Michael Griffin BSc PGrad Dip CEng MIEI is the former chairperson of Engineers Ireland's Thomond Region. A graduate of the University of Galway and the University of Limerick, he has worked in various consultancy, engineering and management roles in multinationals such as Dell, Analog Devices and Onsemi over the past 25 years.
Originally from Kerry, he has a keen interest in electronics, test and measurement, autonomous vehicles, computing and especially RF and microwave engineering and is a committee member of the Engineers Ireland Electronics and Computing Division.
1) When did you first become interested in engineering?
When I was seven years old, a family friend gave me a copy of an old Intermediate Certificate science book by Henly, Fox and Mooney. I was fascinated by all the experiments, diagrams and photographs.
The following year, I got a Science Fair Electronics Kit and a CB walkie-talkie. I had so much fun playing with them and building little projects like crystal radios and alarms, that my parents bought me my first Amstrad computer when I was 10. The bug had bitten. There was no going back. I actually still own the walkie-talkie, electronics kit and computer, and remarkably, all three work!
2) Who were the mentors who helped you on your way?
I have been fortunate throughout my life and my career, to have been surrounded by people who have helped me to achieve my potential.
From my parents, who nurtured my love of all things technical, the many supportive teachers and lecturers I encountered in education, through to the colleagues, supervisors and managers I have worked for over the years. While each had their own mentorship style, I can say with certainty that I have learnt something valuable from them all.
3) Your engineer hero, or the nearest you have to one?
Robert Noyce was an American physicist and engineer who co-founded Fairchild Semiconductor in 1957 and Intel Corporation in 1968 along with Gordon Moore. He is widely regarded as one of the 'fathers of the microchip' for his crucial role in the development of the integrated circuit, a fundamental component of modern electronics.
Noyce completed his PhD and worked at the Philco Corporation where he worked on the design of the first silicon transistor. Fairchild (now Onsemi) was a pioneer in the field of semiconductor technology and played a key role in the development of the integrated circuit, which has enabled the miniaturisation of electronics and the development of all modern computers.
Noyce was responsible for many of the company's key technological breakthroughs, including the first commercial production of silicon transistors. Intel Corporation, which we are, of course, familiar with in Ireland, became one of the most successful and influential companies in the history of electronics. Noyce served as its president until 1975, and chairman until 1979.
In addition to his work in the technology industry, Noyce was also known for his philanthropy and advocacy for science education.
4) An engineer you wish was better known?
John Bardeen was an American physicist and engineer who is best known for his pioneering work in the development of the transistor, a key component of modern electronics.
Born in 1928, he received a PhD in physics from Princeton. After completing his studies, Bardeen worked as a researcher at Bell Labs, where he collaborated with Walter Brattain and William Shockley to develop the first transistor in 1947.
Transistors replaced the bulky and unreliable vacuum tubes used in early electronic devices and revolutionised electronics. This paved the way for the development of smaller, more efficient and reliable electronic devices such as computers and mobile phones.
Bardeen went on to make many other significant contributions to physics throughout his career. In 1972, he received his second Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the theory of superconductivity, which explains the phenomenon of zero electrical resistance in certain materials at very low temperatures. He is the only person to have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics twice.
Bardeen was also known for his humility and dedication to scientific research. Despite his numerous achievements, he was said to be unassuming and always willing to help others.
5) What are your favourite feats of engineering?
It's difficult to pinpoint a single greatest feat of engineering because there have been many impressive engineering achievements throughout history. However, my favourite is undoubtedly the International Space Station. The largest human-made object in space required the coordination and expertise of engineers from around the world to design, build, and maintain.
The habitable artificial satellite orbits around the Earth at an altitude of approximately 408 km (253 miles) and is a joint project between the space agencies of the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, and the European Space Agency (ESA).
Launched in 1998, it has been continuously inhabited by astronauts and has a mass of about 420 metric tonnes.
The fact that it is expected to remain in operation until at least 2028, a service life of 30 years, and has been visited by astronauts from more than 18 different countries are remarkable achievements. It is a wonderful examples of what humans, particularly engineers, can do when we combine our efforts and expertise.
6) What is/are the most important trend/s in engineering right now?
