I'd always been considered something of a brain, and I was very lucky to get accepted to Stanford University. I entered college with little thought as to what I wanted to study. All I had to go on was my parents' admonition that I "study something useful." Translation: don't get a degree in English, psychology, philosophy or art unless you want to make your life more difficult than it has to be.
I've always been interested in the way things work, so I found myself taking introductory engineering courses. I especially enjoyed the hands-on shop classes, in which I got to use machines such as the lathe and the mill to craft, among other things, a magnifying glass and a futuristic chess set. These classes lead me to a major in engineering with a specialty in product design (as it's called at Stanford; similar to "industrial design" at other schools). The product design specialty allowed me to indulge my less useful creative side with courses such as photography and drawing, while at the same time I worked my way through the physics, calculus, computer science and mechanical and electrical engineering curriculum.
College ended much too quickly for me, and I wasn't prepared for the abrupt transition into the real world. I'd looked into a few design jobs in the Bay area at companies such as IDEO and Jump Associations, but hadn't nailed anything down by the time graduation rolled around. And so I returned home to the East Coast. Like many recent college graduates, I moved back in with my parents. I also ended up working for them, in the small research software company that they owned.
The technical knowledge and skills that I had honed during college proved very useful in my new career. One of my main functions at the company was to write the hard-copy software users' manuals and to generate online help content. In order to perform my job, I needed a strong working knowledge of the software and the highly technical niche industry of research management. I attended trade shows at which I had to speak about software with people who possessed various levels of software and technical know-how. I also spent time training users on-site, and it was important that I had an in-depth understanding of the complexities of our software package, and also the unique processes of each of our client's companies.
Eventually, I decided to move in a new direction. One of the many benefits of my technical background was that I quickly learned to understand the concepts involved in saving and budgeting my paycheck during my first full-time job, and to use tools such as Excel to manage my finances. Because of these things, I had a large financial cushion when I decided to become a full-time freelance writer. At this point, I was skilled enough using the software from my previous company to write user manuals and training documents off-site, which enabled me to choose to live in an area without having to find local jobs.
I managed to leverage the skills I'd developed through writing version after version of software manuals and user help documents into other freelance writing opportunities. Over the years I'd developed some internet savvy, and was able to find various markets for freelance writing online. I could write technical and non-technical articles with equal ease, and the experience of breaking software usage into small steps made it particularly easy for me to transition into writing how-to guides.
Another aspect of my college career that set me up for success later in life was not sticking to the preconceived notion of what an engineer should be. I noticed that many of my fellow engineers, although absolutely brilliant in their respective fields, tended to spend a lot of time in small cliques. Success in engineering-related fields is due in large part to technical knowledge and skill, but good interpersonal relating abilities can lead to even greater employment options. While in college, I learned to connect with people from all walks of life, and to take any opportunities that presented themselves regardless of whether I might have to frequently interact with new groups of people. I continued to develop these networking skills after graduation, and they helped me to quickly grow my online freelance writing career, as a lot of success in that industry comes from finding and participating in online and offline communities.
I've learned that it's not enough just to excel in your field; you need to also be able to communicate your success to others, and have people support and promote you. Engineers would do well to learn this while they are still in college, if they want to reach high levels of success. At the same time, I'm glad that I studied engineering, as it gave me the basis to succeed in my chosen career path.