Reflections through the Years

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Sept 2014

I've written a bi-monthly Reflections column for IEEE Spectrum since January 1982.  Every other month over these last 32 years I've faced a blank computer screen as a deadline for another column approached and I had little or no idea what I could write about.  After the first dozen or so columns I thought that I had used up all the topics that would be worthy of essays, but it seems that there have always been emerging topics as well as evergreen ones.  These columns have accompanied Spectrum Magazine through much of the half-century of publication that we now celebrate.  Looking back on this collection now, I've tried to see how the columns have changed over the years, what this says about changes in engineers and engineering.

I set out initially to write about the world as seen through the eyes of an engineer, and conversely, how the engineer looks as seen by the world.  In the early years I wrote columns about the joys in engineering, about the difficulties in sharing the engineering work life with friends and family, and how confessing to be an engineer stops further conversation at social gatherings.  Writing about the public image of engineers, I was fascinated with how non-engineer friends claimed they could pick engineers out of a crowd of strangers by looks alone.  I remembered being picked up by a limo driver at the airport.  When I asked how he knew who I was, he gruffly replied , "I can always tell an engineer."  I did not consider it a compliment.

I wrote about the engineering life: giving presentations, writing reports, the foibles of management, and the little daily frustrations of unsolved problems.  There were columns on the emergence of integrated circuits, computers, and the Internet, but the column that produced the most reader feedback was entitled "Goodbye Heathkit."  This was a nostalgic memory for many engineers, and the passing of Heathkit represented a watershed moment in technology.   Integrated circuits had changed everything.  They not only enabled, but encouraged, ever greater complexity, and could only be fabricated in hugely expensive facilities.  Electronics was no longer something for amateurs, but was becoming a business for teams of professionals.

In 1986 I wrote an essay "The Footsteps of Giants" in which I wondered if my contemporaries would ever become as famous as the inventors and pioneers who had preceded us.  The number of engineers throughout the world was growing, the problems were becoming more difficult, and credit for discoveries was becoming more diffuse.  Looking back on this column now, I realize that a number of my contemporaries did indeed become famous, but more for starting technology companies than for inventions per se. 

In more recent years I have written less about the social life of engineers and more about the technology itself.  Some of my old columns about how the world sees engineers now seem quaint.  I think that society at large has come to identify with and appreciate engineers much more.  We are the designers of personal computers, cell phones, games, flat screen television and the gadgets that are so coveted today.  Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are idolized and there was even a movie about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook.  Of course, none of them were trained as engineers, but they have come to epitomize the public perception of who engineers are and what they do.
At the same time, I have the feeling that the technology we once considered our private domain has slipped our grasp into the public domain.  I see school children being taught coding and brilliant young hackers who have no intention of studying engineering.  I see lawyers, doctors, and dentists whose offices are full of computer equipment.  And everywhere people are constantly fiddling with their smartphones.  We are surrounded by technology, and we engineers are its keepers.

While the social aspects of engineering life have slowly receded from my columns, the technology has constantly presented ever more ideas for columns.  There are always new areas opening up that offer new and exciting challenges.  There may not be any singular invention as immediately significant as the transistor or laser, but the potential that we now have in current software, computing, and networking seems unlimited.  There is something there for every engineer who dreams of innovation.

In some of those early columns I wrote about my reticence to answer that ubiquitous question at social gatherings of  "What do you do?"  Now the hesitation is gone and I am proud to reply that I am an electrical engineer, and I think that I can discern a flicker of respect from that answer.  But it still seems like they don't want to hear any more about what I actually do.  They probably think that I design iPhones, and that's fine with me.