Pursing an engineering career is no easy feat. It takes dedication, discipline and determination. It’s not for everyone.
It was that raw challenge that enticed me to study engineering in the first place. My appetite for challenge, coupled with my passion for technology, has helped me to achieve several accomplishments already in my early career.
I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from the University of Texas-San Antonio (UTSA), in May 2012. Upon graduation, my first job was working for the Department of Defense, where I specialized in directed energy weapons. I have always been fascinated by the defense industry. I thought it would not only be challenging, but exciting as well.
I attribute my deep passion for technology primarily from my grandfather’s influence. He exposed me to high technology early on in my life. My grandfather was a physicist, engineer, and a successful businessman – who started several companies in the Silicon Valley.
Ever since I was a child, I found the numerous stories my grandfather would tell me about the beginnings of transistors, and other technologies, fascinating. Sometimes, he would take me to his labs to meet engineers who worked for him.
So, it was no surprise to family or friends when I co-founded my own tech company – Lion Mobile LLC – 15 years later, in August 2013. Since its founding, my business partner, Fabio Gomez, and I have grown the company to a team of 10 in just under two years, and have developed several mobile applications, including the popular wine app called, “unWine.”
I always knew I wanted to start a company. Something just did not feel right to me about going to work every day and focusing on one thing. Anything could happen to my day job, so it just made sense to leverage my passion and create my own technology on the side. Some people play golf when they aren’t working – I start companies.
I also continue to be heavily involved with organizations related to my field of study, like IEEE/IEEE-USA. Currently, I serve as the IEEE Region 5 Young Professionals chair, and I sit on IEEE-USA’s Board of Directors as its Young Professionals Representative. It is safe to say that my career is on a great trajectory, but I am quick to remind people that my beginnings didn’t necessarily portend my current path. I was not a stellar student, I just gravitated toward challenges. And I was confident enough to take risks and try to do things in a different way.
While attending college, I became extremely busy taking care of my sister and family, working as a bartender, and running my own math tutoring business on the side. I was so busy I never had the time to pursue any internships – except of course, at the National Security Agency (NSA). The NSA has a rigorous interviewing process, one that includes extensive background checks and polygraph tests. To me, it seemed intriguing, so I went for it.
After a six- to eight-month process, NSA turned me down for the internship. My counterpart, with the 4.0 GPA, got the opportunity. And that was the last internship I ever pursued”¦
I simply didn’t have the time – I was entering my senior year of college. My final year of college required me to design a prototype – a capstone requirement common to all engineer majors. So, I ran for the president’s position for UTSA’s IEEE Association. This decision was a key point in my life, and would contribute many factors to my future career path.
As president of UTSA IEEE, my vision was to reignite the organization. Several seniors that have been running this organization had already graduated, so I recruited and developed a team of 10 officers, including myself.
My senior year of college was intense. I knew what needed to be done, so I focused on that. IEEE was sort of an outlet, because it was another opportunity to work with a team with a common goal. Because I had never had an internship, I honestly had no clue what I would be doing as an engineer in the real world.
Perhaps, the reason my last year in school was so intense, was because I made it that way. A Center of Innovation and Technology Entrepreneurship (CITE) competition caught my eye. This competition awarded teams of up to $100k for their prototype – to start a business. Originally, my team and I had our sights set on this prize award – but another unique opportunity appeared before our eyes.
Our professor handpicked our team out of our entire class to work with his former colleague, someone who had some intellectual property and needed a prototype. The idea was to develop a prototype that could monitor health care providers, i.e., doctors and nurses, and determine whether or not they put on their personal protective equipment (gloves, masks, etc.). The justification behind this idea was to fight the spread of nosocomial infections in hospitals; that is, the spread of diseases that you acquire when you have a hospital stay. It was a challenge, and my team and I accepted it. After several months, we were not only successful; we were also the first team out of the entire class to finish our prototype.
Upon graduation, I pursued landing my first job. While most of my peers had already signed with a company before graduating, I spent most of my senior-year energy completing my senior design project, and leading the IEEE UTSA Association. Perhaps this ability to focus was part of the reason why my senior design team finished first, but I also had previous experience with team-building that could have helped. I participated in a many high school sports, specifically football, and I attribute these experiences to my ability to work so well on, and with, teams.
Having a team is not going to get you anywhere if the team doesn’t have a purpose. More importantly, the people on the team need to leverage their strengths and passions. That’s the key to receiving maximum productivity out of your team. I learned this skill early on playing sports in school, and I transcended it, when I joined IEEE, and co-founded a company.
