Questions from a soon-to-be undergrad

I'm a highschool senior with 9 days to choose a university, and I'm interested in electrical engineering... I think.

  1. I've been accepted at Duke, Washington University in St. Louis, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Maryland, and I'm having difficulty choosing which one to attend.

(a) I've read the US News rankings in an attempt to discern which schools have strong departments. For undergrad overall (the "Harvard, Princeton, Yale, ..." list), Duke is 5, WUSTL is 9, Penn is 5, and Maryland is 53. For undergrad electrical engineering, none of these schools is among the 25 ranked. For undergrad engineering overall, Duke is 20, WUSTL is 38, Penn is 25, and Maryland is 25. For graduate electrical engineering, Duke is 33, WUSTL is 33, Penn is 33, and Maryland is 14. (Many-way ties abound on both lists.) Are these rankings consistent with your impressions of the schools? On the basis of quality/reputation, do any of these schools seem compelling a better choice?

(b) Duke would cost $125,000, Penn about $88,000, and WUSTL somewhere between the two. Maryland is free with a scholarship. My parents are not rich, and these price tags include need-based grants; if I attended one of the non-free schools, I would likely graduate with significant debt. In light of this, do you think the prestige of Duke or Penn is worth it?

  1. I think I'm interested in electrical engineering, but I'm not sure. I got a no-Morse-code Technician ham radio license when I was 11, but I was too young to understand or retain the associated knowledge even if I could regurgitate it sufficiently to pass the tests. At any rate, personal computers soon seduced me away from the hobby, and (as seems a common scenario these days) I developed into a Linux hacker/geek instead of a tinkerer. Now that it's time to plan for college and I've begun poring over catalogs and course descriptions, I've come to the unpleasant (but not unforseeable) realization that computer science is comprised of programming, programming methodology, and programming theory, and that computer scientists graduate as good programmers (in principle at least) who proceed to fight for jobs churning out inelegant and often pandering software.

The occupation I want to make a career of is one that involves skillful application of knowledge to design something that, upon finishing it and stepping back to admire it, is elegant and useful. Because I'm most familiar with computers, I at first sought to identify such an occupation in computer science, but I've realized that's difficult---most computer science occupations either emphasize usefulness (typically in the form of marketability) over elegance/quality, or emphasize baroque theory over simple usefulness. I then considered going into math (which I excel in but only somewhat enjoy) and fighting for a job in academia. Although perceiving interconnections and generalizing them is enjoyable (and fits my "step back and it's elegant and useful" criteria), these enjoyable moments are few and far between, and as a result I find mathematical theorizing to be unpleasantly mentally taxing and sometimes obsession-inducing.

In light of what I've said, do you think I would be happy as an engineer? I love to devise and refine things and to explain/advocate technical solutions. I love to use math and careful reasoning, but I also love to intuit and estimate---to attempt to discern the optimal solution in situations where formal proof is unnecessary or impractical. I love to generalize and simplify; in fact I'm usually unhappy with my work unless I consider it elegant, and I find doing things that are inherently kludgy to be highly unpleasant. I know I would be happy with a job, for example, working for HP in their glory days, when calculators were lovingly designed in Corvallis to be usable, efficient, quality tools, but I fear that times like these are gone for good and the world has cheapened. If I become an electrical engineer, can I reasonably hope to find a satisfying job designing a top-quality product, or will I wind up keeping a fishmonger (with all the Shakespearean connotations) LAN plugged together?

Reply to
Gregory J.
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That's a warning.

I went to Rose-Hulman, which you probably saw on those lists. What you need to remember is that these rankings are based on peer evaluations; basically a giant survey is passed around, and educators assign a number. It might not be a very accurate assessment of a school's actual quality, but it does provide an index of the reputation. The schools in question are all fairly large, and what you learn in an electrical engineering program at any one of them will be about the same.

Debt is a serious consideration. If you can indeed manage to get a free scholarship from Maryland, nothing comes to mind about the other schools that really warrants the much larger expenditure.

Computer science is indeed a poor field to enter right now. Electrical engineering is not much better.

As an electrical engineering student, you'll use a lot of math. You'll need to take many formulas and solution paths and make them into habits. Fortunately, it is all directly applicable, and there are lots of "ah-HA!" moments where you gain awareness of mathematical links between everything you're doing at the moment.

