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A Career in Engineering - What I learned in my first 8 years.

Updated: Nov 5, 2019

I recently made a choice to switch companies and switch industries. In order to improve it is important to reflect and this change in engineering career path is the perfect time to do so.

8 Years as a Control Systems Engineer for Siemens has bestowed upon me a range of skills, experiences and knowledge all with a fair amount of variety in roles, projects, locations and challenges culminating in a journey from Engineering Intern to Lead Engineer.

Allow me to give you a quick summary of my career (which I made an infographic for) and then I will give an overview of the top 8 things I learned so you may get some value in your engineering career too.

[8 Years, 5x states, 15x power stations, 9x roles (intern, junior eng, service eng, project eng, software eng, system admin, digitalisation eng, OT Cyber sec specialist, lead eng), 3x country level or above award winning projects, 1x patent submission, 10+ creations/inventions, 5x public speaking opportunities, 1x cyber training in germany, 1x mentoring program (as mentor)]

Engineering Career Summary Infographic by Engineering IRL

You may have noticed my role as an OT Cyber Security Specialist. To understand what OT is check out my previous article anwering: What is Operational Technology? .

In the final year I managed to travel quite a few places. When reviewing my photos I found this nice snippet that summarises what it's like in a year for a Control Systems Engineer in the Power Generation industry and how diverse your working spaces may be.

Lessons Learned

After every project a lessons learned session gives the entire execution team an opportunity to gain insights from the lessons learned on the course of the project.

Take this as my lessons learned.

Maybe you have some of the same problems you ran into and tips here can help or better yet you are just starting your own journey and get a heads up on some things to learn.

For all of the tips mentioned in this article these are really just food for thought, doing them or not doing them will not guarantee improvements in your career but I can tell you that you won't lose out on your career when you think critically about it and aim for something more.

Tip #1 - Empty Your Cup

Even if you're the smartest person in the room.

Not that this was the case for me or is likely with many engineers around but this is super important. Imagine what you know is water in a cup. You have to first empty your cup in order to add some more, otherwise it just spills.

Don't overthink the analogy. It simply means assume you know nothing because you might actually learn something that you wouldn't have if you didn't listen for more information.

Starting out this allowed me to really learn what all the more senior engineers were concerned with and to also formulate my own ideas and opinions.

Tip #2 - Build Rapport

This may sound trivial, but I would recommend building rapport in 2 ways. The first is on the job, manage expectations with clients, management and your peers alike - that is, under promise and over deliver. The other way is to chat.

Yes. Chat.

I know this may be frowned upon in some places or for some people seen as simply wasting time, but building rapport only when work needs to be done or when there is an emergency or it is critical is actually inefficient. When you've built solid rapport with your colleagues and peers and when you need a favor or assistance there's no need to have small talk, they will likely help you above and beyond what they would have otherwise.

This is worth it in the long run even though in the short term it could look like you talk too much. But when you start delivering in the clutch scenarios when you need to get stuff done you'll be glad you have so many peers that you've already developed rapport with.

Tip #3 - Work

Obviously you're being paid to work. I also mean work when you work. Work hard.

Don't dawdle between tasks. Show that you're hungry. For example if you get a task that's due in 5 days and you complete it in 3. Don't wait for the 5th day to submit, submit it on the 3rd day when it's done. 1 of 2 things will happen. The first the person issuing the work says "cool, I'll review it on the 5th day as agreed".

The second is "oh wow that was quick, let me review it right now and get back to you." and then it may be another revision or update which you will implement and submit still by the 5th day. Now compare the 2 situations in the first on the 5th day you may get your first bit of feedback. Whilst in the 2nd situation you went through another revision, completed the job and probably tasked with your next.

You begin to build a reputation of "you get things done." which goes a long way in building up your overall reputation.

The reality is you're going to have to outwork your expected job description if you want to move up. This is not necessary, just increases the chances.

Build your reputation as a hard worker early. It's hard to have the opposite reputation and try to change it. First impressions last.

Tip #4 - Don't rely on internal training to upskill

You're an engineer. The solutions you implement are directly correlated with the state of the art technology and beyond. Yes, your workplace should provide the training in order for you to do your job. But if they don't, that is no excuse for you not to take your career into your own hands and get the training you need.

Now if you counter me by saying it's expensive - well the certification is typically expensive, but the education? You can get 80% of the knowledge of the expensive training courses for free online nowadays. Youtube has vast videos on different topics and there's a plethora of affordable online courses out there including Udemy and other Moocs. Engineering IRL will have a set of both free and affordable courses. But the point here is that financial reasons aren't an excuse, availability is no longer an excuse since you just need an internet connection and permission is not necessary.

If you think the training isn't valuable without the certification, perhaps it's time to reconsider the purpose of certification?

