Reassurance, Advice and Laughs at 2006 Engineering Parents' Weekend


Brook Byers

Brook Byers, a venture capitalist and Pratt parent, kicked off the 2006 Parents' Weekend seminar and barbeque by soothing parents’ fears that their child wouldn't get a good job. He described five hot technology areas, and gave seniors advice on how to choose their first position.

His presentation to the crowd of 600 parents and students Oct. 27 was followed by an interactive panel of four Duke engineering seniors who provided their own take on the value of an engineering degree.

“Three years ago I sat as the parent of a freshman in the audience where you are now and I remember feeling a double anxiety,” said Byers. “I wondered, did my son make the right choice in Duke so far from home? I also recognized that many parents were concerned about the headlines mentioning technology cycles, outsourcing, and job growth areas.”

“Three years later, I can’t tell you how pleased our family has been with Duke. Kristina Johnson is an amazing dean and the faculty and staff are just remarkable. So inclusive, it’s like being part of a family,” he said.

Byers, with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in Menlo Park, Calif., ran through how the parents spent the past 24 hours vs. the students to contrast how each demographic employs technology in their entertainment, work, travel, and communications habits. He said “if you want to know where technology is headed, just watch what your sons and daughters are doing.”

Byers says engineering is a worthwhile pursuit, particularly given the pace of change in industry. “An engineering major is the perfect major. It prepares you for any career, not just science and engineering. Engineers can go into consulting, law, medicine or finance with ease because the intellectual training makes you solvers of complex problems.”

He then described five areas of explosive technology growth and discussed how engineering will play a role in each.

Byers' Hot Technology Picks

1. Web and Digital Media . . . Wherever You Are
“There has been more change in the web and digital media in the last four years than in the last 40 years,” said Byers. For example, the cost of digital storage is now so affordable that it opens up a new range of consumer technology potential.

Byers sees tremendous opportunity in the evolution of user generated Web content technology and inverted web search capabilities that customize for personal interests. He also foresees the phone as your PC, targeted commerce, Web becoming integrated into the living room, multimedia services, and digital socializing. All require engineers to make these revolutions happen, he says.

2. Digital Infrastructure
Troublesome problems such as ID theft and the need for better, more sophisticated security technology are engineering problems waiting to be solved. Byers forecasts growth in voice and face recognition technology, and significant improvements in telecommunications and medical imaging as photonics and semiconductors move to their next generation. He complimented the Duke Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Engineering in these sectors.

3. Alternative energy/clean technology/green technology
“If you look at industry today, by far the biggest commercial sectors are healthcare and energy,” said Byers.

He forecasts improvements to solar energy materials technology that will finally make this energy source economical. Engineering is poised to improve the run-down response of rechargeable batteries, fix the environmental problem of battery disposal and make new biofuel sources economical to produce, distribute and use, he said. Engineering can also make coal gasification, which is cheaper and cleaner than burning coal itself, a commercially profitable option.

“There is also the issue of water,” said Byers. “Did you know that 1 billion people in the world do not have access to clean water?”

Byers said Duke’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering are well suited to originate solutions, particularly in collaboration with Duke’s Nicholas School for the Environmental and Earth Sciences.

4. Healthcare Innovation
The problem with our healthcare system is one of quality–— and it’s simply too expensive,” said Byers. “Healthcare must become more efficient and individualized.”

“We need to begin diagnosing patients by sample, not by symptom, and that is a problem engineering can help solve,” he said. “Within 10 years, we will be able to sequence a person’s genome for $1,000 instead of $10,000,000” and he described how it could be done by combining nanotechnology with genomics with enzyme chemistry with bioinformatics--a perfect interdisciplinary set of challenges for Duke engineers.

This newly available depth of information will profoundly impact how doctors treat their patients, Byers predicts. It could lead to better determination of who needs defibrillators, use of gene profiles to provide individualized guidance on breast cancer treatment regimes, and customized knee replacement parts designed for a specific patient, he said.

5. Emerging Infectious Disease
“There has been no real innovation in the way vaccines are produced in the past 20 years,” said Byers. “We need new ways to manufacture vaccines rapidly and in massive quantities. To do this we need innovation in vaccine constructs, manufacturing and delivery methods to enable availability for developed and underdeveloped countries.”

On Finding the Perfect Job

Byers also gave students advice on how to search for the right job. “When you are at the interview, pay as much attention to behaviors as to words and slogans,” he said. “How individuals are treated is very revealing. The core of any company is its purpose, people and processes. Pick a firm that values trust over internal competition”

When accepting your first job, “go for experience, not titles,” he advised. “Use each job not as a destination, but as a way to build the broadest possible range of experience you can.”

“Choose something you are passionate about,” said Byers. “The work/life balance idea is a myth. Passionate work and life are a blend. Socialization is important because you will be working in product teams. Add volunteer activities to your spare time for your soul.”

Teamwork is especially important. “I know that here at Duke you are constantly asked to work in teams,” said Byers. “This is important because sometimes you get a slacker partner, right? Well that happens in the real world too and you’ve got to learn how to deal with it.”

Byers closed by advising humility and also the self-confidence that the students survived Freshman Math taught by the Math Department and also understanding Maxwell’s Equations which, Byers said, “explain just about everything.”