No one can really answer that. I love all forms of engineering and have since a very early age, I can and do pick up anything easily, I spend most of my free time teaching myself new things and tinkering. I went to a very reputable school, and graduated in four years from arguably one of the most intensive programs in the nation. It taught me a lot of things, most of them not directly related to engineering. Yet one thing you need to realize is that college, engineering, and employment are not chained together. Employment is about money, not about engineering; as such, it is governed by the economic climate and the individuals who give money to engineers, as well as social networks that come into play when employers have the luxury of choosing employees based on more than skill. Going to college and getting an engineering degree does not guarantee that you will get the job you want. I graduated in 2002, and have had nothing more than a mechanical engineering temp job, and a few small consulting projects. Under no circumstances do I regret getting the degree. However, since I really haven't yet been able to test and expand my skills in actual use, I don't know if a state school education would have been just as well except with no massive loans.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that your ability to become an engineer, and to get a job as such, depends on many factors other than what college you go to. Some of the factors you can influence, and some you can't.

I think that perhaps you should consider getting your engineering degree, but working on a parallel career path. With your attention to detail and desire to explain technical solutions, you would be a good candidate for some kind of documentation-related career. One such career would be acting as a technical translator; learn another language, combine it with your engineering knowledge, study abroad for a few years to learn the customs of whatever country you've chosen (Germany, Japan, and China are good possibilities). You could also be responsible for overseeing projects and ensuring that communication problems don't cause costly failures. Another possibility is law. You can go to law school after getting your degree, and become a technical lawyer (which many companies find extremely valuable in many cases). There are also possibilities for technical consulting as part of a law firm, without having the law degree.

In any case, you still have some time to figure out exactly what you want to do, once you're in college. You can spend the first year taking the classes that all the freshmen take, and figure out what kind of an education you really want.

Reply to
Garrett Mace

None of those schools are particularly good for getting engineering jobs. They are good for getting into graduate school. Few east coast universities teach engineering well. Most teaching old stuff as indicated by the lab equipment. Some, such as Leigh (once called the Engineers and now called Mountain Hawk) are downsizing engineering for business programs.

A few good engineering schools include Drexel and Carnigie Mellon. But most engineering schools of merit are south and west coast. That is where you will be going if you want to do any serious engineering anyway.

Rather ironic is U of Penn where the computer was designed. Their program is typical of east coast engineering school - teaching mostly technology that is 20+ years old. Engineering programs basicially stagnated because graduates will only get an MBA anyway. The better schools are where the innovative jobs are - south and west coasts.

Hav> I'm a highschool senior with 9 days to choose a university, and I'm

Reply to

Why are you interested? If you heard that you should be an engineer because it's THE choice for people good at math and science, then you don't belong in the field. If you don't already have an EE-related hobby (circuit-building, robotics, ham radio, etc.), you should think twice about majoring in EE. Because you'll just spend 4 years working hard to BS your way through classes that seem like a series of meaningless glorified math problems. On the other hand, if you are a hobbyist, you'll be able to relate to some of the things you study. For example, SWR never meant anything to me until I became a ham radio operator.

Those U.S. News and World Report rankings are a crutch for people who don't know what they're doing. Find out about the various specializations in EE (control systems, power systems, computer engineering, semiconductors, etc.). The best schools will be strong in a wide variety of areas. Lesser schools will only be strong in a few areas. Also, the less popular specialties (like controls and power systems) are only strong at a handful of schools but weak or unavailable everywhere else.

No. Unless you get enough grants/scholarships to make up the difference, the extra debt would be a substantial financial handicap. It's debatable how much difference the extra prestige will make in your career, but the difference in cost that you see is pretty certain. If you want to be in power engineering and Duke and Penn offer it while Maryland does not, then it might be worth it to pay more. But you better be VERY certain of a HUGE advantage in order for the extra cost to be worth it.

If you are a hardcore Linux geek, then you have a substantial aptitude and attitude advantage in computer programming. The people who go into computer programming just because they heard it's a good field but don't know to do anything other than use Microsoft products to send emails and write papers and spreadsheets are seriously impaired. You'd have to drink a few beers before each class in order to be as impaired as they are.

