9.14.2011

I've moved!

You still getting my old feed? I've moved over to wordpress! I'm here now. Please, subscribe to my new RSS feed!

8.01.2011

Moving

I'm moving. Hopefully you will all follow me on over to my new wordpress site. You can and should subscribe to my new RSS feed.

If Blogger can't run a decent site they don't deserve my blogging and traffic. So please, come on over to the new locale! Hopefully things will run a bit smoother. And I won't have to click "post" and "preview" 10 times in a row to comment on my own blog.

Blogger v. Wordpress

I'm thinking about switching to wordpress. Blogger is really torquing me lately. What say you oh hoardes of readers who follow my blog? Will you still read me on wordpress? Commenting will work better, that I guarantee.

Power of Good Mentorship

I've been re-watching episodes of Star Trek Deep Space Nine lately. In an episode in season 2, Shadowplay, Commander Sisko is talking to his son Jake about future possible plans to join Starfleet. He encourages his son to start training (sort of an internship) under Chief O'Brien.
To me it seems like the kind of opportunity only fostered in a futuristic sci-fi TV show. But in reality, I bet a lot of engineers had similar mentors in their lives. Sysko confesses his son is in the bottom third of mechanical aptitude and O'Brien admits he was as well. That he didn't realize his engineering skills until he was on the front and had to make a critical repair.

In a way it's oddly comforting. I'm not one of those "born an engineer" types though I love it now. I do wonder how many young, aspiring engineers had a Chief O'Brien in their lives. Someone who was an engineer for a living and gave them a pretty good idea of what it was. Or maybe someone who worked in a similar trade. Maybe they taught them a few things and gave them a leg up or a taste of what they might want to do.

Given how many medical dramas there are and how few science or engineering shows, I wonder how many got into the field because of someone they knew growing up or fell into it later and were surprised to learn what it was all about?

7.31.2011

Pointless Cat Photo

TechCat is doing much better since we've come back. She's freaking out less that we'll leave again or send her off again. She's been doing what cats do. Napping during the midday, sharing the fan air with us and trying to stay cool in this heat.

7.30.2011

Stylish Saturdays #1

Due to my aforementioned vacation some casual clothing beyond sweats and bunny slippers was required.
Cowl neck tank from Old Navy
Boot Cut jeans from Old Navy
Fourmal boots by Madden Girl (via Zappos)

7.29.2011

Fancy Free Friday

I've been off the grid this past week. Okay not really, but I have been sort of unplugged and sort of distracted with vacationing. It all started with some insect much smaller than me that's been feasting on my house for who knows how long. Due to financial uncertainties, this was the summer to get stuff done. The last hoorah to buy toys and fix up the place. So I paid a professional to shoot poison through my entire house and skipped off to a locale even warmer than my own to enjoy some time off from MegaCorp. I'm pretty sure I forgot how to be an engineer in the meantime, but oh well I'll worry about that later.
 
TechCat got to spend the week rooming with three dogs and while she got some love and attention she seems to be pretty happy to be home again. Or, I'm guessing that's why she woke us up multiple times during the night to make sure we were still there and she was still there and we weren't going to ship her off to the doghouse again.
 
In honor of my absent design fridays post today, I wrote about Lockheed's HALE-D unmanned airship over at EngineerBlogs. Hope you are all as well rested and even keeled as I feel today (even having to go back to earning my paycheck again). I raise a toast to you and your weekend so we can focus on alcoholic beverages or tasty non-alcoholic beverages and fondly remember days when insects are our worst enemies and having no financial ruin that lay ahead and politicians who we can't tent out of our house. Oh I ruined it already didn't I. Have another drink.

7.21.2011

Smell of Diesel in the Morning

What happens when you put sixteen men in a house after asking them not to have drank alcohol for the last 24 hours and no smoking or caffeine in the last 4 hours. No this isn't the next reality TV show. One at a time and every two weeks subjects underwent two hours of testing with a stationary bike in a chamber that may or may not have been pumping diesel engine exhaust fumes into the room with them. 10% of the exhaust gas from a 2.2L diesel engine was diluted with air and fed into the room in such a way that there was a 300 μg/m^3 concentration which is supposedly similar to high traffic areas or especially congested and polluted cities. In another configuration they passed this concentration through a teflon filter and in another they had a concentration of carbon nanoparticles.

It's no secret diesel technology is of great interest to me. Over at Engineer Blogs one of my earliest posts was on the Military's Love Affair with Diesel. I also just talked a few days about how the Chevy Cruze might have a diesel version coming to America. So it's interesting to see where we go forward as we worry about emissions and cardiovascular health. Also what kind of technology might move us forward in the direction we want.

When the research team filtered the exhaust gas they ended up with a much lower concentration. Their exhaust gas averaged 348 μg/m^3 and regular, filtered air was less than 1 but the filtered exhaust averaged 6.

So what's the end result? Well a lot of things were, perhaps surprisingly, not affected by the fumes. No difference in resting heart rate or blood flow. Systolic blood pressure took a hit up, but diastolic did not. What their carbon-only concentration was useful for is that it could be it's not the parts of diesel exhaust that we need be concerned about but something about the whole. Something that's happening in combustion might be making these nanoparticles more harmful.

Their conclusion is this: diesel exhaust fumes in the concentration tested impaired vasomotor vascular function. Filtered exhaust and the carbon nanoparticles did not affect vascular function. What they showed is a filter than can reduce concentration effectively can make a big difference. But they admit at the end that these kinds of filters are pricey and not applicable to a lot of commercial applications where those filters would have to be tested separately. Being an engineer, I keep thinking about the engine sitting in another room idling for two hours. Still the implications for design work on reducing the environmental impact of diesel exhaust is there. And there's the lesson that individual pollutants can't always be used to draw conclusions from as it's important to test the whole system and see what a difference that makes. The combustion was obviously a key factor in making this combination of elements dangerous, and possibly more dangerous than the sum of its parts.

