So, about this Googler’s manifesto. – Yonatan Zunger – Medium

Anderson:  Ignoring the underlying controversy for the moment, I found these excellent two quotes about the nature of engineering work.  I would say it’s applicable to every engineering discipline, beyond just software.  Very useful concepts for high school students to understand if they are thinking about an engineering career.

Engineering is not the art of building devices; it’s the art of fixing problems. Devices are a means, not an end. Fixing problems means first of all understanding them — and since the whole purpose of the things we do is to fix problems in the outside world, problems involving people, that means that understanding people, and the ways in which they will interact with your system, is fundamental to every step of building a system.


Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers. If someone told you that engineering was a field where you could get away with not dealing with people or feelings, then I’m very sorry to tell you that you have been lied to. Solitary work is something that only happens at the most junior levels, and even then it’s only possible because someone senior to you — most likely your manager — has been putting in long hours to build up the social structures in your group that let you focus on code.

Source: So, about this Googler’s manifesto. – Yonatan Zunger – Medium

An Amazing Statscan Skills Study | HESA

Source: An Amazing Statscan Skills Study | HESA

An interesting post from our friends at Higher Education Strategy Associates, summarizing a Statistics Canada study on employment skills requirements.  A couple of graphs are reproduced below,  and follow the link above for more details, but here’s a quick take-away from my perspective.

  • Different job categories require different levels of reading comprehension and writing skills.
  • Architecture, engineering and related occupations require the highest levels of reading comprehension and writing skills (the red striped bars in the graphs below).
  • That’s why in engineering admissions and education we’re interested and concerned about reading, writing and communications skills.  There is still lots of room for improvement in our curricula, but it’s an ongoing effort.
  • Not surprisingly, architecture and engineering also require the highest levels of complex problem solving skills.

Which Program is the Best?

I sometimes get asked which engineering program to pick for the best future career prospects.  I generally won’t answer that because its not the greatest way of selecting a program, and ignores individual aptitude and interest.  Being stuck in a career you don’t like is a likely outcome of that approach.

However there are some technical and societal trends that might be worthwhile thinking about for long-term opportunities and challenges.  And there are some programs that lend themselves to those trends, as I’ll point out.  If these areas are of interest, maybe one or more of the programs I mention are worth a look if you hadn’t thought of them before.  Many of these trends are related to climate change, which is a research and teaching interest of mine.  So here they are, in no particular order.

Continue reading

What’s New in Nanotechnology?

There is some impression out there that “nanotechnology” (and our Nanotechnology Engineering program) is all very research-oriented, with no practical applications or career prospects yet.  Graduates can only look forward to doing lab research or a PhD degree.  Those are certainly potential paths, but not the only ones by any means.

Nanotechnology has been around for about 30 years (see it’s history).  In many ways, it’s just a specialized way of approaching Materials Science/Engineering, and there are already over 1,500 products on the market that incorporate nanotechnology.  Making products requires more than just lab research, and one of the reasons we launched our Nanotechnology Engineering program was in response to industry needs for people with this expertise.

It also seems that the nanotechnology area is one where there is a lot of room for innovation and entrepreneurship by our undergraduate students.  Here are a few recent examples (mainly based on senior design projects) that have led to start-up companies:

It’s interesting to see what creative new ways that nanotechnology can be used to make new products or improve existing ones.  In my own research lab we are working with companies to develop novel test methods, based on nanotechnology, for detection of water contamination, and this is on the verge of commercialization.  Some day soon I’ll finish a post on that topic.

So for a high school student thinking about different career paths, don’t exclude Nanotechnology Engineering if you’re interested in materials and commercial product development.  It’s not all theory, lab work, and graduate research.

Capstone Design Projects

March is the season for “Capstone Design Project” presentations at Waterloo Engineering.  These are events where groups of graduating students present and explain the design projects they have been working on for the past 8 to 12 months.  Working on a significant, open-ended design project is a feature in all engineering programs in Waterloo and across Canada, to my knowledge.  These “Design Symposia” are open to the public.

Where do the topics for these design projects come from?  There are 3 typical sources:  1) some professors provide an idea, likely related to their ongoing research projects; 2) companies approach us with ideas that they would like someone to work on; 3) the student groups come up with their own ideas.

For companies, this is an opportunity to have some ideas explored in more detail and for free (other than some time spent).  Many companies have some new ideas or side-projects that would be nice to do, but they don’t have the time or resources to follow-up on them right away.  Having a student group work on it can help them scope-out the idea and see if it is worthwhile to pursue more aggressively in the future.  For the students, they get more experience working on a real-world problem, possibly in an industry sector they want to learn more about.  This can be a nice addition to the experience they already gained during their co-op work terms.

