All posts by Jeff Shelton

Episode 13 — Free Agency

In this episode, Chris and Jeff discuss engineers who find employment on a project-to-project basis, rather than signing on for a full time job.

  • Our guest is Stephen Kesich, a recently graduated mechatronics engineer who is now residing in Southern California.
  • Stephen reports that his classmates experienced difficulty finding full-time employment in their respective engineering fields.
  • Knowledge of specific CAD software, such as CATIA or SolidWorks, is often important in landing a job in the field of mechanical design.
  • Networking played a key role in helping Stephen find employment, as a friend’s father offered him an engineering job.
  • Chris also found several of his engineering jobs through networking, despite his initial dislike for the concept.
  • While a cooperative education program wasn’t in place at Stephen’s school, he managed to construct his own industrial connections.
  • Stephen found LinkedIn to be an important avenue for making engineering connections.
  • Finding housing for short-term projects is difficult, as month-to-month leases can be “massively” expensive.
  • What Color is Your Parachute? is a classic job-search book that recommends many of the networking steps that Stephen has implemented on his own.
  • Chris mentions a xkcd strip that provides a “cheat sheet” about which sports are in season.
  • Non-disclosure agreements cover the intellectual property that contract employees access.
  • Chris and Jeff haggle over the differences between contractors and consultants.
  • Despite enjoying his contract work, Stephen looks forward to someday having a steady job.
  • Daniel Pink wrote about free agent employment in his 2001 book, Free Agent Nation.
  • Health insurance is generally not offered to contract employees.
  • If you’re not a full-time employee, and work in the US as an independent contractor, you may receive a reporting of your earnings via a Form 1099.
  • Jeff asks about the prevalence of Google-style interview questions.
  • Chris likes to ask interviewees about their hobbies, believing a resume is best read from the bottom up.
  • It’s often a difficult decision whether to remain a generalist, or become a specialist in your engineering field.
  • Going through a site like Quirky is a new way to develop a product.
  • Maintaining an online presence is likely to be of growing importance, as employers search for engineers who are already up-to-speed on a given subject.
  • Chris is currently reading The Startup of You, by a co-founder of LinkedIn.
  • Stephen can be reached through comments to this post.

Thanks to Ed Yourdon for the photo titled “Laptop Man.” Podcast theme music provided by Paul Stevenson

Episode 12 — Ethics

What obligations do engineers have to others? Where do the lines of legality, morality, and ethics intersect? Chris and Jeff discuss engineering ethics in this episode.

  • Our guest is Karl Stephan, professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University.
  • Both Chris and Karl have enjoyed the BBQ at The Salt Lick, which Chris claims is the “world’s best.”
  • Karl was first inspired to consider the ethical aspects of engineering by J.P Moreland.
  • A leading voice for engineering ethics is the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT).
  • Surveys of engineering schools, conducted by Karl a number of years ago, revealed that ethics didn’t receive a lot of emphasis.
  • The subject of ethics concerns one’s professional obligations, a duty to follow codes of behavior that are deemed important for a particular field.
  • Texas A&M has offered a well-regarded engineering ethics course for a number of years.
  • Joseph Herkert, of Arizona State University, divides ethical issues into two categories: microethics and macroethics. Karl has a blog post about this catagorization.
  • Microethics involve local situations and dilemmas, while macroethics consider larger societal implications of technology. Most engineers have to deal with microethic issues.
  • “Hot button” issues for engineering ethics include implanted chips, energy policy, computers and communications, privacy, security, and military technologies.
  • New engineering grads face the ethical choice of selecting a company for whom they are going to work. Money is not the only issue to be considered.
  • Chris recalls a TED talk by Daniel Pink (that has since been animated), identifying that people are most motivated by the opportunity for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Daniel Pink’s book on the subject is Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.
  • A new type of legal entity that uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems is called a B Corporation.
  • There are no “rules” for engineering ethics, just guidelines. Even great moral dilemmas, such as whether to go to war, have no rules, but rather a set of considerations related to the morality and justness of the cause.
  • Jeff recalls a recent Radiolab episode that discussed how people have trouble making color distinctions when there is no word available for that range of hues. He speculates that engineers may have trouble distinguishing ethics nuances unless they’ve discussed such issues.
  • As an example of the clarifying power of words, Karl references a book by Yves Simon that highlights the differences between “authority” and “authoritarianism.”
  • Engineering ethics usually only becomes a subject of public discussion when things go wrong.
  • “Near” failures are often a clue of impending “actual” disasters. The Challenger O-ring failure is such an example.
  • Risk assessment is related to the field of engineering ethics.
  • “Causes” of engineering failure may include organizational culture, societal emphasis, and external occurrences, as well as technical decisions.
  • Whistleblowers are almost always fired, and often lose professional contacts.
  • There is no guarantee that a society will continue to produce engineers.
  • The most common personality types for engineers, as determined by a Myers-Briggs test, are ISTJ for students, and INTJ for professors and consulting engineers.
  • Ethical situations don’t frequently arrive with a large warning sign. That’s why it’s important to think about such situations ahead of time, so you know what to do when a crisis arises.
  • Karl’s writings can be found on the Engineering Ethics Blog, and he can be reached by email.
  • More information can be found at the Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Research, the National Science Foundation’s Ethics Center, the Texas A&M ethics course, and the National Institute for Engineering Ethics.

