Early Career Advice for Engineers
Jan 19, 2011
by David C. Wisler GE Aircraft Engines
New engineers coming to GE often ask me, “What does it take to forge a successful engineering career?” I wish I had a mathematical model for success. But I don’t. I can, however, share some insights, which my colleagues, including chief technologists and senior engineers at the three major aero-engineering companies, GE, Rolls Royce and Pratt and Whitney, have validated. The consensus: It all comes down to 12 basic principles:
Be business oriented: Understand how the total costs to produce your company or organization’s product affect decisions. You may feel removed from such macroeconomics, but you can look at your cost to the firm—salary, benefits, and overhead averages $200,000 a year—and try to add commensurate value. Working within a financial budget and time frames is also key, for as your organization prospers so will you.
Expect tough, multi-disciplinary problems: On the job, you’ll often confront design issues outside your technical discipline. Therefore, learn the basics of relevant specialties, but keep in mind there over- design, analysis, and research can drive unnecessary cost. Find out how your customers define value and let it be your guide.
Be one with the team: In academe, the pursuit of knowledge can be a solitary effort. In industry, however, you work in teams and must often resolve the conflicting needs and solutions that arise when engineers from varying disciplines collaborate to bring a product to market. Those best able to reach consensus are the engineers who know how to network and communication, skills that are as important as technical expertise
Know the difference between academe and industry: Businesses prosper by finding new ways to apply science, physics, and math to construct engines, airplanes, bridges, and buildings. Hence, industry strictly controls design procedures and research findings, which are vital to a company's competitiveness. Unlike in a university setting, where academics are free to publish and promote, a firm’s employees must often consent to proprietary-information and patent-ownership agreements as a condition of employment.
Make the most of what you’ve got: What are your strengths and weaknesses? Enhance the former and fix the latter. Ask yourself, “Do I have what it takes to be outstanding?” Management confers that quality on high-energy employees who are enthusiastic about their work, can rally others around common goals, and consistently deliver measurable results.
Know where you work: Learn and live by your employer’s values and code of conduct. These are core to your firm’s approach to honesty, trustworthiness, conflict resolution, fairness, safety, and diversity. If you can improve them, try. Just as important if you cannot embrace them, move on.
Be open to new ideas: A positive attitude is key to success. Aside from downright incompetence, nothing hinders you more than a bad attitude. As important: Beware the Not-Invented-Here attitude, i.e., don’t reject or discredit ideas because they come from sources outside your group. Accept right ideas and reject wrong ones no matter their source.
Put integrity first: It’s essential to maintain high integrity throughout your career. Careless design and lazy analysis can cause social, economic, and environmental damage—even injury and death—as well as reputational risk for you and your company. You, as an engineer, must exercise unyielding integrity and do your best to prevent harm.
Make your manager a success: You may feel intimidated by your manager given that he or she recommends people for promotion, determines salary, conducts appraisals, assigns work projects, hires even fires. But, a good manager wants you to succeed, because when you do you make him or her successful. If you feel antagonistic towards your manager, examine your reactions and motives carefully. If you can’t adjust your attitude look for another job.
Give back when you can: You owe a great deal to your university. Support your alma mater, visit occasionally to give seminars, keep in touch with the faculty, and share with students wisdom you have gained. Participation in technical societies is also an excellent way to grow and network. Writing technical papers and/or organizing a technical session at association conferences will enhance your experience and your firm’s reputation.
Take charge: Don’t expect your manager to chart your path. It’s your job to figure out what you want and how to get it. Seek diverse assignments, broaden your experience, and make the most of company-paid education benefits, training programs, and professional society technical conferences. Technology is constantly evolving. If you can’t keep up there is always a bright-eyed engineering graduate who will.
Have fun: If you aren't, move on. You should love what you do. Since engineering offers plenty of exciting and challenging opportunities, that shouldn’t be difficult.
[Adapted from "Engineering — What You Don't Necessarily Learn in School" by David Wisler, for Mechanical Engineering, August 2003.]
Don’t expect your manager to chart your path. It’s your job to figure out what you want and how to get it.