We rarely think about the technologies that have made wireless communication the norm, but putting the invisible wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum to use requires a great deal of obscure engineering.
Photo by Manamana (Shutterstock)
Some advances in technology get their start as classified defence projects that, like GPS, eventually benefit the public. To learn about the people behind such technologies, we spoke with a microwave engineer who works for a large defence company. Because of the nature of his work, he can't offer too many details about specific projects, but he spoke with to us about his career.
Tell us a little about yourself and your experience.
I'm a microwave engineer for a major defence company and I've been at it for over 20 years.
What drove you to choose your career path?
I was always interested in electronics and went to a local engineering school in the Midwest. By graduation, I wanted out of the snow and got a job offer in sunny Los Angeles. It was a microwave job, and I probably got the offer because I had a First Class radio telephone licence. I was chief engineer at the college radio station, and had briefly been a HAM. Plus I loved maths and had been laughed out of a pep rally for winning a maths track meet.
How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?
Besides the degree, I had technical jobs at a telephone factory, worked a summer at a commercial station as engineer, and also had worked in a chemistry lab. So I had good technical experience and could talk about those experiences. Another thing in the defence world is you need a clean background so you can get a clearance. [You need to be a] US citizen, no big naughty naughties, no trips to Cuba or other forbidden zones, no relatives that aren't US citizens. Obviously no criminal stuff. Vacations to Europe and the like are not an issue. A big name school isn't THAT much of a plus; no one really cares where you got your undergrad after maybe three years.
If you work in the commercial zone, nationality is much less of an issue.
What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see? What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?
People have a hard time visualising radio frequency. It's very non-intuitive. You ultimate rely on a lot of maths. I've also gotten involved in many subcontracting situations. That involves some knowledge of contracts (at least what you can and cannot tell someone to do). I often have to explain very subtle and complex issues to non-technical people, so presentation skills and gift for gab helps. I travel a lot these days.
What misconceptions do people often have about your job?
It's not like Tony Stark. There's a lot of sitting around in front of a terminal, a lot of making "vue" graphs, a lot of presentations. It IS a lot like Dilbert. Pretty much everything that's happened to Dilbert has happened to me -- reporting time in six minute increments, trips to Elbonia, interns waving hands to keep lights on. I have three separate motion-sensor-controlled-lights stories. Also there are VERY few women in the RF/microwave business. VERY few.
What are your average work hours?
I work a straight 40 hours, not counting travel, but I travel a lot. But some of my coworkers are 60 hour men. They will let you work as long as you want. Young people start at three weeks vacation.
What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?
Be technically correct. Ultimately, this is ALL you have. By that I mean understand what could occur, what can NOT occur, and what is likely to occur. Your career is YOUR job, so take classes, attend seminars, publish papers, file patents, help others, and learn politics. This is true of engineering in general.
If you sit at a desk 60 hours a week and do a good technical job then you're the "60 hour a week" guy and in 20 years you'll still be that guy and wonder what happened. You need to get out and plug yourself.
Learning to make professional presentations is half the job. Take an improv class. Your employer is never your friend, so save money for the inevitable out of work periods. Keep up a professional network. Do more than is asked, and take credit for it. Take risks, especially if you are positive you are right. And if you're not, fess up. No one's perfect.
What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession? What do they do instead?
They do real work: analysis, design, and test, generate documents. I see potential, I see opportunist, I see risk, and I fix subtle problems.
I've learned this about programs that are in trouble: The program staff almost always knows what the problem is, but they don't have permission to fix it. Often my job is to ask simple questions and give people permission to do their job. Example: Project XYZ is six months late and not meeting specs A, B, and C and they are $2 million over budget. They need to spend another $2 million and take another six months. Someone's bonus or job is on the line. I come from "away" and essentially tell that to the big boss. In a large company, the money will come from somewhere, and the product will still be needed next year. I enable that. It is a VERY weird feeling.
What's the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?
Certifications, training, time keeping, schedules, budgets management meddling. I advise you to read your corporate policies. What they say and what is done rarely line up, and a bit of knowledge is a big lever.
What's the most enjoyable part of the job?
Travel. Fixing big problems and saving tottering projects. Telling people exciting things like how radio works. Watching the news and saying: hey, I worked on that!
Do you have any advice for people who need to enlist your services?
Tell me what you want to happen. Tell me the resources you have. Don't tell me how to fix the problem.
How do you move up in your field?
Do more than asked for, become an expert on something important or obscure, take classes, teach classes, file patents, and publish papers.
What do your customers under/over value?
My customers are government agencies. They value delivering what you promised on time and schedule. You will be under management pressure to deliver faster, cheaper and better, and it ain't gonna happen. You MUST be the buffer between this immovable object and the opposing force.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
Make your grades, love maths, despise authority, and stay sceptical. Save your money, learn how to invest, get involved in things outside work. Set limits on how much abuse you will take at work. Stay current on software. File patents, present papers, mentor young people. This is an obscure field and difficult to master. Mastering it puts you in a strong position career-wise. Plan on being laid off every 20 years. It happens.
Career Spotlight is an interview series on Lifehacker that focuses on regular people and the jobs you might not hear much about -- from doctors to plumbers to aerospace engineers and everything in between.