Jason Hsu, AG4DG

Reply to
Jason Hsu

If you go into EE, do NOT blow off electronic projects. Believe it or not, most of your GPA will be based on mid-term and final exams. Designing and building electronic projects just doesn't count much towards your GPA. However, it is VERY necessary to gain practical know-how.

You already know that you will be busted if you blow off your GPA. If you blow off the practical aspects, you will also be busted. You won't be busted by your school, but you will embarass yourself in job interviews and in the workplace. Just ask the people on this group who interviewed candidates who had a 3.5 GPA out of 4 but couldn't remember how to apply Ohm's Law. Then there was the individual who graduated from CalTech who blew up $100 parts 4 times over and was too arrogant and incompetent to figure out what was wrong with his circuit design.

Jason Hsu, AG4DG

Reply to
Jason Hsu

a member of the procrastinators club, I see. ;-)

Bottom line? None of the above are great. Md is the *best* choice. Take that $100K you would have spent on an education and put it aside for your retirement. There *is* no choice here. Trust me, I paid my own way through college at a good school (one of the top 5) when it was *cheap*, and I still owed significant money when I graduated. Take the damned free-ride. ...end of story!

Get your EE degree. There are lots of places for EEs to do programming. I hate programming (at least in Cwhatever), but it is a huge part of the job (that others do).

Me too, but feeding the family has its advantages too. If you take that $100K and put it away, you'll be sticking your toes in white sand, drinking your fav beverage when you're my age.

Where did you get this idea? Most emphasize getting the damned thing out on time! fact *all* emphasize this. If it's late to market, it's by definition wrong.

...and few can expect to be paid for mental-m*********on. Take your money and your degree and plan to retire well-off in 30 years. Trust me, it's not all that far away.

Impossible to tell. If you're as good at math as you say, you have school knocked though.

Sounds good! ...though sometimes it must be a kludge. SOme things are quick-n-dirty.

Yeah, you and a billion other wannabees. ;-) I've done alright, though I'm to the point I wan to go back and do what I want to do. Gadgets are just too much fun. Processor development is getting tiring.

That's entirely up to you. I'd highly recommend doing coops with industry though. Engineering is a cyclical business (and I'vee been in the cycle for 30 years), but my guess is that in four years there won't be enough sharp, educated engineers to go around. Forget the nay-sayers and India and get to it! You'll do fine, and if you find something else along the line, your engineering discipline can only help.

Reply to
KR Williams

Oh, good grief! MIT isn't any good? Rose Hullman? Cooper Union? Illinois, Michigan... Please all of these are east of ol' Muddy.

You're a dolt. There are many "serious engineering" jobs throughout the country. I've been doing "serious engineering" for thirty years and have never lived left of ol' Muddy. Indeed always within pissing range (or a few hour's drive ;-) of the Atlantic.

Pure bullshit.

..after teaching several courses in a less than topnotch college, I can agree, for a sub-par college. They're looking for tuition, not a place on USNEWS' chart. Anyone from the top schools had better know all these simple tricks anyway.

No, they have *ENGINEERING* degrees. Duh!

They're hardly "computer engineers" then, huh?

You're a fool, though I've said this before.

Get real!

programming computer engineer computer scientist

...and expect some major shocks when it turns out that outsourcing the family jewels to India catches companies right in the short-hairs. Some well-run outsourcing will work, as it has with Germany, Japan, and a hundred other countries for decades (hmm, so racism here?), but the ones looking to get by on the cheap will fail, and I'm betting that some companies will fail right along with these dumb decisions.

Reply to
KR Williams

In my opinion what matters is what employers think about the people turned out by each instutution, not merely those who attended them. I don't know much about the points system you were talking about, but tend to take some of that with a grain of salt.

Sounds like power engineering could be a good option for you - the "desgns", aren't as likely to be buried in the guts of some product. However the important things for the power systems/power generation area are safety, reliability and economy, rather than pure "elegance".

Again the power engineering could give you the best of both worlds - some maths without being especially taxing.

Your comments above sound a bit like me, so quite possibly yes. I started as a graduate electrical engineer with most of my undergraduate practical work (you seem to call this "co-op") being related to power station maintenance, substation construction and protection and communications. This led on to work with a power generation company doing engineering support for operations/maintenance, which has subsequently led on to various levels of engineering management, technical advisory/consulting work, asset management (i.e. equipment maintenance policies, reliability improvement programmes, asset life prediction etc). More recently this has led into mostly risk management work, crossing all engineering disciplines and other areas as well (insurance, safety, environmental etc).

