Advice to young engineers

I had the opportunity to represent the company I work for at an engineering networking event at the University of Maryland today catered to young engineering students of all disciplines. The basic idea was to be available for students to ask questions they don’t normally get to ask of working professionals such as “what’s the day to day like?” [lots of coffee, followed by coding all day], “what advice would you give to someone looking to get into xyz field”, etc.

Personally I had a great time being there since as an alum I felt like I could relate to their specific college experience. In this post, I wanted to share a couple of the main points that came up today during my informal discussions with the students.

Don’t be afraid of problems

I really wanted to stress this to the people I talked to today. You can’t anticipate every problem you will face in the technical world, and the only real way to succeed in a career is to accept that. The trick is, though, is to know just enough to be able to find the information you want. If you can’t find the info you want, ask someone! Unlike school, group work is encouraged. On top of that, the things you learn in school won’t prepare you for all the real world things you will encounter. All a good education really gives you is the toolset to help you find the information you need.

Not being afraid of problems means you won’t freeze and give up when you’re faced with what seems like an insurmountable issue. Break things down into smaller sets; do some research. Eventually you’ll find a solution, or at least be more informed as to why you can’t solve a certain problem and hopefully have learned from it.

Remember, nobody knows the answer to everything, and if they say they do they are lying.

Work with people you like

Almost 5/7 of the week (and sometimes more) is spent with a bunch of people at work. If you don’t like who you work with that’s a problem. I think recent graduates don’t realize that at an interview the interviewer should be selling themselves to the candidate just as much as the candidate to the interviewer. It has to be a good match, both professionally and personally. If you come out of an interview and feel like you just talked to the weirdest most uncomfortable person ever, don’t work there! It’s natural to be afraid of saying no to a job that was offered, especially when you are starting out. But, if you can afford to, it’s good to be picky. The people you work with can make all the difference between a place you consider a “job” and a place where you get to practice your hobby all day long and get paid for it.

On top of that, don’t work at a place where you won’t feel challenged. If you can find a mentor at that place that’s even better, because guided growth (especially in the beginning of a career) is invaluable.

Also, don’t worry about any stigma of jumping ship early. Leaving a job after a year isn’t a bad thing if it’s not a right fit. Find somewhere else to work. Engineering is a field that is in demand right now, but it’s also extremely competitive and constantly changing. The only way to be competitive is to always be learning.

Interests matter

For me, when I’m conducting interviews, what really sets people apart is their level of enthusiasm and interest. You can be the best engineer in the world, but if you don’t care about what you work on, or your field, you won’t do a good job. Being enthusiastic about the field you are in is important. If you care about what you do, whether its computer engineering, or biological engineering, or whatever, you should have personal projects you can show. Even just showing you’ve gone above and beyond basic classwork and done research or internships in an area goes a long way.

I don’t think it matters how big or small the personal projects are, what matters is you spent the time independently to do them. People frequently suggest contributing to open source projects, and that’s great, if you have time. But if not, small personal projects also show interest and a real drive to learn and do better.

Engineering is fun as hell

I could spend all day doling out advice, but I only had about an hour with the students. In the end, while sometimes the engineering field can be wrought with roadblocks, if you can get past them it’s super fun and gratifying to build stuff that works. Sometimes as a student it’s hard to see how all the pieces fit, but they do, and if you persevere through it a career in engineering can be extremely satisfying.

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