And what's more, your company is more likely to pay for you to do your certification if you've told them you already completed all the training in your own time. They would only be covering certification and not the training course itself. Certification would bolster your credibility which they can advertise to prospective clients. You essentially made it even easier for them to get a more credentialed engineer without losing time to a training course as this is often an objection. Projects take precedence.

And for those of you where getting training is not an issue I still say don't rely on the menu that your workplace is providing you.

They will put you on training that there is a business case for - that is, develops skills you will use for THAT job. You should develop skills that may be good for YOU specifically and not just for that particular job.

This would be something like soft skills, interpersonal skills, speaking, writing, negotiation skills etc. Try some foods from other cuisines and restaurants.

Tip #5 - Go wide, not deep

Early on at the very least, this is my recommendation. Later you may want to go deep vertical and you may have a lot of success with this. But it's kind of like being at the top of a slippery slide. Once you start that vertical you go deep and get success that way. But the path is basically set at that point. Going wide is choosing different slides to go down but are shorter.

The reason I recommend this is even if you are for certain you want to be a specialist in a specific engineering vertical you want to be sure which one. The best way to know is to taste a few different things. You can at the very least know you definitely don't want to do other things and then for the vertical you do focus on you then have some perspective of the other verticals, making you even more formidable in your specialized vertical.

The reason I recommend this is even if you are for certain you want to be a specialist in a specific engineering vertical you want to be sure which one. The best way to know is to taste a few different things. You can at the very least know you definitely don't want to do other things and then for the vertical you do focus on you at least have some perspective of the other verticals, making you even more formidable in your specialized vertical.

For everyone else, the idea is you don't know what you don't know. Fresh perspectives are super powerful and creative solutions can be born.

More efficient ways of doing things.

You may find there are so many things that people or organisations do simply because "that's how we've always done them". This is no fault, but how often do you double check that 1+1 = 2? Now think about your scope of knowledge or a process you work with, have you tried to ask why you use the method or software for that process? What about asking why you even do that process? What about "how is this process similar to others?" and "what can I take from that process over there and use over here?".

Go Wide.

Tip #6 - Enjoy. Or at least find what you think would give you joy.

It's easy to get deep into tasks and getting that pay check. But this is not a long term sustainable strategy. It is always a shame when there are engineers unhappy about the type of work.

I'm not talking about poor circumstances or bad co workers or toxic environments. I mean the work itself is not compelling.

Engineering is so wide and diverse there's going to be something you enjoy. You have to have the courage to search for it, ask, learn, meet others from outside of your group and understand what they do.

It's good to pay the bills, it's better to enjoy the process and be happy.

Tip #7 - Get Involved. Collect some accolades.

Award winning work only happens in 2 scenarios. The first being outstanding work in the job your meant to do. The second being pulling off work that's not exactly in your job description.

It is commonplace for companies to hold challenges or events for their employees to partake in. Or you may find something in your industry that's a hackathon of some sort. When you achieve there your company may promote you and support you in ways you would not expect because you are representing the company. Your success is their success.

And on top of that?

You may get to flaunt other skills you may have perhaps to problem solve, be creative, speak, present or lead that your current role or position does not allow or call for.

And on top of that?

Well a couple of awards or milestones to add to your stats isn't too bad. If you haven't added some accolades to your resume in 5 years what are you doing? Could you be doing more?

Sometimes the most memorable things are the little achievements on the side or projects you were apart of.

Tip #8 - Regularly perform engineering career reviews

This is actually quite powerful. You can tell someone will be successful if they are willing to reevaluate what they think they know, particularly about themselves. Anyone can be smart or solve a problem or obtain a skill. But the ability to adapt on your own? Or to adjust and change target but still hit the goal? This is priceless. Your job as an Engineer is to solve problems, but you don't exactly get to choose the problems. That's the whole point. Things change, the problems change, the technology changes, society changes.

Now, as an engineer you understand the value of maintenance, checking things are on track, in line with their target. This is your job for your own career.

Engineer your career. Hope is not a strategy.

Your career is an engineering project in itself with its own problems to solve. You should be performing engineering career reviews regularly to ensure the engine runs as it should.

How to perform a career review

Now it's your turn. How can you perform a career review for yourself?

Let me know how you go about it here or on any of our Engineering IRL social channels.

If you don't currently do career reviews and want to know how check out my article How to perform a career review for engineers and you'll see how simple yet effective it can be.

Finally for more or just to support this venture please subscribe to the website or any of our socials.

For those of you still here, these are some bonus worthy mentions that I won't expand on here unless you request but are interesting in title.

1. Hope is not a strategy

2. Don't fix what's not broken

3. Don't be afraid to reinvent the wheel

4. Don't reinvent the wheel

5. Try what shouldn't fix the problem

6. Offer help even if it eats into your own time

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