To infinity and... where, exactly?
August 2, 2010 1:09 PM   Subscribe

I'm an innovative thinker who got stuck in an engineering box. I'm about to get kicked out of the box. Can you help me find a new box?

Last week I received notice that I'll be included among this illustrious company, and now that I can't play with rocketships anymore, I need to find somewhere else to go. This job ultimately wasn't a good fit for me anyway, and I'd like to use this opportunity to find something I can really do well.

Things I liked here:

- Getting hired enabled me to leave a PhD program I wasn't so happy with, move out of my parents' house, have health insurance, and save up some money.
- I learned a lot about space systems and operations, how to manage and communicate with them, and how the government space program ended up where it is today.
- It was really neat to enter a series of commands and instantly see my display light up with data streaming in from orbit over somewhere like Chile.

Things I didn't:

- The operations hierarchy here. It's built upon a rigid chain of certifications that everyone has to work through, with lower levels supporting and reporting to higher ones during operations. There's a definite sense that until I can achieve the first certification none of my ideas matter and I won't be allowed to work on anything else. And I've been struggling with this (my managers have said, far before the layoff notice, that they weren't happy with my progress), because I'm terrible when put on the spot to answer questions from superiors where they already know the solutions, which is a major part of functioning well as a member of the operations team.
- I don't fit in with the prevailing culture. Practically everything about my work environment and what my coworkers say in casual conversation reinforces this - FOX seems to be the default news channel on lobby TVs; xenophobic and sometimes outright racist jokes are often standard office banter. Obama won the election the day after I aced the interview for this job, and I'd spent that weekend canvassing for Democratic voter turnout. I started work the day before he did, and so I've never mentioned this fact in the office.

Things I can do:

- I have a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering and a master's in electrical engineering that doesn't really do what it says on the label. My thesis was about wireless communications networks, but my actual coursework was a random collection of things like signal processing, computer vision, innovative thinking, and biometrics - no power stuff, or circuit design, or other subjects normally associated with hard EE.
- I've realized that I would much rather be helping to design, build, and develop technology instead of only learning how to work with it decades down the line.
- I like editing and tutoring more than writing and teaching. When I knit things, it usually means finding an existing pattern that resembles what I have in mind and modifying it until I'm satisfied. One of the best idle conversations I had with a coworker involved going through several of our console GUI displays and thinking up ideas to make them easier to use.
- I'm good at researching and finding information, sources, and supplies for other people and their projects.
- I'm at my best when allowed to do stuff like ask questions, find loopholes, and be creative and contribute ideas regardless of whether I have achieved whatever certifications to magically legitimize my contribution. I received a formal commendation exactly once, for coming up with a totally unorthodox solution during one mission to work around an onboard system failure (though in the end they picked another method).
- I have basic skills with AutoCAD and programming, and while I think I could become decent I'm not sure I'll ever be comfortable with either. Programming more so.

So...what sort of jobs might this sound like? What can I realistically hope to succeed in with a scattershot multidisciplinary engineering background and skillset?

tl;dr version: I wanted to design and build cool things, and if I'd known when I started college that there was a field called industrial design I think I would have loved to study that. But I didn't know, and that's how I ended up choosing engineering. Help me undo that decision a little bit, use my engineering background, and take my own road less traveled.
posted by w00bliette to Work & Money (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I can assure you that you never, ever want to work for a Federal contractor again, if the idea of ISO certifications makes your toe hair stand on end. You need a private industry gig that doesn't deal with the Feds. Technical project manager, maybe? Something in a startup, maybe robotics?
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 1:23 PM on August 2, 2010

(sympathetic EE student who has done aerospace internships here)

The aerospace industry is fairly consolidated and wrapped up in defense contracting. The culture you seem to hate is one I associate with government work.

The obvious suggestion is consumer electronics of some sort - you're interested in making things easier to use, have an engineering background. The nature of the industry means constant R&D, a blank(ish) slate every year or so.
posted by phrontist at 1:39 PM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

My suggestion is to get in to a small defense robotics company as a system engineer. It's half hands-on engineering (at a high, organizational, big-ideas and enabling others to do the more detailed design work) and half project management, often -- at least in my experience with it. Massive defense contractors like General Dynamics and its ilk won't make your problems go away, but I've been really happy at my small, fun, social, full-of-hippies company. Robotics is awesome because, hey, robots, but it's also a broad range of mechanical, electrical, and software fun, and once you've gotten in the door on the defense side of things, there are lots of similar companies doing consumer, medical, and other private-industry work that are really fun.

We work in the underwater domain, but we pull quite a few people from aerospace (and vice versa).

Feel free to memail me if you'd like more info or suggestions on where specifically to look.
posted by olinerd at 1:58 PM on August 2, 2010

Well, companies like IDEO hire people to do design consulting because they're smart, not because they have an "industrial design" degree.

But it sounds like system engineering is something you like. That said, try to find the smaller firms that are actively producing things. Systems engineering can end up being a black hole of reports and design documents if you're not careful.

Also, the culture of engineering that you experienced is not universal, even in the government contracting world. It's a big factor especially in the aerospace field and places dominated by older engineers, but in places where the employees skew younger, people are a lot more open minded.

My thesis was about wireless communications networks, but my actual coursework was a random collection of things like signal processing, computer vision, innovative thinking, and biometrics - no power stuff, or circuit design, or other subjects normally associated with hard EE.

But no worries: the point is that if you don't know any of those things, you can learn them as-needed. Your background in wireless communications is going to be in high demand for people looking to hire Information Assurance researchers, as well.
posted by deanc at 2:30 PM on August 2, 2010

Could you go back to school for something that is more product design-oriented, like certain architecture grad programs have this kind of focus.

Even though you haven't expressed any interest really, I'll also throw patent lawyer out there because I'm jealous that I can never be one since I have a humanities background.
posted by elpea at 5:19 PM on August 2, 2010

There's a lot of engineering jobs, particularly for folks with graduate degrees and experience, that are more involved in product design and creativity. Right? That's what they kept telling us anyways...

I just met a guy who was an ex-NASA aerospace engineer, who quit because he hated working for the man for all the creativity-stifling reasons you mentioned. He moved to LA and now he designs mechanical SFX rigs for big Hollywood movies (they were shooting a notable superhero movie here not long ago). I got to tour the studio and it was the COOLEST shit. This is my number one suggestion, he sounded just like you do.

As a secondary suggestion... what didn't you like about your PhD program? Certain parts of the academic track always sounded super exciting to me--flexibility in direction and time management, liberal culture, the ability to have your work make a difference to someone--but in practice, everyone I observed in this track was overworked and stifled. Maybe this was you too. I keep telling myself I will reevaluate this option someday because surely there must be places where the environment is really like the former. Right?
posted by ista at 8:18 PM on August 2, 2010

My company would look at you very favorably. It's a systems engineering company whose products are related to navigation. The biggies in this space (L3, Garmin, Universal Avionics, SAGEM) would look at you equally favorably. MeMail if you wish.
posted by jet_silver at 9:43 PM on August 2, 2010

Programming? Programming is 99% creativity and 1% typing stuff into the computer. Sounds like it would be a good fit for you; better you than someone that thinks programming is an engineering discipline.
posted by jrockway at 11:15 PM on August 2, 2010

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