Mills, N., Miller, M., Lucking, A., Beveridge, J., Flint, L., Boere, A., Fokkens, P., Boon, N., Sandstrom, T., Blomberg, A., Duffin, R., Donaldson, K., Hadoke, P., Cassee, F., & Newby, D. (2011). Combustion-derived nanoparticulate induces the adverse vascular effects of diesel exhaust inhalation European Heart Journal DOI: 10.1093/eurheartj/ehr195

7.20.2011

Technorati Blogger Drivel

Dear Technorati,

Stop emailing me random requests to blog for your network. I respect what Technorati does. It's a decent blog aggregator. It does a good job at separating "real" human blogs from bot blogs and links to some interesting stuff. I understand you want your own content so you can make money off of that. That's all fine and good. If you sent me an email asking me to write about something I have a proven skill with and maybe a decent following to show for I would completely understand.

But by your standards my blog's "authority" is not so fantastic. You've also asked me to write about autos which was probably the best guess but still not something I've written about more than a dozen times. Then you decided to ask me to write about books, business, and amusingly enough travel. I have a constantly fluctuating authority level in those topics and pretty much never travel. This leads me to believe you are sending me spam emails.

Which is pretty crazy because otherwise I'd say the request is legitimately from you. Why would a high profile site need to send generically generated emails to random people in the blogging world? Upon visiting your about page I also discover that you all have emails either from gmail, cox, and scarily enough yahoo. Even gmail is pretty unprofessional coming from someone supposedly employed at a business. Also some of your twitter handles are neither your name nor say anything about who you are. That's pretty crazy. Someone too busy to go to the Web 2.0 seminar?

So feel free to invite me to blog for your site in the future. But please ask me to write about something I'm already doing a kickass job at. When I'm way down in your rankings and don't even have an authority level on a topic you ask me to "professionally" blog about it just makes me question you and your business model.

7.19.2011

In Development: Detroit Diesel

So far American car manufacturers have been hesitant to adopt diesel for small cars. That might start to change as technology for clean diesel improves, the US continues to set high fleet standards for MPG, and the efficiency of diesel can sometimes far outdo that of petrol.

GM is planning to bring diesel into the US by having a diesel version of it's Chevrolet Cruze. It's rumored to be capable of 50 MPG and might hit showrooms in 2013.

7.18.2011

The Metrics of War

A couple days ago a bunch of new "snowflakes" were released on the Rumsfeld Library. I almost want to put that library bit in quotes, but really it's somewhat commendable such a controversial public figure would be willing to release so much of his own documentation and leave it open to public debate. I'll let the former SecDef (DefSec?) tell you what a snowflake is:
The term “snowflake” covers a range of communications, from notes to myself on topics I found interesting, to extended instructions to my associates, to simple requests for a haircut. There was no set template; some are several pages and some just a few words. They were all conceived individually and I had never considered them as a set until I started work on the memoir. I then found that when reviewed together, they give a remarkable sense of the variety of topics that are confronted by a secretary of defense.

Paul McCleary over at the Ares blog at Aviation Week already did a very interesting post on these. How Rumsfeld was known as somewhat of a detail oriented micro manager. Yet these new memos show him as being out of touch, slow to respond, and forgetful in following up on issues.

Among some of the older, previously released memos I found this gem from Ryan Henry, the Principal Deputy for Policy under the Secretary of Defense (how do fit all that on a business card?) back in July 2004. He seems to be responding to Rumsfeld asking about certain metrics that a senator had asked be included in the Iraq Weekly Report. Henry states they were already using all of the metrics besides two: number of prisons and number of tv stations broadcasting.

He comes off fairly professional but you can almost hear his incredulous tone as he later explains that they could report number of prisons or number of prisoners but feel that reporting the number of prisons up to international standards would be a more valuable metric. I've certainly got a few politely worded emails under my belt that similarly dance around the "really? you want me to start doing what now?" issue.

If you were wondering what they did track here's some of it:

  • MW of electricity produced, percentage of Iraqis with power
  • Numbers of schools open, percentage of boys and girls attending
  • Number of hospitals open, percentage of Iraqis receiving care
  • Timetable to democracy (hahaha)
  • Crude oil production
  • Number of militia and police, and number in training
  • Gallons of water available, number of Iraqis with fresh water access
  • Number of troops from other countries (you'd hope someone's keeping track of this)
  • Number of US troops (again...)
  • Food available, number malnourished
  • Unemployment rate
My favorite part happens in the header of the next page:
I'm curious if 7 years later if we have finally "built justice".

7.17.2011

Flashpoint

When did it all start to fall into place professionally? That's a paraphrase of a question Female Science Professor asked a few months ago on her blog. Or specifically in her case, when did most people start taking you seriously (as a science professor)? I am not and never have been a member of the communist party or a science professor. But I did wonder at what point my career would start to feel more solid. When I would feel like I was being pulled up not dragging my broken body up and clawing my way past obstacles and attacks?

I still wouldn't say I've achieved some magical level of respect. When I started working in a technical field I got treated very differently from my clerical days. And when I first started getting mistaken for an engineer (though I wasn't one at the time) that was a big boost to my confidence.

I'm an ambitious person. I'm not going to be a shrinking violet or hide that under a bushel(which apparently some yahoo named Matt originally coined in something called The Bible, who knew). I mean look at this freaking mandarin fish, do you think he gives a @#$ about what you think?
He doesn't. But moving up can be tricky. I've had to employ an almost reverse psychology method of maneuvering the corporate world. Sound like you are too interested in extra responsibility and a couple of things can happen:

  1. Your immediate supervisor/lead will feel threatened and try to hold you down.
  2. People will think you are an arrogant ass, not want to work with you, and management will think you are demanding.
So I've had to tread water carefully (boy is this post getting fishy with its analogies). But it seems to be working. I've had to focus on projects and pretend like I'm not interested in their promotion potential, visibility, or in any credit I might receive for doing the work (monetary or just the thanks and positive feedback that I think all employees appreciate from their superiors). It seems to be working. If I look glum when they suggest me as a backup, I pretend I am so overloaded and treat it as just another onerous task, the more they seem to make me want to do these things. 

I think managers must have some higher level of sadism than ordinary people. Appear too eager for something and they won't give it to you. Only when you grudgingly agree to take it on as a humble and hardworking employee do they suddenly see leadership potential. So nothing yet, but I seem to be having some initial success gaming the system. Which of course means I'm going to be just like them some day: unrepentant, self absorbed, narcissistic, sadistic asshole. So not much will change really.