In addition to seeking employment as an engineer, I started exploring other interests. I have always had a passion for aviation, so I decided to apply to the U.S. Air Force, to see if I could get a pilot slot, and then weigh my options. That summer after graduation, when I wasn’t applying and interviewing with companies, I studied instrument flight and took flying lessons at the local airport.
I ended up interviewing with Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and National Instruments. Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics gave me offers. I ended up accepting a position in San Antonio, Texas, as a research engineer for General Dynamics, where I specialized in directed energy weapons, specifically, RF Bio-Effects.
Presented with this new challenge, I set aside my passion for flying, and focused on having a positive impact at General Dynamics. After a year there, I earned their Distinguished Performance Award for markedly improving IR camera control, target recognition and data acquisition – enabling significant cost reduction to evaluate dosimetry and behavioral effects.
At this point, I had an epiphany. Since I was a child, I had been moving non-stop, like a speeding train that circles the globe, with no end in sight. I had been finding challenges, and succeeding through them – without even taking time to stop and think. After receiving this award at General Dynamics, my train finally came to a rest, and I reflected.
I realized all of my accomplishments had a common denominator – people. From football, to IEEE, to senior design, and my first job out of college, part of my success came from having effective people in my network. The other part of my success was my ability to be effective with my network – knowing how to work with people on teams; understanding people’s strengths and passions; and bringing the best out of everyone around me.
With a widened perspective, I was now interested in two things: expanding my network even more; but more importantly, using my insight to help other engineers be successful. Not knowing where to turn, I received an email from National Instruments, the only company that didn’t give me an initial job offer, about a large conference they were hosting in Austin, Texas. Ironically, at my current job, I leveraged a lot of National Instrument’s hardware and software, specifically LabVIEW, and became very proficient with it. That proficiency enabled me to complete my projects very quickly, helping me earn that Distinguished Performance Award at General Dynamics. I decided to go to this weeklong conference.
While attending, I stumbled upon an IEEE booth. I had not been active since graduating more than a year prior. So, I approached the booth and introduced myself. I began to explain my IEEE college background, and then expressed my interest in public speaking. I asked if there were any avenues within IEEE that would help me jumpstart this new interest. The folks at the booth told me about an available IEEE volunteer position that could potentially spark my public speaking interest, and asked me to meet with the rest of the IEEE team for Central Texas. I ended up going to their meeting, where they asked him to serve as the IEEE Young Professionals chair for Central Texas. I accepted. It was another opportunity to be with a team that was passionate about technology, so I couldn’t resist.
A year after accepting this position, I reinvigorated this Young Professionals Affinity Group, and grew this leadership team from one to four volunteers. We successfully organized several large events. One of the most successful was the first IEEE Young Professionals Event at Austin’s popular annual conference, South by Southwest (SXSW). I also began speaking at various IEEE Student Branches, including my alma mater.
My IEEE local Section sent me to IEEE conferences and meetings to represent them. In 2014, I attended the IEEE Sections Congress in Amsterdam, a triennial gathering of IEEE grassroots leaders – to participate in training programs, network with other Section leaders, and develop recommendations to guide the future of IEEE. It was a unique opportunity to be able to attend the IEEE Sections Congress. A year prior, I was a new college graduate, and now here I was across the Atlantic Ocean – in a room filled with 1,000 engineers from 90 different countries – including the inventors of the insulated gate bio polar transistor, MATLAB and fiber optics.
In addition, I threw my energy into the local section – all the way up to the global level – where I actively participated on the IEEE Young Professionals Member and Geographic Activities (MGA) Committee. In 2014, I spoke at, and participated as a panelist, at the Toronto Section’s Technical Entrepreneurship Mini-Conference.
I currently serve on the IEEE-USA Board as the Young Professionals Representative, where I collaborate and liaison with both IEEE-USA and the Young Professionals Affinity Group. I also serve as the Region 5 Young Professionals Chair, and I am responsible for overseeing all of the local Young Professionals Affinity Groups in region 5. All of these activities and opportunities began, simply because I approached an IEEE booth with an inquisitive drive to seek public speaking opportunities.
My message is to try many different things – sooner rather than later. It will help you be more dynamic. I also encourage you to apply this same mindset to your network, by mixing it up. Don’t have one type of network – have many types – and try many different things to diversify your network. This diversity will help you create unique opportunities for yourself.
We now live in a world that enables you to do more with your life. Focusing on one thing for the majority of your life is traditional, limited thinking. Embrace the growth mindset, strive to be dynamic! People and technology enable you to do more – so leverage it”¦
Figure out how you can leverage your strengths and passions to provide value to the world.
Devon Ryan is IEEE-USA’s Young Professionals Voice columnist, and the Young Professionals Representative on the IEEE-USA Board of Directors. Follow him on Twitter @DevonRyanI.