National Engineers Week inspires us to discuss the challenging rewards of a career in engineering.
Taking place in mid-February each year, National Engineers Week was created to increase interest in engineering and technology careers. This national effort is dedicated to ensuring a diverse and well-educated engineering workforce for the future. To support this important goal, we asked Brian MacDonald, the head of engineering at item America, to share why engineering is a fulfilling career choice and what a typical day in the life of an engineer looks like.
An interview with Brian MacDonald, head of engineering at item America
What made you choose engineering?
I’ve always been really good at mathematics, and I always enjoyed architecture and technology. Really, as far back as I can remember, maybe five years old. But when it really came down to it, I liked the mathematics side of engineering more. So, it was the logical choice for me.
What is your motivation to get up and go to work every day?
It’s probably the same as everyone else’s: money. I’m a pretty big supporter of capitalism. I feel that my value is based off the products that I come up with. The ideas and the products I create are their own reward, but I also enjoy helping customers solve problems.
What do you love about being an engineer?
The thing I love most about engineering is the creativity and the challenge that it affords me. There is a difference between engineering and some of the softer sciences. I put engineering, physics and mathematics into the same category, where there is an absolute answer. But in engineering, there is also a creative element to it, which I thoroughly enjoy. It creates a reward for finding the line between order and chaos, where there is an absolute answer to your equations but there is also the creativity of coming up with an optimal solution to meet a problem. There are many possible solutions in terms of physical objects, but mathematically, there is only one answer at the end of the day. I really do enjoy that combination of certainty and chaos.
How does working at item America allow you to follow your passion for engineering?
Working at item America gives me a lot of opportunities. I like being challenged and I also really enjoy expanding my knowledge. That is one of my prime drivers in life. With item, we have such a broad customer base, whether for universities, R&D, OEMs, or end-users, there is always a multitude of different projects that require different designs. Sometimes, it requires research on my part to familiarize myself with certain processes. That’s a good challenge, constantly learning and applying my knowledge to a multitude of solutions. I find that more rewarding compared to someone who is creating the same thing all the time. For example, if you’re an engineer designing sump pumps, then sump pumps are all you have to know about.
I’ve also always followed the ideology that it’s better to be a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none, rather than a master of one. So, item really fits that for me. I’m a pretty good master with item products in general. But there’s such a broad spectrum of what they are used for that I could never master all of it.
What is your favorite project you’ve designed while working at item America?
The Cartesian 4 Axis Gantry used for scanning three-dimensional objects. It’s a robot that operates in three axes: x, y, and z, with a fourth direction of motion tacked onto one of the preexisting axes in three-dimensional space. There were a lot of cascading calculations, where you had to work from the inside out in order to find your answer. So, it was rewarding and challenging. I was definitely glad when we shipped it. That was one of the most difficult projects I’ve had to work on.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
I’d say, professionally speaking, my proudest accomplishment has been helping this company grow. When I started here, there were ten to twelve of us. We were basically a wholesale distributor for our partners and we started off with a very small engineering department. Over the years, with the help of the sales team, we’ve expanded to 34 employees. The challenges involved and the knowledge I gained along the way, not only in engineering but also in general operations for businesses, has been rewarding.
Can you describe a typical day?
Well, the most important part of the day is my morning coffee. Once I’ve got that, it’s figuring out what’s in the production queue as well as the engineering queue, because I also do production planning. I’m doing dedicated engineering work on specific projects or helping and managing the other engineers on my team when they have questions. Beside this, I’m also attending meetings, coordinating with production for quality assurance or making sure that all documentation is filed correctly. All those different tasks are important for my job.
What are your hobbies outside of work?
I’m a pretty big outdoorsman. I enjoy hiking, camping, and fishing to a lesser extent. (I prefer salt water, and here in Maryland you’ve got to go all the way to the bay for that.) I also enjoy scuba diving; I’ve been certified for almost 20 years and have gone on hundreds of dives. And on the more nerdy side, because all of us engineers are a little bit nerdy, I enjoy board-gaming with a group of friends that meet every couple of weeks.
Do your hobbies use any of the same skills as your job, or do you think of them as an escape from the day-to-day?
It ties into my jack-of-all-trades philosophy and enjoying different challenges. The outdoors is chaos, but, like engineering, if you really look at it, there is a certain order to it.
What advice would you give to others?
For anyone who is in school, I would say: Don’t just do what you love, do what you’re good at. Ideally, you learn to love it too. You can make the most money if you’re good at something. And use that money towards following your true passions and happiness. But for those of us, like myself, who get to do both, well, consider yourselves extremely lucky. It’s a great feeling to be able to do both.
What are you looking forward to in 2019 at item?
Our continued expansion, especially in our manufacturing section. We’re getting a CNC machine for panels and I think it’ll make a really big impact here and help us improve our service and turnaround time. And on top of that, I’m looking forward to hiring another engineer to focus on our brand new item Engineeringtool.