7.16.2011

Conservation Caturday

Western presence in Afghanistan: now good for more things than just war. Conservationists set up camera traps and caught what they believe to be a sizeable population of snow leopards living in Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor. All this is thanks to efforts by the Wildlife Conservation Society as they've been working under USAID funding to perform outreach to locals and train rangers in wildlife conservation. They've also been working on establishing Afghanistan's first national park, Band-e-Amir.
Larger photo and another photo over at Wired. I guess I fall prey to the urge to protect animals based on their cuteness factor. And snow leopards have a very high cuteness factor that is scientifically proven*. I love that the one above is rubbing its head against the rock just like my cat does against the furniture. Time to go donate to the Wildlife Conservation Society or the World Wildlife Foundation again.
*Citation needed.

7.15.2011

Design Fridays: A Successful Design

Over at Engineer Blogs today I'm talking about the Key to a Successful Design and asking whether confidence plays into presenting your solution and getting it reviewed and approved. Last week I talked about the Army's Biometrics Device they are using in Afghanistan and the week before was compressor design.
 
I'll pose the same questions here; do you think it's more about being confident than having a good design? Does attitude and how you present yourself factor in to whether people will back you? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Business Friends

If you're in my line of work you deal with a lot of people at geographically disparate locations and on the phone. Sometimes you're on calls with these people numerous times a week and sending emails back and forth. Sometimes you get rather friendly with them (especially if they're your customer and you're sort of obligated to be nice and polite).
Sometimes I get an overly friendly note in response that if taken on its own sure it makes it look like we are pals. But these people haven't even seen me! It's sort of amusing to think how friendly you can get before you see a person. I'm always a little taken aback. It's like hey I could be Jabba the Hutt for all you know. And I don't just mean large with a penchant for eating live food, but also diabolical and vengeful as well. I'm just sayin'.
Awesome Jabba the Hutt birthday cake courtesy here.

7.14.2011

Future of Engineers

Tom Gillis writes a post on his blog on Forbes today called The End of the Engineer. It's sort of like reverse STEM recruiting we typically see everywhere else. Which would be refreshing if it wasn't so ignorant. He first posits that post industrial revolution the need for better machines and manufacturing has been outsourced (not going to argue manufacturing has been outsourced). Then he talks about how the slight differences in performance that engineers generally strive for are no longer as crucial. He cites Apple as moving away from the engineering model towards one of marketing and customer understanding. Saying instead that that is what makes Apple successful.
 
He may be right that incremental improvements no longer please consumers. But I think that's always been the case. I think music industry people were surprised when MP3s gained such popularity. Their quality was a lot lower than CDs. However their portability and ease of use with a variety of devices was what had the mass appeal. And the same with cell phones and smart phones. We use them for convenience not because the sound quality is fantastic (anyone remember the old hear a pin drop Sprint commercials?) Now industry executives are surprised that the mainstream way to watch music videos is YouTube. Watch what you want when you want at your own convenience and for free. That's what consumers want rather than the high quality that executives might have assumed consumers would always be demanding. However, these incremental changes are still appreciated when your smartphone or your LCD TV gets slimmer or the next model of car gets a little lighter and a little better fuel economy.
 
So none of this means engineering is no longer crucial. He mentions the hoardes of engineering graduates from India and China. But for now, whether its societal or level of education, these high numbers have not meant Chinese and Indian companies are always able to compete with equal fervor with western companies. Part of Apple's success is certainly marketing based. But a lot of it is a core product that required a lot of fantastic engineering. And just because Chinese companies have no qualms about stealing IP and churning out cheaper products later doesn't mean they actually have the independent engineering knowledge to make another Apple. And as the sole commenter on his blog alludes to, not every American company that relies on engineering talent is a consumer electronics company.
 
True we're no longer innovating as much in agricultural machines, but we are in power generation plants, offshore drilling, mining applications, solar and wind energy, automotive design, aerospace, weapons, military technology and medical and biomedical breakthroughs. I think Mr. Gillis has really been sheltered too long in the bubble that is Silicon Valley. Apparently he is a VP at Cisco and his Forbes profile includes such excellent buzz words as "social networking", "new security paradigm", "leverage today's tools", "strategic" and he goes on to claim credit for making Cisco strong in the security market. I hope none of the engineers on his team who helped him position Cisco as a strong security leader read this article and realize their head honcho doesn't appreciate their technological contributions. For all his flattery of Steve Jobs and Apple one can only assume he's trying to get a job there. I hope Cisco recognizes this and lets him go so he can make his move. If I want marketing and social media BS I'll go talk about it on Twitter. If I want a company that makes reliable hardware and services because I know they have a good engineering core I will continue to go to companies like Cisco. When a VP doesn't see what's right beneath his nose he doesn't deserve the job.
 
Gillis goes on to recommend that people get Liberal Arts degrees and that he will give that advice to his own children. I sincerely hope he's kidding. As a highly paid executive I'm sure he'd have no problems placing his children with jobs after they get their Art History or Communications BA but he's not only living within the soft bubble of Silicon Valley then he's living within the privileged bubble of upper class if he thinks liberal arts degrees are a viable path to a solid middle class lifestyle. Engineering isn't as respected as it used to be (as evidenced by this article) but I wouldn't tell an intelligent young person who had strong math or science skills not to major in it any sooner than I'd suggest a broad liberal arts degree is a good path either. People should follow their passions certainly as success tends to be elusive no matter what path you take. But underestimating the need for some percentage of the population to be engineers is complete ignorance. Just because we aren't always putting these minds to the best use is a limitation of our policies and a focus on short term growth. If we were thinking Apollo Program big again we'd be able to achieve things way beyond what Gillis could imagine. And we'll need engineers to get us there.

7.12.2011

How the party started

Whenever you see a news or documentary clip that talks about the great depression they always show pictures of flappers and 1920s parties. So much of the financial bubble that led to the 1929 stock market crash we seem to portray as a wild party leading up to it.
I can't wait to see how the exuberance leading up to the 2008 recession is graphically depicted. I hope to see photos of those wild parties of the early 2000s.