Thanks to Suzanne Hamilton for the photo of a facepalming statue. Podcast theme music provided by Paul Stevenson

Episode 11 — Patents

It sometimes makes sense to protect one’s creative ideas. Chris and Jeff discuss the pros and cons of getting a patent with engineer Dave Gevers.

We are not attorneys, so consult with a qualified legal professional before making any decisions concerning patents or intellectual property!

  • Our guest is Dave Gevers, who leads us through the process of getting a patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
  • In addition to his day job as a mechanical engineer, Dave is also a flight instructor, and an A&P mechanic.
  • Dave has been granted an 85-page patent on an aircraft design he developed over more than a decade of evenings and weekends spent making design calculations.
  • Most patents are 10-12 page documents, and don’t reach the massive page count of Dave’s aircraft patent.
  • The length of the patent is, in part, determined by the examiner, a patent office employee who reviews the technical merit of a patent application.
  • Getting a patent application submitted as an employee of a large corporation is distinctly different from going through the process as an individual.
  • In a large company, most of the work is carried out by patent attorneys. The goal is to provide a competitive advantage; this is done in exchange for revealing the workings of the patented idea.
  • Getting a patent on your own is more a matter of personal accomplishment and professional credibility.
  • Patentable ideas are often referred to as intellectual property, or “IP.”
  • Ideas not patented are often held as trade secrets.
  • Patents from the USPTO are granted for 20 years from the filing date.
  • About three years normally elapse between the filing of an application and the granting of a patent.
  • If there is a dispute about ownership, the patent is granted to the party first filing an application.
  • A patentable idea must be novel and non-obvious. It must also be adequately described and claimed by the applicant.
  • Information about filing a US patent may be found on the USPTO website.
  • While attorney fees may vary greatly, the USPTO filing fees are $600-800 for the initial patent application, and $900 for issuing the patent. On top of that, there are “maintenance” fees of $600 after 3-1/2 years, $1400 after 7-1/2 years, and $2400 after 11 years.
  • The Patent Cooperation Treaty, or PCT, allows a single application to be considered in many countries.
  • If your patent is being violated, the first step is to have your attorney send a letter informing the offending party that you are aware of their infraction.
  • Depending on the response you receive, you may choose to grant a license, sell the patent, or go to court.
  • As an individual, your ability to defend your patent is limited by the size of your pocketbook. Famous cases of individuals fighting corporations in court over patent ideas include Edwin Armstrong (the regenerative circuit) and Peter Roberts (quick release device for socket wrenches).
  • Dave feels that individual inventors can use publicity to help protect their ideas from large corporations.
  • For almost no cost, you can file a provisional application, allowing you to mark your device as “patent pending.” However, their are some issues to be considered before filing a provisional application.
  • If the provisional application is not converted to an official application within 12 months, it is considered abandoned.
  • An important step in the patent process is conducting a thorough patent search.
  • When looking for whether your idea is in conflict with an existing patent, pay particular attention to the “independent claims,” found at the end of the patent document.
  • Pursuing a patent as an individual should be undertaken only if you have a sincere interest in the subject, and it makes realistic financial sense.
  • Dave was able to complete 90-95% of the patent application on his own, relying on an attorney to “polish up” the submission.
  • A utility patent protects the inner workings of a process or mechanism, while a design patent covers the ornamental appearance of a functional item. Hence, utility patents are normally considered more valuable that design patents.
  • Dave’s website has some additional information about his Genesis aircraft design.
  • Chris was particularly enchanted by images of the wind tunnel that Dave built with his brother, Matt.
  • Dave can be reached through our website. Leave comments for for this episode, and we’ll be sure it comes to Dave’s attention.

Thanks to Dave Gevers for granting permission to use the image of his aircraft design.

Podcast theme music provided by Paul Stevenson