17 Impactful First Engineering Job Advice Tips

New engineering jobs don’t need to be intimidating. By using proven engineering job advice tips, you can hit the ground running.

I’m going to share 17 tips I’ve gathered after working with many engineers. Also, having once been a young engineer myself, I know the challenges firsthand.

I compare the entire process to cage diving with sharks for the first time. If you don’t know what to expect in a cage dive, you’ll probably have a panic attack. Then, a heart attack. BUT, if you prepare for your dive, you’ll have an exhilarating and awesome experience. Then in no time, you’ll become a pro cage diver.

Important Note: in this article, I assume there’s no formal company training. You just enter a company, and you’re on your own. 

#1 Learn your workplace culture

workplace culture

Most all engineers play video games. So I’m going to start with a video game analogy.

When you first play a video game, you try to learn the controls. Then, you check the menus and your character’s abilities to do your missions. The same idea applies to when you first walk into a company as a newbie. You need to learn the following:

  • How engineers start and finish projects
  • Acceptable office jokes
  • The personality of colleagues
  • Expectations of engineers

The faster you learn about your workplace, the quicker you’ll fit in. You’ll then successfully acclimate and output kickass work.

#2 Take initiative

If you see an opportunity to help, then go help. Don’t be afraid you may step on someone’s toes.

In fact, everyone will thank and respect you for taking the initiative. I’m always impressed when someone steps up and takes ownership of unattended work. It shows I can rely on them and even more, it’s the right of passage to promotions.

Just as important, don’t ever say something isn’t in your job description. A job description is only a general work scope, especially in small companies. I’ve worn countless hats in my positions.

#3 Don’t let others take advantage of you

Don’t EVER let someone take advantage of you. I see it all the time in engineering. Engineers push off their work to others, under the guise they’re busy. Let me tell you, in most instances, they’re not busy, but lazy.

And I know in Tip #2 I said to take initiative. But at the same time, be careful not to take on everyone else’s work. Especially, if you see other people doing nothing themselves.

I’ve had many instances where I saw work sitting idle, but I didn’t touch it. Because I was already working extra hours every night taking on more work than I should have.

All the while, my colleagues were leaving work a couple of hours early every day. Plus, they weren’t doing much work in the office. So, I wasn’t going to become someone’s punching bag and subsidize their lifestyle. The point is, be observant of what’s going on around you and value your time.

#4 Don’t look for endless handholding

baby animals trying to survive
Photo Credit: Christie Greene

We all need handholding to some degree as new engineers. It’s why I wrote a piece on how to train new engineers. But, YOU need to do your part to get up to speed as fast as possible too.

Think of newborn animals in the animal kingdom. They’re not helpless like human babies, as they’re biologically hardwired differently. They need to get up and immediately start moving once they’re born. Because around every corner is a predator looking for its next meal.

Most companies, unfortunately, don’t have the resources to properly train engineers. As a result, many engineers progress at a sluggish pace. So, take initiative to get a headstart over your peers.

The realities of office training from senior engineers

As a senior engineer, I’m already slammed with responsibilities day in and day out. So I don’t have the time to show new engineers all the ropes. Even though I wish I could.

Plus, I have endless new things I need to learn myself. So, to become self-sufficient, I suggest new engineers do the following:

  • Look over and learn from completed projects by your new colleagues.
  • Research and constantly learn about your industry. Watch Youtube videos, read books, and read articles and blogs.
  • When your colleagues have free time, pick their brains.

I know, this isn’t the ideal kickstart you were looking for. But, you’ll be thankful in the long run. Because the less handholding you have, the better engineer you’ll become.

#5 Become familiar with the standards and codes

Almost every company has documentation of its work processes and protocols. So with a little digging, you can find answers to a lot of your questions.

I always find it best for new engineers to first read these company documents. I know, by asking me, it’s the easy path to your solution. But it frustrates me when the answer is a click or two away, and you’re not putting in any effort.

And I get it, you may not be completely familiar with the company standards at first. But after several times of me telling you where to look, and you still don’t look, then it becomes a problem.

It’s no different than knowing where to look to check stock prices. Maybe your go-to site is Yahoo Finance. In the same way, you need to make company documentation your go-to information source. Because these standards exist for a reason.