7.11.2011

Productivity

How much of your day do you think you spend actually doing something that is, we'll say, technical. As in you got your degree in engineering, microbiology, whatever. How much of your day (or week, or month) do you spend actually putting to use that knowledge versus maybe auxiliary skills (implementing a design change, writing up a presentation, writing a grant)?

7.07.2011

What do you do for a living?

I was curious what the most common occupations were in the states and as I started to dig through BLS data I discovered they produced the table already. I'm not surprised to see retail at number 1 and food prep and food service at number 4 and waiters at number 6. I guess I'm surprised elementary school teachers even made the list (this is from 2010, I wonder if it will drop for the current year) and very surprised any management type occupation made the list at all: operations managers at number 12. Given the disparity in mean annual salary between that and everything else it seems like not a bad job to get into.
 
What do you think, does this look like what you thought it would?

7.06.2011

Man Woman Job Recession

The Pew Research Center put together an interesting report on how the recession and subsequent "recovery" has affected men and women disproportionately. You probably heard all of the media crying about how this was a mancession or some such BS that made it sound like it was women's fault for men losing jobs at the early part of the recesssion.
The story you won't be hearing is that men have been recovering quickly since the end of the recession while women's employment is staying flat or dropping. If men took the brunt of job losses early on maybe it's to be expected they'd be picking up faster. But the report goes into talking about how layoffs in state employment might be contributing overwhelmingly to the loss of jobs for women. And while we hope construction and manufacturing will recover in this country it seems like state employees are the new favorite punching bag of free market junkies. So I wonder if this recession will be more permanently painful to women than it was to men. And probably an ignored storyline.

Wear to Work Wednesdays #13

Summertime and this tweed dress looked nice for work and nice for the season.
 
Tweed dress from Anne Klein.
Walnut pumps from Anne Klein (via Zappos).
Rose pearl necklace from Sasina (via Overstock).
 
Pair with tights or with no tights depending on your office's formality. I always wear tights because nobody wants to see those veins. But that's just me.

7.05.2011

Mercenary Engineer

One of my classmates from undergrad coined the phrase mercenary engineer in place of mechanical engineer. At the time, about to graduate, we were all desperate for employment and opportunities. After years of being sold the bill of lies that is STEM recruiting we'd all felt certain we'd have secure and financially rewarding employment very soon. Whether it was all oversupply or just effects of the recession everyone had become a little less picky and us mechanical engineers were willing to work pretty much anywhere doing pretty much anything. Will engineer for pay.
 
One of the reasons I went into mechanical rather than electrical or structural or chemical was how diverse the field seemed to me to be. Don't get me wrong there's a lot more to sparkies than I realized at the time. But whether you're developing a box for one application or another a lot of the design can be the same if you're working within your specialty. I knew mechanical engineers worked in the auto industry, industrial manufacturing, wind power, mining, aerospace and aviation, space, defense...you name it! Developing one product can be wildly different from another. I liked that kind of variety though I'm sure it's not easy to jump between industries. So I thought my classmate's description of the mechanical engineer was pretty apt: a broad set of skills and an engineer willing to work in a lot of different fields.
 
The picture is a miniature from Reaper Minis and is Rosie the Chronotechnician.

6.30.2011

Strength in Sisterhood

There's a discussion over at Corporette about networking with older women. It's a follow up to an older post where they talked about networking with an older man who'd previously acted in a way that I would call "skeevy". Now, Corporette seems mostly written to and commented by lawyers so the advice is not universal. But it is a really awesome community for professional women.

So the original writer wrote in about how to navigate what was both a friendship and a networking opportunity with a group of older women she was working with during an internship. The advice was good but it made me a little pouty and jealous and bitter (which is kind of typical for me anyways).
Yeah I know engineering isn't as gender balanced as law is (though neither has a fantastic track record). But I had to think hard about any older women at work. Forget there being a group. There are a few other women my age. I guess I'm just not outgoing enough to suggest we all grab drinks based on our double X chromosome alone (plus if that got out to the dudes, we'd all be lambasted as hairy legged feminist bitches and probably limit everyone's career). But I am upset that there aren't enough women there that something like that would happen naturally.

I had a female boss back when I worked in health care and since working there I had one female boss as well. But she wasn't much of a mentor. In fact the women I've been closest to there have been striving to get out. To make the money they needed to make so they could go spend their days on the beach. Spending days on the beach isn't my thing and it makes sense not every woman would have enough in common to chat. It's just annoying that there aren't enough women that I can find any other female engineers or higher level people that maybe a few of us do have something in common. Maybe some day.

Mechanical Engineering Employment and Pay

Continuing this week's theme of jobs jobs jobs for all you hardworking engineers, I was curious what the outlook had been in my own discipline. I already covered employment and salaries in most disciplines between 1999 and 2010 but wanted to zero in on the mechanical engineers.
Mechanical engineers have had a bit of a bumpy past. The general trend is up but it hasn't been easy. My personal theory for the boost is that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have acted as stimulus programs for mechanical engineers. Our own Works Progress Administration putting us to work building tanks and humvees and fighter jets and bombs. The first major climb lags us entering the wars but is pretty strong. I give the delay to the delay in starting Department of Defense contracts and actually funding companies.

Maybe the post 2006 boom is due to the surge (I'd have to look it up). Trends in the automotive industry could also be strongly responsible as well as oil drilling, coal mining, etc. I think the strength even in the recession shows the numbers benefit from more than just commercial development alone. For comparison I pulled the civil engineer's chart over the same period of time.

So same boost up from about the same period on. This one has got to be thanks to housing. The quick and consistent line up and the drop right at the housing crash has had a big effect on the employment of civil engineers. How about our friends the sparkies?
It ain't easy being a sparky. The dot com bubble burst and it hurt. A couple of little climbs later and the recession hits and they are knocked back again. Still, given how heavily commercial electrical engineering is it's probably got a much more sustainable path to growth than defense dollars and government bailouts of the auto industry. Something to keep in mind.
Next a quick look at pay for mechanical engineers:
The bottom line is inflation adjusted. Without that the skyrocketing wages look pretty crazy. But even with inflation engineers managed a 10.5% increase to their mean annual salary over the last ten years. What? You're probably thinking. I'm a sprocket and my salary hasn't been going up. Could be what with the recession and choosey employees they're more likely to hang on to somewhat older and more experienced engineers in lieu of hiring younger ones or keeping young ones on. That may not be the personal experience of older engineers, but even if we're taking very minimal trends it can add up. And 10% increase over 10 years for the gain of 10 years of experience seems kind of like a bargain on the employer's side of things.

