Your first engineering job can be intimidating and overwhelming. But, by following 36 first engineering job tips, you can fit in no time.
These are tips based on my mistakes, colleague mistakes, and hacks I’ve just picked up over the years. My goal is to help you fit in with the least amount of anxiety while hitting the ground running.
#1 Check your units
If you use the wrong units, the perfect design will fail. Look no further than NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter from 1998. They lost a $125-million Mars Climate Orbiter because the wrong units were used. Engineers failed to convert English to metric units.
So always double-check your units in your calculations and even in documents you review. Mistakes happen, but in today’s globalized world, English and metric units get swapped.
#2 Design for the real-world
Every design looks good on paper. But, you need to always put on your hard hat and think of real-world limitations. Because then you’ll approach problems from a more practical lens.
So don’t keep yourself cooped up in an office. You’ll only limit your potential as an engineer.
#3 Own up to your mistakes fast
The cost of fixing a mistake grows, the longer it goes unfixed. And, a mistake can go unnoticed only for so long until someone discovers it.
So if you make a mistake, own up to it right away. I know it’s frightening, but you’ll avoid further troubles down the road. Because if you made a mistake, the fingers will one-day point back at you. THEN, the anger level will be on an entirely new level.
Plus, it’s your obligation as an engineer per the code of ethics in engineering to point out issues. The great thing is though, these failures will be the most impactful lessons in your career.
As an example, I always delay projects if I find busts in any design work. I don’t even care if the customer or other engineers get angry. Because I’d rather delay a project by a week than to have millions of dollars of damage a year down the line.
#4 Don’t make unsubstantiated assumptions
Even if you think you know something like the back of your hand, don’t make assumptions. For example, for a given device submittal, you may find the units are always listed in feet. So, for future submittals on this same device, you assume feet without even checking.
But, the next time, the units come back in inches for whatever reason. As a result, your entire design is now wrong. So, it’s always best to verify assumptions to sleep better at night.
#5 Never blindly accept software results
Don’t blindly accept outputs from software or spreadsheets. Always do a reality check over your results. Because with any program, it’s garbage in garbage out. So, if your input values are wrong, your outputs will be wrong too.
Also, your software or spreadsheet may have errors programmed in. In this case, you’ll have incorrect outputs no matter what you do.
#6 You’re never alone in a project
Don’t ever think you’re sitting alone with a project. Help is always an arm’s length away.
You can ask other engineers for help, or even find engineers on the internet to contact. Because in the end, ALL engineers seek help in some form. Even more, all engineers stand on the shoulders of millions of past minds.
#7 Don’t reinvent the wheel
Don’t try to be MacGyver. If a simple solution exists, then use it. Because no one will reward you for making a problem harder than it should be. But if something goes wrong, you’ll look like an idiot for not having used a proven solution.
In the end, people in the past painstakingly found solutions, so take advantage.
#8 Don’t always trust vendors
Always verify documents sent to you by vendors. Even if it’s a vendor you fully trust who has never made a mistake.
I’ve rejected product submittals from the largest global vendors many times. These are vendors who had supplied me with identical products many times in the past.
#9 Don’t disrespect manual workers
Every project is a team effort. So, every person and group in a project is important.
As the motto goes, treat everyone with respect. Your engineering degree doesn’t make you any better than anyone else. In fact, many manual laborers will teach you a thing or two. And your design work will even improve.
#10 Use critical thinking, even when you’re told something can only be done one way
Don’t blindly accept assumed truths, no matter the source. Instead, ask questions if there’s even 1% of uncertainty. Because ALL humans make mistakes, no exceptions.
At one time in history, people swore the Earth was the center of the universe. But later science proved this to be false.
#11 Don’t work on something until you know how it works
Even the simplest of devices won’t be simple once they’re taken apart. So, know exactly how something works before you take it apart. Especially if you don’t have a manual lying around.
I suggest taking pictures step by step of your disassembly. You’ll then avoid future frustrations when you have endless parts staring back at you.
#12 Remain humble
You do NOT know everything. And if you’re an expert in your field, this simply means you know more than most people.
You need to remain humble to constantly level up and not make mistakes. Because once you get cocky, you become too relaxed and you don’t double and triple check your work. Personally, looking at stars in the night sky humbles me fast.
#13 Double and triple-check your work
ALL engineers make mistakes. But if you check your work, you can limit the number of mistakes you make.
