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

4 thoughts on “Episode 13 — Free Agency”

  1. First of all, love the show, keep them coming
    I found it interesting how you discussed contracting as way to be well rounded. I (also a fairly recent grad) am in a program with a DOT where I spend 3-6 months working in one office and them move on to another office (until I pass the PE). In DOTs this has been a common practice for DOTs for some time now as a way to produce well rounded engineers. Does anyone know if similar opportunities exist in other fields, if is it pretty much exclusive to state government?

  2. Been a long time Amp Hour listener but I just started listening to The Engineering Commons at this episode and am liking it much more than I had expected. Nice stuff!

    About Stephen mentioning the people who go through engineering due to “being good at math or because it has good pay or because my dad wanted me to”, that is so true! I just graduated back in May, and it really bothered me how few of my peers seemed to have any passion in engineering as anything beyond a carrer. The number of peers I knew who took up any personal projects could be counted on one hand. It just really makes me sad.

    I rather like the generalist role myself as well. In my current job I’m ending up bridging the gap between people who are specialists in different areas, and getting to learn lots about all areas of things.

    The online presence aspect is interesting, I’ve been considering setting up some of that myself, though that’ll wait till some of my projects that are in-progress are in a more polished state I think.

  3. This is an interesting topic, and one that I’ve thought about a lot. I’ve got a couple of problems with the “free agent nation” thoughts that I’d like to mention.

    First is one that you alluded to. Doing this work is dependent either on being able to travel to find the jobs or be located in an area with plenty of employment. Both of these push you into a certain lifestyle, the first setting you up to make if difficult to settle down and raise kids, and the second restricting you to a handful of areas in the country to live in.

    The second problem with this from a company point of view, you’ve got not much institutional memory. 3 years after shipping a product developed by a contractor or consultant, who knows how it works, and how to troubleshoot it or up-rev it when a part is obsolete?

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