Advice from a Man Who Brought Us the Internet

Want to join the next big thing in engineering? Here are 3 pieces of advice from someone who helped deliver one of the greatest engineering achievements of our time: the Internet.

Don’t chat with your seatmate on a flight? Maybe you should…. Lacy met Bob on a flight to Washington, DC. He has spent his entire career designing fiber optics infrastructure across North America. Translation: the Internet we use every single day? He likely had a hand in designing the tubes that make it happen.

Sure, you haven’t heard of him, but he and his team of engineers have had an instrumental role in bringing Internet connectivity to our world. His career spans the rise and fall of huge telecom giants, working for NorTel, AT&T, MCI, and now Ciena. After decades working hands-on to literally design connectivity for the world, Bob shares his advice that will help you successfully become an engineer in the next up-and-coming field.

Up and coming? The Internet?!

You have to understand that when he started in the 80’s everything was analog. PC’s weren’t widely in use. There were no web browsers. For our purposes, the Internet didn’t exist. Fast forward to today and we can access the Internet from nearly every corner of the world often from a phone we carry in our pocket.

We rarely think about the physical infrastructure that’s required to make this jump: the fiber optic cables run all over the world to digitally connect us. Not satellites (their speed is too slow—with fiber we send terabytes of information every second, using different wavelengths to send multiple channels at a time on the same fiber). Not radio waves (even cellphone towers are physically connected using fiber).

submarine fiber optic cable map
World map of under sea fiber optic cable (aka the Intertubes!)

So while we might talk about new AI and VR tech today, here is advice coming from a man who played an important role in one of—if not the—most important engineering revolution of our times.

He brought us the Internet, folks, and here’s his advice to anyone who wants to be apart of the next big, game-changing thing.

1If you’re in engineering, you’re getting the right degree.

As an employer myself, I can tell you it’s difficult to find people with the right training. On my team in fiber optics, we’re all old guys and will be retiring soon—my boss keeps asking me when. Who’s going to replace us?

I’m not sure that there are enough engineers to go around, honestly. And if it’s not engineering, it’s the trades we really need—electricians, plumbers, machinists, technicians, and the like.

I would hesitate before getting a non-technical degree these days. To be sure, there are no guarantees for a great career, but having an engineering degree sets you up on the right path.

2Of course it’s going to take hard work.

I’m always surprised by the change of work ethic over the generations. Of course, I’m speaking generally here….

But you know, I didn’t take a day off of work even once in my first four years. Well, that’s not true—I had pneumonia once, but beyond that I showed up every single day for my team. You don’t see that anymore. People take days off after just starting a job whenever they feel like and it just doesn’t set the right tone. I imagine this is the same attitude some students have about college, too.

Listen. Of course engineering school is going to be hard. Anything worth having is.

But getting an engineering degree is the most direct path towards working in my field or any budding field, really. Now, I actually don’t have an engineering degree. I have a degree in Physical Education.

At the time I started in fiber optics, it was just beginning and wasn’t being taught in school anyway, but having an engineering degree even then would have saved me a lot of time and effort getting up to speed. And honestly, things don’t work like they used to. You need a technical degree now.

Instead, I had to work my way up from the bottom, learning from engineers, and taking home every enormous book I could on the subject of fiber optics. I was a ridiculous amount of work to learn by myself even with the help of my mentors.

The question students need to ask themselves is not whether engineering school is hard or not, it’s whether it’s worth it for them.

If this is what they want to do later in life, school is really the straightest path.

3Learning doesn’t stop at graduation

As I say, I learned on the job and by studying on my own and with mentors in a field that was just beginning. Today fiber optics cover the globe, but when I started it everything was still analog. Imagine how much we had to learn over these decades!

Engineering is about figuring things out as you go along. The best thing you can do in school is learn how to learn, how to figure things out, how to ask the right questions, and where to find answers. Find the easy way.

In a job, there are no bonuses for taking your time to reinvent the wheel. If there is a resource out there that can help you do something faster, you use it. If you know someone who has done it before, you ask them first.

That’s why I like this [Crammables] idea of yours. Frankly, it’s silly for anyone to try to figure out everything on their own. Use the resources available. Free up your time to do and learn other things.

There you have it! Straight from a man who’s done engineering feats we could have only dreamed of only 40 years ago. You’re (1) in the right field, (2) gonna have to work hard, and (3) keep learning using the resources available.

What’s next in the world of engineering? And what are you going to bring to the world?
You got this!

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