I am an engineer. We make up a small part of the world and are typically quite specialized. This means that most people have no idea what we do. Maybe this is why politicians/teachers/whoever is trying to “get kids into STEM” ask for people from STEM talk about what they do, because politicians/teachers/whoever have no freaking idea. I will try to give an overview of what I did at my last job.
My company makes Dynamic Positioning systems. The idea is simple. The system reads GPS signals and/or other position signals (hydro-acoustic beacons on the seafloor, laser targeting, etc) as well as heading sensors (gyroscopes), controls thrusters, and keeps a vessel in position or moves it as desired. It must resist the ocean/river current, wind, and waves which obviously change over time. Ships with DP are used for a variety of tasks (see the wiki entry linked previously), but mainly related to drilling for oil or laying cables. This is accomplished by having a computer with IO (input and output) reading the inputs from all the sensors as well as a user and outputs telling the thrusters what to do. My company built the brain of the system and our responsibility stopped at our IO interface with other companies’ sensors/engines/whatever
My specific job is as a GNC engineer, where GNC stands for guidance, navigation, and controls. My job was split in two, in the office and on travel. In the office I was a software developer. Our system had a lot of software which needed to be adjusted for each ship, updated, have features added, have bugs fixed, etc. So in the office I mostly worked on our software or on configuring our software for a new ship being built. About 30% of the time I traveled. Travel jobs were one of two things: 1 commissioning a new ship (a fancy way of saying getting it to work for the first time and then demonstrating that it works) or 2 fixing some problem on an existing ship.
The travel part of the job was a killer and I would summarize the job as being able to live in crappy conditions and get a job done using a moderate amount of intelligence/knowledge of our system. The actual work was quite easy, the hard part was everything else. I’ll give you an example of a job to China. This was a new commissioning and is usually a 7 to 10 day trip. Here’s what it looks like:
- Preparation. Once the job is assigned I would collect all the software and documents I need. Talk with coworkers about anything I might miss, talk with boss about expectations, etc. Also packing etc. I only carried 1 carry on sized bag (easier to carry around another country) and a backpack.
- Fly to China, in economy. Usually this wasn’t too bad as airlines give free movies and alcohol on international flights.
- Arrive in China, get a taxi to where you need to go. This was extremely frustrating and stressful. The location of the shipyard was a 2 hour car ride away, taxis are there to drive people around the city. Also not many people speak english. Basically show someone a paper with where you want to go written down and hope they can help you. And won’t rob you and leave you to die somewhere.
- Arrive at hotel, try to get some sleep before waking up at 6am. Remember that at this point I’m jetlagged and tired from flying around the world. Luckily going east to west makes sleeping at an appropriate time easy. But there’s always the stress of having to wake up and make it to the ship in the morning.
- Catch a taxi to the shipyard, another trial. The last one I was on you had to take a ferry. I got lucky and called a bunch of people until I found someone who could get me where I needed to be, another contractor. My last job was easy since I was able to get ahold of him. On previous trips it was much worse. The first time I had to take a 2 hour taxi ride to the shipyard which was devoid of life. I knew what the ship looked like, but there were 4 being built. No signs. No help. No nothing. I eventually got lucky hanging around long enough and found some English speakers getting on the right ship and followed them. A guard started yelling at me in Chinese, but this is normal, I just shrugged and walked by him.
- Now on the ship, find your room and settle in. Or not. Ont his last job the guy who did the physical installation of our system was there and brought me up to date. His English was good. To save money he was not going to sea with us and was “pretty sure” everything was working.
- Now it’s a waiting game. Wait to go out to sea. Before I can do anything everything else on the ship has to work. If you remember, my system reads sensors and tells thrusters what to do. That means they have to already be set up, tested, and working 100%. On the last trip there were some major delays so I was sitting in my room for about 3 days. Half naked chinese guys kept coming into the room I was sharing with another contractor to use the shower. Eventually my bunk mate yelled at them and they stopped. Oh and did I mention I was sleeping on the ground with nothing more than a straw mat? No pillow, no sheets, nothing but the sweatshirt I brought and one of those inflatable neck pillows.
- The food onboard in China is normally crap, this last trip wasn’t so bad, it was edible. There was enough water. All in all a decent experience.
- So after having slept on the ground for 3 days and eating meh food, eventually I get to work. No one really tells me when, I have to sit in on meetings I’m not supposed to be in and listen for the salient details. The Chinese shipbuilders are supposed to be the ones running the show, but the customer representatives that are supposed to be inspecting are pulling a lot of the weight. Anyway, usually right when I’m about to go to sleep is when they want me to start working (DP is usually done at night because I work with very few people, everyone else is up in the day working together).
- So it’s 10pm or maybe midnight, pitch black outside, the bridge is kept dark to maintain night vision, and I start work. First I check all the IO and make sure it’s all talking. Then I calibrate our system with the thrusters (if I ask for 50% am I getting 50%?). After that is the hardest part, which is tuning our system for this specific vessel. After that a few performance tests and I’m done. All that takes 8 to 12 hours. Getting Chinese electricians who speak very little English to do what you need is tough, but usually there is someone who can translate… usually.
- Now it’s 8 AM and everyone is up and ready to test the system. So for another 4 hours we go through tests to demonstrate the system is working.
- Now it’s noon. I was awake yesterday from 8AM til my normal sleep time, but instead worked throughout the night, meaning I’ve been up 28 hours. Time to crash, if I’m lucky and no one bugs me to fix something.
- DP is usually the last system to be worked on, so we head back to shore after I’m done, typically.
- Get off the vessel and get to the hotel, usually much easier since taxi drivers know hotels.
- Try to sleep/wake up and make my return flight. Navigating Chinese airports is difficult but not impossible. Getting to the airport via taxi is the easiest taxi ride since every taxi driver can understand if you try to make hand gestures and sounds of an airplane. Or just draw a plane on a piece of paper like I do. And pray there’s only one airport nearby.
- Arrive home. If the next day is a workday, I have to work or use time off. On the plus side we get extra time off for working weekends.
That’s what a typical travel trip looks like, pretty crazy if I do say so myself.
So, what do you do for a living?