17 Impactful First Engineering Job Advice Tips

New engineering jobs don’t need to be intimidating. You can start your job with confidence, by using proven engineering job advice tips.

We’ll go over 17 tips I’ve gathered through my many years of working as a design engineer.

I compare a new job 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 we’ll start with a video game analogy.

When you first play a video game, you try to quickly learn the controls. Then, you check the menus and your character’s abilities, in order to do your missions. The same idea applies 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 and start kicking ass.

#2 Take initiative

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

Most people 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.

Equally important, don’t ever say a task 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 all my positions.

#3 Don’t let others take advantage of you

I see it all the time in engineering. Engineers push off their work to others, under the guise of 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 others don’t take advantage of you.

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. While my colleagues left work a couple of hours early every day. Plus, they weren’t doing much work.

I wasn’t going to become someone’s punching bag and subsidize their lifestyle.

#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. They immediately stand and start moving. Because around every corner is a predator looking for its next meal.

Most companies, unfortunately, don’t have the resources to properly train engineers. So you need to take initiative to stand and get ahead.

The realities of office training from senior engineers

As a senior engineer, I have endless responsibilities and things to learn myself. I don’t have the time, to show new engineers the ropes. Even though I wish I could.

So, to become self-sufficient, I suggest new engineers do the following:

  • Review and learn from completed projects done by your colleagues.
  • Research and constantly learn about your industry. Watch Youtube videos, and read books, articles, and blogs.
  • Pick the brains of your colleagues, when they’re free.

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

#5 Become familiar with the standards and codes

Almost every company has documentation of its work processes and protocols. So quickly get your hands on these documents. You’ll find answers to a lot of your questions.

I know, by asking the senior engineers, you get your answer quickly. But it can frustrate the senior engineers 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 being told where to look, and you still don’t look, then it becomes a problem.

If you find anything confusing or missing in the standards though, then, go ask questions.

#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 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.

It’s better to look silly by asking stupid questions than to waste endless hours. In my younger years, I asked countless silly questions. And it was okay. Everyone starts from somewhere.

When you do ask questions though, soak in as much knowledge as possible. Also, take notes for future reference. Because the last thing you want is to ask the same questions over and over again. It’s not a good look.

The good thing is though, 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 projects and this is totally normal. Because companies don’t expect much from newbies.

So 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 over time, you’ll slowly do more and more actual work. This is the typical process for every new engineer.

#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.

Then, if you can handle the work, go and request more. 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 plenty of mistakes. But, I picked up valuable lessons.

#9 Visit engineering sites 

Ask to visit the field or factory, or wherever you execute your engineering plans. Because seeing the execution of your design, 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. Also, 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, government 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 some other event 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 plenty 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, mistakes become more common. The key is though, to not make careless and the same mistakes twice. Like using incorrect units or making simple math errors.

Equally important, learn from your mistakes. Like in everyday 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 are 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 and learn from your mistake.

The worst thing you can do is to lie and point the finger at others. 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, this is to help you reach your full potential. 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, study rocket engineering. You can possibly then become a 10x engineer with improved future employment opportunities.

Check out my tips 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, provide more value than the cost a company pays to hire you. I suggest doing the following:

  • Maximize your hours each and every day in producing quality engineering work. 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, yet sells for $125.
  • Get up to speed with real-world engineering work. You can then 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.

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. 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 rarely said, “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. I became a better engineer in my pursuit of not looking 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 40-plus years of experience, who at the time looked intimidating to me.

So, my words became a catalyst for a new discussion. All because no one wanted to look like the idiot.

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 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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