Electronic design is all about electronic circuits and systems, and electronic engineers use their scientific knowledge to develop and test devices, systems and equipment that are powered by electricity.
Electronic engineers need to be good at science, maths and IT. Their job is partly about figuring out better ways to do things, so they also need to be good at problem solving and coming up with new ideas.
We caught up with senior hardware engineer Naomi Mitchison, who was recently named Young Woman Engineer of the Year by the Institution of Engineering and Technology, to find out how she got there - and why more girls should think about a career in engineering.
Name: Naomi Mitchison
Company: Selex ES
Industry: IT & The Internet
What is your job? Senior hardware engineer
How long have you been doing this job? 2 years at Selex, after a 2-year stint at Thales e-Security.
School: European Baccalaureate – a very broad school-leavers qualification, where I studied 11 subjects in my final year.
Degree: MEng in electronic and electrical engineering
University: University of Edinburgh
Interests: Volleyball, travelling, hill-walking, baking.
What was your very first job?
I did a lot of work with kids before going into engineering. I taught English and maths, and worked at a summer camp, and as an au pair. After uni, I worked in a little café/deli for six months, which was good fun but I decided that I didn’t want to spend my days making sandwiches any more.
What did you want to do when you were at school?
At school, I had a much clearer idea of what I didn’t want to study than what I wanted to do. I enjoyed physics and maths, and also other subjects like French and history, but I wasn’t convinced I wanted to spend three to four years doing any particular one.
What made you want to be an engineer?
After I mentioned my interest in maths and physics, a relative suggested I look into engineering, and after a bit of research I thought it sounded like quite a fun topic to study. Fortunately, I was absolutely right - from the first projects at uni I was hooked on building circuits!
It was a good way to combine the main topics I was interested with a practical and hands-on element, so that I could use my knowledge to actually make things and solve real problems. I chose electronic engineering as I liked the idea of being taught how to build robots, and it sounded like a bit of an unusual choice.
How did you get there?
After finishing school at 18, I studied electronic and electrical engineering at Edinburgh University, where I graduated with an MEng (Masters in Engineering). Part of the course was a six month project in industry, so I had the opportunity to gain some real-world experience in electronic design. I learned a lot on placement, and it helped me hugely in getting my first job after university.
I wanted to find a job with a graduate training scheme, where the company commits to training and developing their new graduate employees in parallel with their day-to-day job. So I applied to Thales, which had a large graduate scheme. I started the year after graduating, aged 24, but after a couple of years in England, I wanted to be back in Scotland, so moved to my next role with Selex in Edinburgh.
What is a typical day at work?
I design electronic circuits to detect laser signals for aircraft warning systems. Mostly, I work in an office, and on a typical day can be found either in front of my computer, designing and drawing up electronic circuits on-screen, or up in the lab, building and testing prototypes.
However, a project has many stages, from design to test and manufacture, so the focus of my activity changes with the project. On any given day I might also be meeting suppliers, talking to customers, supporting production staff or discussing the work with the rest of the design team.
Selex do a lot of work promoting engineering as a career to schoolchildren, so I’m often out talking at school events, which is fun as I usually get to join in with any activities they have on!
What’s the best thing about your job?
I have always liked the practical side of engineering – you spend your time coming up with design ideas and planning how every part of it is going to work and fit together, and then one day a package arrives on your desk with a real circuit inside!
You can test it and assess your decisions to see how successful they are: did you remember to put everything into the circuit? Does it work as you had planned? There aren’t a lot of jobs where you can see the end result of your work so clearly.
I also like the collaborative side of engineering. Designing a complete product requires effort from the whole team, so working closely with the mechanical, software and optics engineers is really important to get the best final result.
What is the most challenging thing about your job?
The problem with electronics is that you can’t really see what’s happening electrically inside your circuit, so when things don’t work it can often be frustrating to figure out why. If you haven’t designed the circuit to be easily testable it can be very difficult to find out what it wrong.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to do what you do?
I think the most important qualities required to do my job are an openness to new ideas, the ability to make sense of a lot of information quickly, organisation and persistence, and people skills.
Practically, the most important part of getting a job in engineering is getting work experience – the more relevant it is to what you want to do later on, the better. A lot of engineering companies, like Selex, take on placement students at different points in their studies. Even if you can’t get experience directly related to what you are studying, experience in an office or engineering environment will help you understand how companies work and how to get along with your co-workers. It will also give you an insight into the sorts of things you do or don’t enjoy at work, which will help you make better choices later on.
How do you think more girls could be encouraged to work in engineering?
I think the main reason girls don’t choose to go into engineering is that it isn’t highlighted as a career option to them and it's hard to choose a career that no-one tells you about! If parents and teachers don’t encourage girls to explore engineering, it’s easy to overlook.
When I go into schools to talk about what I do, I try to talk to the teachers as well as the students, and help them understand that I don’t work on a factory floor: my job is varied and creative, in a dynamic high-tech industry. Once the teachers are onboard, they can help the students make the connection between the science they learn at school and the exciting and fulfilling careers.
What do you wish you’d known before starting your career?
Everyone you work with will have taken their own path to reach their job. So if you ever find yourself thinking “someone else knows so much more than I do!”, remember that you will have some other skill, or knowledge to bring to the table. Instead of trying to catch up with other people, work out what makes you different and how best to put that skill to use, and work out how you can learn from others to fill the gaps in your knowledge.
Also, take every opportunity to get involved in things that interest you, whether it’s a new project, or a volunteering opportunity. If you find it fun, you’ll do well and could lead you to exciting new possibilities.
Where would you like to be in five years?
I’ve never liked this question - I prefer to take interesting opportunities as they come up! However, I imagine I will still be working in electronics, designing larger and more complex systems, and possibly running a small team of electronic designers.
Like the sound of hardware engineering and think you've got what it takes to be a professional problem solver? Take a look at our post on the types of engineering jobs available.