Without doubt, recent developments in artificial intelligence (AI) are the most important trends in engineering right now. It is not an exaggeration to say that AI will change the world in the months and years to come.
There have been many exciting developments in AI in recent years, and the field is rapidly advancing. ChatGPT made a big splash in recent months. ChatGPT (Generative Pre-trained Transformer) is a natural language processing tool driven by AI technology that allows you to have human-like conversations and much more with the chatbot.
The language model can answer questions and assist with tasks like composing emails, essays, and computer code. AI has huge potential in areas like drug discovery and autonomous vehicles to name but a few. Developments in AI have the potential to revolutionise many industries and improve the quality of our lives in countless ways.
7) What are your favourite book/s? And what are you currently reading?
I might be a bit unusual in that I often read two books at the same time. Most recently, I’ve been reading Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, and Play Nice but Win by Michael Dell.
It is clear from Isaacson’s detailed biography that Jobs was a complicated individual with some unusual habits and a somewhat challenging personality.
But it is also clear that he was a genius and despite (or perhaps because of) his quirks, he created the most amazing things. Because he demanded the impossible, he would get it and there is no doubt that his creations have changed and enhanced the lives of millions of people around the world.
In Play Nice but Win, Michael Dell takes readers on a journey through his own experiences as a leader, detailing the ups and downs, and the challenges and triumphs he faced as he built his company into one of the most successful in the world. I managed to meet him some years ago and was struck by his charisma and genuine interest in talking to his employees.
Though both men would be described as hugely charismatic, there are big differences between Dell and Jobs. My takeaways from these books is that it is vitally important how you treat people in life as well as in business.
I believe you can more easily get results by treating people with respect and bringing people with you – the carrot approach, rather than the stick. In Apple terms, as an engineer, I would much rather be compared to co-founder Steve Wozniak than Steve Jobs.
8) What is the one piece of advice you would give to somebody starting out in the profession?
It would be some advice on personal and professional development and it comes in two parts: the first would be that, generally, engineers come out of university with a good understanding of engineering principles, knowledge and technical skills.
However, formal education is not always as adept at developing soft skills and emotional intelligence, which are critical skills for graduates entering the workplace and starting their careers.
Developing emotional intelligence requires self-awareness, empathy, effective communication, mindfulness, and a willingness to learn and grow. I would encourage engineers who are starting out, to practise and refine these skills to better navigate the challenges of the workplace.
The second part of this advice is that the world has changed significantly over the past five to 10 years. The idea of a 'job for life' or even a 'career for life' has largely vanished. Therefore it is imperative for engineers to commit to CPD and lifelong learning immediately after graduation.
In a field like electronics, where the technology is constantly evolving, usually at breakneck speed, the ability to stay abreast of new developments and upskill when required is absolutely vital.
9) What measures do we need to take to help improve the gender balance within the profession?
The sentence 'if she can’t see it, she can’t be it', is more than just a slogan or catchphrase. In order to attract more women into the profession, we need to promote engineering careers to females from a very early age – I would even suggest as young as pre-school, but certainly at primary school level, to show children the possibilities that are available to them. We absolutely need to continue to prominently promote female engineers as role models when engaging with female students at primary and secondary level.
I attended the Intermediate Secondary School Killorglin, the first co-educational secondary lay school in the country (estd. 1909), and benefitted hugely from the wide variety of science and engineering subjects available to all students. Personally, I believe that all primary and postprimary schools should be co-ed so as not to constrain students' subject choices or limit students' immersive experience.
Another area that needs to be addressed is female retention in the profession. Over the years, I have seen many excellent female engineers pivot away from engineering into other professions, at a much higher rate than their male counterparts. The reasons for this may be complex, but in general, I would say that employers need to examine if they could do more to retain and promote female talent and ensure that workplaces are flexible, family-friendly and inclusive, which benefits everybody in the end.
Finally, we need to better educate parents, teachers and career guidance counsellors about career opportunities in engineering. We are fortunate in the Thomond Region to have the Explore Engineering initiative, and Engineers Ireland is proud to support the marvellous showcase event each spring, which promotes engineering careers to second-level students.
10) Looking back over your career, is there any project, or particular time in your life, that stands out?
