In the coming weeks and months you will be hearing about our new media affiliate, The Engineering Commons podcast. As a means of introducing you to the show, and it’s co-hosts, we offer the following interview with Jeff Shelton, who has been with the podcast since it’s inception two years ago.
Big Beacon: What got you interested in engineering, Jeff?
Jeff Shelton: My father was a mechanical engineer, so it seemed natural to me that I was supposed to make lots of sketches, prepare detailed lists, print neatly, and fix things that broke, since that’s what he did. But I didn’t grow up envisioning myself as an engineer. I liked being creative, mostly, and thought I might become a writer for a while. But when it came time to go to college, I had several high school buddies heading off to engineering school, so I decided to tag along. Not exactly a proactive manner of getting into the engineering profession, but it worked out well for me!
Big Beacon: So you become a mechanical engineer, like your father?
Jeff Shelton: Yeah, I graduated with an ME degree from Purdue University, way back in the dark ages, otherwise known as the “disco era.” After spending a year as a General Motors employee, I enrolled in Stanford University’s “smart product design” program, earning a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. During my subsequent twenty year career in industry, I spent a lot of time designing manufacturing processes and machinery. Eventually, I decided that I wanted to teach in the engineering classroom; so I returned to Purdue to pursue a doctoral degree, which I received last May.
Big Beacon: At what point did you decide to start a podcast about engineering?
Jeff Shelton: In mid-2011, I started following a group blog about engineering, appropriately titled Engineer Blogs. The guy who put the site together, Chris Gammell, seemed interesting and so I followed him on Twitter. Chris was also producing an electrical engineering podcast called The Amp Hour. In addition to that show’s technical content, I really enjoyed the banter between Chris and his co-host, Dave Jones. One day in early 2012, Chris asked on Twitter if anyone was interested in an engineering podcast that could cover topics not specifically related to electrical engineering. I think, at this point, that Chris was already aware of my interest in engineering from my Twitter feed. Anyhow, I responded to Chris’ inquiry, and we started the new podcast in April 2012.
Big Beacon: Do you have a main focus for the show?
Jeff Shelton: We joke that our overriding theme is “Engineers are people, too!” I think we forget that living, breathing individuals have to deal with society’s technical issues. Our feelings do not suddenly disappear when we receive an engineering degree. So, among other things on the podcast, we ponder issues like how an engineer finds happiness spending weeks or months tracking down a bad pressure sensor, or an intermittent electrical connection. This is not something that most people would want to do! Engineers also have to deal with the emotional turmoil that arises when their employer seeks to bypass the laws of physics, or sensible engineering practices. It’s hard for a young engineer to understand that, by virtue of their intense and specialized training, they possess a world-view that is counter-intuitive for most of the population. Similarly, what is an engineer supposed to do, and how should she feel, when promotions are being handed out to other less technically competent individuals? It happens all the time, but engineers often don’t have a good sense of what abilities are valued most highly within their organization. So we try to talk about issues that would be of interest for young-to-mid career engineers, regardless of their specific field or industry.
Big Beacon: Your initial co-host, Chris Gammell, moved on to other projects about a year ago. Do you have a new co-host?
Jeff Shelton: In fact, I now have three co-hosts on the show. We weren’t sure early on if that would be too many voices in the mix, but it seems to have worked out pretty well for us. My co-hosts are: Adam, a civil engineer from the northern Midwest; Brian, an electrical engineer from Minnesota; and Carmen, an electrical engineer from North Carolina. They each bring a unique perspective to our conversations, and I’m delighted with the insights they provide during our recording sessions.
Big Beacon: Do you have guests on your podcast?
Jeff Shelton: Yes, absolutely! We’ve had guests on to talk about more philosophical subjects like ethics, critical thinking, and leadership, as well as more concrete topics like troubleshooting and product development. In fact, we had Big Beacon founder David Goldberg on our podcast to discuss how the role of engineers has changed over time.
Big Beacon: Any message for Big Beacon followers?
Jeff Shelton: I’m not sure exactly how the engineering profession is going to change over the coming decades, but I know it is going to different from what it has been over the past twenty years. One just has to look back over the past couple of centuries to see that the role of an engineer is constantly evolving. So I’ll leave it to the folks at Big Beacon to implement the needed change. In the meantime, we’ll try to keep sharing the stories of interesting engineers on The Engineering Commons podcast. If you haven’t had a chance to do so, please give us a listen. You can leave comments on the website, or send a tweet to our podcast feed (@TEC_Podcast) or my personal feed (@sheltoneer).