Elizabeth Sawyer graduated from the UAH ECE department with her Bachelors in Computer Engineering in 2020. Elizabeth was named the 2020 Outstanding Computer Engineering Undergraduate. Upon graduation, Elizabeth moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where she launched her career at Ethicon, Inc. A subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson, Ethicon specializes in manufacturing medical devices, including surgical sutures and wound closure devices. At Ethicon, innovation is key, and their employees look beyond traditional surgery methods to develop new ways of healing for patients around the world. Elizabeth’s various roles at Ethicon have involved writing software and bringing up hardware for upcoming operating room equipment.

In a recent interview with Dr. Aleksandar Milenkovic, Chair of the ECE Department, Elizabeth offers a firsthand look into her experience in her Computer Engineering program here at UAH and how that has shaped her career today.

Reflecting on your time at the university, what were some of the most valuable experiences you had in the ECE program? Can you share a project or piece of research you worked on during your studies that had a significant impact on your career path?

I cannot stress the importance of project work! I had three major research projects in college: one independent research project for my Honor's thesis, one summer National Science Foundation research project, and my ECE senior design project. When I interviewed with Ethicon, I referenced these projects a lot. They demonstrated how I worked with a group, how I managed my time/schedule, how I decomposed work, how I documented work, and also demonstrated where my passion and technical interests were. Plus, I enjoy staying in contact with the friends and research mentors from these projects!

What specific skills or knowledge did you gain from the ECE program that you've found most beneficial in your career? How did the program prepare you for the challenges you've faced in the tech industry?

The technical skills I use the most from college are object-oriented C++ and git. Although this wasn't my favorite class in college, I'm very thankful I learned these skills as they are fundamental to modern coding (and I've grown to appreciate them more over time). I'm thankful that the ECE program gave me broad exposure to a variety of skills (e.g. assembly language, docker containers, Valgrind) because a lot of them have come in handy at one point or another - don't write off a skill just because you "think you'll never use it."

The soft skills from college that I use the most are knowing how to work with a team and planning/executing work in a timely manner. There are always deadlines in the tech industry with the race to get to market first. It can seem overwhelming at first, but it becomes a lot easier if you're able to break down the work into manageable sizes. The ECE senior design projects provided me with a great introduction into my personal responsibility of defining and managing a chunk of a project.

How has your degree in ECE contributed to your successes and achievements in your career? Can you describe a moment or project in your career where you directly applied what you learned in the ECE program?

As a computer engineer, I have exposure to concepts from both computer science and electrical engineering. Having knowledge of both software and hardware has allowed me to be more flexible and valuable to my team. For instance, one of my previous teams was super small and didn't have a dedicated hardware engineer assigned. Even though my official role was to write software for our embedded controller, I was able to help with debugging hardware problems and work on updating PCB schematics because I knew circuits. Currently as a firmware engineer, I have to think a lot about memory constraints, data transmission protocols, and what hardware peripherals are available for use - which I learned about in CPE 323.

So far one of the toughest problems I've had to track down in my career was a combined race condition and heap overflow. We had two devices that worked great when separated. However, when the devices were put together and an application I wrote was run, it would cause one of the devices to crash about 1/20 times. To solve this problem, I actually ended up using Valgrind to characterize the memory and get a core dump. Prior to this problem, I had used Valgrind once in a short lab for CPE 212, but the prior exposure helped solve the problem a lot faster!

What advice would you give to current students who are pursuing a degree in ECE and aspire to follow a similar career path as yours? Looking back, is there anything you wish you had done differently during your time in the program?

If you're wanting to go into software development, learn modern C++! I learned traditional C++ in school, which has been amazing for understanding how pointers work (important!), but the industry calls for modern C++ due to memory-safety precautions. CppCon is a C++ conference that has awesome "back to basics" videos you can find on YouTube to help explain concepts like smart pointers.

If you're wanting to do FPGA development, get some job experience in it. It is easier to get a software job with basic experience than it is to get an FPGA role with basic experience.

If I could do it over again, I would co-op while I attended school. At my company, we are more likely to hire an engineer out of college with co-op experience than one without any internships/co-ops. If you can't co-op, get project experience through research you lead/direct or clubs like the space hardware club.

Based on your professional experience, what future trends in ECE do you think students should be preparing for now? How do you stay current with technological advancements and continue learning in your field?

ECE students should be preparing to develop tech with memory-safe programming and zero-trust cybersecurity. The FDA recently issued guidance for cybersecurity, and the White House also recently issued a statement calling for memory-safe programming (probably learn Rust). With the tech industry moving towards connected Internet-of-Things, these two items along with AI are becoming hot topics.

A lot of what I learn is on the job and guided by the task I'm working on, but conferences such as CppCon are a great way to learn what's new. There are additionally great courses available through companies like AMD/Xilinx on skills that are specific to the microcontrollers I work with.

Is there any feedback or suggestions you would like to offer to the ECE program to better prepare future students for their careers?

I mentioned this before, but I cannot stress enough the importance of project work. I may have groaned a little bit when we had to do a project, but I really do think the projects I did helped get me my job despite the fact that I hadn't co-oped with the company before. When we interview for positions, we look for action-based responses and want examples of actual work they have completed and not just head knowledge.

Additionally, consider (if possible) moving some of the more specialized courses up in the course roadmap. I found out senior year that I loved controls, but I only had time to take one course. If I had had more time, I would have taken more FPGA and controls courses and my current job would look really different.

With the development of ChatGPT, coding implementation may eventually become automated with software developers doing more quality checks of the code. I can see software developers moving more towards becoming system architects or spending more time designing good code than writing code. It might be helpful to integrate more system design into some projects, requiring things like UML class diagrams and sequence diagrams.

Consider making at least one co-op term a requirement of the program. University of Cincinnati actually requires 5 co-ops for all of their engineers. My company tends to recruit engineers with co-op/internship experience, and both my husband and I found it very difficult to find a job without prior experience (despite being top of class). Graduating a semester behind my friends was definitely a deterrent to me when considering whether to co-op in college.

Any final thoughts or messages you'd like to share with prospective students considering a degree in ECE from our university?

UAH wasn't my first pick when I was applying to colleges, but it gave me exactly what I needed and was where I needed to be. I would absolutely do it over again.

Thank you Elizabeth. We are proud of your achievements so far and we are looking forward to hearing great things from you in the future.