Still, the war might be to thank (or blame) for the strength in mechanical engineering employment. ME employment is up over 15% from 1999. Despite the bust civil engineers are employed at 19% more than 1999. And as you can see in the graph electrical engineers broke just about even (actually a drop of two tenths of one percent). I don't think engineers should go into a field based on national numbers and national salaries. Locality can make a huge difference. And of course it's important not to chase money but to do something because you think you'll enjoy it.

6.29.2011

Engineering Employment Over Time

How has engineering fared as a career during this recession? How has it been doing over time? Must be jobs week here at Design. Build. Play. Since I was so hard on software "engineers" before I made a separate category from today's Bureau of Labor Statistics data. I'm including programmers separately (but still there) from computer/software engineers (which here includes both systems software and applications). So how do we engineers do?
As you can see computer and software engineers have done particularly well. I'd grant the decline to programmers as being employers are ever more demanding specific degrees from their programmers so it's more just a transfer between categories. The recession has only continued the downward trend from before.

In comparison, civil, electrical and mechanical look almost flat. Of course they aren't really. So maybe you went into engineering for the money, how's that been doing? Here's some not adjusted for inflation salaries over time.
Again it's the same breakdown by discipline and again you see the obvious levelling off of the programmers' salaries. Mechanical and civil seem tied like in the previous graph and now electrical has a definitely higher salary. Is this because it has lower employment compared to the other disciplines as seen in the first graph? Does scarcity drive electrical engineering salaries up?

6.28.2011

Engineering Jobs by Discipline

I talked before about what states are hiring engineers and where all the engineering jobs are. Best estimate there are something like 44,000 engineering jobs open nationally right now. The census says that in 2008 84,000 people graduated with engineering degrees. Engineering shortage? I think not. Probably my 44,000 search was not broad enough to include the kinds of jobs engineering graduates might go into. But still, that's nowhere near a shortage, is it Corporate America?

So what kind of engineers are being hired right now? Software engineers.
Making up almost half of open jobs software engineers have it made. If we have a shortage of engineers, maybe it's that kind of engineer. The problem is we're recruiting people into a very diverse field without specifying what we really want or really need. I was curious how this stacked up to major choice and pulled a some numbers from a local university to give a breakdown:
You can tell mechanical and civil/structural majors are heavily overrepresented. People are probably going into these fields and finding the jobs aren't there. This is all magnified when certain geographic areas (Detroit vs Silicon Valley) have very different focuses even when colleges might be more diverse. Chemical and electrical engineering majors are a little closer to the national average of open jobs and software/computer engineering heavily underrepresented.

I'm a bit torn by including software engineers here. There's a big difference between "computer engineer" and a programmer. Many job openings ask for a degreed engineer when what they really need is a programmer. But if they're asking for an engineering degree that becomes a part of the requirement that job seekers have to meet even when it's unlike other engineering disciplines. Given the low numbers though it's possible those with other degrees, or no degrees at all, are filling the gap for these open software jobs. That is if anyone is even hiring.

6.27.2011

Appendix A: Where are the engineering jobs?

Ask and ye shall receive! A full version of the list available for your ranking/competing pleasure. I only hope this means arguments about whether South Dakota is better than North Dakota (it's not) start erupting. Sorry for the jpg, while I am an excel pseudo-wizard my blogger skills are lacking.
Yes I know Washington DC isn't a "state" and I left out some exciting US territories. Sorry!

Where are the engineering jobs?

So who's hiring engineers? It's no surprise in raw numbers that the top five states with engineering jobs open* include some of the most populace states with large metro areas and of course the center of automotive engineering in the states.
But how does that compare to the population of those states? Washington DC tops the list at the most engineering jobs per capita. Illinois is still doing pretty good and though it's not the list Michigan pulls in at #6. As for bottom of the list Montana comes in last but no region is left alone here with southern states and northeast also represented. The big population states of California and Texas fell in the middle of the list.
*Total job openings per state were pulled from CareerBuilder as a basis of estimate. Total state populations pulled from Wikipedia.

6.25.2011

Future Engineers

A couple of links for easy weekend reading.
A summer camp in San Jose teaching kids hands on civil engineering skills.
Will there some day be a 5-stroke petrol combustion engine that does better than a diesel engine?
Bob Gower CEO of United Memories gives a tour of the place that does chip testing for the semiconductor industry right in Colorado Springs before he retires. They gloss lightly over outsourcing, the quality of US engineers, and the worth of keeping jobs here.

6.23.2011

Engineers good business people?

Apparently some engineer got booted off some British version of The Apprentice because the British Donald Trump (Lord Sugar?) doesn't think engineers are good at business. The engineer in question goes on to defend himself by citing other successful engineers such as: Bill Gates, James Dyson and Mark Zuckerberg.
 
Now first of all, I'm not sure a "programmer" is always an engineer. I have mad respect for Bill Gates but neither he nor Zuckerberg completed college. And both are largely known for their programming skills. Given the days of early computers Gates might have more street cred as an engineer since "programming" in its infancy was hardware driven. I'm not saying their both not successful and smart, just that I wouldn't necessarily lump them into an umbrella family of engineers for every single purpose. James Dyson, however, designed the best vacuum I ever used and appears to be like the Tony Stark of vacuum cleaners. Though I'm not entirely sure he has a degree in education that would make all three of them just general genius types. I mean two of them dropped out of Harvard. You gotta figure in many cases have you the advantages to get into Harvard you're already at a good spot (whether that's social upbringing advantages or just pure raw natural talent).
 
