Friday, March 21, 2008

Why I'm an "engineer"

My first memory of "what do you want to be when you grow up?" was a teacher. There is no specific memory of it, I just know that's what I wanted to be. After that, for the longest time, it was a lawyer. My grandfather and three uncles are all lawyers. It kind of runs in the family, it seemed like a fun job, and everyone thought I was very observant so I would be a great lawyer. I remember specifically in 4th grade my teacher, Mrs. Francis, asked us all what we wanted to be. I said lawyer, but I remember a handful of kids saying they wanted to be an engineer. I thought about how odd it was that such a high proportion of kids in the class would want to be driving a train (see, even then I was mentally collecting and analyzing data). I had only ever heard of an engineer in that context - a train engineer. I can no longer clearly recall if I went home and mentioned it to my parents that night and they explained about electrical engineers and chemical engineers, or what. The event is specific in my mind, but I don't know if it was immediate or at some time in the future that I figured out "oh! those kids don't want to be train engineers, they want to be civil engineers or mechanical engineers!"

I'm not quite sure when I decided I didn't want to be a lawyer. By junior high, I LOVED computers - I had my first one, a TI-99/4A, when I was very young, but my first "real" computer, an Intel 386, when I was in 5th grade (1992). We got an Intel 133 Mhz Pentium in 1995 - that was the computer that probably made me fall in love with computers, most likely because it had the internet! I first signed onto AOL version 2.0 in October of 1995, early in the morning before school. I tried to pick the screenname Kelly (taken), and then Kelly13 (I was 13 at the time, that was taken too). It then suggested "Kelly94942", which I quickly accepted because I just wanted to get on and see the internet for a few minutes before school. Little did I know that 13 years later I would have the same screenname for nearly everything I use today. Oh well. :) That was still in the time when AOL cost $9.99 a month and every precious minute you were online had an additional fee - YIKES. I quickly became a chat room host... it was a chat room for kids and I was in charge of monitoring it and also providing games for the kids to play. One of our favorites was a movie initials game... you'd say initials of a movie, and someone else would guess what the movie was. Like you'd say HA - they'd guess Home Alone. One of the best ones we'd use was TWFTFEJN (To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar). No one could ever get that one... hehe. I got a certain number of minutes for each hour or so that I hosted. I actually to this day have friends on Facebook that were my co-hosts in that chat room (called KidsBiz). If people started swearing or anything, I had the power to boot them offline! How cool is that? This was even before AOL introduced instant messages - I remember when they came online, and when BUDDY LISTS were invented... that was really fun! Later on, KidsBiz went away and I became a tutor in another AOL area - I'd help kids with their homework. It was great because it paid for all of the internet which I loved so much. Kind of funny that I was "working" online at 13, 14, and 15 years old though. Anyway my work history is a subject for another day... this is just how I fell in love with computers, and I think those early AOL days had a big part of it. I'm a champion at getting off topic in my blog. ;-)

Junior year of high school, I took an AP computer programming class. I was awful at it! So many people were so much better than I was. My mind just didn't really think that way. But I loved the internet, and I was decent at fixing computer problems and understanding the basics of a computer, so I still thought I should do it. Senior year, since there were no more advanced computer programming classes, I took an independent study computer programming class. This consisted of me writing a Jeopardy program that was ridiculously easy. I guess somewhere along the line there I applied for college, and I determined that since I liked computers, I should be a computer engineer or computer scientist. Since at most of the schools I applied to (especially University of Illinois), it was more difficult to get into the engineering schools than the College of Arts and Sciences, I applied to the engineering school and decided to go with computer engineering instead of computer science. I figured I could always switch from engineering to CAS, but I thought it might be more difficult to switch into engineering. Actually at Northwestern (where I actually ended up going) it was probably easier to get into engineering than CAS because engineering is certainly not Northwestern's strength, but whatever.