I always check my work after a couple of days’ break. This clears my mind and allows me to catch mistakes I overlooked before. The following are articles I’ve written on how to check your work:
- How to check engineering drawings? 8 things to know
- 5 step process to checking engineering calculations
#14 Think about others who will use your design
With any design, you need to consider everyone who will use your work. So, you can’t design selfishly to make your life easier.
For example, a project requires you to route conduits for a new building. In your design, you wouldn’t run the conduits under a pond.
This design may simplify your work as you wouldn’t need pull boxes to route around the pond. But, you’d make the work of contractors much more difficult. Plus, they’d think you’re an idiot because of your conduit routing.
#15 Get everything in writing
Don’t blindly trust people. No matter how trustworthy a person may seem. Because when problems come up, people will point fingers. Especially in engineering, where a single problem can cost tens of millions of dollars.
So, get everything in writing for your own record and protection. Even more, document a critical phone call. I suggest writing an email summarizing your conversation. Then, ask the other party to confirm your conversation discussion items. And if they don’t respond, you’ll have a record you emailed them.
#16 Don’t go to your boss over every minor decision
Don’t go to your boss over every minor project detail. For one, you’ll drive them crazy. But more importantly, you’ll never advance in your field and gain confidence.
Plus, what will you do if your boss, crutch, isn’t there to save you?…
#17 Make your work presentable for others
Make your work easy to consume for your audience. If you’re presenting your work to other engineers, add plenty of clear simple notes. And if you’re writing a report for non-engineers, use laymen’s language.
Also, overcomplicating your content to look smart accomplishes the opposite. As Albert Einstein said,
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
#18 Own up to your mistakes and have solutions ready to propose
Own up to your mistakes without making excuses to become a better engineer. I know it can be frightening, but check out the following benefits:
- Gained respect from peers
- Gained knowledge
- Avoid costly mistakes while protecting lives
At the same time, propose solutions when you fess up. This shows others you’ve learned and thought through your mistake.
#19 Develop a systematic process for your design work
You don’t want to tackle every design problem completely differently. Because it’s not efficient or effective. Rather, create a systematic process on how you approach your designs.
This will streamline your work, and improve your designs while reducing errors. At the same time, you can add more steps and details to your design process. This will optimize your process, like when you perfect a recipe through a lot of practice.
#20 Don’t make the same mistake twice
ALL engineers make mistakes. The trick is though, to learn from your mistakes to not make the same mistakes twice.
For example, you may specify the wrong large-size transformer for a substation. This mistake could cost $2 million in damages. Now, your boss or client may still forgive you. But, if you make the same mistake again in the next project, you’ll for sure need to go search for a new job.
For this reason alone, take all the first engineering job tips in this article to heart. Because they’ll help you avoid making the same mistakes twice.
#21 Don’t assume others know
Even if an engineer has 30 years of experience with a given work, don’t assume they know what you’re talking about. Many people bullshit through conversations to not sound stupid. Also, many engineers are only a supporting cast to lead engineers.
So, spell things out for someone you just met. Do this until you’re confident you’re on the same page to avoid problems down the line.
#22 Tone down your logic
Turn off your engineering mind when you speak with non-engineers. For example, in customer support, try to understand an illogical decision. Don’t always try to think like an engineer and pick apart a customer’s logic. In return, you can better help and find solutions.
#23 Stay organized with to-do lists
Create to-do lists for yourself. Because when you get busy, you’ll naturally forget some things. I recommend creating daily, weekly, and even monthly to-do lists. Secondly, add to your to-do lists immediately as new tasks strike you.
Also, for each of your projects, file your documents and drawings all in one place. This way, you’ll have everything at your fingertips on demand.
#24 Ask the question “why?”
Always ask “why?” until you’re fully satisfied with an answer. Even more, don’t fear looking stupid by asking your questions.
I’ve asked what many would consider stupid questions plenty of times. And most of the time, I uncovered potential issues. So, don’t always go with the flow hoping someone else will catch a mistake. This is how engineering catastrophes happen.
#25 Stick to facts and don’t speculate
You may think your speculations don’t mean much in meetings with clients. But, as an expert, non-engineers will hold on tight and run with each of your words. So, your words can come back and bite you. I’ve experienced this on several occasions.
So now, I stick to facts and leave speculative talk in-house for my internal team. Now of course, if you become a genius marketer like Elon Musk, then you can leverage speculative talk.
#26 Hold others accountable
If someone says they’ll do something, then hold them accountable. Because once accountability goes out the window, project timelines fall apart. Then, design quality can suffer.
