An Interview with James Mourra, Engineer

by Seán O'Donnell
Hard helmet on desk with blueprints

James Mourra loved to rock out. As a high school student, owned a few guitars and could play them well. But he was particularly intrigued by what made those sounds he loved creating and hearing. How did the amp make the guitar louder? How do the wires and electricity make this all work?

The mystery behind the music led the Manor, Pa., resident to electrical and computer engineering (ECE) studies at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). James earned his ECE bachelor's in 2002 and completed his master's in 2004.

For the last three years, he has gained hands on design-build electronics experience at Keystone Applied Technologies Inc., a subsidiary of Omni Tech specializing in government contract projects such as night vision technology. Guitars or amps aren't on his project roster, but he enjoys his off-hours freedom for musical pursuits.

James & His Career

Tell us about your engineering career. Where did your interest in engineering start? How is your career unfolding?

My interest in engineering started with a love of music, actually. I wanted to find out what was going on inside my stereo, and inside my guitar amp. My career is going in a slightly different direction, but the basic idea remains the same — only now I get to design and build electronics.

What do you enjoy most about your current position? Your career?

I enjoy traveling when the opportunity arises, and I like the people I work with. I think the best thing about my current company is that it is small. You don't get lost in the shuffle.

What was your greatest success? Biggest setback?

I've only been out of school for three years, so I haven't hit too many of either yet. I suppose the greatest success is when you complete an important project, and people want to buy your product. Setback? Probably when your project inexplicably fails in the field after working fine in the lab.

What are some of your favorite projects completed in your career and why?

I work for a government contractor, so I'd rather not say.

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?

Ideally, I will remain an engineer for as long as possible, without floating up into the world of management and stress. I want to design and build and tinker as long as I can. Also, I would like to keep my hobbies alive, and hopefully continue to play music with friends and maybe see if I could sell an album some day.

Anecdote about life as an "engineering guy"?

If something goes wrong, it's probably the simplest mistake — did you forget to plug it in?

Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your engineering education. Which schools did you go to, and which degrees were you awarded?

I went to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa. I graduated with a B.S. in electrical and computer engineering in 2002, and with an M.S. in ECE in 2004.

How did you initially decide to study engineering at an undergraduate level? And how did you find a school?

Sometimes I don't even know the answer to that question. In high school, I couldn't think that far into the future. In looking for school, I basically went with CMU because it had one of the best engineering schools in the country, but it also had art, music, drama, architecture, etc, etc. - plenty of fallbacks should I decide to seek another path. And it made for interesting groups of friends from different backgrounds and philosophies. I minored in history because I ended up liking it so much.

You earned your master's degree in engineering. What drove your decision to return to school, and how did you choose the program?

The job market sank from after the recession, and tech workers were being let go, so it was difficult to find work immediately. Luckily, CMU had an integrated master's/bachelor's (IMB) program, and it seemed perfect. My grades were right, and I knew that it would give me an edge later on.

In retrospect, what do you know now that you wish you knew before you pursued your engineering education?

It's hard to pick out anything of note...I learned so much at college, that I wouldn't want to tell my former self. You need to make a decision and stick to it. Life is about going for it, and making your mistakes, and learning from them.

Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in landing a good job?

A lot of companies will give you a bump in salary for the same position, and larger companies such as Intel of AMD will want to snatch you up. But I know people with engineering degrees from Pitt (University of Pittsburgh), Penn State and other schools, and they are doing great. Not that I'm putting down those schools, mind you. If my kids were unsure about where they wanted to go, I'd gladly suggest they get their undergrad at a local university, and if they want to pursue it, to get a master's or doctorate at a more "prestigious" school.

Engineering in Practice

Describe a typical day of work for you. What exactly do you do? What are your key responsibilities? On a basic level, what skills does your job demand?

I spend a fair amount of time doing research for projects — determining the proper algorithms for a device to function, determining the best methods for implementing a product specification. The remaining time is spent designing, usually on a computer, and then building and testing on a lab bench. I still solder a far bit, and I even do some mechanical work as well.

What are the tools of the trade that you use the most? Favorite gadget?

Computer software is invaluable, and the most used gadget is just a plain old multimeter. That and my trusty TI-85 calculator from 1994!

What are some common myths about your profession?

Probably that we're all nerds with no life, and that Dilbert and Office Space are true reflections of reality. Most of us enjoy life outside of engineering, and while it can be draining at times (especially approaching deadlines), you can go home at night and pursue your hobbies. Most companies wouldn't be around too long if the employees weren't content. The turnaround would be so high nothing would ever be accomplished.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

Juggling multiple projects, especially when everything hits the fan at once. But it keeps you on your toes.

How is the job market now in the industry? How do you think it will be in five years?

The job market right now is good. I can't tell the future, but hopefully it will remain that way for a long time.

What are the best ways to get a job in engineering field? How available are internships?

Internships are always available, you just have to be willing to relocate temporarily and/or work for nothing. But the experience can be enormously valuable.

What is the average salary for your field? What are people at the top of the profession paid?

This is different from city to city. On the west coast, salaries are high, but the cost of living is proportionally too high — I have some friends in California who lament the fact that even though they are raking it in, they could never afford that $750,000 two-bedroom house. Here in Pittsburgh, the cost of living is so low, the average starting salary of $50,000 to $60,000 goes a long way. The people at the top, well, it depends on what they are doing. Once you reach a certain level of competence and stature, many engineers start companies. I don't know for sure, but I'd assume you could easily make $100,000 or more, depending on your location.

In Conclusion

What advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in engineering?

If you like math and science and you stay up late watching Mythbusters marathons, then give it a shot. There are not enough young people going into the engineering field in the United States, and we're starting to fall behind other countries. Some kids think engineering is too hard, but it's not. You'll be a valuable resource.

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