Does being multi-discipline make sense?

I’m studying Computer Engineering.  I work as a product designer, primarily doing CAD work and the related functions.  I’ve been working in manufacturing and product design for about six years.  Computer Engineering has almost nothing at all in common with product design.

Product designers (of the mechanical flavor) know a lot about how mechanical parts are made.  They know a little bit about how they function.  (Designing functionality is more the job of the Mechanical Engineer.)  They know a lot about how they go together.  And, they know CAD.

Computer Engineers know how to program.  They know how circuits function.  (Designing functionality is more the job of the Electrical Engineer.)  They know a lot about how digital components go together.  And, they can design a digital circuit.

I can think of some overlaps.  They both solve tough problems.  They both turn concepts into realities.  They both handle product life cycles.  But, the details of these overlaps are still completely different.

So, I’m on the road to being a multi-discipline… Centaur.  Not an expert in any subject, but proficient in more than one.  Is there really value in that?  The reality is that I could only ever do one at a time.  I suppose I could do both at once, but only if I wanted to pull all of my hair out.  Come to think of it, by working in one field and studying the other, I sort-of already am doing both at once.  So, maybe this rambling blog post is totally pointless.  Or is it?

I’ve been told by one other multi-discipline person that being multi-discipline is an asset.  Perhaps that’s true.  But, is it true in the sense that a multi-discipline person applies their knowledge directly, as a Computer Engineer AND a product designer?  Or, is it true in the sense that a multi-discipline person applies their knowledge indirectly, as a director of computer engineers and product designers?

I’m inclined to say it’s the latter.  I’m also inclined to say that I’m not a natural leader.  In fact, I had crippling social anxiety throughout my teenage years.  (Something I believe attributes to my current awkwardness and lackluster public speaking.)  I also don’t make quick decisions.  I’m also generally risk-averse.  I am also a terrible off-the-cuff speaker.  I’m not saying all of these things to garner pity or beat myself up.  I think it’s healthy to be honestly self-critical as a means to improve oneself.

Engineering makes me happy.  I could probably be happy doing any kind of engineering.  It just so happens that my school only offered Electrical and Computer Engineering when I started.  (Next year they open the Mechanical Engineering department.  Too late to change.)  The “problem” is that I enjoy the challenges and the solutions in all of the different disciplines.  So, Computer Engineering exposes you to both Computer Science and Electrical Engineering.  Even my degree is multi-discipline!  Is it coincidence that they recently changed the acronym to BSCEN?  As in BSCEN(taur)?

Salvador Dali’s “The Centaur”

Perhaps I have a commitment to non-commitment.  Perhaps deep down, I’m so risk-averse that I’m actually averse to being too specialized.  But, does that make sense?  In my time, high school kids were told they had to go to college, or they would never amount to anything.  We were told we had to specialize, to be experts.  Here I am years later, trying to reach that goal without actually reaching that goal.  I’ve been chasing it since I was 19, on my own dime, at my own pace.  In that time I’ve managed to become an product designer with no formal education in the subject.  Which leads me to question whether or not I even need the degree I’m after.

Everyone still says yes, I do need the degree.  And, I’m so far into the investment that it would be ridiculous to abandon it.  Also, I’m very interested in the subject and feel that I belong in that field.  I’m not sure I feel I belong in Electrical, Mechanical, or Software Engineering, even though I find them all interesting in different ways.  The most attractive thing about Computer Engineering is that you basically get a taste of all of those.  You’ll definitely need to know how to write software.  You’ll definitely need to know a thing or two (or three, or four) about electricity.  And, you’re likely to need to know at least a little bit about mechanics (especially because industry is moving toward automation and robotics.)

Great.  But, I have other interests, too.  I’m interested in business, finance, health, mathematics, etc.  I can’t help but to be constantly interested in something.  It boggles my mind to think that most people get home from work and then watch television for hours.  And that’s their life.  I can’t imagine not constantly learning.  I’ve literally been doing it all my life.

So, maybe being multi-discipline does make sense.  So, I’m not the world’s leading expert in anything.  Except, maybe I could be the leading expert in not-being-an-expert.  Or, as Judge Smails once said:

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