If you get into the purely computer and electronic end of things you will find yourself on a continuous treadmill, as you try to keep abreast of the latest and greatest technology so you don't get left behind and become unemployable. The power engineering field has the benefits of some involvement with high tech stuff (control & protective systems etc) without having to be a component-level expert in each.

My thoughts fwiw.

Reply to

I consider my engineering degree to be the single biggest mistake of my life. I graduated a year ago and have not even had an interview for an engineering job.

When I was in your situation, graduating from HS and deciding on my future, I thought the exact same way you do. I focused on what I thought I WANTED to do, what I thought that I would be good at and enjoy.

What I did not seriously consider was whether I could get a job four or five years down the road. My thinking in that respect was: engineering = sure thing. Now adays that isn't even close to being true (if it ever was).

It is possible that four years from now the tech sector will have recovered and engineering grads will once again be in high demand. But it is also possible that things will be the same or only slightly better than they are today.

"Yet the IEEE-USA, the world's largest technical professional society

- representing more than 225,000 electrical electronics, computer, and software engineers - reports that "American high-tech firms shed

560,000 jobs between 2001 and 2003, and expect to lose another 234,000 in 2004." This contraction cannot be dismissed as the nadir of the dot-com correction. The jobless rate for electrical and electronics engineers was in fact lower in 2002 (4.2 percent) than in 2003 (6.2 percent)."


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I would only recommend electrical engineering to a dedicated individual with a PASSION for science, computers, and electronics, who is prepared to sacrifice EVERYTHING for the next four years in order to graduate at or near the top of his class (which is the only way you will get a job upon graduation, if the market is similar to what it is today). After graduation, you need that passion and dedication to carry you through the layoff cycles.

I will finish off with perhaps the best summary of the downsides of engineering I have ever come across:

" a few real and serious negatives like salary compression, unpaid OT, the mythical job shortage, boom and bust layoffs, underrecognition, being misunderstood by most people, anti-social non-verbal colleagues, job competition from foreigners in the US, and US job exportation to India. Steering a child into engineering seems quite cruel."

No one can predict the future, but at least do a little research into the future job prospects of whatever you choose. It can't save me, but maybe it can save you.

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Reply to

Au contraire, if you scare enough people away from engineering, your prospects might look up in a few years.

I understand the frustration though. You don't get interviews these days with less than four years of experience. There are still entry-level jobs out there, but you need to have actual contacts within a company to prevent your resume from being carefully stacked in the round file.

Reply to
Garrett Mace

I should also share with you some thoughts on what part of EE to specialize in.

If job prospects are a concern, do NOT specialize in an area specific to just one industry. Semiconductors and telecom protocols come to mind. Both of these specialties only have value in one industry, and that one industry is an exceptionally volatile one.

Specializations that have value in a variety of industries will have better prospects. It also helps if that specialization has experienced falling enrollment without a fall in demand. Power systems engineering comes to mind. It used to be an extremely popular specialty, but hardly anyone studies it anymore. Power systems are used in electrical utilities, automobiles, aerospace/defense, and other areas. And this area is MUCH less subject to outsourcing than other areas. (However, I think that semiconductor engineering would STILL have inferior prospects even if outsourcing would disappear forever next week.) Power systems also don't quickly become obsolete. I see a major shortage of power systems engineers brewing, as most of the power systems engineers are older engineers, a substantial percentage are approaching retirement age, and most schools have abandoned power engineering. It's the opposite situation from IT, where things become obsolete quickly, there is a glut of people, and the large number of IT schools and training programs only perpetuates the labor glut.

I think control systems is another good area, though getting practical experience will be ESPECIALLY important. Of all the specialties, the rift between academia and industry is the widest here. Most people who work on controls in industry do NOT delve into the intricacies of various control algorithms the way the academics do. In fact, industry's control systems experts find the IEEE's Transactions on control systems to be unreadable.

Jason Hsu, AG4DG

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Reply to
Jason Hsu

Agreed. This is an area that is unlikely to become obsolete in my working life, and probably not in your (original poster's) working life.

