In the first of the new series putting a spotlight on different engineering careers, this month the focus is on software engineering.
So what is software engineering? The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Computing Careers website describes it as the application of engineering in software; integrating maths, computer science and engineering principles to design, develop, program, operate and maintain software.
Wikipedia has some interesting information, including that the Wall Street Journal rated software engineering as the best job in 2012! So to explain a bit more about a specific software engineering role, Andy Hearn answers some questions about his career. Andy is a Senior Software Engineer for mission control systems and test harnesses, and currently works for Thales.
Andy, what does being a software engineer for mission control systems involve?
It is writing from scratch test ‘applications’ to run alongside the deliverable software to automate testing of it, and to hammer it from all angles to ensure that nothing breaks. I also implement requirements for mission control systems; multi-processor processes for maintaining and ensuring the integrity of flight and ground controls. The actual role varies greatly on a project-by-project basis though.
What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best thing is getting to learn and understand diverse fields (i.e. writing software that underpins the functioning of other engineering and bespoke requirements). The downside to my job is the documentation, writing instructions and keeping our ‘model’ (reverse-engineering what we have back to the design stage) up to date – as the pace of change in the code is so rapid, reminding ourselves to go back and make the umpteenth change to the model can be taxing when we have more pressing things to do!
What skills are important for your role?
Creativity, ability to understand other fields with the minimal of information – i.e. asking the right questions to elicit all the needed information in a short amount of time, patience (especially for the more elusive bugs), and imagination perhaps – especially when trying novel ideas on what the embedded system could do, and how to achieve this within the hardware constraints.
So when did you decide to become an engineer?
It wasn’t an overnight decision (unfortunately, as that would have been much more exciting), it was a gradual realisation over a number of years that I gravitated towards problem solving, and being creative. And the instantaneous nature of software (i.e. getting results to feed back to the development stage within seconds) appealed to that side of me.
What inspired you to follow this career?
I made that choice quite late on, as I had to wrestle with this great dilemma (something I really don’t want to wish on anyone) whether to do go towards marine biology, or go into software and computers. I had to decline offers for university places as I felt I couldn’t go into a degree being 50% sure of my choices. Back when I had just done my A-Levels, these two fields (biology and computers) were quite distinct and whatever overlap they had didn’t justify me attempting to do both simultaneously (if that was even possible!).
What route did you take into engineering?
I did an HND in Computer Automation and Networking as a taster, to see if I wanted to continue with software after two years of studying, instead of ‘risking’ a three or four year degree on it (the idea of dropping out of anything never registered with me!). After my HND I thought I’d do well by gaining some real working experience before settling on a degree in robotics, or switch career paths to biology and the open sea(!), but I got so immersed into my job that I’ve stuck with it for just over fourteen years now!
Have you had to overcome any obstacles to get to where you are now?
No real obstacles study or work-wise: I’ve had quite a few on-the-job training for areas outside of software such as project management, technical authoring, team-motivating skills (the latter was via courses provided by the IET). I was able to submit a paper to the IET to gain an IEng status (being a chartered engineer eluded me as I’m prevented by contractual obligations from revealing any ‘new’ technology – that was the part between IEngs and CEngs) after a good number of years of working experience – that substituted my lack of a degree.
Do you have any advice for people considering engineering as a career?
I think the best thing anyone can do is to experience as many different fields as they can, so they end up with a more rounded idea of what they want to do, and what is available out there. For studying, be it degree, HND, or other courses, I think it helps to tackle this on a term-by-term basis rather than seeing it as a long stretch of 2 to 4 years.
Andy was the High Performance zone winner of I’m an Engineer Get Me Out of Here, so you can read more about his career here. I couldn’t let the opportunity pass without asking him about the event…
Congratulations on winning I’m an Engineer Get Me Out of Here! How did you find the experience?
Thanks! Actually, the winning itself was quite depressing as I felt there was no real difference in how we answered questions. Despite me always “playing to win” in other kinds of competitions, the event itself, I felt, tuned into our thriving on teamwork, naturally being engineers ourselves, so the idea of others being evicted (on what appeared as on a whim of students) didn’t rest easily with me! The event as a whole was simply fantastic, highly recommended. Interacting with students from secondary schools has shone a nicer light on our work – we also got to learn more ourselves of the other engineering fields.
There were so many difficult, thought provoking questions. What was your favourite?
They were! I preferred the non-engineering ones to be honest! As they conveyed the human aspect to our roles! Out of the engineering-related questions, from the top of my head, I think I liked the ones asking after the Raspberry Pi boards, Linux, and how we could get computers to ‘think’ for themselves!
Many thanks to Andy for sharing his story. Feel free to add a comment if you have anything to share, would be great to hear from other engineers! Over the next couple of months we have an automation engineer and building services engineer answering questions, feel free to get in touch if you would like to share your career on Developing Engineers.