I was fortunate to be sent on an assignment to Suwon, a city near Seoul, South Korea, a few years ago. It was fairly exciting, as the task was to assist Samsung with the design-in of a silicon chip that I had been working on.
As I looked out the windows of the 16th floor of the main R&D building of one of the biggest electronics companies in the world, I remember thinking that it surely was a career highlight. Security was incredibly tight and my passport was kept by the company while I worked in the building each day.
Professionally and culturally, my visits to Asia for work have been very rewarding, enriching and enlightening. While in South Korea, I had a chance to visit the infiltration tunnels and the DMZ (demilitarised zone) next to the border with North Korea on the 38th parallel. A reminder of the fragile peace that exists in the region.
11) Have you travelled widely work-wise and, if so, is there any country or experience that stands out?
Working for large multinationals that have a global customer base means that occasionally you get to travel to meet and support those customers. I was lucky to travel all over Europe, the UK and USA for work, but for me the standout destination was Japan.
I really love the country, especially the people, the efficiency of the services, the sense of law and order and overall cleanliness of the public spaces. While Tokyo is an exciting and somewhat vast cosmopolitan urban area, I was privileged to also get to visit Sapporo and some of the more rural parts of Hokkaido.
Much of the scenery is stunningly beautiful, and that’s saying something coming from a Kerryman! I’m hoping to return to Japan in the next few years to run the Tokyo marathon.
12) What are your favourite films/TV dramas?
With a young family and a whole host of commitments, I don’t have as much time for film and television as I once did. I tend to go for quality rather than quantity, and will often let a TV show run for a few seasons before committing to watching it.
Two shows from the past decade stand out for me, though. I was an avid fan of The West Wing, a US political drama which ran from 1999-2006. It broke new ground in terms of the 'walk and talk' filming technique, combined with Aaron Sorkin’s rapid-fire and witty dialogue. For me, Martin Sheen’s monologue in the 'Two Cathedrals' episode is one of the greatest scenes in television history.
For pure entertainment value, Breaking Bad is rightly credited as one of the greatest TV shows of all time. It set a new bar for television. The show had a compelling storyline, strong character development, and excellent performances from its cast. It also featured unique cinematography, with visually stunning shots that enhanced the storytelling.
13) What is the best piece of advice that you have ever been given?
'Life is not a dress rehearsal' – meaning that we only have one life to live, and we should live it to the fullest because there are no second chances.
It emphasises the importance of seizing opportunities, taking risks, and making the most of our time on Earth. We shouldn't wait for a second chance or a do-over because life does not offer us such opportunities. Instead, we should treat every day as if it is our only chance to make a difference, pursue our dreams, and create the life we desire.
Life is precious, and time is finite, so it is important to make the most of every moment. We should strive to live authentically, take risks, and pursue our passions, rather than living a life of regrets and missed opportunities. Seize the day and live life to the fullest, as if there is no tomorrow!
14) If you weren’t an engineer, what might you have become?
I was quite involved in youth politics when I was in university. It was a valuable learning experience for me, allowing me to gain knowledge and understanding of how the political process worked and how policies are made.
It was important to me that young people had a voice in shaping the future and influencing policies that impacted their lives. It also helped me develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
My family is involved in politics, and at a career crossroads many years ago I had to choose between engineering and politics. Engineering won out, but I maintain a keen interest in current affairs. There is some degree of politics in every organisation – company or body – and the ability to work with people who hold different views on a variety of matters is a vital life skill to have.
15) What do you do to relax?
Mankind evolved from hunter-gatherers, so it seems a little unnatural to sit in front of a computer screen for eight hours a day. To compensate for the sometimes unavoidable sedentary nature of our modern lives, I took up running.
I run four to five times a week – and up to six if I’m training for a marathon. I average around 25 miles a week in the off-peak season, but this can go as high as 50 miles a few weeks before a big race.
I have completed 11 marathons so far, including two world majors: London 2021 and Boston 2022. My goal is to complete all six world majors (Tokyo, Chicago, New York and Berlin) over the next few years. Running is great for the mind as well as the body and is a natural de-stressor. I also love to travel, so it is great when I get to combine the two hobbies.