Reflecting on an engineering way of life

July 22nd, 2015, Published in Articles: EngineerIT


Reflecting on a rich and exciting career spanning 40-years, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) CEO and resident Prof. Howard Michel described an engineering spirit as the golden thread that weaves it together. Addressing a crowd of students, staff and engineers at the University of Johannesburg’s public lecture series hosted by the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, Prof. Michel highlighted the role of the IEEE in his own work and life, and encouraged others to utilise the institute for their career growth and development.

Prof. Howard gave a historic background to the institute’s formation, which a trace its roots to the merger of the American Institute for Electrical Engineers and the Institute of Radio Engineers in 1963. Today the institute’s reach spans 183 countries, with some 1400 members in South Africa alone.

UJ - Prof Howard Michel public lecture (1)

Prof. Saurabh Sinha (Executive Dean – FEBE, UJ), André Hoffmann (SAIEEE President), Prof. Howard Michel and Johan Meyer (Head of School – Electrical Engineering, UJ).

Howard also stressed the institute’s motto, which he helped come with, namely “Technologies for a better world”. He urged engineers present to strive for the institute’s mission and vision, for engineering to be essential and relevant to people and the planet. No one can any longer deny the impact of humans on our planet – and the quest to protect the planet will require new thinking and new solutions. He also said that technology is usually the easy part of a solution, but that human elements are more difficult to “solve”.

In his own life, an engineering mind set has underpinned Prof. Michel’s career, even at times when he was not a practicing engineer. He started his career as a US Air Force pilot, and later joined the Air Force Geophysics Laboratory. His first patent was for a computing sensing system, which was used to detect low-flying aircraft. He described the influence of IEEE publications, which he read throughout his career, and how it kept his knowledge in the field current, as well as became useful in his own research.

Prof. Michel later became a satellite launch manager, and today works as an associated professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He lectures students in a design course, and also holds two patents, as well as having contributed to textbooks, written 15 journal article papers and 43 conference papers.

The future of engineering is an exciting one in Prof. Michel’s opinion, a future he describes as interplay between humans and software systems. Despite political influence and budget cuts, he still sees room for innovation, but said that this innovation might not necessarily be driven by humans but by machines, and that innovation is very likely to come from innovations in data and access to data. At the same time, autonomous systems raise questions of ethics, and Prof. Michel said that autonomy would need to be humanised more.

Engineers create the world we live in, he concluded, and said this quest should always be accompanied by humans and responsibility at the centre. His career advice to students? Respect all, and know that you can learn from everyone.

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