Odds & Ends

Engineering Grad? What I Wish I Knew!

You’ve ordered your cap and gown, or you just walked and got your engineering degree? I’d say congratulations, but well done is more like it. Congratulations implies there was some degree of luck in place of all that hard work! With so many engineers entering the uncharted territory beyond school this time of year, and having worked with quite a few engineers just out of school over the years, I thought it might be helpful to share a conversation I wish I could go back and have with myself when I was in your shoes.

“Look Steve, here’s the deal…”

Remember when you were finishing up that lab report at 3AM and got totally stuck? You had spent hours poring through your books, notes, and anything you could find online, and still no luck. The answer must be in there somewhere, right? You don’t realize this, but school conditioned you to believe that all answers can be found in books, notes, the Internet, and maybe by talking with your professors and TAs once in a while. You’re no longer in school, and that’s no longer the case.

You have a whole world of new resources at your disposal!

Just because your professors and TAs are no longer available to you, don’t assume that the only place left you can find answers is books and the Internet. Your professors and TAs have just been replaced with an exponentially larger base of people whose job it is to help you. Seriously. People are now paid to be helping you–vendors, partners, contractors, consultants, and co-workers. If you’re not using them, you’re not doing your job as well as you could be. Which leads me to my next point.

Don’t get stuck!

As a recent engineering grad, there’s a sense of pride and empowerment when you realize how much you’re capable of. You realize you can create just about anything if given enough time. As a result, you feel responsible to solve any engineering challenge thrown your direction. Pushing yourself is good. Spending a couple days solo on something without making much progress is not. To get stuck for too long is to ignore the new world of resources around you and not be working collaboratively. Furthermore, when you do reach out, email is often inefficient for anything but very simple issues.

Pick up the phone already!

Next time you’re stuck on something and need help, ask yourself if you think emailing or calling will be faster. Especially if you’re uncomfortable doing it, call if it’s faster. Piecing together stepper motors from Halted to open your mini blinds in the morning is awesome. You learned a ton, and you’d never be able to afford it otherwise. Making stuff at home rocks. Just don’t confuse your personal economy with your professional economy.

Yes, your time really is expensive!

Think about the impact of shipping a product a couple months late because you wanted to save a few dollars building something from scratch you could have sourced off-the-shelf. Or saving a couple hundred dollars building a PC instead of ordering one complete. Though it makes perfect sense in your personal economy, believe in the value of your time as a professional. If nothing else, calculate the value of an hour of your time, and be confident that expense is real! Now that you’re recently empowered to create just about anything, you’re eager to show the world what you can do! But you find yourself doing tedious work below your capability.

Revel in grunt work!

Grunt work never feels fun at the time, but it’s exactly what gives you credibility and enables you to make decisions with confidence in the future. There is often a tendency to fast forward through this type of experience to get to the more glamorous stuff. Relish the opportunity to build up some street cred–you might not have the opportunity later so take it while you can. It’s hard to understand this now, but that time in the trenches is a necessary piece of making you powerful later on. Your intuition will be rock solid, and people will trust your decisions. Fast forward through that experience and you’ll cheat yourself out of being the most powerful engineer you can be. Other than a few stock tips, that’s what I wish I could have told myself soon after getting my degree. For you experienced engineers, what’s on your list?