Monday, September 17, 2012

Getting out of the Studio

Many universities do a great job in teaching the technical fundamentals related to engineering.  But at some point you need to get out in the real world and play for a real audience. 

Unfortunately, the real world doesn't always look like the place they told you about in school.

Here are 12 of the things I wish they would have taught me in engineering school.  I'm sure there are more, and I would welcome any additions that you may have.  So without any further delay lets dive in...

1. People skills will typically beat math or science skills in the real world.

Let’s face it – "people" are the ones that are responsible for your positions, promotions and salary.  Not equations.  Not laws of physics.  You are typically going to be judged on how much you “appear to do” and how others perceive the value of what you do - not necessarily your ability to Fourier transforms and partial differential equations.  This isn’t about being the brown-noser.  It’s about building relationships and developing your “brand” or identity.

2. Learn to be a teacher, but don’t condescend.
A little secret here:  the people around you have probably forgotten most of the stuff that’s fresh in your mind right now.  But they really don’t want to admit it.  When presenting or interacting with others start basic and stay tuned in to see if they are tracking with you.  Don’t ask the audience-humiliating kinds of questions like “if you don’t know ____  let me know.”   Instead ask “would you like me to explain ____?”   If you can help someone learn, they will value you more.  If you speak over their heads, they will avoid you or worse yet - consider you to be a jerk.

3. That old guy just might be able to kick your butt… intellectually speaking.
Experience is a great educator.  You might be on your way out of a great school with a nice shiny degree and it may even have are some impressive, Latin words on it.  You probably do have some great theoretical knowledge.  Even though you may already carry a higher job title than he does, the person that has actually lived in it for 30+ years may still be able to teach you a thing or two (or maybe 100 things for that matter).  Take every opportunity you can to learn from him or her. 

4. Look for chances to learn essential, non-technical things.
Sure you can calculate the static load on a beam or determine the number of moles of oxygen needed in a particular reaction.  Learn what actions get rewarded in your organization.  Learn where to go or whom to go to in order to get things.  Learn the language that your supervisors speak.  Learn something about the people you work with so there is always something to talk about.  This kind of knowledge pays off greatly. 

5. Be brief.
How’s that for a short title?  When speaking get to the point.  When you lead a meeting, make sure it finishes early.  Let people know you are available if they are interested in more.  It’s far better to have someone ask you for more conversation than it is to have someone dread seeing you coming for fear that you won’t shut up.  There used to be a guy that would linger in my office so long that I would sometimes fake a pager buzz (back in the “engineers wear pagers” days) just to get him to leave.  Don’t be that guy.

6. Be an entertaining or at least an engaging communicator.
Your job as an engineer will require that you speak to others.  There are no compromises in this area.   If you have an accent – be intentional about pointing it out to your audience and giving them every opportunity to ask for clarification.  One great icebreaker that I’ve used in different parts of the US and all over the world is to poke fun at my own accent.   If you see that you are losing an audience, bring them back at all costs.  If you’re uncomfortable in front of a group; join Toastmasters or find some other forums or community groups where you can hone this craft.  Your career trajectory will thank you.

7. Learn some basics about business thinking – not just accounting.
Most big companies or at least most successful companies are led by business people.  Sure, engineers like to make fun of business people (that bunch of silly “bean counters”), but realize this:  business is the “wrapper” in which engineering is packaged and made profitable.  If your engineering isn’t sold, you usually don’t have a job.  Dig into a business topic like marketing if you really want to know something about where you fit in. 

8. Some people will not like you.
This is a tough one for many young people to come to grips with.  But, let’s face it – the world has lots of messed up people and there’s a good chance that you will encounter one or more of them in your job.  You may try and try to make things feel better, but they just may not want it.  In those cases, it’s best to just “keep it professional” and keep the interactions as minimal and as “work-centric” as possible.   Sometimes these things improve with time (so give it a chance without burning any bridges), but don’t expect a birthday card or a hug. 

9. Things take time (more time than you can imagine) in the real world.
In school, you had very, very, very short projects.  Sure, a 4-week long project seemed like an eternity in college; but many real-world projects take months or even years.  There will be times when you feel like nothing is getting done and the project will never get finished.  Use these times to get ahead of the game or to learn more about what’s coming in the next steps of the project.   Don’t just sit there! Have a plan for your downtime..

10. It’s a marathon not a sprint.
Yeah, I now that's an overused clich√©, but it is some of the best career advice you will ever get.  Longevity is one of the best tools for advancement.  Longevity will bring you deeper experiences, a chance to develop wisdom (not just knowledge) and more chances for promotion.
11. Find opportunities to develop yourself outside your company.
I know that budgets are tight in many companies, but to make yourself a better engineer you’ve got to be connected to the world outside your company.  Join professional societies or standardization groups.  Publish papers.   Attend conferences or expos.  Subscribe to journals in your field.  Your knowledge of the “outside world” and your relationships with people in the “outside world” make you a better employee at your current job and a more marketable candidate should you seek a future job.

12. Smile.
People will pass their initial judgment on you based on what they see.  It doesn’t take much effort to make a positive first impression.  I do a lot of video conferencing and seeing that picture of myself on a computer screen has really caused me to take note of these visual things. Look in the mirror with your “at work” face on.  Would you perceive your appearance as someone welcoming or someone that people would rather not be around? 

Rock on.