Even within "Power" engineering there are a wide variety of options and allied fields (some of these aren't specific to power engineering alone but have applicability to other fields as well), including:

*generation (converting electrical energy from some other energy source, such as hydro resources, gas turbines, steam turbines fuelled by coal/gas or geothermal, wind, and landfill gas - yes even the low-grade methane from rotting rubbish can generate electricity!); *transmission (Extra-high voltage transport - they're our "trucking company" but hate being called that!); *distribution (high and low voltage distribution networks to supply factories, businesses and homes); *utilisation (energy efficiency techiniques and applications such as building services); *control (SCADA - system control and data acquisition; and various types of plant and equipment-specific process control such as hydro station dispatch, control of thermal station steam generation and water treatment systems, generator & transformer voltage regulation, turbine speed/power governing, etc); *protection (systems which detect electrical faults and work out which parts of the network to disconnect to minimise the degree of disruption to the rest of the network); *reliability (ensuring that complex systems are designed to minimise disription when (not if) things fail, and ensure that failures avoid safety consequences).

I should emphasise the importance of practical work while studying (in your country you seem to refer to it as "Co-opping"). This is a good way of improving your prospects of employment after graduation, as well as getting a feel for how the theory you are learning can be applied in practice.

Also true. However a good control engineer has a good enough grounding to work through and more or less understand at least some of that stuff. Even the IEEE Transactions on PAS (Power Apparatus and Systems) is similarly unreadable but despite being 20 years out of date on my maths I still make a point of keeping up with at least some of it. Although most of it is of little relevance to a practicing engineer, it's useful to see what the academics are thinking. I would imagine that even the academics would find something practical like an RCM review or a HAZOP study difficult to understand! :-P

Reply to

Power systems engineering comes to mind. It used to be an extremely popular specialty, but hardly anyone studies it anymore. Power systems are used in electrical utilities, automobiles, aerospace/defense, and other areas. And this area is MUCH less subject to outsourcing than other areas.

As a power engineer, I would tend to agree with the above. I think there are several reasons why power engineering is somewhat immune to "outsourcing" as other fields such as semiconductor, consumer electronics (including PC, notebook, PDA & cell phones which is about to combine everything including camera/TV/PC all into one device), software, etc.

First, power must be generated & used locally. Of course, we have the "grid" which pools the output of dozens of power plants for redundancy, but the August 2003 NE Blackout should be ample proof that underpowered generation & transmission systems and antiquated control & protection systems cannot be used indefinitely by putting band-aid here & there.

Electric power consumption will increase steadily (say 5 to 6% per year) as long as US population keeps growing (USA has an advantage here compared to many European countries & even Japan where population is expected to decrease over next 30 years) and as older & experienced power engineers retire over the next 10~20 years. Since power engineers must deal with life-and-death situations and not very tolerant of mistakes (inferior or careless engineers either die by electrocuting themselves or end up in jail for electocuting others working with him/her), it requires years of "internship" with senior engineers before being promoted to positions of "senior engineer" or "manager" in charge of projects & people.

In that regard it is similar to training of doctors (although payscale is only a fraction !?). Just being good math/science and getting an engineering degree is a prerequisite, but that's just the beginning. To become a real power engineer, he/she must go through hundreds of "case examples" where people subject themselves to "life-and-death" situations and depend on the sound judgement of engineers for their lives. Years of training on discipline (not only in thinking, speaking, action but also in documentation) is required. PE (professional engineer) seal is required on power system designs where public safety is involved. In order to qualify (so that you are qualified to take the PE exam), one must have 5+ years of real-life experience with 3 or more PEs' letters of recommendation (I think there is a clause about the candidate's "character" - so Bill Clinton would not qualify!).

Even if you are just designing & building power products (which is what I do), a wrong design will result in a spectacular explosion & fireworks since you are dealing with hundreds of amps & volts in a small box. If you are afraid of explosion & fireworks (which is rather common occurance in R & D labs testing/debugging new power products designed by bright eyed & bushy tailed freshly minted new power system design engineers), you should not be in power engineering. Which is somewhat like, if you are afraid of blood & cutting into people, maybe you should not apply to medical schools to become a surgeon.