Student groups that come up with their own idea are often the source of new innovations and start-up companies that they build after graduation.  At Waterloo, any novel idea that a student creates is owned by them.  The university supports innovation and entrepreneurship, but doesn’t attempt to take it over in any way.

For high school students who are thinking about pursuing engineering, these projects are a good way to get a feeling for what you can do in the different disciplines.  So check out these links for project titles or descriptions:

Management Engineering
Nanotechnology Engineering
Software Engineering
Civil, Environmental, Geological Engineering
Electrical & Computer Engineering
Mechatronics Engineering
Mechanical Engineering
Chemical Engineering
Systems Design Engineering

A couple of programs are missing their project lists, but will probably be updated in the coming days.  See this link.

Waterloo grad first Canadian to lead Mars simulation mission | Waterloo Stories

Waterloo grad first Canadian to lead Mars simulation mission | Waterloo Stories.

Here’s an interesting story about a Mechanical Engineering graduate, and her unconventional career path in the aerospace sector as well as a start-up company in the renewable energy sector.  I always find it very interesting; the wide variety of things engineering graduates end up doing.

The Most In-Demand (And Aging) Engineering Jobs

The Most In-Demand (And Aging) Engineering Jobs.

Our Dean of Engineering, Prof. Pearl Sullivan, pointed out this interesting article from Forbes magazine.  Much of the information I’ve seen before in various places, but it’s a nice compilation and summary.  Also, it’s based on U.S. statistics, so it’s hard to tell how the Canadian situation may compare but the general ideas are likely similar.  There are a few things to point out:

“Industrial Engineering” seems to be in big demand.  At Waterloo, this would roughly correspond to our “Management Engineering” program.

I’m disappointed that my discipline, Chemical Engineering, was lumped into the “All Other Engineers” category!  I guess this also includes Biomedical, Software, etc.

One of the problems with these surveys is that various groups use different classification schemes for the various disciplines, and they don’t always correspond to the name of the university or college program.  For example, “Aerospace Engineers” in this article probably refers to the job title, which could be filled by people with mechanical, mechatronics, or other degrees.  Likewise a “Petroleum Engineer” may be a chemical or mechanical engineering graduate.  Just something to keep in mind.

Choosing Your Engineering Program 2

With application deadlines approaching, some people will be struggling with the decision of which engineering program to apply to.  I had a post on this topic last year, and here are some additional thoughts.  As a reminder, Waterloo engineering has direct entry to a specific engineering discipline, so you have to pick one of our 13 programs for your application choice.  For those who don’t know where to start, last year I recommended our Quiz for some initial choices, and I still recommend it.  However, it doesn’t currently include our new Biomedical Engineering program, so you have to keep that in mind.

With our quiz results or other ideas in mind, you should do some serious research to see which program catches your interest the best.  There are plenty of online things to look at, and Google or Bing will help you find it.  One that I recently remembered is the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics site.  It has some interesting information on the nature of various engineering jobs.  Be careful on putting too much faith in their projections and forecasts however.

Some other ideas:

  • Students at Waterloo will be more engaged with their program and classmates if they are relatively sure and committed to their program.  If after doing some serious research and thought about different programs you still can’t decide at all, then certainly consider a university with a general engineering entrance program.  Then you can postpone deciding for a little while.  There are lots around Ontario, including Queen’s, McMaster, and Western, for example.  Other universities offer direct entry as well as an undecided/undeclared option, including Ryerson, Guelph, Windsor and York, for example.  Toronto has the “TrackOne” program which is a general first year.  Toronto’s Engineering Science is sort of a general first year too, since it looks like about 33% of the students move into other disciplines in 2nd year.
  • In spite of what I say in the above point, you don’t have to be 100% sure about your choice.  It’s normal to be somewhat uncertain.  But you should have some level of comfort and knowledge about the program you’ve picked, and why you are picking it.
  • There are potentially bad reasons to pick a program, including:  1) it’s the most competitive for admission; 2) family/friends say it’s the “best”; 3) some website says it’s the best paid, or has the best career prospects.  These are bad reasons, especially if your interests and aptitude don’t align with the choice.  Imagine sitting in classes where everyone else is keen on the material and projects,  and you’re not.  It’s probably not going to go well.  Every year we get a few of these cases.  Sometimes we can help them switch programs, but sometimes it goes so badly that they have to leave the university.  We would prefer to avoid this problem as much as possible.
  • Always remember that career paths can be very flexible, and choosing a specific discipline does not lock you into a specific career for the rest of your life.  Many engineering graduates eventually go into management careers, where the discipline-specific technical knowledge is less important anyways.
  • There is a lot of overlap between various disciplines, so it is not critical that you pick the “right” one.  If you pick one that you feel some affinity for, you’ll probably be fine no matter how your interests may shift over the coming years.  You should expect (and want) to continue learning new things throughout your career.
  • There is no such thing as the “best” program.