Cornell Cup: Be awesome all the time

-May 02, 2012

cornellcup_050112.gifOn Thursday I’m heading to Orlando to cover the inaugural Cornell Cup USA college-level embedded design competition. The competition, presented by Intel, is based on the successful Intel Cup China that attracts more than 26,000 students.

This week’s event was designed to provide an “expo” spirit that encourages students to construct any design they can dream up and create as an embedded technology invention. In short, any embedded design invention that teams of three to five undergraduate or master’s level students in the US could create was fair game for applicants.

I’ll also be speaking at the event. My topic: How to prove your value as a young engineer. The topic came about in a recent conversation with David Schneider, academic coordinator of Cornell Cup, when we were discussing the event and brainstorming.

David and I fist spoke about the Cornell Cup at ESC Boston 2011. Watch a video of him and Stewart Christie of Intel describe the event here. Rightfully so, David is very proud of the students who entered and will be participating in this competition.

A quick look at photos of these students and the project team summaries on the Cornell Cup Web site shows two things: 1-that they are exceptionally talented individuals with ambition and drive; and 2-that they are all young. Unfortunately, the two sometimes get muddled and no matter how talented one is, no matter how much drive they have to succeed, youth can be an obstacle in proving one’s value.

We’ve all run across this at one point or another. The presumption by an older member of our profession that youth equals inexperience or incompetence. It’s the senior exec or potential investor who won’t allow the newbie into the decision making meeting because they don’t take them seriously. It’s the manager who calls you sweetie, honey, or, worse, kiddo. It’s the chief tech officer who ignores the new engineering practices you bring to the table because they are “trendy” or assumed invalid because they came from the mind of a 20-year-old.

It’s been a while (ok, a long while) since I’ve been in college, or for that matter 20, so I pinged a few experts on starting out and succeeding in your 20s for some advice: Nate Seidle, who founded SparkFun when he was in his college, and Kyle Wiens, who co-founded iFixit, also while he was in college. The two businesses are now highly successful with enough revenue to keep the entrepreneurs and their staffs away from Dilbert-like jobs and constantly innovating.

We’ve got a full EDN Voices interview with Nate coming out in a May issue of the magazine. Here’s a snip from it where he answered on how to prove your value as a young engineer: “If you are 18 and you are wondering how to get taken seriously, show them the projects. I don’t care who you are, I care what you’ve done.”

I had the pleasure of speaking with Kyle in person after spending the day with him and the Innovation Generation team at the recent USA Science and Engineering festival where we were surrounded by budding engineers. When asked, he replied: Be awesome all the time. Never stop being awesome and people will see your value.

Well put, gents. Do what you do best, don’t hide that, and people will get it.

To be true, the young engineers competing in the Cornell Cup are nothing short of awe inspiring. Check out the 22 teams here, showcasing some of the best and brightest college students in the US.

I’m looking forward to chatting with them this coming Friday and Saturday about their projects, about being young engineers, about what their generation will revolutionize in the years ahead, and about being awesome all the time. If you see anything that piques your interest on the Cornell Cup site, post a comment below and I’ll do my best to speak specifically with the students behind the designs.

In the meantime, did you face obstacles as a young engineer in proving your value? Share your thoughts on overcoming such obstacles below.

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