My first “Electrical Engineering” job

Back in January of 2002 I was pretty clear on what I wanted.  I had been working for about a year and a half at two different ad agencies in the Salt Lake City area in a technical capacity, but I didn’t have a college degree and I could see that sooner of later all the HTML gurus would be phased out of their high paying positions.  I had begun about a year earlier to do two things.  The first thing I did was branch out from the HTML and start to explore the more technical database driven web applications.  In fact I cut my teeth on a global intranet application for Novell that would manage their marketing campaigns and global marketing metrics.  It ran on Windows using PHP and Oracle.

The second thing I did was determine to attend the University of Utah and study Electrical Engineering.  There were a few reasons that I chose electrical engineering, including the fact that it required a lot of math and physics, and it would help me understand what was actually happening inside the microprocessors for which I wrote my software.  These were all really interesting topics for me.  So I had been taking math courses at night at the community college preparing to transfer up to the U of U.

So when January 2002 came, I had been accepted to the U and was ready to start full-time courses.  In order to fully devote myself to my courses I quit my job (then with Studeo Interactive Direct in SLC).  I had put some money away in savings and I knew it was the right thing to do for my future, but it was a leap of faith since I wasn’t sure exactly how I would pay for my livelihood for the next five or so years.

Well, as fate would have it I got married in June of that same year, and kept going with school, but something unexpected happened.  My previous employer, and another agency in Phoenix where my brother worked, asked me to do some work as a vendor contractor.  A buddy asked me to build him an e-commerce website and then a few other people saw that and wanted me to do some work for them too.  After about a year I had a little business in full swing.

This little business continued on throughout my University education, acquiring clients and employees along the way, but I eventually closed it in May 2005.  The reason to close it was to be able to devote my full time effort to school again and to do research and work on my thesis.

Fast forward about a year and I start thinking about what to do after school.  At this point I have a lot of software experience and specifically web related experience.  I have also been self employed for more of my professional life than I’ve been employed.  As I saw it my options were:

  • Get a job working in software/internet for someone else
  • Start another business (past clients were asking me to do this)
  • Get a job in electrical engineering

The decision was hard and so I selectively chose a few different options that I thought would be a good fit.  One in software, one in electrical engineering and I also met with a few old clients and considered what I might do if I started another business.  Out of the two companies that I applied to I received two offers.  I knew that I had a lot of ‘equity’ in software and could fall back on that, but that I would probably never have a better time than NOW to work as an electrical engineer.

My first “Electrical Engineering” job

Micron and Aptina badges (artistic rendering in inkscape)

Micron and Aptina badges (artistic rendering in inkscape)

So I decided to hire on with Micron in Boise ID.  The other offer I received was from Omniture in Orem UT.  That would have been a great position with a fantastic company, but I really wanted to work as an electrical engineer.  The position that they gave me was in the probe department working on imagers.  If you don’t know what an imager is, the easiest way to describe it is as digital film.  It’s a small piece of silicon that collects in the light, separates it into different colors and then produces the pixels of the digital image.

I’m not sure if I didn’t ask enough of the right questions during the interviews, or perhaps I just didn’t understand how the electrical engineering industry worked, but I quickly found that the position I had accepted didn’t require me to use any of the skills I had learned in school.  During my last year and a half at university I focused in on semiconductor device physics with an emphasis in optoelectronics.  Optoelectronics just means that it has to do with light, or in my case, how semiconductors absorb and emit light.  I was taking master’s level courses and working in the micro fabrication facility there on campus to design new semiconductor devices.

My new job, as it turned out, was very entry level, and I didn’t have a chance to use any of what I had studied in school.  But here I was in Boise.  I’d moved my family up here and I wanted to make the most of it.  So I decided to make use of the skills I had acquired as a business owner and software engineer.  I worked hard to improve my department as much as I could.  For example, during my first year I implemented a new work flow that included revision control using subversion.  Previously all of the engineers had stored their test jobs in directories on a shared network drive and there was no way to look at any file and know where it had come from or how it differed from previous releases.

One problem with revision control and finding differences between files was that they used a binary format to store their test jobs.  This meant I had to write a new piece of software that integrated with TortoiseSVN and WinMerge which allowed a “one click” diff of two binary versions of the software.  I also integrated the correlation and release data into the workflow process and created a program that would examine the binary test job and produce a detailed specification showing what all the parameters were for each test.

The next thing I noticed was that during test job debug my fellow engineers would use Winsows (I’m sure I should say something here like registered trademark (R)) notepad.exe.  This was very problematic since there was not way of seeing how all of the data in the text file related to other data in the file.  As a result I wrote a gui (graphical user interface, but if you’re still reading by now then you should know that) tool that used regular expressions to parse the log file and display data in a tabular way for comparison.  It integrated formatting, transfer to excel and even real time graphing and charting for progression analysis.

There were some other pieces of software that I developed that proved too radical a departure from the work flow to get traction, but they essentially amounted to abstracting test job parameters into a database to enable collaborative development and manage the release/rollback process as well as interdepartmental communication.  It would have also greatly improved the consistency between test jobs whereas their current state was somewhat varied depending on what base was used to create them and which engineers had worked on them.

So, as I look back, I didn’t actually get to do any real electrical engineering in my first (and only) electrical engineering position.  I guess I naturally gravitated toward software and improving business processes, which is what I had done in my own business during college.

Shift back to software

After a while I realized that I needed a shift and began to look around.  I got a few offers, including another offer from Omniture.  That was a hard decision, but was made a little easier to to the collapsing housing market which more or less locked us into Boise.  But in a lot of ways, we didn’t mind.  Me and my growing family love Boise.

Around this time, Micron had decided to spin off their imaging division as a separate company called Aptina Imaging.  They were mandating that everyone move to San Jose CA.  I wasn’t really interested in moving to CA either so I held out.  In time an option became available for me to remain in Boise and take a Software Engineer position under the Research and Development arm of Aptina.  This turned out to be a good move for me, all things considered.

In my new position I was able to head design and implementation of a new large scale processing system.  The amount of data that it processing is really staggering, reaching easily in petabytes every month.  I chose Python and a handful of open source and commercial databases to implement the system.  I focused heavily on unittests and followed best practices and design patterns everywhere that they made sense.  During deployment the system proved very resilient to changes and replaced an old system that would have required a $500,000.00 license.  It also improved performance and reliability over the old system.

So after about a year and change with Aptina, I started to long for a couple of things.  One was interaction with more people on a daily basis that the handful of engineers at work.  They were a fun and lively bunch, but I wanted to interact with lots of people.  I also wanted to be more in control of what projects I pursued and how I pursued them.  In short, I wanted to be in business for myself again.

This biggest deviation from my previous business during college is that this time I want to focus on direct to consumer sales, rather than having clients that then sell direct to consumer.  I’ve been studying this on my nights and weekends for about a year and a half now and I really enjoy it.  It also adds another dimension to my skills that I could use if I ever did take on new clients in the future.

Whew!  So almost three years after taking my first electrical engineering job I’m finally ready to admit that I like software and maybe I even like direct sales more.  So, here’s to my future as an internet direct sales guru (forward looking statement).

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