Second of all, this argument always makes me think of Tom Smykowski from the movie Office Space who defends his job by saying he's necessary because engineers aren't good with people. I know a great many liasons and systems analysts and project coordinators who it would seem have the same responsibility: go between from the technical to the customer (one could almost argue the highly paid Program Manager fulfills this role as well). It's not so much I think that engineers and technical folks are not good with people, but that their technical skills are valued in such a way that's how management wants them to spend 100% of their time. Versus you can hire somebody else to be the facilitator or communicator. But it does seem to be the trap that engineers and probably scientists fall into.
 
What do you think, does that hold technical people back? What about the other way, are liasons and communicators valued in the same way technical employees are?

6.22.2011

Movie and a chat

I guess this week has been one for introspection. I watched The Philosopher Kings on Netflix last night. It's currently streamable and very good. The premise is they interview custodial workers at many top US universities and as expected when you ask somebody for their story there's more than just their exterior or just their job.
 
The movie was sprinkled with quotes. The kind that seem really brilliant to me and I immediately want to post here or put up on my cube wall for inspiration. Before realizing I am a cynical hag and maybe nothing will change that, even a nice documentary and a couple good quotes. But all in all it's a very interesting movie. It's not surprising maybe that several of the workers have undergone great personal tragedy at some point in their lives, overcome adversity, and have (or are portrayed to have) generally positive outlooks about their lives and their jobs.
 
This was after a conversation with HerrTech where I was bemoaning my future at MegaCorp and ranting about my jealousies towards the others on the chessboard. He began asking me how much of it was really about partial treatment or what I could be doing to make it up. He asked if I was being proactive and finding problems to solve before people asked me to. He also told me not to get cocky about my job stability. This is all a bit strange coming from HerrTech who doesn't make the world's best optimist and generally agrees there's no reason to give too much to one's job.
 
So I had all this in mind. This idea that I would bring it at work today. The idea that I've had a relatively cushy and stable upbringing compared to those custodians and maybe I could be doing more. A notion that if they can be satisfied I can certainly be satisfied with my cushy office job. All this is battling the sarcasm the bitterness the cynicism that normally operates in my brain space. Not sure what conclusions I'll come to, if any.

6.21.2011

Angst Nostalgia

I've been listening to Pandora for a while and it's probably the only reason I haven't switched to a Windows Phone yet. If you're not familiar with it, you choose songs or artists and build your own radio stations.

I was sitting and listening to the rock music I listened to as a teenager in one of those rare moments of inactivity in between other moments. With headphones in my ears and sitting on my bed I closed my eyes and remembered listening to these same songs in my angsty youth. I tried to imagine myself sitting on the bed in my parents' house being a teenager and feeling the emotions I felt then. But the emotions I feel now for this music are just echoes. And I can't even get myself to forgot for one second who I am now. I think that's a good thing. I feel stronger and more confident now. Maybe more like an adult than I wish I always was or had to be but there it is. Something in me has fundamentally changed and grown. No going back.

To masters or not to masters

So I'm going to blame GEARS for getting all my little mind wheels spinning on this. He wrote a few topics at Engineer Blogs firstly to never pay for grad school if you are a US citizen and secondly a post on whether grad school for engineering is worth it. Of course all of this got me thinking. I hadn't planned on going back for my master's. Going through my bachelor's was like going through the gauntlet. I'm still tired just thinking about it. I don't think I'd get to go for free as I'd likely need to keep working through this whole thing. Unless I waited a significant amount of time (like 6 years).
 
And yet at work I am starting to realize I will have to work twice as hard to achieve the same level. Where in two years from now I might qualify for a promotion if I spent the next two years working on my masters I could easily turn that into two promotions in three years. It's possible that the longer I stick around the more people will have master's degrees and the more that will become the norm for engineering.
 
But thinking about it really makes me tired. Yes it won't be as long and bitter as the five years of working full time while doing my undergrad, but it'll still be probably a two year minimum commitment while I'm trying to juggle ever growing responsibility at work. I could wait, but if I wait it just seems like time wasted that could've been spent gaining the credential.

6.17.2011

SIBQ - Sorry It's Been Quiet

And sorry I used an acronym for my post title. But hey, I'm an engineer, what'd you expect?
 
I know the posting has been sporadic here at Haus Tech. But at last it's Friday. Part of the lull stems from craziness at Megacorp. My team is being restructured under a higher level individual and this has meant I'm being asked to take on higher level responsibilities to cover the gap. This is usually a good thing. But I suspect it'll be part of some temporary situation where possibly these duties will flow back upwards on a periodic basis, or since the powers that be haven't exactly been formerly notified they may just assume the next guy up is handling them (as he should be). I don't know, I do tend to overthink these things. Like a lot. So we'll see how it goes.
 
Some of my energies have gone into keeping up with my posting schedule over at Engineer Blogs and an effort to now always write about communication or workplace dramas I've been trying to post on technical subjects so last week was on bearings and this week is on condensation.
 
I think I have a partial tendency to avoid writing about technical topics because sometimes I feel like an imposter engineer (which I'm sure doesn't help the confidence issues at work) as well as sometimes the cool stuff I am doing is just way to specific to my field and would a) ruin my pseudonymity and b) get me fired.
 
But on top of all that I feel like as an engineer I was prepared for having to solve design problems. And even though I know there would be a lot of politics and corporate intrigue, navigating them is still a challenge. Probably a greater challenge than doing an analysis on a failing component. Not to mention they are universal issues (I think).
 
So if you'd like to see more technical stuff here, pipe up. If you like the workplace whining posts or hate them let me know. If you want to tell me how your day is going or how the weather is please share that too. You know, whatever you feel like bringing to the table here.

6.13.2011

Lines of Communication

This being more than a decade into a new century you'd think we'd have our jet packs and flying cars already. Or more importantly perhaps, weren't we all supposed to be working from home by now?
 
Telecommuting was supposed to be the future. And I see why corporate America doesn't switch over to that model (both for good and bad reasons). But one of the many drawbacks of working in an office together has to be the tendency to share news and information via word of mouth. This is good for informal chatter or tentative things you can't commit to official writing yet. But it also allows the important folks to procrastinate on making decisions. They can verbally tell a subordinate to go in one direction, and not have to take blame for switching course a few weeks or days or hours later.
 
