This article is part of our series highlighting IEEE volunteers.
As we kick off the year, The Institute caught up with our highest-ranking volunteer: IEEE president Howard Michel. He started his volunteer work with IEEE as a university student back in 1974 when he led the student branch at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, in Newark and received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. He climbed the volunteer ranks over the years, including being the 2011 and 2012 vice president of Member and Geographic Activities and the 2010 chair of the Public Visibility Committee that created IEEE’s tagline, “Advancing Technology for Humanity.”
Michel has been a member of the faculty of the University of Dayton, in Ohio, and is currently at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, where he advised three Ph.D. and 35 master of science students, and works as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense. In this interview, he shares his background, including what it was like to be a B-52 pilot, the importance of acquiring new expertise for career security, and why all engineers need to brush up on their soft skills.
You began your IEEE career as a student volunteer. What were you like in college? And what has been the biggest change for engineering students since?
Well, my hair was a little darker back then. But I was a typical college student concerned about classes, clubs—such as ski club—and girls, but maybe not in that order. I was in an engineering program where the tools and techniques I learned are pretty much the same as today. What’s changed is the way students get information.
After graduation, you joined the U.S. Air Force. Can you tell us more about that?
I received a commission through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), a college-based program for training commissioned officers of the U.S. Armed Forces, and started out as a pilot. I flew T-37, T-38, and B-52 aircraft for a while. Then I did some research engineering and launched satellites. I retired from the Air Force in 1994.
Everybody asks about what it was like to be a pilot. In a high-performance aircraft, you have to think ahead of the plane. If you’re thinking about what the plane is doing now, you’re behind the situation and can get into trouble. You can be flying inverted and you find out you can actually think when you’re upside down—and react and do things. It challenges the body and the mind.
As a pilot, you learn about being in different situations, lessons I’ve taken with me ever since. It doesn’t matter if you’re flying a plane, driving a car, building a project, or managing people—you need to think things through, and I enjoy doing that.
Why did you decide to become an engineer?
Engineers, by nature, are inquisitive. They like to understand how things work. I’m a visual person and a hands-on person, so I figure out how things work by taking them apart and sometimes putting them back together. It’s this creative use of your mind and skills. You can then envision an idea and take the next step by creating something that hasn’t existed before.
Creativity really is the essence of what engineering is. We have this notion that engineering is sitting down and crunching numbers and formulas. That is not engineering. Engineers literally create the world we live in. Something that doesn’t exist comes out of somebody’s mind. That’s the start of engineering. Math and science are tools to make that idea a reality.
As a volunteer with the IEEE Public Visibility Committee, you helped come up with IEEE’s tagline: “Advancing Technology for Humanity.” How is IEEE helping humanity?
Think about where you would be without technology. Some technology may be more humanitarian directed, others may just be for convenience, but technology really does improve the quality of life. IEEE is in all these areas. We have the technical societies working on the research to make technologies possible. We have working engineers who are taking ideas out of the lab and turning them into products. We have the IEEE Standards Association. People may not realize it, but Wi-Fi is based on an IEEE standard. Where would the world be without Wi-Fi? We’re doing all these things under the auspices of advancing technology for humanity.
When you were running for IEEE president, you vowed to enhance career security for members. How do you plan to do that?
People talk about job security. No one can give you that. Job security depends on the company. What IEEE can do—and I use the phrase carefully—is offer career security. You can be the most valuable engineer by being current in technology and by networking with others. If you take advantage of the products and services that IEEE offers, you will become the most valuable engineer in your organization. And if your job goes away, you’ll have no trouble finding another.
You also have talked about the importance of soft skills. Can you say more about how IEEE can help members acquire these skills?
This is an example of a soft skill: knowing how to talk to people. Typically engineers graduate from college with technical skills. They know how to use an oscilloscope, they know how to write a report, but they often don’t really know how to run meetings and they don’t interact with people as much as they could.
Think about a junior engineer who is asked to run a meeting for the first time. It’s better not to realize that you don’t know how to run a meeting when your job is on the line. If you practice running meetings for IEEE as a volunteer in a chapter, a section, or for an event, you get those skills and you get to work with people. You learn what it takes to get people motivated to do something, as well as how to coordinate activities, follow up, and communicate results. These are all soft skills that are extremely important in the business world, which you get to do in a fun environment in IEEE.
The Institute has a section called Part-Time Passions in which we showcase member’s hobbies, such as writing poetry or flying drones. Do you have a part-time passion?
You mean one beside IEEE? IEEE is definitely my part-time passion. I also like to tinker with things. We have an old house up in Maine—about 130 years old. A few weeks ago, I was working on a lock on one of the doors, which hasn’t opened for about 20 or 30 years. It’s so old it uses a skeleton key. I took this lock apart and I was thinking how I could fix it. Growing up, I fixed cars. Things like these are puzzles to be solved and analyzed—physically and mentally—which is what I enjoy.
Like many of our members, are you also a science fiction buff? If you could be any sci-fi character, who would you be, and why?
I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who for 35 years. The character resonates with me. For those unfamiliar with him, he’s a Time Lord who travels around in a box going through time and space, solving problems. He really is using technology for the benefit of humanity. I think he should be an IEEE member.
Of all your accomplishments to date, which are you most proud of?
My daughters and family. They give me great pride. Professionally, in terms of jobs, being an Air Force pilot. The job requires physical and mental skills. And recently, being elected IEEE president. The profession has recognized my ability to lead IEEE. I’m thankful to the members.
Lastly, what one technology could you not live without?
The first thing I think of is my cellphone. But it’s because I take so many things for granted. I go home and I know if I flip the light switch, the lights are going to go on. I know if I turn the faucet on, I’m going to have good-quality drinking water. We tend to overlook these basic luxuries in developed countries, but if you’re in a developing country, you may not have them. We need to remember that.