To point out, if you find anything confusing in the standards, then, go ask questions. Or, ask questions about anything missing from the standards.

#6 Don’t be afraid to ask questions

I know, I know. I said to be self-sufficient and not look for hand-holding in Tip #5.

BUT, there will be times when you’ll need to ask for help. Maybe you get stuck on a project and you don’t know what to do. And, the standards aren’t any help.

So, it’s better to look silly by asking stupid questions than to waste endless hours. I know in my younger years, I asked MANY silly questions. And it’s totally okay. Everyone starts from somewhere. You’re not born Einstein.

When you do ask questions though, soak in as much knowledge as you possibly can. I suggest taking notes for future reference. Because the last thing you want is to ask the same questions over and over again. You’ll not only drive people crazy, but you’ll come off as an idiot.

The good thing is, as a new engineer you have a grace period to acclimate. It’s around 6 months to one year. Other engineers understand this too, so they won’t hold too much against you. In fact, they’ll be extra helpful. Just do your damndest to learn people’s names to build relationships. This goes a long way in others warming up to you.

#7 Your contribution levels will be minimal

New engineers rarely ever lead complex projects and this is totally normal. Because companies don’t expect much from newbies.

So at first, you’ll only work to get up to speed with your company’s workflow. Then over time, you’ll slowly do more and more. This is the typical process for every new engineer.

In short, don’t feel bad or apologize because you’re not carrying your weight. What’s most important is to learn as much as you possibly can in the shortest period of time. Then, you can hit the ground running.

#8 Get your hands dirty and do work

As I highlighted in Tip #7, your contributions at first will be minimal. Over time though, to level up, you need to start doing. The faster the rubber meets the road, the better engineer you’ll become.

So when opportunities to do any meaningful work arise, don’t shy away. Rather, show interest even if you’re in over your head. Because once you start, you can bang your head on the work until things make sense.

Even more, if you CAN handle the work, go and request more of it. Your employer doesn’t always know how much work you can handle. So again, don’t sit bored surfing the internet.

When I first started working as an engineer I had imposter syndrome. But, I still chased after work. Because I knew it was the best way to level myself up.

And guess what? I made a lot of mistakes. But, I learned a lot from my mistakes too.

#9 Visit engineering sites 

Ask to visit the field or factory, or where ever you execute your engineering plans. Because seeing the execution of your work is an endless learning experience.

I find hands-on work is the only way to maximize your abilities as an engineer. You’ll learn how to properly design for the real world, and the pitfalls to avoid. Plus, you can better connect the dots with all the theories you learned in your textbooks.

#10 Communicate with outside parties

Speak with vendors, customers, other engineers, tech support, governmental agencies, and so on.

Communication is a big part of being an engineer, especially if you want to move up the ranks. And the sooner you master your communication skills, the better off you’ll be.

When I first started working, I wasn’t too familiar with technical communication. For example, how to deeply explain designs to other engineers. I feared sounding like an idiot.

So, I’d write out what I wanted to say, and then I’d ask my boss to correct it. This was my level of paranoia at the time. Over time though, I got the hang of it all through endless practice. Also thankfully, my boss didn’t hold my hand too much, so I quickly learned on my own.

To learn how to communicate like a pro engineer, check out my following articles:

#11 Be on time to work

I hate when people are late. It’s as if they think their time is more important than yours. All the while, you sit waiting burning time you don’t have.

To make matters worse, each time you’re late, you paint a poorer image of yourself. Especially, when people don’t know you really well. Soon you become known as the “undependable engineer.”

So always plan ahead and try to arrive 30 minutes early. You never know if you’ll hit traffic or if something else suddenly pops up.

Being punctual also applies to coming into the office on time. Say a late-night project request comes in, and it needs to get done by 10 AM the next day. But, you, the called-on expert, stroll on in at 9:00 AM versus 8:00 AM. You’ll have a bunch of frustrated pissed-off people waiting on you.

#12 Expected mistakes and failures

mistakes and failures are common

You’ll make mistakes as a new engineer. In fact, you’ll make a lot of them and it’s expected. So don’t feel bad. Even the best of the best engineers make mistakes because all engineers are humans.