It also means there's a plethora of emails that go unanswered. Both because people are slacking and not responding, but also because the official response that can be done in email becomes a lot more serious. It's the new memo or fax of today and while it doesn't always have to be formalized you know that, like what goes out on the internet, it will be there forever. Your words will be around and you will have to commit to what you wrote about or write a retraction email, the great shame giver.
 
But in my case it means waiting for direction and not getting it because once it's in writing it goes. And the higher ups may have their reasons for delaying, but it can be frustrating when you're dealing with an internal or external customer that expects an answer and you have to tell them your superiors are just sitting around ruminating on it rather than sending a quick yay or nay via email.

6.12.2011

Excel-Fu: Selection Boxes and Cost

I thought it might be handy to post some of the tips and tricks I've been learning lately in various software programs. Because in order to teach myself I had to go scouring the internet for different sources, and maybe someone else is trying to do the same thing (plus the best way to remember something seems to be to teach it to somebody else, or if that fails write it down in the indelible ink of the internet).

Say you're considering building an assembly and have different options for different parts that would result in total cost differences. For my example I'm only using two components, but if you had a lot you might want something more automated. In the end what I needed was several drop down boxes where each option would reflect its cost and then add to a total below.

So here's how you'd do that which should be helpful if you've been trying to implement drop downs in Excel, use a lookup table, or figure out how to pull and use data from a selected drop down value.

In order to use a drop down you need what Excel considers developers tools. In order to turn this tab in, you go to File-> Excel Options. There, depending on your version of Microsoft Office, it might be under the popular tab, or might be under the "customize ribbon" tab. You want to have the "show developer tab" checked.
Then you go into your developer tab, click "insert" and there should be a drop down of various options. The one I'm using is the Form Controls -> Combo Box. But I imagine a lot of this stuff would work on either types of controls and boxes.

This will turn your mouse into a little plus sign. Go ahead and drag how big you want your box over wherever you want it. Then right click it and select Format Control.

But let's backtrack. First you're going to need some data for all this. I have two sets of options for my two widgets. You can locate this in another sheet of your excel document, but here I've stuck mine on the same sheet so it's clear what I'm doing.
Now back to your format control. It gives you three options to fill in in the "control" tab. Input range, cell link, and drop down lines. If I'm building the box for my first widget (options A through C) my input range is I3:I5. You can type this in, or just put your mouse in the box then drag your mouse over the cells you want. For right now, you don't care about the cost, only your "names". Cell link is the actual cell where your drop down value is going to be stored. I usually select the cell that seems most inhabited by my drop down box. Drop down lines is the number of values I have, 3 in this case, and I usually select 3-D shading cause why not, it's pretty.

Now you've got a drop down box that has some values in it that you can select. If it's bugging out at this point, you've probably messed something up in switching between sheets, so re-check your values and make sure they're still calling out the cells you want.

Next you'll need two columns to the right. One I've hidden because its sole purpose is to grab the "name" from the drop down. The problem with excel and drop down menus is it just correlates values to numbers. If you try to copy the value of your drop down it will just be a number of 1 through N where N is the number of options you have. In order to get that number to correspond to the value, you have to use a kind of silly workaround formula, the OFFSET formula.

In this case it's =OFFSET(the cell directly above my "names" table,the cell that my drop down box is storing its info in,0). The 0 is the actual offset value. Or in my case, =OFFSET(I2,C3,0). This is all important too because it means you need a row above your names table as you can see I had above. Now no matter which value you select in drop down, the column should mirror that value. Since you don't really need this column again later you can hide it (right click the whole column, select hide).

Next to callout the price value of your component you'll use the tables I showed a few figures up. This is the next colum over and uses the VLOOKUP function.
So the values I want here are =VLOOKUP(the value I'm converting, my WHOLE lookup table, 2, FALSE) or in my case =VLOOKUP(F3,I3:J5,2,FALSE). The 2 is because the value I want is in the 2nd column. If you were selecting a larger table you could specify any column you want. The F3 cell is where I used offset to grab the "name" value from the drop down. The false is to indicate I want only an exact match (for the name) rather than a partial match.

So now you can have drop downs with selected values, connect them to prices, and of course you can use a sum value (=SUM(G3:G7) ) to nab your costs and make a total further down.

Some of these methods are probably cheap workarounds, but still I hope you learned something. If you didn't and were bored sorry. Maybe you can write in with your badass software tricks.

6.10.2011

Design Fridays: Volvo's new flywheel

Volvo's claiming their new flywheel design will be able to give a four cylinder the equivalent of six cylinder power as well as save 20% of combustion energy.
 
A flywheel is just a name for a rotational device that's able to store energy. It does this by using inertia and saving rotational energy. The amount of energy that can be stored is based on the moment of inertia and rotational speed, where moment of inertia is based on mass and radius of the wheel. Typical flywheel designs might include differing weights at certain points in the wheel that help keep the rotational speed more consistent and higher.
 
In your typical automotive application, a flywheel sits on the end of your crankshaft and converts the energy and movement of the crankshaft into a more consistent rotational speed.
 
Volvo is claiming that their flywheel will be able to store so much energy that when the engine is idling it can actually turn off and the energy stored in the wheel is enough to start combustion again. If so that could explain their 20% fuel savings number as engine idling is a well known waster of energy (why electrical cars and the Prius shut off at a stop). The flywheel also sounds like it is using aspects popular in hybrids and electric cars: regenerative braking. There've been a lot of attempts to incorporate regenerative braking into designs, the idea that you can get back part of the energy you're wasting to brake. But generally these designs haven't been efficient enough to be practical (plus once you add complications, you add more room for failure, and the more components the heavier your car thus reducing your energy savings).
 
They're supposed to start field testing this sometime later this year.

6.09.2011

Bernanke's Economic Outlook

So on Tuesday Bernanke spoke to some banker's association in Atlanta and covered some important topics: like, is the humidity there not craaaazy?
 
