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Answering Reader Questions 2009: Part 3

This was supposed to be the final installment of answers to the questions recently submitted by readers, but the answer to the first question went a little long. Here are the links to the previous installments:

Answering Reader Questions 2009: Part 1

Answering Reader Questions 2009: Part 2

This installment covers advice to prospective engineering students, but I was also asked about books. If you get me started on books, then I may end up writing more than intended and that’s what I did here. So I only got the one question answered, and then listed 20 books that I have really enjoyed over the past few years.

The Questions

Anonymous wrote:Your advice to engineering students or students to be?

For your broad experience and unique perspective, what is your advice to young students undertaking engineering coursework – what subjects and courses should they pay particular attention to, what electives should they take, what counseling from academic engineers can they forget, what activities outside of coursework will set them up well for a productive, rewarding engineering career?

Any particular schools serving their students notably well and any that are notably not?

What are the top ten engineering, business or life related books that they absolutely must read on their own?

What are the emerging career opportunities to shoot for and what are the dead ends to avoid? Answer

The Answers


First, you may have seen the recent CNN story on Most Lucrative College Majors. While engineering dominated the list, even the non-engineering entries like computer science are heavily dependent upon math. So my first piece of advice is to make sure you have a good grounding in math, as it is the foundation for so many of the top-paying degrees. Beyond math, of course the hard sciences like chemistry and physics are key.

I would suggest that more important than getting a good grounding in math and science is to be sure this is the sort of thing you enjoy. I have seen too many people get into the field because that’s what their parents wanted, or because that was a dream since they were a child. But in reality, math and science wasn’t their passion. Sticking with something when it isn’t the right fit isn’t something I would advise. You should do something you enjoy if you possibly can, even if it means you aren’t maximizing your earning potential. If you love what you do, the work day will fly by quickly. If you hate it, then time will creep by.

Regarding schools, I would try to stick with a good, Tier 1 school if you can afford it. It’s not that the lower tier schools don’t have plenty of good graduates, but a lot of the major employers won’t recruit at the lower tier schools. US News and World Report currently had their 2009 Best Engineering Schools list out, and if you want to tilt the odds in your favor, make good grades at a highly ranked school. Just scanning the Top 50, I don’t think you would go wrong with any of them. Tilt the odds further in your favor by doing a coop or internship.

With respect to emerging career opportunities, it will initially be important for you to just get some experience. Personally, I would try to get in with an established company so you can get some good career development early on. After 5 years or so, you may want to survey the horizon and see what’s out there. There are certainly a lot of good jobs at small firms, but this can be hit and miss. You could end up at a small firm without the infrastructure in place to support your career development. If you decide to go with a small company, just be sure that they are well-capitalized and there are people in place to develop you. No matter where you are, if you aren’t being developed, don’t stay.

The question on which books to read is a tough one, because there are so many that I have enjoyed. You may know that I love to read, and in fact have kept a reading blog for the past few years. I read all sorts of stuff, and I generally make it through 20 or more books a year. It is hard to pin it down to a few, but I scanned the list from my reading blog and pasted some in below that I really liked for one reason or another.

This list is not limited to engineering or business books. They cover a broad range. I really like books that are capable of shifting paradigms, or otherwise making me feel like my mind had been expanded (even in cases where I disagree with a lot of the book, as was the case with Singularity). But here are some of the books that I thoroughly enjoyed, that taught me something important, and/or that caused me to look at things in a different light. The list is in no particular order.

1. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

2. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond

3. The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond

4. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

5. The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil

6. Oil 101by Morgan Downey

7. Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World by Mira Kamdar

8. Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of Energy Independence by Robert Bryce

9. Big Cotton: How A Humble Fiber Created Fortunes, Wrecked Civilizations, and Put America on the Map by Stephen Yafa

10. How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible by John Jeavons

11. First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman

12. A Beautiful Mind : A Biography of John Forbes Nash, Jr. by Sylvia Nassar

13. Isaac Newton by James Gleick

14. Churchill: A Biography by Roy Jenkins

15. DNA: The Secret of Life by Andrew Berry and James Watson

16. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

17. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

18. Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

19. The Meaning Of It All by Richard Feynman

20. Nanofuture: What’s Next for Nanotechnology by J. Storrs Hall

Incidentally, if you like science fiction (and I do because good science fiction can really open up the mind), some of the greatest books in that genre are Hyperion and the sequels, A Fire Upon The Deep and A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge, and almost anything by Alastair Reynolds. I would also like to open the list up to reader suggestions. What are some really great books that you recommend that I am missing here?