So freshman year, there I was, taking engineering classes. At that point, those days of Matlab, physics, chemistry, and calculus, it didn't really matter what sort of engineer I was going to be. Every engineer has to suffer through those same horrendous intro classes! (same as every pre-med student has to suffer through organic chemistry, and so on) One day that winter, my roommate (who was a political science major and didn't want anything to do with math or science) came home laughing because she'd been to some event where some "freak" was trying to convince her to be some crazy kind of engineer. They said it wasn't really even very engineer-ish, it was more like business, making things more efficient, statistics, etc. I was like "Wait, what? Tell me more! This sounds fascinating!" She laughed and said she thought that it might be called Industrial Engineering - I looked it up and in fact there was some crazy kind of engineering called Industrial Engineering that sounded completely like all of the things she'd described - all things I loved! Northwestern offered IE and I went to talk to the undergraduate IE coordinator - Ann, a woman we all eventually knew and loved. :) I also made a note on my resume that I was a computer engineering major but that there would be a "probable" switch to industrial engineering (I guess I knew right away that it was going to be that great). I distributed that same resume to probably 40 companies at a job fair January of my freshman year. UPS was one of the companies that called me about an internship, and it was going to be for industrial, not computer, engineering. I remember riding the train all the way to the south side of Chicago for an interview and talking to the IE district manager of the Metro Chicago district of UPS... it was a scary train ride, followed by an equally scary bus ride! I asked them "are you really going to want me? I'm a freshman, I know nothing!" - they replied that at least I'd have fresh new ideas, which were valuable. When he found out I was from Palatine, which was the site of another major UPS hub (about 5 or 10 minutes from my house!) he called his counterpart and arranged for me to have a job interview in Palatine! Excellent. I had the interview over spring break and they called soon after to offer me the job for that summer.

On to Spring Quarter of my freshman year (after quite an exciting Winter Quarter - finding a new major existed, doing a tiny bit of exploration, changing my resume, and getting an internship in a major I wasn't even sure I wanted yet) - I visited Ann, the undergrad IE coordinator again. I said that I still wasn't sure on my major, but I had ended up with this internship... but now I had to pick out my sophomore Fall Quarter classes and didn't know if I should pick computer or industrial engineering classes! Awesome Ann saved me - she pointed out that I had to take the final quarter of Engineering Analysis either way, I could take Introduction to Computer Engineering and use it as one of my electives if I didn't want it, and I could take a couple of other basic engineering classes that would be used in either class. So I signed up for those classes and off I went to my IE internship.

I LOVED working at UPS. That job was awesome - I worked 1 AM to 9 AM Monday through Friday, had a great boss who I learned a TON from, got to spend a day with a UPS package car driver on his route, got to do a re-routing project, etc. It was great. I was hooked - it was going to be industrial engineering for sure! I took my Fall Quarter classes - the computer engineering class was interesting, but it just didn't click in my mind the way IE did... everything IE-related, I got! I just loved it, it made so much sense to me and was so fascinating! So I took the plunge and Winter Quarter of my sophomore year I was a full fledged IE and took 3 out of my 4 classes as IE specific classes (we only took 4 classes per quarter since we had quarters instead fo semesters). Next to no one at Northwestern had come into school with the intention to be an IE, and in fact it was a big joke about "where we came from" (oh she was EE, I was computer engineering, etc.). But we all loved it - we were a tight knit group who had great professors, a computer lab that we all practically lived in (I once spent 13 hours in a single day in that lab), etc. "IE Love" was our slogan.

So I certainly never planned to be an engineer and didn't even realize that it was happening before it did, but I'm really happy that some random person decided to tell my roommate she should be an IE freshman year of college. :)


Pidat said...

I applied to and was accepted into mechanical engineering at the university of illinois specifically because it was the hardest to get into, thinking it would be easy to change majors. i was quite wrong. hence the economics degree.

marisa said...

good blog! it's funny, because scott actually went to nu specifically for the ie program. which is crazy to me, because that so was not me going into college, with a really specific career path in mind. i, on the other hand, entered the psych program figuring i'd go on to stanford for my phd afterwards but not really having a clear idea on what i'd do with any of it afterwards.