Okay, not really. He re-iterated the same stuff he always does. That they'd rather pick from their tool belt of regulatory options to affect the economy rather than doing interest rate changes. Why? Does he not crave absolute power? Well the real answer is the interest rate is already so low, it's no longer a tool that the federal reserve really has available to them. But if they admit to this maybe consumer confidence will implode...or something. Not to mention continuing to keep interest rates incredibly low is really working out for the banker elite who's making a killing on borrowing money from the government at 0% and then lending it back to the government via treasury bonds for 3 or 4%.
 
He mentions trying to keep inflation low, though it's clear from low rates for so long that this is not a priority for the voting majority of the federal reserve board. Instead it's more cheap talk to buoy up certain people (large debtors like banks who have a bunch of mortgages or the government itself) rather than worry about those who are at a critical point (the poor and the elderly living on fixed incomes).
 
He states that his objective is to keep inflation low and keep the value of the dollar high and his excuse for why this is not actually happening is the importation of oil. Gas prices, something the reserve doesn't even look at in its core inflation index, are wildly inflating and somehow contributing to a falling dollar value. The US actually only imports about 51% of its oil. Something like 350 billion a year. With a 14 trillion GDP, 1 trillion handed to banks as free money, and a looming national debt, Bernanke really wants to blame this one on gas prices? If anything the falling price of the dollar might be contributing to speculation on oil as a commodity which could be one of the main reasons for the rising price of gas at the pump.
 
His only concessions to the real people is that they are working on achieving "maximum employment" (almost as if he is admitting to a possible future of long term high unemployment rates). I guess he is working on that like I am working on being nicer to rich, elite bankers. Which is to say, not at all. Then he only briefly mentions that the lower growth rate the GDP is seeing is somehow contributing to what people really care about (employment, real wages) because it is "frustratingly slow". I'm not sure why he'd connect GDP with employment. That's like connecting stock market prices, dividends, and shareholder profits with real wage gains for the working class. The two are not correlated. Or if anything, are negatively correlated.

6.08.2011

Perspective

There's been a lot of discussion in the news lately about the James Webb telescope. It's planned orbit is about 1.5 million miles from earth. I was curious how this compared to existing space objects so I rigged up a scale representation. The larger dotted circles are just for clarification of finding the much smaller centers and locations of the objects. The moon is about 250,000ish miles out from the earth and the hubble telescope, at 366 miles, would have been visually on top of earth in this view so I left it off. What do you think, does it properly convey the scale and ambition of the Webb telescope? 

6.07.2011

Leave Your Mark

An interesting gallery of John Rennie's engineering legacy. A scottish civil engineer in the 18th and 19th centures he was responsible for design of many canals, bridges, waterways, docks and harbours scattered around Great Britain. When we look at great buildings and wonders we don't always think of the engineer who designed it but they are as much a part of it as the society, labor and technology that went into the construction.

6.06.2011

Looking for trends in all the wrong places

I found the above graph here. It's not so important that it doesn't include the last five years or so for my purposes.
 
I was looking at MegaCorp's new hires and discovered that in the last three months of intense intern hiring (it's the season for interns!) 24% of them have been female. I wondered how this compared to engineers hired. Turns out in the first 5+ months of this year, 10% of our new hire engineers have been female.
 
Now, my local university says that about 18.5% of engineering degrees are conferred to women. So the intern numbers seem to be, if anything, on the high side.
 
Compare the new hire numbers to the historical chart at the top and you'd see that we'd have to be averaging 30 years of experience for the engineers we hire for 10% to be a reasonable number. It's unlikely our average new hire engineer is 50 years old or more.
 
What does this mean? Why is the effort being made on the intern level to bring in more women but we don't see it when it comes down to hiring full-timers? It's possible, I suppose, that women are graduating with degrees, and working internships, but then somehow not going into engineer at all. If they are going into completely different fields after getting an engineering degree, and in high numbers, that could explain it.
 
Or is it part of the general trend that women tend to work in lower paying occupations so it's easier for a woman to get hired on as an intern than it will be for her to get hired as an engineer. Or maybe HR is trying to push diversity but can only manage to do so as a part of its intern hiring program but can't convince managers to hire more experienced women.
 
This might make a lot of sense if both numbers were on the low side or on the high side. Then you could draw some conclusion about MegaCorp's particular industry or maybe locality differences. As it is it looks a little strange.

6.03.2011

Workplace Politics and the Engineer

People in general have a tendency to over estimate their own skill level in comparison to their peers. I am guilty of this, likely having seen myself as an "above average" employee since the minute I started working. All this despite struggling with impostor syndrome where I am prone to doubts and being found out as a fraud not as capable as I'm pretending to be.
 
So this was kind of in the back of my head when I read this article from Evil HRLady at BNET about whether you should dispute a performance review. The employee was marked average on everything, and felt they should be above average on some things and below on others. Evil HRLady's response seemed practical and correct:
 
 
Problem:  You are, actually, pretty average. Ouch.  Sorry.  But average is average and if you're better in some areas (as you said) and worse in others (as you said) that is going to average out to be, well average.
 
 
Sounds pretty correct. Then the original poster piped up in the comments and tried to stress that they were in fact above average. They pointed out all the things they do (working long hours, helping customers, sorting sections that had been abandoned, volunteering and covering for other employees). This got me to thinking. Their employer doesn't care about all these things. Does an employer really care about your "effort"? Maybe if you're a grad student, beyond that your boss wants to see output, results, to-do lists knocked off. They don't care that you "help" or "share" with your coworkers. It's a known fact that those who are good at working with others and training new employees are rarely promoted.
 
I suspect parallels in academia would be a professor who is an especially good teacher for which they get no credit for. Their research maybe places them at "average" at their university, and in their eyes exceptional teaching in addition to average research makes them above average.
 
I think the key is in order to not kill ourselves at work is make sure you're focusing on what's actually important to your boss. Mine likes to see a lot of written output even when the actual problem is not solved. Tracking progress, tasks and investigations look good to who he has to show his numbers to. Theoretically if you make your boss look good, they will value you. They may take credit for some of your actions (though more often in my opinion even a good employee doesn't always realize the value of direction and ideas from superiors that add to their projects). But in the end if you can separate what you think makes you an "above average" employee with what's important to those doing your review you can probably save yourself a lot of angst and heart burn focusing on things you might think matter but your organization doesn't actually value.