Thursday, December 9, 2010

The ECE Hallows

Speech at HKN Dinner – December 5, 2010

The ECE Hallows, by Brian T. Cunningham

It is 1950.  The new ECE building is only one year old, and William Everitt is now the Dean of the College of Engineering after having served as the Department Head since 1944.

Three ECE seniors have been staying up late every night for the past two weeks to complete their final project before the end of the semester.  Nothing seems to have gone right, and as a result they are tired, frustrated, and by ~2AM they are considering giving up. 

Unexpectedly, Prof. Everitt walks into the laboratory.  He says, “I have noticed how hard you have been working, since I have been seeing the lights on in this lab every night for the past two weeks.  I just wanted to stop by and see what you are up to.”

One of the students said, “Well Prof. Everitt, to tell you the truth, we have only been here so much because we can’t seem to get our project to work at all.  In fact, we were just discussing whether we would give up on the whole thing, and we were wondering whether we are really cut out for being engineers at all!”

Prof. Everitt replied, “I can see how dedicated you are, and I want to help.  It is within my power to grant each of you one wish.  However, consider what you wish for carefully.”

The first student thought for ~5 seconds and said “Prof. Everitt, this project has made me worried that maybe I am not a truly great engineer, so my wish is to never be fired from my job.” 

Prof. Everitt reached into his briefcase, and took out a pair of bright orange Illini boxer shorts.  Presenting them to the first student, he said “these are the Boxer Shorts of Invincibility.  As long as you wear them, you can never be fired or laid off from your job. 

The second student said “Prof. Everitt, you would not believe how much time I spend studying for exams and working on my homework assignments, but I still get B’s in some of my classes.  I wish that I could be like one of those genius students who can get everything right without studying.”

Prof. Everitt reached into his briefcase again, and took out an orange Illini pencil.  Presenting it to the student, he said “this is the Pencil of Infallibility.  As long as you use it, every answer that you write with it will be 100% correct.  Immediately recognizing the enormous value of such an artifact, the student gratefully accepted it.

The third student said “Prof. Everitt, I think that my biggest problem is that I do not have the energy to do all the things that I want to do.  Sometimes I try hard and fail, and that makes it hard to keep going the next time.  I just wish that I never get tired or discouraged.”

Looking into his briefcase once more, Prof. Everitt took out an Illini rubber duck.  Giving it to the third student, he said “this is the Duck of Willpower.  If you take a nice hot bubble bath with it, you will find that you will have a positive outlook on all your problems the next day, and the energy to work on them”  The third student took the duck, and thanked Prof. Everitt, thinking that she got the lousiest gift of the three, especially because she did not like taking baths.

Prof. Everitt turned to go home, saying, “good luck with your project!” 

The students could not believe what just happened, and really just thought that Prof. Everitt was playing a joke on them, since he was known for having a great sense of humor. 

However, just out of curiosity, the second student sharpened his new Pencil of Infallibility, and tried again to analyze the problem that they were trying so hard to solve just a few minutes ago.

 Miraculously, he suddenly knew exactly what formula to write down, and even somehow clearly understood what his equation meant.  Excited now, he continued solving equations, recalling concepts that he somehow knew despite never having studied them.  It was as if, as long as he wrote with the Pencil, he was an incredible genius without even trying. 

Within an hour, he completely understood what they had been doing wrong, and could see how to make the project work perfectly.  It was amazing.

The two other students were equally amazed.  They could see that the Pencil had incredible powers, and they now took their own gifts seriously.  The three students made a promise to never discuss this night ever again with anyone, as long as they lived!  They finished their project, and went their separate ways.

Student #1 (the one with the Boxer Shorts of Invincibility) graduated that year, and got a job as a design engineer with a big government defense contractor.  Even though he did not think he really needed the Boxer Shorts on his first day of work, he wore them anyway, and got into the habit of wearing them every Monday through Friday.

Things at the company were actually pretty good for 4 years or so, since the company was growing and hiring like crazy.  Profits were at record levels and everyone was getting stock options and bonuses every year.  He thought that he probably wasted his wish, and stopped wearing the boxer shorts since his wife (a Purdue graduate) thought they were unattractive. 

However, after the fifth year, the economy was bad, defense spending was down, and the company president retired.  The new management team was known mostly for their skill in “downsizing” at their previous company. 

Before long, there was a round of layoffs, and ~15% of the employees at the student’s department were let go.  He made sure to wear the boxer shorts to work each day without fail. 

The company reorganized, and 50% of his department was let go, while the rest were combined with another department.  The department was sold off to be managed by a hedge fund based in Sweden, and suddenly he did not even know who his boss was anymore.  He started wearing the boxer shorts on weekends just to be safe. 

Nothing was ever good anymore at his company after that.  However, no matter what happened, he always seemed to end up with a job somewhere in the company.

As a result, he started to believe that he really was invincible.  He started coming into the office later and later in the morning, and leaving earlier in the afternoon.  If there was a project deadline, he did not worry about it. 

He had seen so many of his projects scrapped, dropped, or changed over the years that he did not see the point anymore.  He started taking longer lunch hours, and sat around complaining about the crappy management of the company and endlessly trying to figure out what the next calamity was going to be, based on cryptic comments made by the management in the newspapers. 

One year, a few people at the company left to form a new startup, but he was never considered. 