This is why when someone says they’ll do something, you need to get the date and details on record. This way, you can hold the other party accountable when people start pointing fingers. Otherwise, you may get blamed for something you didn’t cause.
#27 Use the latest files
When you start a design, you’ll probably use a set of drawings as your template. Be sure you use the latest drawings. Think of an x-reference drawing in AutoCAD for example.
In engineering, drawings go through many iterations. If you run with an older iteration, your entire design can be wrong. The same applies to software files used by software developers.
#28 Don’t shit where you eat
If you have a problem with a given firm or person, keep it professional. The engineering community is small, and things always go in a full circle.
For example, in the future, you may need to go through a firm you bad-mouthed to win a project. Or, the same firm may one day review your project design. Even more, someone you badmouthed may one day become your new boss.
So, always look into the future with the actions you make today. Because your career is LONG and burning bridges early on can cause you a lot of future misery.
#29 Know your value and don’t work for free
You’ve worked hard to be in the position you’re in. So, don’t sell yourself short by doing free work. I always tell engineers, you don’t walk into a dentist’s office and ask them to pull your tooth for free.
Keep in mind though, sometimes you may do free out-of-scope work on a project for a good client. Also, many times you’ll work 10 to 12 hour days without overtime pay for an employer. This is all common, and sometimes even necessary, to move up the ranks.
In general, you’ll know when someone is taking advantage of you. Especially, as you gain experience dealing with good and bad clients and employers.
#30 Don’t send out emails when you’re emotional
If you can’t place a smiley face at the end of your email, then don’t hit send. On the same token, when you feel extra emotional, don’t contact anyone. Instead, if you draft an email when emotional, sit on it for 24 hours. More than likely, after 24 hours, you’ll cringe at what you wrote.
This prevents you from sending messages you wish you hadn’t.
#31 Never blindly sign a contract
Never blindly sign a contract without reading the fine details. Even if the other party tells you it’s a typical contract. Because once you sign your name, you’ll hold yourself liable.
So, take the extra several hours to properly review a contract so you can better sleep at night. As I can tell you firsthand, it’s not uncommon to find a bunch of gotcha weasel words infused into contracts.
#32 Learn as much as you can
To become a 10x engineer, you need to become a lifelong learner. Especially today, with how fast the world is evolving.
And, having a thirst to learn will separate you from your peers who force themselves to learn only to keep a job.
#33 Under-promise and over-deliver
You’ll always have happy clients and colleagues by under-promising and over-delivering. I find this to be a great hack to gain the respect of your clients and peers.
On the same token though, don’t overpromise. Because more than likely you won’t deliver. You’ll simply add extra unnecessary stress to your life.
#34 Never assume someone is smarter than you
Don’t base smarts on letters after someone’s name, white hair, and years of experience. As a young buck, you may do things better than many senior engineers. The point is, if you see something you can do better, then speak up.
In the same vein, don’t allow others to overshadow you because you think they know better. Everyone starts from somewhere and for all you know, you may have a special knack.
#35 Be detail-oriented
Don’t assume everyone thinks like you. In other words, spell everything out for the people you work with. This helps prevent miscommunication and fewer things can then go wrong.
For example, a basketball coach can simply tell a novice player to shoot the ball. The novice player may then shoot the ball using both hands with an awkward stance. This shooting technique obviously isn’t ideal, but the player doesn’t know any better. Instead, the better approach is for the coach to step by step detail how the novice player should shoot.
And, by becoming detail-oriented, you’ll speed up your learning. To be able to show detail in your work, you need a strong understanding of a subject.
#36 Don’t always disclose information
You don’t need to disclose everything to anyone who asks. For example, certain things, you and your client should only know.
I always have vendors ask what project I’ll be using their product for. Frankly, a lot of the time, it’s none of their business. So, don’t be afraid to kindly say “sorry, I can’t disclose”.
First engineering job tips wrap up
With any type of engineering, you’ll make mistakes in your career. You can’t escape this. But, with every passing year, you’ll optimize your work process. As a result, you’ll become a better engineer.
And, by following my 36 first engineering job tips, you can speed up your learning. You’ll learn from my mistakes, and what I’ve observed from many engineers around me. A win-win!
Which of my first engineering job tips do you find the most helpful? Do you have any first engineering job tips to share?
SUBSCRIBE TO ENGINEER CALCS NEWSLETTER
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.