none of the folks watching the screen noticed it wasn’t due for a maintenance procedure. Probably too busy thinking about how they never get blamed for sh@# anyways so why even bother watching the monitors.” I’m just saying.