Career: Computer Engineer/Systems Analyst
"Expect the unexpected," said one computer engineer about her profession, and this statement was reflected on all the surveys we received. Computer engineers coordinate the construction, maintenance, and future growth of a company’s computer systems. They work with all departments, discovering each one’s computer needs, then make suggestions about what technical direction the company should proceed in. While this occupation sounds quite organized and logical, most computer engineers enter the profession at companies who have already made uncertain steps into the technical world. Faced with uncertain budget restrictions, presented with old or misapplied systems, and expected to know the nuances of each department’s needs, systems analysts must rapidly become experts in the company’s and each department’s functions and learn how to use second-best systems to satisfy their needs. “Getting people to tell you up front all the things they want to do is like pulling teeth,” wrote one engineer. Flexibility, strong interpersonal skills, and a friendly disposition are highly valued traits in this industry.
The bottom line is performance, and those without strong technical skills find themselves quickly outpaced by the expertise their job demands. Over 30 percent of systems analysts did not intend to become full-time systems analysts: In most smaller companies, the position develops as an ancillary responsibility for the most technically savvy of the current employees. As the company realizes the benefits of a full-time computer representative, that position becomes permanent and exclusive. “I was hired as a researcher,” noted one analyst, “and now all I use is my screwdriver.” Many who have fallen into the profession point to continuing education as an attractive part of the job. Others find themselves hamstrung by decisions others have made before them and the technical limitations of the systems they inherit.
The high level of satisfaction these high-tech tinkerers feel might be related to the creative thinking and problem solving aspects of their job. “It’s like having the most expensive Tinkertoy set in the world--I love it!” said one systems analyst. Few occupations allow the physical construction of an object and the intellectual challenge offered by computer engineering. For those who can make the most of limited resources and listen carefully for the distinction between what people want and what people need from their computer systems, computer engineering is an excellent profession.
Computer engineers come from all walks of life and all professional fields: Accountants, researchers, inventor-managers, programmers and others who found the technology they worked with fascinating, who assumed responsibility for those systems, and who continued their education in the field. All computer engineers must be good with details and know how to approach structural problems logically. But practical experience is the most important credential. Nearly all the surveys returned to us from computer engineers stressed that experience is significantly more important than education in this field. “I don’t even look at the education portion of the resume,” one candid senior analyst mentioned, “just tell me what problems you’ve encountered and what you’ve done about them.” Technology changes rapidly in this field, so continuous study and learning are part of a professional’s life. Certain certifications are gaining credence in the field, such as the Certified Systems Professional (CSP) credential and the Certified Quality Analyst (CQA) designation, but none are required.
For those who enjoy their profession and want to pursue it on a more structured and ground-up level, the position of systems architect is responsible for the same structural decision-making and maintenance, but for systems not yet in place. Around 60 percent of computer engineers leave after ten years to pursue other opportunities. Ten percent of those who leave follow their more technical leanings by becoming computer repair personnel. Another 35 percent become programmers, librarians, information managers, on-line service producers or specialists, and around 15 percent enter the world of Local Area Network (LAN) companies.