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OK, looks like I probably need to get to the rest of the questions in another essay.


August 7, 2009 - Posted by | book review, reader submission


  1. To these I would add Chaos by Gleickhttp://www.amazon.com/Chaos-Making-Science-James-Gleick/dp/0143113453/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1249632226&sr=8-1

    Comment by takchess | August 7, 2009

  2. I like James Gleick's writing style and enjoyed both Isaac Newton and Chaos. That said, Faster is barely worth a look and is much more disjointed than the others. Instead I would recommend Critical Mass by Philip Ball. Genius, Gleick's biography of Richard Feynman is good.As well as The Meaning of it All I would recommend everything that Feynmann wrote, especially The Character of Physical Law, Six Not So Easy Pieces, and Q.E.D.. If you want to watch Feynman's engaging speaking style, Bill Gates/Microsoft have made the famous Feynman Lectures available online. (Some students complained they always understood what Feynman was saying during lectures, but not after they went home).Other interesting books in the physics department: Just Six Numbers (Martin Rees, British Astronomer Royal on the fundamental constants of nature), The Fly in the Cathedral (on Rutherford's atom), two books by Lee Smolin: Three Roads to Quantum Gravity and The Trouble with Physics (after which you won't want to bother with The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene). Lots more, but I guess physics isn't the topic du jour.

    Comment by PeteS | August 7, 2009

  3. When you are looking at the list of top 50, there are two notable categories. There is the ‘can’t get in’. They may not graduate many engineers, but if you can not get in nothing else matters. Think Cal Tech and MITThen there is the ‘can not get out’. There are several state universities with good curriculums and very low tuition. It is very easy for in-state students to get accepted. The number of engineering students graduating was function of those who worked hard enough to make through. A third option is working. My company hires a number of local kids and pays for college. Seven years later we have engineers with hands on experience. This provides a core of professionals with local ties.

    Comment by Kit P | August 7, 2009

  4. On books:Best management book is "Good to Great" by Jim Collins. Its based only on hard facts, and it is not afraid of debunking established thinking. The one I like best, which seems obvious to me, is that compensation schemes (bonuses etc) have very little impact on company performance. I've put the ideas into practice and they work.Also I would add any of the books by Stuart Kauffman. "At Home in the Universe" is a great introduction to complexity theory, and explores how organisation can spontaneously emerge for free. I am currently reading his latest "Reinventing the Sacred", which goes a long way to explaining why the scientific method of reductionism can't solve all the scientific problems, and why we should marvel at the emergent properties such as life.

    Comment by Anonymous | August 9, 2009

  5. We had a pretty good discussion at Chicago Boyz about books which are not only worth reading, but re-reading.Some of my nominations included:Thomas Flanagan’s “Year of the French,” a beautifully-written novel about revolutionary Ireland…Ralph Peters called this “the best historical novel written in English,” and he’s not far wrong.Peter Drucker, “The Age of Discontinuity,” thoughts about society from 1969. The ones about education are still particularly relevant.Walter Miller, “A Canticle for Leibowitz”…categorized as SF, but really a philosophical/theological novel. Both deep and gripping.two short books by C P Snow:–The Two Cultures, about the disconnect between science and the humanities–Science and Government, about WWII-era debates within the British government about radar and bombing policy, and the larger question of scientific decision-making in secret

    Comment by David | August 9, 2009

  6. Robert et. al.,I thought "The Prize" was worth my effort. It shows how the development of a single industry can challenge and some would argue dominate the world.

    Comment by SamG | August 10, 2009

  7. Also…"Father, Son, & Co," by Tom Watson Jr (the longtime CEO of IBM) is excellent, far better than the typical business autobiography.

    Comment by David | August 10, 2009

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