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Top 5 Career Tips for Graduate Engineers… and a few observations

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I’ve invested about 3 hours of my time over the past week watching Dave over there at the EEVBlog.  Very engaging; well done; A++ for Dave.  Keep on vblogging.

Dave is a professional electronics design engineer.  In one of the video blog episodes Dave gives his 5 tips for graduate engineers.  I took a look.  It’s about 12 min in length and worth the watch.

On the heels of my posting on Wozniak’s advice to engineers I thought I’d write a few comments.

First, I am not going to spoil Dave’s vblog by telling you the 5 tips.  But I do want to make some general observations.

First, like Woz, Dave segments engineers into two groups – those who are “average engineers” and those engineers who are “passionate about engineering”.  Average engineers are those people who get jobs as engineers as a path to something else – like management.  “Passionate engineers” are like Woz’s “artists” – they are simply different.

Secondly, there is this idea of “doing it all” – being a “one man band” and being responsible for the entire engineering life-cycle yourself.  I again hear the echo of Wozniak, “Working alone, not on a committee, not on a team.”

Specific observations

Tip #4 –  Move around a lot; change jobs.  Don’t be afraid to have 5 jobs in 10 years.  Don’t be afraid to get experience.  By staying at one place you are missing out on a lot.

Excellent advice.  It was an attribute of the baby boomer generation that they could work for a single company for their entire career.  The world has changed significantly since these guys graduated college and entered the workforce.  But even so, by staying at any one place for too long you miss out on a variety of experiences of different companies; different ways of doing things; different ideas; different networks of people and peer groups; and different corporate cultures.

Don’t go overboard.  If your resume shows too many job changes then companies may not choose to invest in you since your track record may show that you will be out the door in 12 months.  Whatever they have provided you in skills or training will be wasted not to mention any in-flight projects that will need to be restaffed because you resigned.

Tip 5a – Don’t be afraid of losing your job.  Don’t be afraid to take a risky job at a start-up if you can gain some experience from it..  If you have talent you will always be able to get a job.

Tip 5b – Always have “screw you money”.  Have money to put yourself in a position of freedom to choose what to do.  “If you don’t like the job, get the hell out.”  “Don’t be a kiss-ass.”

Beautiful!!  Dave also pays homage to Dilbert.  If you’ve been reading my blog then you know what I think about Dilbert.  Dilbert is an engineer who is stuck in a dysfunctional company, disrespected by his boss, has no career path, is helpless, and powerless.  So Dave’s advice  is perfect –  “If you don’t like the job, get the hell out.  “Don’t be a kiss-ass.”  But Dilbert would never leave his dysfunctional company because Scott Adams would be out of a job.  But the real losers are the millions of people who read Dilbert, identify with him, and then stay in a dysfunctional environment destroying their career.  What a waste.

Be aware that there is “career security” and “job security” and these are different.  Job security is what you create for yourself  (to the detriment of the company) by doing dysfunctional things like withholding information, keeping poor documentation on things you designed or know about, not mentoring other people to do your job, reluctance to delegate, creating silo’s and fiefdoms, or otherwise trying to make  yourself indispensable.  (Of course, smart managers are not going to let you get away with this.)  Clinging to techniques of job security is driven out of fear, lack of self-confidence, insecurity, and simply the limited options these folks preceive for themselves.

Career security is just the opposite – and this is what Dave is talking about above.  “If you have talent you will always be able to get a job”  Very true.  Talent, self-secure, confidence, fearlessness, and endless ongoing learning across disciplines will land you a job at any company.  Simply, always be prepared to leave a job – and leave it in good-order without unnecessary entanglements.

A polite warning to young engineers

Dave and Woz are on the same track; they say only a small number of engineers are “passionate engineers’ (Dave’s term) and “artists” (Woz’s term).  Other engineers are “average engineers”.  Average engineers are using engineering to get someplace else – like management.

Ok.  I am ok with that.  Dave is happy where he is.  The Woz is happy where he is.  But don’t forget the other options.  Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard were engineers too.  Where they passionate about engineering?  Bill got a Master’s degree from MIT in 1934 and a EE degree from Stanford in 1939.    Dave Packard got a masters in EE in 1938.  Isn’t the commitment and dedication needed to earn an advanced degree at a top notch school some sort of demonstration for passion for the the subject matter?

But in Dave’s vblog he would not include them as “passionate about engineering” in that both of them (Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard) used engineering to do “something else” (at least in a sense).  The something else that Bill and Dave did was to build an engineering  company – Hewlett-Packard.  Today HP generates approximately 11 billion dollars in operating income on 126 billion dollars of revenue and employs about 325,000 people.  Wasn’t Bill and Dave passionate about engineering?  And not just passionate about engineering as some sort self-absorbed technical pursuit for their own personal enjoyment – they were passionate to the point that they brought to market hundreds of engineering products.

For some reason – and I don’t understand it – in the minds of some people – if you are an engineer and you take a track into executive management then something has gone wrong with you.  Why?  Given what many individuals have accomplished in building huge, sustainable and enduring corporations who also started out as engineers I don’t see how certain engineers can dismiss an executive track leading to something like Sr VP of engineering in a public company.

The critical point in your career progression

The key is to know what you want to do.  Again, Dave is happy where he is.  Woz is happy where he is.  Steve Jobs is happy where he is.  But Steve Jobs would not trade jobs with Woz or Dave.  And Dave and Woz would not trade jobs with Steve Jobs.  It’s all about what makes you happy.

Be aware that in one’s career there will be a critical point.  In a technical career, at about age 30 you should be at a senior level of a technical job.  Where do you go from here?  You have 2 choices: a) stay an engineer as an individual contributor.  b) take the career ladder up.  For choice a, no further action is required on your part – just stay current on technology.  For choice b, the most expedient route is to get an MBA from a top-notch school.  Most people who get MBA’s at an early age do not have deep industry-specific technical experience or expertise.  In the words of a famous politician headed for jail, “You are !@#$%’ing Golden” with an MBA and deep technical knowledge.

The job title that is a wake-up call

There are lots of job titles out there like, “Distinguished member of the technical staff”, “Distinguished engineer”, “Fellow”, or similar.  Management uses these  titles to subtly signal the end of one’s career advancement (read more).  Technical people who do not develop organizational skills and business skills have very short career paths.  If management offers you these titles then it pretty much saying that they have determined that you are not  promotable (lack the capacity now or lack the potential) to management or executive leadership but they do want to keep you around for your technical skills.  If you want a management job on the path of senior executive leadership in a major corporation then being offered such a job title is a wake-up call for you.  You need to make a decision about your career path.

Why did you get passed over for promotion or suffer career derailment?

First, as a techie, don’t be a management nightmare !!

Once on  your way on a management path … there more land mines than safe spots.  Check out these common career derailers


Everyone defines “success” a little differently.  To avoid disappointment in your career, be crystal clear as to what “success” means to you.  Plan your career accordingly.  Know that there are more options than what The Woz and Dave have suggested for “passionate engineers” and “artists”.  Don’t fall for engineering peer group pressure to disparage an executive career.  Consider the alternative path.

Written by frrl

July 7, 2011 at 8:34 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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