Starting a new engineering job doesn’t have to be frightening when you’ve got tried-and-true advice from someone who’s been there.
So, let me share 17 golden nuggets of wisdom I’ve collected during my adventures as a design engineer. You’ll be leveling up before you know it.
Important Note: I’m assuming there’s no formal company training here. You’re thrown into the deep end, and it’s up to you to stay afloat.
#1 Get a feel for your workplace culture
As an engineer, you probably love video games, so treat your new job like one.
When you start playing, you learn the controls, menus, and your character’s skills. Similarly, as a company rookie, it’s essential to figure out:
- How engineers start and finish projects
- Acceptable office jokes
- The personality of colleagues
- Expectations of engineers
The sooner you nail the workplace vibe, the faster you’ll blend in and start kicking ass.
#2 Seize opportunities
See an opportunity to lend a hand? Go for it. Most folks will admire your drive. I’m always wowed by people who take on forgotten tasks—it’s a sign they’re dependable and ready for promotion.
Bear in mind that job descriptions are just rough guidelines, especially in smaller firms. Being adaptable is crucial, so embrace the chance to wear many hats.
I’ve donned a whole hat shop’s worth in my various roles.
#3 Don’t let others take advantage of you
While it’s vital to show initiative, be wary of letting others walk all over you. In engineering, some people try to dump their work on others, pretending they’re swamped when they’re just slacking off.
I know I told you to seize opportunities in Tip #2. But at the same time, watch out for people taking you for a ride.
There have been loads of times when I spotted idle work but steered clear. Why? Because I was already burning the midnight oil, tackling more tasks than I should, while my colleagues clocked off early daily without doing much.
I refused to be someone’s doormat or bankroll their easy life.
#4 Stand on your own two feet
Sure, as new engineers, we all need some guidance. But it’s crucial to become self-reliant ASAP. The sad truth is that most companies don’t have the resources to train engineers well. So, it’s down to you to hit the ground running.
Think about baby animals in the wild. They’re not helpless like human infants. They’re up and moving right away because danger lurks everywhere.
As a senior engineer, I’m swamped with tasks and learning curves of my own. Much as I’d love to, I just can’t find the time to endlessly mentor newbies.
To become self-sufficient, I suggest new engineers:
- Study and learn from colleagues’ completed projects
- Continuously research your industry through YouTube, books, articles, and blogs
- Pick your coworkers’ brains when they’re free
It might not be an ideal start, but needing less hand-holding will make you thankful in the end.
#5 Get to know the standards and codes
Almost every company documents its work processes and protocols. So get your hands on these ASAP. They’ll answer many of your questions.
I get that asking senior engineers seems quicker, but it’s annoying for them if the answer’s just a click or two away and you haven’t tried. You might not be completely familiar with company standards at first, but if you keep failing to look after several reminders, it’s a problem.
If anything in the standards is unclear or missing, then go ahead and ask questions.
#6 Don’t be afraid to ask questions
I know, I know. I told you to stand on your own two feet and not expect hand-holding in Tip #4.
But sometimes, you’ll need to ask for help. Maybe you’re stumped on a project, and the standards aren’t helping.
Looking silly by asking dumb questions is better than wasting hours. I asked a ton of silly questions when I was younger, and it was fine. Everyone starts somewhere.
When you do ask, soak up the knowledge and take notes for future reference. You don’t want to keep asking the same things—it’s not a good look.
The good news is, as a new engineer, you get a grace period of about 6 months to a year to adjust. Your colleagues get that, so they won’t hold much against you. They’ll even be extra helpful. Just do your best to learn names and build relationships. That goes a long way in getting people on your side.
#7 Your contribution levels will be minimal
New engineers hardly ever lead projects, and that’s totally normal. Companies don’t expect much from rookies.
So don’t feel bad or apologize for not pulling your weight. Your top priority is to learn as fast as you can.
Over time, you’ll gradually take on more actual work. That’s the typical process for every new engineer.
#8 Get your hands dirty and do work
As I mentioned in Tip #7, your initial contributions might be small. However, to truly grow, you’ve got to jump in and get your hands dirty. The sooner you put your skills to the test, the faster you’ll become a better engineer.
So, whenever a chance to tackle meaningful work comes up, don’t hold back. Show enthusiasm even if it feels overwhelming. The key is to dive in and wrestle with the task until it all starts making sense.
If you can manage the workload, don’t hesitate to ask for more. Your boss may not always know your full potential. And remember, there’s no need to waste time idly browsing the internet.
When I first started as an engineer, I struggled with imposter syndrome. But, I didn’t let that stop me from pursuing more work, knowing that it was my path to leveling up.
Guess what? I made my fair share of mistakes, but each one taught me valuable lessons.
#9 Explore engineering sites
Request to visit the field, factory, or any location where your engineering designs come to life. Observing the execution of your plans is a never-ending learning experience.
Hands-on work is essential for maximizing your engineering abilities. You’ll discover how to design for real-world situations, identify potential pitfalls, and make better connections between theory and practice.
#10 Connect with people outside your team
Engage with vendors, customers, fellow engineers, tech support, government agencies, and others.