Dissatisfied with the company, he tried to interview for a job at other companies, but the Boxer Shorts offered no aid in getting a new job, only enabling him to keep his current one.  Former managers and coworkers did not write very strong recommendation letters for him, so new employers stayed away. 

On the positive side, the boxer shorts allowed him to devote plenty of time to his outside interests, so he had plenty of hobbies, traveled a lot, volunteered in his community, and spent a lot of time with his family.  So it wasn’t all bad, as long as the company itself never went out of business…

The student with the Pencil of Infallibility finished his senior year with amazing success.  Every homework assignment was absolutely perfect, and he got perfect scores on every exam. 

Finishing his senior year with all A+ grades allowed him to get several job offers with high salaries, and he took a job that would allow him to do a lot of hard core engineering problem solving and analysis. 

His bosses were amazed, and soon started throwing every hard problem at him. 

The student was starting to get a little worried though.  He had to use the pencil as sparingly as possible because it got shorter every time he sharpened it.  He realized that once it ran out, his magic streak of easy infinite knowledge would end! 

The Pencil had other shortcomings.  Even though he would always be right when he used the pencil, he could not explain what he wrote to someone else, unless it was about something that he actually understood. 

Further, he found that all the “big” problems at the company were actually worked on by teams of people, and that no one person could possibly do everything themselves.  Since people soon realized that he was not a “team player” he got assignments that allowed him to analyze small aspects of problems, and he was never put in charge of a group. 

He also found that many problems could not be solved by mathematical analysis alone, and that success of the company’s products depended on things like whether or not the customers actually liked them, the needs of the market, and other human factors.

He started to fear the day that his pencil would run out, and people would discover that he did not really know anything. 

In fact, because the pencil was so good, he did not put a lot of effort into keep current in the quickly changing engineering world, and his actual knowledge was getting out of date. 

With only ¼ of the pencil remaining, he decided that he needed to take drastic action soon.  Wisely, he put the pencil away and starting studying and solving problems on his own.  He read scientific journals in several fields and took classes whenever he could in both engineering topics and management. 

He worked on developing his people skills, and gradually gained more and more responsibility, getting raises and promotions every few years.  He only took the pencil out once a year to do his taxes.

The student with the Duck of Willpower also put her gift to good use during the rest of senior year.  It seemed to give her the extra drive that she needed to study a little longer and to figure out homework problems without asking the TA for help every time she got frustrated. 

The Duck also seemed to get her to take on challenges and opportunities that she previously felt too flustered to take on.  She did an undergraduate research project with one of her professors, who recommended that she attend graduate school. 

She took on leadership roles in the student chapter of IEEE. 

In fact, her Willpower seemed to be infectious, since it seemed like other students would get interested in activities like mentoring and technical seminars only after she started organizing them. 

She soon got used to the baths, and used the time to relax and to plan what she would devote her energy to next. 

Once in graduate school, the Duck of Willpower was also very useful.  She took the initiative to read the scientific literature in her research field, and tried to understand what the key problems were that needed to be solved. 

Instead of waiting for her advisor to tell her exactly what to do every week, she would go into the lab and do what she thought was needed, and report back with her results.  Many of her experiments failed, some several times, but eventually she could always identify the problems and get things to work correctly.

The Willpower seemed to extend to life outside of work, so she could pursue any outside interest with equal energy, so she took up playing the guitar and ballroom dancing. 

In her first job after graduate school, it was not long before she was supervising a group of employees leading to the development of their leading product.  When she and a few co-workers saw an opportunity to spin out a new company, she jumped at the chance, and was soon convincing venture capital investors to put millions of dollars into her idea.  Needless to say, she was enormously successful both personally and professionally.

This story is a fable, but the point is to ask you to think about what you want out of yourself, your life, and your career. 

What is the best attribute to have, and to develop within yourself? 

Is it to be “safe?” 

Is it to be a “genius?” 

One point of my story is that, especially now, safety is an illusion.  Companies come and go.  Departments reorganize.  Economies go up and down.  Safety is actually attained by being the best you can be, and by making yourself valuable through your knowledge, attitude, skills, and effort. 

A second point of my story is that genius is a gift that VERY few people have. 

As a student, it seemed to me like there were always a few people to whom everything came easily, and that little effort was needed to get the highest grades.  I found that, even though I was far from being the smartest student, if I tried hard enough, I could get myself to understand almost anything. 

Most people who we think of as brilliant actually are very dedicated to developing their skill over time.  The more you work at being good at something, the better you get at it. 

This applies to writing, engineering, playing a musical instrument, sports, and many other areas of life. 

Certainly a little ability and the opportunity to learn from excellent teachers helps.  You all have that ability, and I would argue that your education at Illinois is among the best engineering education institutions that exists in the world today.

Through circumstances that I am not at liberty to divulge, I have come to possess all three of the magical items that Prof. Everitt gave to those students in 1950, including a renewed Pencil of Infallibility. 

Since I was granted tenure three years ago, I no longer need the Boxer Shorts of Invincibility. 

Since I am a professor, of course now I am never wrong, so I do not use the Pencil of Infallibility either. 

If you would like to borrow either of these for a while, let me know. 

I will, however, hold on to the Rubber Duck of Willpower, since even for professors, that is useful from time to time especially at the end of the semester!