Career Lessons from an Electronics Lab

I recently had the privilege of being a lab instructor at GVSU for one of my favorite undergrad classes, “Intro to Digital Systems.”  Watching students go through the class that I took a few years back has been an interesting learning experience for me, and hopefully my students have learned a few things, as well.

This class is required for all engineering students (electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer engineering, and product designing and manufacturing). It is an electrical engineering course, so a large number of students might not think the technical content will be useful in their chosen discipline.  There have been comments from some of the non-electrical engineering students to the effect of, “Why should I have to take this lab?” or, “I’ll never have to use any of this stuff,” which got me wondering:  What real-world value can these students derive from my course?

Answering, “Because that’s what the engineering curriculum requires,” seems like a cop-out.  “Because having a well-rounded engineering education makes you a better and more valuable engineer,” provides a more relatable explanation, but it still focuses solely on the technical content of the lab.

When I think back to my first internship, I felt overwhelmed by how much of the technical knowledge I needed had barely been touched in class, and not for reasons of negligence on the part of the school—there’s just a lot to cover in the field of electrical engineering. This was another reason not to focus on technical value alone, as even electrical engineering students can’t guarantee that the skills learned will be applicable.  For example, someone working in power systems will not be benefitted much by FPGA design.

Looking for a better and more “meta” answer, I thought about my current work life and how that influenced the feedback I gave the students. I also thought about the problem-solving skills I hoped they would develop from this course, whether or not it was directly related to their major.

Having worked in the industry for a few years, there are aspects of an academic lab that I have found to be particularly valuable for a successful work life.  Here are some of the things I wish I knew as a student:

Clear Communication

Ahh, lab reports.  I must have written three lab reports a week through all four years of my undergrad training.  Where my younger self only saw due dates and stacks of paper too thick to use a normal stapler, my older self sees the ability to fully and clearly share my ideas and develop trust with my coworkers and customers.  While technical ability is important, being unable to communicate well means that good ideas may be misunderstood or flat-out ignored.

When grading the first few weeks of lab reports, my feedback was often about providing the appropriate amount of context and detail for the reader.  When you write emails, project documentation, or even talk face-to-face with a coworker or manager, consider the technical level of the person you are speaking to, and the amount of background they have on the topic. Should you launch right into the nitty-gritty of a technical problem, or do you need to back up and provide them with context first? Are they interested in (and can they understand) an in-depth discussion on different options, or are they only interested in high-level pros and cons, and estimated time and cost of the different options? This boils down to having empathy for the person you’re talking to and being able to provide the amount, type and level of information they need.  And this is something that lab reports can help you practice.

Ability to Solve Your Own Problems

Troubleshooting.  Being resourceful.  Remembering previous failures (and solutions).  My younger self didn’t think about this at a high level; if I had a problem, I’d keep working to fix it.  If things weren’t acting as expected, I’d try to figure out why.  The high school to college transition can be tough for some people.  The training wheels come off, so to speak, and far less guidance is provided.

On one hand, I want to help students when they have issues (and it bugs me to see unsolved problems that I know how to fix!), but I need to be careful of how I help them, so that they are learning how and why things aren’t working, how they can track down the issue, and how they can do better next time.  To do otherwise only enables “hand-holding,” which is an undesirable trait in interns and employees both, as busy developers and engineers have limited time and mental bandwidth to walk people through problem-solving that they should be capable of doing themselves.

There’s one rule of thumb that a previous professor instilled in me:  If you ask general questions, you likely aren’t going to get any help.  If you can ask a detailed question that shows you’ve put in appropriate effort and tried various solutions (or at least narrowed down the scope of the problem), then the person you’re asking will be much better equipped and likely more willing to help.  This demonstrates respect for your own abilities and for the person from whom you’d like to learn.

Ability to Work Together

While this may seem counter to the previous item, it isn’t.  Working together in pairs is something we do frequently at Atomic Object, and the combination of our background and skills has a “Swiss cheese effect.”  My younger self has been guilty of taking over more work in group projects to ensure high quality and to avoid confronting group members about not pulling their weight.  Doing this in the workplace will only lead to ongoing resentment and burnout.

The lab pairs in my GVSU class are not too unlike pair programming. Students work together to complete the lab and write the report. The most successful pairs are those who share the problem-solving and responsibility between them, taking turns so that both partners are learning and pulling their own weight. Successful pairs also get along. While you can’t always choose your lab partners, you do have slightly more control over who your coworkers are, either in helping in the hiring process, or evaluating potential workplaces with the question, “Are these people I’d like to work with?”

Similarly, you can also improve yourself so that you are the type of person you’d like to work with.  Offering constructive criticism, creative ideas, and a positive attitude are things that make you a valued and respected employee.

Incremental Learning

Here, my college self wasn’t really paying attention to the knowledge I was accruing over my undergrad years.  But returning to GVSU as a graduate, it’s as clear as day.  It’s difficult to say if my students have noticed their progress over the semester, but I certainly have.  This is true in a number of situations—it’s obvious in their report writing, but I also overhear novel ideas,  technical details being discussed, problem solving, etc.  While more writing isn’t the suggestion most students would like to hear, I think there is serious value in keeping track of your skills to see how you are progressing.

Another way to highlight the progress you’ve made is to contrast it to someone who is less experienced than you.  This is a great opportunity to mentor less experienced coworkers or other students, either at work or through an organization like FIRST Robotics.  As has been the case for me, working with people who are less experienced provides opportunity to practice using clear communication and the right level of detail to strengthen your own knowledge, to share valuable insights and experience, and to learn some new ideas and perspectives.  Which leads me to my final point…

Learning By Doing

GVSU is a big proponent of hands-on experience, which is why the curriculum is so lab- and internship-focused.  This was a deciding factor for me in choosing GVSU over a more theory-focused curriculum elsewhere.

Here, I’d suggest that students with lab projects use and reflect on these projects in their college searches, and to complete more of their own projects.  The opportunity to work on different types of projects in college and in my internship is what helped me determine what kind of job would be a good fit for me.  Not only do hands-on projects help me learn better, but delaying such practical experience would mean that I’d have to figure out more of those personal preferences at my first “real” job out of college (a time that’s already stressful enough).

Learning by doing means that there is a LOT of good experience and advice that is developed by working in industry and developing skills over five, 10, or even 20+ years.  A lesson that is relevant to both my younger and current self:  More experienced engineers and developers are a gold mine of information.  And more often than not, they’re willing to share that knowledge with you if you ask for it clearly and respectfully.