Mistakes typically show you’re pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. And with any bleeding-edge design work, mistakes become all of more common. The key is though, to not make careless and the same mistakes twice. Like using incorrect units or making simple math errors.

Just most importantly, learn from your mistakes to level up. Like in real life, mistakes and failures are the best teachers in engineering.

#13 Be honest 

As a new engineer, you’ll make doofus mistakes. I certainly did. Because when you do things you’ve never done before, mistakes become common.

Heck, you may even cost your company money for doing something outrageously wrong. But don’t lose too much sleep over it. Just own up to your mistake and learn from it.

The worst thing you can do is to lie and point the finger in another direction. Because if you get exposed, you’ll look like an asshole. Then, no one will want to help or work with you. This is NOT a reputation you want to have.

#14 Off the clock learning

Don’t limit your learning to your workplace. Learn after hours when the business day ends, and then over the weekend. The more you study, the more quickly you can stand on your own two feet.

And to be clear, what I’m saying is to benefit YOU in the end. I’m not pushing you to do free work for your employer.

For example, say you’re an aerospace engineer and you design parts for rockets. In your free time, go read about rocket engineering. You’ll become a better engineer, and you’ll have better future employment opportunities. It’s a win-win!

Here are tips I’ve written on how you can better study engineering subjects.

#15 Understand your financial position in a company

In the end, you’re hired to make a company money. So you need to provide more value than the cost a company pays to hire you. To provide amazing value, I suggest doing the following:

  • Maximize your hours each and every day in producing quality engineering work. So, don’t waste time surfing the internet every 15 minutes.
  • Don’t waste time developing something unmarketable. For example, developing a product, which costs $200 to build. But, you can only sell it for $125.
  • Get up to speed with real-world engineering work as fast as possible. This way you can more quickly contribute to your company’s bottom line.

#16 Call out the mistakes of others

If someone has 30 years of experience over you, it doesn’t make them insulated from feedback. As we previously highlighted, ALL engineers make mistakes. It doesn’t matter how many letters you have after your name, or if you have a head full of white hair.

So, if you spot a mistake, speak up. Because you’re an engineer, and it’s your responsibility. You’re hired to benefit a company, and you have the engineering code of ethics to follow.

Now, when you do spot a mistake, go discuss it with the designer with supporting proof.  For example, mark up a calculation mistake.

I compare this to NBA basketball. An 18-year-old rookie should always go hard at a veteran like Lebron James. Because both players have earned the right to be on the same court. And in the end, the product, the game of basketball, wins!

#17 Say “I don’t know”

confused engineer

As a young engineer, to not look like an idiot, I nodded my head in agreeance a lot. I often didn’t say, “I don’t know.” The reality was, I really didn’t know. I just didn’t want to look like an idiot.

Now from one perspective, this forced me to learn a lot on my own. And frankly, I became a better engineer for it, in my pursuit to not look like an idiot. On the flip side, I could have saved myself a lot of frustration and time, by simply saying the 3 words.

And guess what, it’s totally okay to say, “I don’t know.” For one, you probably won’t look like an idiot. Even more, it’s always best to look like an “idiot,” than to have a $10,000,000 mistake on your hands.

Let me elaborate. I was once in a meeting for a huge project in San Francisco. Everyone was saying “I got it!” to certain design parameters. I didn’t understand the design concept at all though. I thought to myself, should I be the idiot in the room, who after the one-hour discussion is still clueless…

I thought about it long and hard, as I fidgeted around. Eventually, I mustered up the strength and said “I don’t know, explain it to me.”

What happened next was both amazing and amusing. No one else in the room knew anything either. No one could properly explain the new design direction. These were all engineers with 30 plus years of experience too who at the time looked intimidating to me.

So, my words became a catalyst to a new discussion for understanding. Because no one else wanted to come off as the idiot either. The moral of the story is, these three words can be very powerful!

First engineering job advice tips wrap up

Your first engineering job can without a doubt be stressful. But you can make the experience much better by following the tips in this article. Then in no time, you’ll become the experienced engineer showing new engineers the ropes.

Just always remember your feelings in your first engineering job. Whether it was fear, confusion, or whatever else. And then think about how you can help future new engineers through this mental obstacle course. The outcome will be a win-win for everyone.

What’s your favorite first engineering job advice? What was your experience like in your first engineering job?

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