Looking back at the engineering career

Last week marked my 6th year anniversary of leaving the engineering career.  In the spring of 2013, finally I said to myself: “25 years in the IT is long enough to call it a career.  Let me get out of it.”

Here I am.  Six years later, I’m happier and healthier.  Today I’d like to do some reflections about the engineering career.  It may not be that objective, as it’s just my thought.

How did I end up being an engineer?

When I graduated from the high school, I was way too young to figure out what I wanted to do for my life.  Just over the age of 15 then, my whole world was within the 15 miles of radius.  I never got a chance to take a train, not mentioning flying.  Dad’s Bicycle was the only transportation means.

How did the outside world look like?  I had no clue.

My dad was a primary school teacher.  His experience showed that, being a teacher was a tough job.  My aunt (my dad’s sister) was an anesthesiologist.  She told me that, working with patients every day was hard.  This excluded two big professions.

At that time, my brother was a sophomore in an engineering college.  I didn’t mind following his steps on the day one.  My parents and teachers thought that engineering would fit me as well, as I was good at math and physics.

Here we go.

Thanks to my beloved parents and high school teachers for making that big decision for me 38 years ago.  My special thanks to my dad, who passed away six months ago.

An insider’s observation about engineering:

When I was an engineer, I didn’t realize the uniqueness of this profession.  That’s probably because I didn’t pay attention to it.  After leaving the profession, I started thinking how engineers are different from other professionals.

  • Sales:

I don’t remember how many times we didn’t like sales people, and made fun of them at the back.  As part of the job, I was involved in the meetings and decision makings about selecting the new products or systems.  We invited different vendors in, listened to their presentations and sales pitch, and tortured them with endless questions.

Only when I became a personal banker in 2013, a sales job, I started admiring the sales profession.  That’s great people skill.  It’s very important to know how to present a complicated product in simple and easy-to-understand terms.

The best sales people never give people an impression they are selling stuff.  They are connecting with people, with passion, patience, and persistence.

I knew one sales guy.  He was just excellent.  One time we were doing the product evaluations, and his company was one of the vendors.  Every time he called, he wanted to check how he could help, and any questions we had.  He was not pushy at all, but wanted to let us know he was always available.

One day, my coworker got a recorded voicemail from this sales guy.  That was the coworker’s birthday, and the message was played to our group:  this sales guy sang the song “Happy birthday” in the voicemail.  The voice may not sound that great as Frank Sinatra, but that was so touching, genuine, and hilarious.

  • Talking to machines vs. talking to people

Engineers love talking to machines, and they are very good at it.  The codes, commands are all for machines.  Let’s try this.  Doesn’t work?  Let’s try that.  Still doesn’t work?  Okay, let’s reboot the machine.

Talking to people?  They try to minimize it.  It’s called “make it short and sweet”.

At my last engineer job, we were using the instant messenger.  It was useful sometimes, but could be very distracting.  My coworkers sat next to my cubicle, and sometimes sent me work-related messages.  I really felt it was weird, and funny.

Many engineers talk bluntly in some ways.  They don’t feel the need of diplomacy or compromise.  They either like the idea or simply hate the idea.  Yeah, binary is their friend: either 0 or 1, with no middle ground.

Bill Gates used to be a typical engineer.  You heard about his blunt legacy like “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”  He seems softened a lot after leaving Microsoft.  Probably aging changes people?  I don’t know.

Yesterday I got an email from his Gates Notes blog.  The subject of the email is: “I love this book, and its author”.  You know which book he is talking about?  His wife Melinda Gates’ book.  That’s sweet.

I used to like to say: “That person doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”  Now I feel that’s too strong, and a little bit arrogant.  There are better ways to say I disagree with someone.

Quick recap:

I don’t regret being an engineer at all.  That has become part of who I am.

To me, some years were more stressful than others, but overall it was a good profession.  It helped me to accumulate wealth faster and retire earlier.

I also met a lot of great people at work.  A few became my friends, and we kept in touch over the years.

As you know, there are some bloggers in this FIRE community who are engineers.  Here I’d like to mention a few:

Do you have any family members or friends who are engineers?  Can you tell if they are different from others?

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8 Responses

  1. Helen,
    Being an accounting/finance person, I think we share many similar traits to engineers. Analytical and process oriented come to mind. I forgot we were on the same FIRE timeline. I left after 27 years in June 2013. No regrets here. Tom

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi Tom, right, accounting/finance and engineering both use math a lot. Numbers are the king, and help to tell the story. Glad to hear we were on the same FIRE timeline. 25, 27 years in the same field is not a short time, plus that’s the most energetic and young years. Making a change is hard, but could be a good thing.

  2. Joe says:

    Thanks for the mention! I enjoyed being an engineer when I was young. It was interesting and I learn a lot. The company culture was toxic, though. I should have moved to silicon valley when I was young and started over in a different company. We like Portland, though. Life was slower and easier. California is too busy. Anyway, I look back fondly on my engineering career now that it is in the past. It wasn’t much fun by the time I quit (16 years.)

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi Joe, yeah, the company culture matters a lot. Over the 25 years, I worked for 5-6 employers, some in China, most in US. The last one was the most stressful one. Silicon valley seems too busy to me as well. I was in DC metro area for a while, didn’t like that crowded place, and decided to move back to Ohio. That was the right move. Glad to be an engineer, and glad to leave that profession as well.

  3. My uncle was an engineer (he’s been retired for a long time now). In Germany, though, people doing coding like software-engineers in the US aren’t usually called engineers. If I include those, I know quite a few. I always worked in marketing/advertising, and at one point my role actually was the go-between our clients and our software engineers – to make sure there was no mess-up in communications and feelings due to exactly those differences in personalty types you described. In that role I learned a lot about coding and data base logic on an abstract level. That’s been really helpful.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi Katrin, marketing and advertising is quite a different field, and that’s excellent people skills. Your go-between role must be very interesting. It’s almost like to connect two groups of people who speak two languages, and you bridge the differences. That’s cool you got chance to learn the coding and database logic.

      When I was working with different vendors, usually each vendor had at least two people in one team: the sales person and the sales engineer. The sales person did the talk, and the sales engineer answered the technical questions.

  4. Tammy says:

    I’m a chemical engineer and I’ve been working for 26 years in the semiconductor industry. It’s been a great career but I plan to quit my engineering job this year at the age of 50. Similar to you, I chose engineering because I was good at math and science and it was the best way I could think of to acquire financial security and be able to travel a lot. My parents did not go to college so I didn’t have much guidance in choosing a career. Engineering is not my passion, it was just a logical career choice and I don’t regret the decision. I am not a risk-taker. I enjoy your blog and I read Joe’s ‘Retire by 40’ often as well. Since you are both retired engineers you speak my language. Please keep blogging! Tammy

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi Tammy, I’m so happy to hear that you are going to start a new chapter of your life this year. That’s very exciting. Enjoy it!

      My parents didn’t go to college either. They asked advice from my high school teachers, and made the engineering call for me. At that time, I didn’t know what my passions were. The adults knew that, being an engineer would be a good way of making a living, as long as I stayed on the course. And I did. The biggest risk I took so far was probably leaving China and coming to America by myself 22 years ago. Other than that, I usually don’t take too much risks either.

      Joe’s blog is in the down-to-earth style, and I enjoy reading it. Thank you for your support.

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