Breaking Into Engineering

The usual path to become an engineer has some serious hurdles.  College teaches an electrical engineer how to analyze a circuit, but not how to design a product.  It teaches a mechanical engineer the principles of mechanical engineering, but not the bigger-picture duties of being a mechanical engineer.  When you graduate from college, you are ill-equipped to get a job.

To make matters worse, most graduates are indistinguishable from each other.  You’ve taken the same classes and done the same projects as your classmates.  There are perhaps 200+ students all graduating at the same time, and few people stand out from the crowd.  A hiring manager has a difficult task of finding the most qualified person.  Unless you do something to stand out, you have little hope— and most colleges do little to help you stand out.

At Intentional Logic, we encourage you to act intentionally.  From the moment you decide to go into engineering, your full-time job is to get a job.  Your school is not going to help you (much).  You cannot leave this to chance, or hope that it will “just work out”.   It may, but it will probably cost you time and money in a slow start to your career.

You can prepare for a job by learning the skills required for a career (that are not taught in school), doing things that make you stand out from your classmates, and making friends with the people who can help you.  Network.  Learn.  Do.

Network

Find already established engineers and befriend them. These people will be indispensable later on.  They will help you with the “Learn” and “Do” steps below, but can give you advice and help you make other networking connections.  

You should literally use every opportunity to make new connections.  Friends, friends of the family, community groups, meetups, etc.  

Networking also helps you learn those important people skills that are so important on the job.  Learning how to network is much more of a psychology problem than anything else.  This can be very difficult for many engineers who are more on the introverted side than the normal population.  There are many books on the subject, but the old classic is “How To Win Friends And Influence People”.  

I cannot stress how important networking is in a career.  It can help start a career, but also help you get to the top quicker.  You might have heard the cliche, “It’s not what you know, but who you know”.  That’s very true!  I inherit, by proxy, the skills of my friends.  I might not know something, but if I can find out with just a quick phone call or email then I become more powerful.

Learn

Research the skills required for your future career— skills not taught in school.  Talk to others (networking) who are already established in that field and find out what you need to know.  Often those skills are not what you expect them to be.

As a hiring manager, I would expect an electrical engineer to know much more than just how to analyze a circuit.  I expect them to know how to design a product from beginning to end.  This includes being able to find and evaluate electronic parts, handle supplier relations, weigh the various design choices, understand how the product will be manufactured, properly manage their task priorities, understand their target market, work well in a diverse team environment, manage costs, etc.

You can learn some of these skills at an internship, but not at all internships are good enough.  You can learn some by asking elders, reading blogs, watching YouTube videos, etc.  But you also learn by doing.  Which brings us to…

Do

Learning only takes you so far.  At some point, you need to convince someone that you actually know things.  You can talk to them until you are blue in the face, but showing them something you’ve done is infinitely more powerful.

For most engineers, this means designing and building something from scratch (as much as possible)— from beginning to end.  For EE’s, come up with the concept, draw the schematics, design the PCB, have the PCB fabricated, solder the parts, debug, validate, and do as much of the non-EE works as possible including building a case, etc.  

Before you go to a face-to-face job interview, make sure they know about this project.  Send them documentation in advance if possible.  When you get there, expect to be grilled on every aspect.  In fact, if you are not grilled then ask them to grill you!  Be prepared to tell them why you chose that type and value of resistor.  Why you chose a linear regulator instead of a switcher.  Why you used that micro-controller.  How you soldered it.  What approach you took in debugging and qualifying.  Etc.

Tell them the failures in your project as well as successes.  Failure is a valuable learning tool, and admitting failure is a worthy personality trait.  Hiring managers know the value in this and respond well to it.  Likewise, don’t be afraid to say, “I had to get help with this part”.  Humility is an important part of engineering.  It is also important to remind yourself that you are not expected to know absolutely everything.

Of course you will do projects in school, but this should be done outside of that.  It is easy to do a project when your grade depends on it.  But doing it on your own is something special.  It shows drive, passion, and determination.  That sets you apart from your classmates!

Round and Round

It would be nice to say, “Networking is more important than Doing”, but I can’t.  Truth is that you must do all three.  In fact, the three are all dependent on each other.  You can’t do without learning.  You can’t learn (well) without knowing someone.  And you can’t know someone unless you have at least a little knowledge.  

In fact, you will find that you need to iterate many times.  Each time you Network/Learn/Do you will be able to Network/Learn/Do better the next time.  

What The Employer Gets

When a company hires a new graduate, there is a certain amount of time required to train that person before they become a productive member of the team.  During that training process, not only are you not productive but you take time away from others who are productive because they have to train you.  So in a sense, hiring a new grad actually makes the whole company less productive for a period of time.

The more you know going into the job, the quicker you can come up to speed.  The quicker you come up to speed, the less of a time and money burden you are.  Ultimately the company is hiring you because you will help them save money or make more money in the long run.  So anything you can do to help that is a plus.

The employer is also making an investment in you.  They are putting time, money, and resources into you because they believe that it will pay off in the future.  And like any investment, they want to know both when they will break even but also what the payoff will be in 5 or 10 years.  You are expected to keep improving as an engineer, and if you don’t then you are not a good investment.  If you are applying for an Engineer 1 position but they don’t think you will reach Engineer 3 or 4 someday then you won’t be hired.

The opposite is also true (but off-topic).  If you have an engineering job but you are not improving and growing then your future as an engineer is in question and your job is in jeopardy.   You could be doing your current job just fine, but if you are not improving then you are a bad investment for the company and could be fired.

The End Game

Your end game is to land a good job by standing out from your other classmates.  The employer’s end game is to hire the person who will be the most productive in the long run.  

Doing the Network/Learn/Do cycle a few times before you interview is a good way to show your potential employer that you are self-motivated and knowledgeable.  That you require less training and will likely ascend farther up the engineering ladder than your classmates.  That you are a good investment.

This is more valuable than the more stereotypical metrics you might think about.  More valuable than your GPA.  More valuable than what school you went to.  More valuable than a masters degree (vs. bachelors).  

Act intentionally.  Don’t leave this to chance.  Ideally you would start as soon as you decide to be an engineer– but start right now if you have to!

Good luck!

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