No. 3 Question – I am an engineering student, and have been asked to interview a professional engineer and write an essay about our conversation. I would appreciate it if you could answer my questions.
1. What is your field of expertise?
Answer: I am an electrical or electronic engineer by training. In practice, I am a control systems engineer (control systems are one aspect of electrical engineering). For most of my career I have supported the themed entertainment industry. Specifically, I design control systems for rides and shows. Most of this work is focused on safety control systems.
2. Tell me about your education background. Schools attended, years attended, level of education, etc.
Answer: I graduated from the University of Central Florida with a BSE in electrical engineering, cum laude, in four years, in 1979.
3. Did you always know that you wanted to become an engineer?
Answer: Yes, or at least it was fairly evident from a very young age. My father was an engineer and I was always interested in the things that he would talk about. Then, in school, math and science always interested me more than other things. My father however worked for Martin Marietta Aerospace and said that a lifetime of working on bombs was not much fun so he did not necessarily recommend I become an engineer. Fortunately, I wound up in the theme park business. Even that gets old after awhile, but at least it’s fun to tell your kids about it.
4. Tell me about your work history. Do you now own this firm?
Answer: During the summer after the 10th grade, I took a summer job digging ditches for the Orange County school system, connecting portable classrooms to the main school buildings so that they could have intercom, class bells, and fire alarms. Eventually I was allowed to connect the wiring myself. Then I was moved up to helping with the intercoms, and then television repair work. After three summers I had learned a lot, however to this day I feel that most of what I learned before college came from my father at home, and all of this was a big help to me in school because it gave the things that I learned in college more meaning. Meanwhile I had started a beekeeping business, selling honey by the 55 gallon drum in order to accumulate money to go to college. I kept the beekeeping business going through the first three years of college. That, together with working at Disney on the weekends was enough to pay for college. After graduating, I had three job offers; BellSouth, Martin Marietta, and Disney. I got the interview at Disney because one of my Disney supervisors knew that I was about to graduate as an engineer and arranged the interview for me at Walt Disney Imagineering in California (back then it was called WED Enterprises). The design of EPCOT was about to begin. Disney’s was the lowest salary offer, but sounded more interesting, so I took it. I was assigned as control systems engineer for the American Adventure Pavilion at EPCOT. I worked at Disney for five years, 1979 until 1984, moving up from associate engineer to engineer, to Senior engineer, to ride control group leader. In 1984 I started Birket Engineering. Yes, I do own this firm.
5. What are some of the challenges that you faced while in school? How did you overcome the challenges?
Answer: The challenges will depend upon your personality. For me the challenge was finding the time to fit everything in. I had to keep my little business going to pay the bills, work weekends, and manage an intense homework load. In less you are extraordinarily brilliant, you must plan on spending several hours a day studying and doing homework if you intend to get good grades and learn the material sufficiently to survive the interview that will get you the job you want, and then survive the job. As for how I overcame the challenges, I developed the ability to focus and exercise self-discipline. I worked very hard. I believe that hard work is the most certain solution to most of life’s challenges.
6. What are some challenges you faced once you finished your education? Did you find a job immediately? How did you get to the point you are at now?
The job market for engineers was a little bit soft at the time that I graduated in 1979. People told me that I had made a mistake by choosing engineering. At that time most engineering jobs were defense and aerospace related. The job market was therefore reliant upon government money which would come and go with changes in the political environment. People would tell me to expect to have a hard time finding a job, and to expect periods of unemployment. I clearly remember answering them with this, “As long as they need a few engineers I will have a job because I will be one of the best. I will study harder at work harder than most of the rest, so I will always be one of the few that has a job.” I remember thinking that it was probably arrogant to say that, but honestly that has been the approach that have used all of my life and it has worked.
7. If you could go back to when you began studying for an engineering career, what would you do differently.
Answer: I would have studied even harder. There have been so many situations throughout my career where I wished I could better remember some of the material that I studied my classes. I would also have taken more time to make friends along the way. Now, how to do both at the same time, I don’t know.
8. What advice would you give to an engineering student at Valencia Community College? Are there any challenges that they should be prepared for?
Answer: See my company website, because I’ve answered this question before. See question #2.
I would also say this. Do not attempt to study engineering unless you have serious interest in math and science. Without this interest, you may get through the curriculum and get the degree but if you interview with someone like me I will know about 10 minutes into the interview that you only learned enough in your classes to pass your tests. I have interviewed plenty of engineers who actually had fairly good grades but did not remember what they studied because they were not interested in it. I avoid giving them jobs. You will probably also not like the work, if you can find it.
Having said that, I’ll also offer another quite different thought. There are a number of jobs that require a engineering education but which do not require that you use the most technically challenging aspects of that education. In fact, the engineers who are best at the most technically challenging aspects of the profession are often not the best at organizing and managing engineering projects, or selling the results of that work. So, some engineering graduates who are not as fond of the math and science eventually find themselves with a great career selling or managing technology. Be careful though, because it will be difficult to find and survive that first job based upon your technical abilities while you are trying to be discovered as a manager or sales engineer.
Another important factor for you to consider, which I did not have to deal with when I graduated is that the world has changed radically in the last 20 or 30 years. For every one of us here in the United States there are four in China, and another three in India. Unlike us in the United States , those people in China and India have not come to believe that life is easy. Simply put, they work harder than people raised in this country work. They study harder in school. They want the job that you want and they may be able to take it from you because they are willing to work much harder.
As an employer, I have learned to favor employing people who were born and studied in other countries because, on average, they work harder. If I can employ them in their home country, they will work for a fraction of the wages that are expected in this country. My competitors have learned this also, so if I ignore this fact I will be out of business because my competitors will use labor from overseas and be more productive than my company. It may disappoint me that I cannot look out for my fellow Americans by providing them jobs, but if my fellow Americans cannot work as hard as the foreigners for the same wage then I have no choice but to hire the foreigners.
In addition to this company here in Orlando, I have a company in China. A few weeks ago I was interviewing engineers in China. I was very impressed. They remember more of what they learned in school than the engineers that I interview here. They expect to work harder. They expect to make one tenth of what engineers here expect to make. These are all engineers that were studying English and Japanese at the same time that they were studying engineering. If you have grown up living the good life in the United States, you simply do not understand what I’m saying, but understand this: it will affect your life. Plan accordingly.
“The 19th century belonged to Great Britain. The 20th century belonged to the United States. The 21st century will belong to China.” That statement has been quoted so often that that I have lost track of who said it first. If you do not want to be passed up in your lifetime, work hard and be prepared for serious changes in the world you know now. You might even consider learning Mandarin while you study engineering because the engineering graduates in China are definitely all learning English in addition to engineering.
Glenn A. Birket, P.E.