Ramble: Engineers and hackers – never the twain shall meet?

Note: This is a vent post more than anything, and as such it won’t have much relation to the other things I write. If you want to stick to my main content, feel free to skip this blog post.

Now that school’s getting back into gear, it also means that I’m going into what I hope to be my last year of my electronics engineering college program. However, because of some screwups in the very first year (I am terrible when it comes to mathematics; I barely passed the first math course and flat-out failed the calculus portion), I was unable to complete this program in the typical two-year span.

The second year was pretty uneventful… well, more like a calm before the storm. I had only two classes related to my college program (radio communications and ARM microcontroller programming), with a third one being a “filler” course (structured cabling). It was the first time I had actually gotten a semester average near an A. But because there was such a huge gap between the concepts learned in the first year and what is now the third year, much of the information I had previously known was gone, apart from Ohm’s Law, maybe.

The first week of school this year has just wrapped up and I already have a sense that I will not be walking the stage on graduation day; there’s going to be a failure, and it’s going to be spectacular.

Cue the typical workbench lab class. The prof had just gone over the basics of op-amps, and was discussing the operation of comparators and soon enough we were working away at our lab benches.

Easy enough, just build the circuit and go, right? Nope. In the field of engineering, it’s as much about the theory as it is about the construction of the circuit. As the prof was working with another student (the student went the way I go, which is to build the circuit and test it from there), and he was having difficulties getting his circuit to work. The prof was not pleased, to say the least.

One of the things the prof said really resonated with me, and not in a good way.

“You know what the difference between a hacker and an engineer is? The hacker just throws a circuit together and tries to debug it from there. A hacker is not an engineer. Hell, they’re not even what you could consider a professional.”

Oof. Those words left one hell of a bruise. He’s got a point though.

Can a hacker-hobbyist even do an engineer’s job? Can they even coexist in the same work environment? That notion has had me seriously question the applicability of my hobby and (limited?) skill set in the electronics industry. Given how engineering is a combination of a large amount of mathematics and theory before an idea of the circuit layout is even thought up, is it even worth continuing down this path?

I’ve already had to retry taking two calculus courses to compensate for the snafu in the first year, and considering the disconnect between what I can recall versus what’s being required for the last lap in this college program…

… at what point does one consider it a ‘permanent fail’ and leave that path? Well at least I have until the middle of November to make that decision as that’s where the withdrawal deadline lies.

… I don’t know. Maybe it’s my depressive side talking again.

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One thought on “Ramble: Engineers and hackers – never the twain shall meet?

  1. I don’t think that being a hacker and an engineer are mutually exclusive. A lot of engineers start as hackers, it’s a pretty common evolution. I think one difference is that as a hacker, you are primarily interested in the result, and *how* you reach that result is secondary. As an engineer, you would take more care in the process, and you are concerned about parameters such as tolerances, safety, failure modes and rates, etc. And to do those things properly, yes, you need to know the theory, and some of the deeper mathematics.

    But it’s a matter of context, too. If you are making a product that is going to be sold in a consumer market (either as a standalone product, or as a component that’s part of a larger product), then you need to be concerned with engineering. If you are tinkering with your own personal projects, or aiming something at the hobby market, then it’s fine to just hack something together.

    So, is the typical hacker an engineer? No. Can an engineer still be a hacker? Sure. Can a self-taught hacker become as knowledgable as a degreed engineer through self-training? Sure, with enough motivation.

    I started out studying Electrical Engineering in college. Later, I realized that I was less interested in the hardware side of things than software. That realization, plus Differential Equations kicking my butt, prompted me to switch to Computer Science. Now I’m a web developer. When it comes to electronics, I’m a hobbyist. I’m interested in learning more about electronics and how things work, but I don’t want (or need) an engineer’s training. I’m perfectly happy to hack up a power supply for my projects, but I can still appreciate learning about the engineering that goes into a commercial USB wart, like this:

    http://www.righto.com/2012/05/apple-iphone-charger-teardown-quality.html

    Before reading that, I didn’t know anything about the need to separate the high- and low-voltage parts of a power supply (mainly because I try to stay away from AC 🙂 ). But I can sure appreciate the engineering that went into that adapter, and knowing that it was designed by somebody who understood those safety concerns. (especially since I already had bought several cheap knockoff adapters and had them all fail)

    I guess I don’t have any real advice to offer. Can you make a career out of electronics without having to become an engineer? I’m sure you could, though it might not be easy. Do you want to buckle down and work through the theory classes to become an engineer? It would certainly open up a lot of career opportunities.

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