The Process of Making Breakthroughs in Engineering

Michael Beltz
October 02, 2018

The Armstrong Memorial Lecture, hosted by Columbia’s Department of Electrical Engineering on September 25, featured Thomas Kailath, professor, electrical engineer, information theorist, emeritus at Stanford, and experienced entrepreneur. Established by the Department of Electrical Engineering in honor of Edwin Howard Armstrong, 1890-1954, this lecture series recognizes the scholarship and accomplishment of prominent scholars in the field.

Awarded the National Medal of Science and recognized by former President Barack Obama for his “transformative contributions to the fields of information and system science,” Thomas Kailath is one of the greats in the electrical engineering world. Kailath is also widely recognized as a great teacher and an inspiring lecturer. His talk on Tuesday focused on his own experiences and the collected experiences in his field, from which he drew pieces of advice that apply to all aspiring engineers.

Kailath came to America from India in 1957. This change, he said, was the biggest opportunity in his life. Having achieved excellence during his undergraduate days, Kailath’s move to America gave him the opportunity to become the first Indian-born PhD in Electrical Engineering at MIT. Over the next few decades, through pure grit, hard work, and admittedly a certain degree of luck, Kailath became a legend in his field. He revolutionized communications technologies by contributing to information theory, filtering theory, linear systems and control, signal processing, semiconductor manufacturing, probability and statistics, linear algebra, matrix and operator theory. He told some anecdotes about his time doing research, but most of the information went over my head, since I don’t have a master’s degree. What I did get, however, was a glimpse of his life, and of a successful engineering career. Kailath emphasized that his path was chaotic and unplanned. He constantly took new projects that he was initially unfamiliar with. He made the conscious decisions to move from the theoretical to the applied, and from the academic to the entrepreneurial, following the money and the opportunities present at the time, whether they were in math, signal processing, or manufacturing. Kailath’s philosophy was that he could always be learning something new, no matter the stage in his career, even if it was in a completely different field.

Kailath made some important points about making breakthroughs in engineering, specifically. True engineering breakthroughs, like CRISPR and the internet, are few and far in between, though engineers spend their lives working towards those goals. Rather than being spontaneous conceptions in time, however, breakthroughs happen via an accumulation of knowledge and work, almost always through the collaboration of a team of engineers. Kailath was careful to acknowledge that there are no magic recipes for breakthroughs, noting that each breakthrough has a different context and circumstance, and that not even he could give a magic solution. This led to his second revelation, that breakthroughs could not be sought after and captured, but rather that they just happened. Finally, Kailath emphasized that all engineers have individual breakthroughs in their own lives, as all engineers share in the experience of making discoveries.

Kailath ended with some advice, which applies to all engineers, even those of us who are still in (or just beginning) our undergraduate days at SEAS:

  • Find the “right” problem: To do so, SEAS students should dive deeply into the subjects they’re passionate about, and find the questions that have wide implications in the real world. To do so, we should think critically about what we study, both inside and outside of the classroom, and pay attention to the state of the field, as well as the big questions are still looming overhead.
  • Be alert to opportunities and seize them: This will also require being attuned to your field, and recognizing what the “right” problems are. Jump on opportunities that you believe will allow you to solve that problem, or at least develop the skills to do so.
  • Have broad interests: SEAS students should be versatile by picking up tools that can be used in a variety of fields. Such tools might include becoming familiar with programming languages, statistical theory, and other skills that might not be directly in the area that one studies.
  • Be confident and take risks: Pretty self-explanatory. Breakthroughs are breakthroughs because they are innovative and never-seen-before. Breakthroughs require imagination, intuition, and a certain degree of audacity.
  • Team up: As independent as most Columbia students are, engineering is a field that requires lots of communication. We should all hone our abilities to work well with others during our undergraduate days.
  • Remember there is luck involved: Not everything is in your control. Many achievements, as well as disappointments and setbacks, are a product of timing as well as skill.
  • Don’t wait until you have the prerequisites: Dive right in to research or your first internship! We learn best on the job anyways, and the classroom won’t teach us everything. “Man is born to live, not to prepare to live” -Dr. Zhivago

Original article can be found here.