In May 2016, at around 2 PM in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Mo, whose full name remains undisclosed for privacy reasons, just finished lifting weights for the second time during the work day. His ford mustang is parked right outside — his dream car. But Mo isn’t a retired businessman or a stay at home dad, he’s a millennial engineer.
He works remote and he should be typing away, programming or building out his eco-startup's app. But he rarely does. Most days he plans trips to the Dominican Republic, goes climbing, works out twice a day, and does just about everything but programming.
When we first met years ago in California, I’d seen few engineers as gifted as Mo. The type of learner that’s frustratingly perceptive and fast. He’s what a technical recruiter, behind close doors, calls “match fit”. He's intuitive, quick and sociable. But how did a gifted engineer, become so disinterested in his craft so early?
It would be easy to write off Mo’s situation as an isolated example of disillusioned youth. But a recent poll done by EE Times, seems to confirm his sentiment as engineers were “four times less likely than average Americans to be completely satisfied with their jobs”. Perhaps if this trend were brewing among doctors or police officers, it would be looked on as a national concern. But instead a new more diverse wave of engineers enters the field and slowly their discontent grows.
Everyone from CEO’s to academics, tout the need for a new generation of engineers. It seems that popular culture has burned away the image of the geeky nerd with oversized glasses and replaced it with millennial icons like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg.
Just as finance was the field of the 80’s and 90’s for promising careers and high paying opportunities, tech has fulfilled a similar role for millennials. Between 2006 and 2013, a study on the Wharton School of Business concluded that applicants for its finance sector dropped from 26% to 13% and had doubled in its tech field. Schools like Harvard Business School have found similar results. Yet what goes unreported is that the new recruits are a more diverse bunch. As engineering has grown more mainstream, it's attracted a more sociable crowd. Jason Kent, a senior engineer at Three Parameters Plus in Portland, Oregon, described the problem:
“Many early career engineers are required to establish a close, meaningful relationship with their computer. More extroverted science/engineering professionals may become frustrated with the relative lack of communication, and seek a more fulfilling career.”
While talking with Mo on the subject, he echoed a similar sentiment on that realization. “Nobody on my team talks to each other, we don’t know each other” Mo said. He recalled the moment he had an epiphany while watching his sociable roommate.
Mo looked on as his roommate, a sales associate at an energy firm, craft-fully spun a customer on the phone. He bounced from the grand vision of the company to the minutiae of the deal, all while trickling in his sour humor.
After watching the performance, Mo recalled asking, somewhat stunned: “How’d you do that?” Mo's roommate said that while Mo was skilled in talking to computers, his gift was with people, a realization that floored Mo. It kicked off a search for something outside brief vacations, trips to the gym, or a career in engineering.
The idea of the socially inept engineer whose strongest relationship is with their computer is laughable to most and is a mainstream comedy trope. Shows like “The Big Bang Theory” and HBO’s “Silicon Valley” have made big business of the prototypical nerd and their social maladies. In “Silicon Valley”, characters like Nelson “Big Head” Bighetti stumble from one interaction to the next. “Big Head” is unable to talk with everyone from managers to exotic strippers. His unhappiness and ineptitude are confused for brilliance as he’s pushed further up the corporate chain.
While these shows are at the forefront of prestige television and ratings, they obscure the underlying message — that millions of young people are moving into a career that seems to churn out the unhappiest people.
For Mo, simply being an engineer, skirting around his work, and aimlessly living in New Jersey wasn’t enough. He pushed back. Mo described it as “I had so much free time it got to my head, not knowing what to do with my life.” He was at a standstill and like many other young people, he stumbled into his next move. But unlike most, he got lucky. Through a friend of a friend, Mo heard about a new program, Escape the City, and applied, making the deadline by three hours.
Mo wasn’t the only engineer I talked to that echoed the sense of a muted voice. Scott Slatt, a fellow program attendee and Facebook engineer, had an epiphany of his own. Revered as the pinnacle for any engineer, Facebook should have been the place where Slatt’s career took a turn toward fulfillment. But just as it would happen at his previous companies, Slatt would bring up a concern, and weeks would go by with it unnoticed and the small product concerns he had unearthed would turn into full-scale problems.
Within a year he would leave Facebook, and when asked whether he left Facebook because he didn’t like it, he retorted, “Actually, it was the best job I ever had, but it still was not a fit.”
Mo and Slatt would later meet in Escape the City’s inaugural class. Talking with the program's co-founder, it feels as if it were concocted by adventurists hell-bent on finding a way out of office life. With a Silicon Valley–esque story, the program started as an infrequent meet-up by two British consultants. Co-founder, Dominic Jackman, said that after a few years in their management consulting careers, they felt they were “sleepwalking through their career.” Seven years and 250,000 members later, they are re-launching in New York.
With activities like “Cake Failure”—rewarding students with cake for admitting failure—it’s hard to ignore the spirit of the program.Talking to Mo, other engineers and the program's founder, all has an air of New Age optimism and the sense that mere motivation and cooperation can overcome the shallowness of corporatism or the endless grind of the startup.
And while the program is still nascent, for Mo and many of Escape The City's early participants, it a path previously unthought and unheard of. Mo was extremely young, only 23, to make the realization that he needed a more sociable profession but in cities like New York it's easy to see how these programs will quickly become popular. Currently, Mo is moving to California. The only caveat for a new job is that it doesn't involve engineering.
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