This long gestation for a new power engineer also ensures longevity once you become a proven "power engineer" who is not likely to make mistakes. Senior engineers' opinions & approvals are important (& often necessary) for project to proceed & succeed.

Another trend that should help is this. For improving fuel-to-electricy efficiency, more distributed generation will be required over the next 30 years. Transmitting electricity produced by plants hundreds of miles away & going through substations is wasteful of energy & real estate. With new Hydrogen fuel cells (car makers think 50 Kwatt HFC for automobiles may be 10 years away), one can convert such automobile into a power generating plant for your house or for the apartment complex/subdivision where you live. You could form a neighborhood electric co-op by selling your car's output to your neighborhood. Car's DC output (42, 60 or 120VDC or some standarized new HFC DC output voltage) can be converted to 120/240VAC using DC to AC inverter and "added" to your neighborhood grid. Since power is now locally generated & transmitted, losses will be minimal and existing generation/transmission lines can be used primarily for industrial complexes & large office buildings.

I must caution, however, that there will be no "REVOLUTION" in power engineering. Unlike consumer electroncs, PC, Internet & cell phone industries, where it is easy to enter into the new hot market (for example, thousands of start-up companies were formed literally overnight when Internet Bubble started in late 1990's & created a million or more highly paid new jobs with brand new BMW's as signing bonuses for high schoolers who could design cool websites).

GE ventured into hydrogen fuel cell business in late 1990's (I remember reading on GE's website "we will be the first 1 million HFC based 10Kwatt microgenerator "GE MICROGEN" producer & installer in the world". They bought Plug Power for lots of money & poured in LOTS of money for several years. When they realized that payback was not going to be until 10+ more years, they folded up their tent & sold Plug Power. GE's new emphasis is now in Wind Power Turbine. Which is all good & fine. GE's business is in making money, not investing billions of dollars for 15+ years. But what it shows is that power engineering is not for people looking for quick return on their investment. Either in capital or in manhours.

I was recently talking to a "guru" and he said "it takes about 10 years for a start-up power product manufacturing company to succeed - i.e., turn a profit"! But more humbling thought is that that one successful start-up company probably competed with 9 other start-ups and the other 9 would have went bankrupt within first 10 years of their operation!

Reply to
Nam Paik

Great sales pitch for Power Engineering, almost makes me want to become one....ooops! I already am one ;)

Power Engineering hasn't been considered a "glamor" field for sometime, but I think with the recent blackouts and other EE fields suffering, it's becoming a viable option. I wouldn't be surprised if more schools started to beef up their power engineering faculty and courses. Salaries are getting more competitive and once you learn the business and equipment -- your in. Unlike the latest cell phone technology, power transformers and breaker design does not change overnight --more like 50 years.

Reply to

Reason justify power engineering is itself wrong. There was no "underpowered generation & transmission systems and antiquated control & protection systems". Sufficient and necessary equipment existed. More than enough generation equipment existed. The transmission system was more than up to the task based upon industry reports before the 14 Aug blackout; same stated in the after blackout report. However there is a shortage out here among those who should know this fact.

The problem was top management - especially FirstEnergy - had no engineering background, no utility experience, and no basic knowledge of how the system even worked. Why were they management? Therein lies a major problem with the engineering degree and power. Top Brass in that created the blackout were bean counters and lawyers. Those are the only two job experience history I could find for everyone in FirstEnergy management. Not one in either top management or in the Board of Directors could be found with even basic and trivial science knowledge or education.

So they lied. They said the grid was antiquated. They said there is not enough power generation. They lied. Many so believe the lie as to even repeat it today, almost one month after the final report put all blame where it lies. Want to see what engineers in power engineering should know. It is stripped down for the technically naive in:

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The blackout is a classic example of why one would never get an engineering degree. Good paying jobs go to those with MBA degrees and who studied philosophy or poly sci in college. Even some in the control room are reported to have had no engineering degree. Unfortunately those who are suppose to be technically knowledgeable don't even know basic facts - such as why the blackout happened - and therefore parrot lies from spin doctors.

Yes America does need engineers. Power is one field that is growing no faster than any other field. The old concepts of power are more often taught in east coast universities that fear to spend money to teach new technologies. In America, power engineers rarely become more than an employee.

Its the th> Power systems engineering comes to mind. It used to be an extremely > popular

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