The California Engineer

The California Engineer: Standing out in your PE Career, Adapting to New Technology and the Fight Against “Occasions for Malfeasance”

NSPE-California member David Cotton, P.E. talks about his journey to professional licensure and how adapting himself to a changing economy positioned him to take an ethical stance in the design of new technologies.

David Cotton, P.E.After graduating college with a degree in electrical engineering in 1983, David Cotton, PE decided that he could best put his talents to work directly out in the field versus in a classroom or academic research lab.  

Cotton left Connecticut for a role in the Air Force Acquisition Command in Warner Robins, Georgia, just outside Macon. There in the field, he saw theory and practice come to life when we was deployed to Operation Desert Storm in Iraq where he took part in building one of the largest tactical networks ever built, from basic phone service to satellite communications, switches, and wireless communications. 

“In the early 1990s, working as a radio frequency (RF) engineer was a lucrative profession, but as the late 90s dotcom bubble hit, lots of communications technologies such as wireless systems began to be commoditized.” says Cotton. “Salaries were halved.” 

Despite having stand-out expertise in RF systems, he needed something else to differentiate his professional brand and to stand out among his peers even further.  He chose to complete his field experience by earning his Professional Engineering license. 

When Cotton moved to Wyoming to take a role at a cellular operator, his professional environment was a driving factor in leading him down the path to a PE: “There were two to three PEs in the office and my boss was a PhD PE and he encouraged others to get their PE licenses.”  He saw that the firm was setting itself apart by employing PEs and Cotton saw that this same strategy could apply to his own career growth.  This move to advance himself in the field also started to take the shape of a PE’s ethical duties to public safety and well being. 

Says Cotton, “When I started working [in the RF industry] I understood how you designed the cell sites wasn’t just an engineering challenge but also involved public safety. There was a balance. Some jurisdictions wanted smaller sites which weren’t as safe as taller ones where emissions were further from the ground. Because of my [PE] license, I had a mandate to care about public safety in my engineering designs. No company selling a product wants to hurt their customers and I could emphasize that to our clients.” 

Speaking from the perspective of public safety helped link the work of an engineer to what the public would experience in their day to day lives.  For Cotton, it wasn’t about just promoting new technologies, but showing the public how those technologies could be integrated safely during public use. 

When asked to reflect on the current state of PE licensure and future professional engineers, Cotton advocated continued public understanding and trust building. “The first challenge we have is that there are working engineers that don’t even fully understand what a licensed PE does. You don’t hear enough about it in engineering schools and that is really the best place to start.” 

When asked about his thoughts on the future of the PE’s role in emerging technology, “As the presence of technology increases in society so will occasions for malfeasance.” Mistakes, Cotton points out, either due to system flaws or the behaviors of bad actors could negatively impact society if PEs aren’t vigilant. “Self driving cars are less of an issue than the underlying  wireless [communications infrastructure] that supports them. If something goes wrong at the basic comms level, the entire network can be put at risk.” 

So how to best prepare for PEs in this world of changing technologies? Reflecting back on his own journey of staying adaptive to one’s surroundings, Cotton cited again the necessity of improving the education of students entering the workforce. “That will be key to protecting the safety of the public, no matter the technology involved.”

David Cotton, P.E. is an electrical engineer and holds professional engineering licenses in multiple states, the District of Columbia, anad three Canadian provinces. He is a Senior Member of IEEE.  With IEEE, Dave is a member of the International Committee for Electromagnetic Safety and the Communications Society.  Dave received his BSE, Electrical Engineering, University of Connecticut, and two masters degrees, an MS, Telecommunications and an ME, Engineering Management, both at University of Colorado. He is registered as Chartered Engineer through the Engineering Council (UK) and the IET, and a Fellow/CPEng with Engineers Australia. 

Upon graduation from Connecticut, Dave earned a commission in the US Air Force as a second lieutenant and was stationed at Electronic Systems Center, Hanscom AFB, MA.  In 1989, he was transferred to the 5th Combat Communications Group, Robins AFB, GA.  During this assignment, he served in DESERT SHIELD/STORM.  He left the Air Force in 1992, and went to the Atlanta area to work in the wireless sector.  He first worked as an RF Engineer for BellSouth Mobility and PriCellular.  He has worked in the wireless industry for over 20 years and in military telecommunications for 9 years.  He is a Senior Rail Systems Engineer, working for LTK Engineering Services in San Francisco. He lives in Redding, California. 

The California Engineer is NSPE-California’s showcase of NSPE members and their personal stories and experiences as professional engineers. Would you like to share your personal story as a California Engineer? Reach out to us using this interest form here.