Advice for Future Engineers

Credit: xkcd

I can’t tell you how happy this xkcd made me. It’s a powerful statement on women in science (and engineering) but also contains this snippet of amazing advice.

You don’t become great by trying to be great. You become great by wanting to do something, and then doing it so hard that you become great in the process.

Timely cartoon for me, because every week I do something to try and make a dent in the huge problem that is the lack of women in CS. Last week, actually, it was 4 things. The week before I gave up a piece of my weekend. It’s easy to get tired, and feel like I’m not making any kind of difference. Some advice I got not long ago – don’t let this burn you out on engineering. Don’t leave because you feel that you have to fix it, but you can’t.

I thought I wouldn’t get discouraged, but the person who gave me this advice was completely right and soon enough after I had a bit of a crisis. Because I felt that I was slogging away at this and a couple of things happened that were upsetting personally but also, I thought, impeded what I was doing. I could have screamed in frustration at someone’s thoughtlessness. Like, I’m plugging away at this, week in, week out. And you just set me back, damnit. How many f*cking weeks did you just set me back?!

My calendar beeped at me, and I went where it told me to go. And I met a girl, whose mind had been changed and was excited to be an engineer because of a program – the kind of thing that I spend so much time trying to support. It had made a difference.

We talked about a few things, but in part her doubts about being an engineer.

What if you build a bridge, and it collapses, and people die?

I happened to be in Minnesota when the bridge collapsed. We were terrified that people that we knew had been hurt, and later we went to see the aftermath. It was chilling. In Canada, engineers wear the Iron Ring – a symbol of the responsibility of being an engineer. If you screw up, people die. Take it seriously.

But you don’t design a bridge in a locked room, send it out into the world, have it built with no impact from other people. Don’t not be an engineer because at 16 or 17 you worry that you can’t be responsible for building a bridge all by yourself. (I would be more worried about the 17 year old that was confident he could build a bridge by himself, frankly).

Be it a bridge, or some other scary project – you’ll never do it all by yourself.

What if I’m not completely sure what I want to do in 10 years time?

I think it’s insane to plan for 10 years from now. The world is changing so fast, how can we know what it will look like? What will excite us?

I love my job, and I feel tremendously fortunate to get to do what I do. But, I know if I were 10 years older computer science would not be as appealing a career. 10 years ago the problems that were worked on were very different. The constraints of memory and performance more severe. The opportunities to make things pretty less abundant. I took the grounding from university, not all of which was interesting to me, and I get to turn it into a career I love where I work on things I’m passionate about.

You won’t know all the options you’ll have 5, 10 years from now. So why decide before you have to?

Just two pieces of advice for potential future engineers, with the standard disclaimer that YMMV. If you have more advice, please – leave it in the comments!

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