Career Brief: What I Do As a Microwave Engineer

We rarely think about the technologies that made wireless the norm, but it takes a lot of incomprehensible engineering to exploit the invisible wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Some advances in technology start out as classified defense projects that, like GPS, ultimately benefit the public. To find out about the people behind this technology, we spoke to a microwave engineer working for a large defense company. Naturally, due to the nature of his work, he cannot talk about specific projects in detail, but he talked to us about his career.

Tell us a little about yourself and your experience.

I am a microwave engineer for a large defense company and have been with it for over 20 years.

What prompted you to choose your career path?

I have always had an interest in electronics and attended my local engineering school in the Midwest. By the time I graduated from high school, I wanted to get out of the snow and received a job offer in sunny Los Angeles. It was a microwave oven job, and I probably got an offer because I had a First Class cordless telephone license. I was the chief engineer at a college radio station and worked as a radio amateur for a while. Plus, I loved math, and was ridiculed at the cheer draw for winning a math competition.

How did you get a job? What kind of education and experience did you need?

In addition to my diploma, I worked as a technician in a telephone factory, worked as an engineer in a commercial station in the summer, and also worked in a chemical laboratory. So I had good technical experience and I could share this experience. Another thing in the security world is that you need a clean background so you can get permission. [You must be] a US citizen, no naughty pranks, no travel to Cuba or other restricted areas, no non-US relatives. Obviously no criminal material. Vacations to Europe and the like are not a problem. A school with a big name is not such a big plus; nobody cares where you study, maybe in three years.

If you work in a commercial area, nationality doesn’t really matter.

What are you doing besides what most people see? What do you actually spend most of your time on?

It is difficult for people to imagine radio frequency. This is highly counterintuitive. You end up relying on math. I have also been involved in many subcontractor situations. This includes some knowledge of contracts (at least what you can and cannot tell someone to do). I often have to explain very subtle and complex issues to non-technical people, so presentation skills and the gift of loquacity help. I travel a lot now.

What misconceptions do people often have about your job?

This doesn’t sound like Tony Stark. Many are sitting in front of the terminal, making vue charts, many presentations. He looks a lot like Dilbert. Almost everything that has happened with Dilbert, happened to me: a report on the time interval of six minutes, the trip to Elboniyu , trainees, waving hands, so as not to turn off the light. I have three separate motion sensors controlled by light stories. There are also VERY few women in the RF / Microwave business. Very little.

What’s your average uptime?

I work exactly 40 hours, not counting travel, but I travel a lot. But some of my colleagues work 60 hours a day. They let you work as much as you want. Young people start with a three-week vacation.

What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?

Be technically correct. At the end of the day, this is ALL you have. By this I mean understanding what can happen, what can NOT happen and what can happen. Your career is YOUR job, so attend classes, attend seminars, publish articles, file patents, help others, and study politics. This is true for engineering in general.

If you sit at your desk 60 hours a week and do a good technical job, then you are a 60 hours a week guy, and in 20 years you will still be that guy and wonder what happened. You need to go out and shut yourself up.

Learning how to make professional presentations is half the battle. Take improvisation lessons. Your employer will never be your friend, so save money for the inevitable periods of unemployment. Maintain professional connections. Do more than asked and admit it. Take risks, especially if you are sure you are right. If not, admit it. Nobody’s perfect.

What are you doing differently from your colleagues or colleagues in the same profession? What are they doing instead?

They do the real work: analyze, design and test, create documents. I see potential, I see opportunists, I see risk, and I solve subtle problems.

What I learned about programs that have problems is that program staff almost always know what the problem is, but they don’t have permission to fix it. Often my job is to ask simple questions and give people permission to do their jobs. Example: Project XYZ is six months late and does not meet requirements A, B, and C, and they are over budget by $ 2 million. They need to spend another 2 million dollars and another six months. Someone’s bonus or job is at stake. I came “from afar” and, in essence, I am telling this to the big boss. In a large company, money will come from somewhere, and the product will still be needed next year. I am including this. This is a VERY strange feeling.

What’s the worst part of a job and how do you deal with it?

Certificates, training, time tracking, schedules, budget management intervention. I advise you to familiarize yourself with your corporate policy. What they say and what is done rarely coincide, and a little knowledge is a big leverage.

What is the most enjoyable part of the job?

Travel. Eliminate big problems and save staggering projects. Telling people interesting things, like how radio works. I watch the news and say: hey, I worked on this!

What advice can you give to people who need to use your services?

Tell me what you want. Tell me what resources you have. Don’t tell me how to fix the problem.

How much money can you expect at your job?

Beginning engineers can expect 50-60 thousand dollars plus benefits: health, 401 thousand, education (for example, advanced degrees). There are no more fixed pensions.

How are you progressing in your field?

Do more than asked, become an expert on something important or incomprehensible, attend classes, give classes, file patents, and publish articles.

What do your customers underestimate / overestimate?

My clients are government agencies. They value delivering on time and on schedule. You will be under pressure from management to deliver faster, cheaper, and better, and that won’t happen. You MUST be a buffer between this stationary object and the opposing force.

What advice would you give to those who want to become your profession?

Give grades, love math, despise authorities, and remain skeptical. Save money, learn to invest, engage in things outside of work. Set limits on how much abuse you will endure at work. Stay up to date with software. File patents, submit articles, mentor young people. This is a little known area and difficult to master. Mastering this gives you a strong career position. Plan to be laid off every 20 years. It happens.


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