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How to become an Electronics Engineer without really trying

I am a high school dropout with a thriving career in engineering, a field where a degree is almost always required. How did this come to be? Here is my story...

I was born just in time to benefit from the huge increase in science and mathematics education that resulted from 1957 USSR Sputnik launches.

I learned to read and write when I was four years old. My reading speed is very high and I read an average of five books per week. The average person reads at somewhere between 200 and 400 words per minute with 60% comprehension. I have been tested at 1,000 words per minute with 90% comprehension. This is without using any of the various "speed reading" techniques - my eyes read every word on the page. I can even read error messages that scroll off the screen before anyone else can read them.

When I was young, my parents let me stay home and watch every single space mission on TV, starting when Alan Shepard flew Freedom 7. I watched every single Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo mission, sleeping and eating when the astronauts did. While the other children wanted to be astronauts, I wanted to build a rocket. I didn't stop watching every launch until the space shuttle came along and made space flight so routine that the news organizations stopped televising them.

We had a NCR Century 50 mainframe computer for student use in my high school. In the early 1970s, this was very unusual. I hung around the computer lab day and night, learning COBOL, FORTRAN, and NEAT3. I always carried around a box full of Hollerith punch cards (NCR users would NEVER call them "IBM cards") with my FORTRAN subroutines on them - an early example of reusable code.

I did not do well in school - spending all of your time in the library, computer room, and at chess tournaments instead of doing homework and studying for tests tends to depress one's grade point average. My family was very poor, I was getting a better education at the library than at the school, and my grades were too low for graduation, so I dropped out at the age of 16, lied about my age, and took a job for $1.65 per hour at a local fast-food eatery. I quickly gravitated to the 11:30 pm to 8:00 am shift, where I ran the place all by myself from 12:00 to 7:00 am. We were getting customers at a rate of less than one per hour, so this left me plenty of time for reading. This is when I really started hitting the electronics and computer books.

Like most young people, I tried various jobs and situations. I worked as a cook, heliarc welder, auto repairman, garbage collector, farm hand, and apprentice electrician. I hitchhiked all over the country, stopping and working for a week or two whenever I ran out of cash. I lived in several communes, and founded a commune of my own. This taught me a lot about managing people. During all of this time, I worked with electronics whenever I could. I worked as an assembler, inspector, tester, and even as a "Rework Girl" (yes, that was the job title; I was the first male to ever work that position. Times certainly have changed since then!) I also picked up a few classes in electronics and programming, and read many more books on those subjects. Over the years, I have gained knowledge and experience, and I will never quit doing so.

Many people assume that they have no choice other than hiring someone with experience in whatever technology they are using. I would like to challenge that assumption; a good engineer has the ability to learn new technologies and get up to speed very rapidly.