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Advice for Enterprising Engineers


This post fits squarely in "other thoughts" category. Some engineers asked for my advice on advancing their careers. To avoid giving bland advice, I hope these strategic view might help guide their decisions.

Be a Hero

What does it mean to "Be a Hero"? It means you have to achieve something many people in the company will say is significant. It could be improving a tedious process, solving a customer issue that's been a pain in the rear for too long or introduce a tool that solves an unsolvable problem in the past. Let's call these "Hero Problems".

To be a hero, you will have to first develop an understanding of what the company needs. All companies will have their share of problems. Ask around, pay attention when coworkers say phrases like "I wish we could..." or "this is ridiculous, we should...". These offer clues on real Hero Problems.

But why? Why should this be a strategy? It is because in this framework, it is the "Demand" side of the economic equation. We only profit by meeting the demands of the market. Otherwise, we run the risk of spending too much time on chasing something that is unprofitable. We have to manage our time well.

With this in mind, we now turn our attention inwards. What are our strengths? What Hero Problems can we solve in the near term? What skills do we need to develop in order to solve harder Hero Problems? We can then mentally rank what can be accomplished short term and scheme on solving longer term, bigger Hero Problems. It provides the emotional fuel to learn the system, improve your skill set.

By aiming to become a hero, it answer questions like:
Q: "Which Finite Element Analysis (FEA) Software should I learn?"
A: "The FEA software used by the company."

Q: "How do I get resources?"
A: "Pay attention to how resources are distributed in the company & interpersonal skills needed."

Q: "What development classes should I take?"
A: "Those that can help solve Hero Problems."

Focus

As an engineer, it is tempting to learn everything interesting and soak up knowledge. I beg to defer. New engineers should instead focus on a narrow field to be productive as soon as possible. Just pick something, any thing that shows promise. Sharpen your skills. Listen carefully to advice, both solicited and not. Consider deeply what is being said. Although not all advice is good, find the gem that might be hiding under your emotional resistance. Invert, always invert.

The reason one should focus on being productive quickly is that it provides the only proof to everyone you can do something valuable. Only by showing results, can you attract quality mentors. Seeking mentors is counterproductive. Mentors don't want to waste time on unpromising engineers. By getting results you lay the foundation for meaningful relationship with mentors.

Humble

Be humble. Keep doing the good work. There will be a point in time where the amount of good work done is so overwhelming that it cannot be ignored. Patience is needed to sharpen your senses of what is important. Paradoxically, your goals should be internally driven. Instead of shooting for a promotion, aim instead to do good work and be increasingly valuable.

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