Student Panel – Lessons From The Trenches


Julia Hubert, Adam Laker, Wendy Young, Blake Byers

Byers was joined on stage by a panel of four engineering seniors who answered questions from the audience. The panel included BME/EE major Julia Hubert; CE/philosophy major Adam Laker; ME major Wendy Young; and BME/economics major Blake Byers.

Question 1: What are your three most important recommendations for new students?

Blake Byers kicked off the answer session with a humorously profound: “Go to class.” While the audience laughed he noted, “It’s surprising how important this really is.”

Wendy Young advised students to “try everything” during their time at Duke. “Really explore and get involved. You will learn more about engineering and yourself.”

Julia Hubert extended Young’s advice with some encouragement. “The professors are excited to be teaching you and they spend time with their students. Get involved and you will learn how to impact the world.”

Adam Laker counseled students to realize they can’t do an engineering curriculum alone. “We all came here to Duke as overachieving high school students and think we can do it here too. But you need to study with a group – sometimes you have to have a team to solve some of the problem sets you will get in homework. Learning through a team is how you will do well. And you need to swallow your pride and talk to your professors when you need to.”

Question 2: Are students being asked to specialize too soon?

“I would say no,” said Blake Byers, noting that the first year of courses at Pratt is basically identical for all engineering majors. “The building blocks for all engineers are the same. Everyone needs to understand physics. Everyone needs to understand chemistry.” What’s exciting to Byers is that “you never know where a class will take you” in terms of sparking new interests. Students have opportunities to take classes that are not required for graduation, and many people go into careers outside of what they get their degrees in.

Young advised students not to worry about specialization too much since so much of engineering and science is now interdisciplinary. “Majoring in one area does not limit your options in life. The problem solving skills you learn are transferable.”

Hubert also reminded the audience that double majoring is very common at Duke, and is accommodated by the engineering curriculum.

Question 3: If you could change the curriculum, what changes would you make?

Hubert would like for students to be required to compete in design contests as part of their degree. “There is a lot of opportunity here to take part in national design competitions such as building a canoe out of concrete and racing other teams, or design a water purification system. But not everyone takes advantage of those opportunities,” she said.

Byers wants to see more classes based on the problem-solving process rather than on problems solved. “I took a class by Professor David Needham called 'Mapping Engineering onto Biology' and it taught me that how you learn can affect how you approach a real world problem.”

Laker expressed enthusiasm for more interdisciplinary courses. He took part in the Rebuilding from Ruins cross-disciplinary course held in last spring. In this class, students explored the consequences of hurricane Katrina from an engineering, environmental and public policy perspective and many spent time in New Orleans helping FEMA with recovery efforts.

Question 4: Does it help engineering students to study abroad?

Three of the four panelists have studied abroad and all said the experience is valuable. Hubert, originally from St. Louis, studied in London where she took economics and biology. “Don’t worry that it will set you back in your degree. With good planning it doesn’t have to.”

Laker, originally from Dallas, studied in Australia where he took technical courses and an astronomy class. “I lived in an international house in Sydney and met and hung out with people from all over the world.”

Young also studied abroad in London and said she was “able to try new things with a lower risk of failure than here at Duke. I was able to travel a lot through Europe and see other cultures.”

Byers did not study abroad but has traveled extensively with his family during his life. He encouraged students to view study abroad as a real opportunity. “You really need to consider traveling and studying abroad to take part in new experiences and cultures.”

Question 5: As parents walk around the campus today, how can they tell the difference between a Trinity student and a Pratt student?

While this question was meant mostly in jest, Laker provided some insider knowledge. “Well, they will be wearing Pratt shirts, but Pratt students also walk faster. We have a greater sense of purpose and better time management skills.”

Question 5: Is underage drinking a problem at Duke? Is it well managed?

According to Byers, “It is no more of a problem here at Duke than any other college. The issue could be better served if it were treated more openly. It’s a very small, safe campus overall. There is a very small community here with a lot of people looking out for you even when you don’t know it.”

Hubert said she didn’t think underage drinking was a big problem, but it does occur. One change she could like to see is that the people enforcing the rules should not be the same people you are supposed to go to for help.

Question 6: If you could forecast, how has engineering school changed you and prepared you for the future?

Hubert, who plans to attend medical school, has learned to be more introspective. “With every problem in life/class or a job everyone brings assumptions which I didn’t realize immediately. I am now more aware of how my own assumptions drive my decisions.” She provided the audience of parents and students with a big laugh by describing how she now counters her assumptions in doing something as simple as choosing a bathroom stall.

Laker, who did an internship as an engineering consultant and plans to go into investment banking after graduation, said that his education gave him good social and problem solving skills. “It taught me a way of looking at problems and preparing for what could go wrong. In addition, because we are constantly forced to interact and work with others in such a small community, we developed social bonds that prepare us for the real world.”

Young, who did several industry internships while an undergrad, agrees that the focus on teamwork and communications skills has prepared her for her first job.

Byers said it was a combination of experiences that has prepared him for his next step: graduate school in biomedical engineering. “You get a broad education from learning in class and depth from the independent research and industry internships,” he said.