Communication is crucial for engineers, particularly if you aim to climb the career ladder. The sooner you hone your communication skills, the better off you’ll be.
When I first started working, I struggled with technical communication, like explaining designs in detail to other engineers. I feared sounding like an idiot.
To overcome this, I wrote down my thoughts and asked my boss for feedback. My paranoia eventually subsided as I gained experience through practice. Thankfully, my boss didn’t coddle me, so I learned quickly on my own.
For tips on mastering engineering communication, check out these articles:
- Master engineering email writing using these 14 tips
- 12 Engineering writing tips you need to know
- Engineering writing style guide – 6 things to know
- 12 ways to improve public speaking skills for engineers
#11 Be on time to work
Tardiness drives me nuts—it’s as if latecomers believe their time is more precious than everyone else’s. While you’re stuck waiting, valuable time slips away.
Worse yet, chronic lateness can tarnish your reputation, especially among those who don’t know you well. Before long, you could be labeled the unreliable engineer.
To avoid this, plan ahead and aim to arrive 30 minutes early. Traffic jams and unforeseen events can always throw you off schedule.
Punctuality also extends to showing up at the office on time. Imagine a last-minute project lands on your desk, due by 10 AM the next day. If you, the go-to expert, stroll in at 9:00 AM instead of 8:00 AM, you’ll leave a trail of annoyed, impatient colleagues in your wake.
#12 Embrace your blunders and learn from them
As a newbie engineer, you’re bound to make mistakes – lots of them. But don’t sweat it. Even the most brilliant engineers mess up because, well, they’re human too.
Mistakes often mean you’re challenging yourself and exploring uncharted territory. In cutting-edge designs, errors are par for the course. The important thing is not to repeat careless mistakes, like mixing up units or botching basic math.
Remember, life’s best lessons come from failures and mistakes, and engineering is no exception.
#13 Own your errors and be honest
Hey, we all make boneheaded moves as new engineers. I sure did. When you’re venturing into the unknown, slip-ups are pretty much guaranteed.
You might even cost your company some cash by making a colossal blunder. Don’t beat yourself up too much, though. Just admit your mistake and learn from it.
Whatever you do, don’t lie or blame others. If you’re caught, you’ll be branded an asshole, and nobody will want to help or work with you. Trust me, that’s not a reputation you want.
#14 Keep learning even when you’re off the clock
Don’t confine your education to office hours. Keep learning after work and on weekends. The more you know, the sooner you’ll stand on your own two feet.
To be clear, I’m not encouraging you to work for free. I’m urging you to reach your full potential.
For instance, if you’re an aerospace engineer designing rocket parts, study rocket engineering in your spare time. It could make you a sought-after 10x engineer with fantastic career prospects.
Want to know how to study engineering subjects more effectively? Check out my tips!
#15 Understand your financial position in a company
Ultimately, you’re hired to make money for the company. So, strive to deliver more value than they pay you. Here are a few suggestions:
- Make every work hour count by focusing on quality engineering tasks. Don’t get sucked into the internet rabbit hole every 15 minutes.
- Avoid creating unprofitable products. For example, don’t develop a $200 product that sells for only $125.
- Get up to speed with real-world engineering tasks, so you can contribute to the bottom line faster.
#16 Call out the mistakes of others
Decades of experience don’t make anyone immune to feedback. As we’ve established, all engineers make mistakes, regardless of credentials or how much gray hair they have.
If you see something wrong, say something. As an engineer, it’s your duty to uphold the company’s interests and adhere to the engineering code of ethics.
When you find an error, approach the person responsible with evidence, like a marked-up calculation.
Think of it like basketball: an 18-year-old rookie should always challenge a veteran. Both players have earned their spot on the court, and in the end, the game itself wins!
#17 Embrace “I don’t know”
When I was a young engineer, I was hell-bent on not looking like an idiot. So, I nodded along with everything, even when I was clueless. Sure, this pushed me to learn a ton on my own, and I grew as an engineer, but man, did it cost me time and frustration!
Here’s the deal: saying “I don’t know” is absolutely okay. In fact, it’s better to risk looking like an idiot than to make a costly blunder. Let me share a story with you.
I was once in a meeting for a colossal project in San Francisco. Everyone confidently shouted, “I got it!” about certain design aspects, but I was completely lost. Should I be the idiot who admits they’re clueless after an hour-long discussion?
Anxiously, I mustered the courage to speak up: “I don’t know, explain it to me.”
The outcome was both astonishing and side-splitting. Turns out, nobody else in the room knew either! Even the engineers with 40-plus years of experience couldn’t clarify the new design direction. My honest admission sparked a fresh conversation, all because no one wanted to look like an idiot.
First engineering job advice tips wrap up
As you embark on your first engineering job, remember it can be stressful, but you can make it better by following tips like these. Soon enough, you’ll be the seasoned pro guiding newcomers.
Keep in mind how you felt in your first job – whether it was fear, confusion, or something else – and use that empathy to help new engineers navigate their own challenges. It’s a win-win for everyone.
What’s your favorite piece of advice for a first engineering job? What was your experience like when you started out?
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.