IET Fellow’s Experience As An Engineer With Dyslexia
Brian Back, in spite of his dyslexia, is enjoying an engineering career that has spanned 40 years.
He’s pioneered projects such as a wide area smart metering AMR network, a rail temperature monitoring system and most recently, a real-time sewer level and sewer overflow monitoring system.
Pursuing an education
Brian’s career started at 16 as an apprentice power engineer with Hawker Siddeley. But due to the lack of a GCSE in English, he had to take his education one step at a time.
“During my early career, dyslexia was a serious barrier, as educational admission boards would automatically say no at the lack of a formal English qualification. Dyslexia was never mentioned as little was known about it in those days,” he says.
“Time and time again, I had to visit in person and plead with heads of schools to let me on courses.”
Brian’s determination paid off and he completed a TEC, HND and finally an IET accredited degree in Electronic Engineering Design and Production, graduating with a first class honours.
During his education he found ways to “steer around dyslexia”. “Once on the course and behind a computer it was fine,” he says. “The word processors’ spell checkers helped, and later, I had support from my wife.”
Strategies for the workplace
Brian’s success as an engineer soon attracted attention. A head-hunter offered him a role in a small North London business, which was struggling with technical challenges around ultrasonic level transducers and the emerging market of radio telemetry.
In the first week, the owner gave Brian the keys to the door and a code for the alarm. “I realised that working in an SME, I would have to do everything and I would often have nobody to turn to,” he says. “It was truly sink or swim.”
Brian relied on his previous experience as an apprentice and persevered. Over the next couple of years, he helped re-engineer products, turn the business around commercially enabling the then owner to sell it as a going concern to a leading plc.
This experience, coupled with experience working with the acquirer, helped Brian gain his Chartered Engineer (Eng) status and full IET Membership at the age of 32.
As an engineer, Brian used particular strategies to complete his work: “I strived to follow the Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS) principle. I tended to revert to pictures. If numbers were an important part of an installation process/system, then I used barcodes.
“These are all techniques which can help overcome dyslexia, vision impairment, language barriers, and even human error.”
Becoming an entrepreneur
Having enjoyed working for an SME, Brian set up his own business focusing on radio telemetry, machine to machine learning and the Internet of Things (IoT).
His first major deployment was the smart metering AMR network for Paris, followed quickly by the UK’s first rail temperature monitoring system. The responsibility attached with these and other major projects enabled him to become an IET Fellow.
As Brian’s career progressed, he began delivering lectures, writing articles, sitting on and chairing committees, and meeting and influencing politicians.
Again, he found strategies that helped him perform these roles. “I prefer not to read or write in public,” he says. “And I deliver lectures and talks from memory, including at IET events.”
In 2005, Brian successfully sold his first venture to a FTSE 250 company. However, he found retirement difficult, describing it as “the wilderness years.”
Brian decided to start new ventures as hobbies, the main one in the field of radio telemetry and IoT. This soon expanded to the UK’s largest dedicated private radio/IoT network for applications such as water distribution, sewer and pollution monitoring.
“Opportunities I never imagined”
Look back on his career path, Brian says: “When I started my engineering career at 16, I never thought I would become a CEng, let alone a Fellow of the IET. I’ve since had opportunities that I would never have imagined, such as dining in the Houses of Parliament and meeting with the Federal Communications Commission in Washington DC.
“I believe with determination and the right support and strategies, people with dyslexia can succeed in engineering.”
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