How to be an engineer is a question many aspiring engineers ask themselves. This article will outline the steps to mastering your craft.
Also, it’ll answer the question of “should I be an engineer?”
In our discussion, I won’t dive into the obvious following hoops you need to jump through to become an engineer:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree from an ABET-accredited university
- Work toward a Professional Engineering (PE) license
- Earn a graduate degree
- Pursue professional certifications
Frankly, many can become average engineers, but not many become the proverbial 10x engineers. Levels exist in every type of engineering. This is where we’ll focus on.
#1 Know your material
If you design bridge foundations, learn as much as possible about bridges. You don’t want to scratch your head in confusion when you hear bridge lingo. As cliché as it sounds, preparation is the key to success.
First impressions count. For example, if you go to bid on a bridge project, you better know how to discuss potential designs with the customer. If you’re unable to, the customer will instantly dismiss you.
Also, learn what engineers do, to know what materials to learn. I suggest leveraging the following sources:
- Books: If you can read and understand 10 textbooks in your niche, you’ll be in the 1% of your field.
- History: Read case studies of designs in your niche, to know what makes good and bad design.
- Completed designs: Review implemented projects to learn design strategies.
- Google and ChatGPT: Search and read cut sheets and posts in forums to gain new ideas. The more data you obtain, the more creative of an engineer you’ll become!
#2 Use logic in your work
Engineers by default think logically, sometimes similar to machines. Emotions rarely bleed into an engineer’s decision-making.
Now, this can drive your significant other crazy. Frankly, life would be very boring without emotions. In engineering though, pragmatic thinking rules. I wouldn’t want the people who design the planes I fly in to loosely use logic. I’m sure everyone would agree with me here.
So, learn to use logical reasoning in any work you do. Then always check your work to see if it makes sense. For example, if a software program outputs a result, don’t blindly accept the output. You may have inputted incorrect values, or the program could be buggy.
The following are some tips on how to think more logically:
- Solve problems: Solve as many problems as you can. You’ll force yourself to learn the theory and nuances of your subject matter.
- Confidence: Become familiar with all facets of your subject matter to gain confidence. Because the fuel for confidence in engineering is technical material.
- Read: Read technical subjects to understand how other engineers think.
#3 Always continue learning
Real learning happens outside of the classroom. It’s a neverending pursuit, disconnected from letter grades. Even more so, given the lackluster engineering education system.
Hence the importance of pursuing a field you enjoy. Only then, you’ll read a textbook on electromagnetism versus playing Call of Duty.
As previously stated, by just reading and understanding 10 textbooks, you’ll elevate yourself to the 1% of your field.
Many people only learn the bare minimum to collect their next paycheck or get a letter grade. This then leads to mediocrity and becoming average. Especially given the rapid advancements found in engineering today.
For example, Elon Musk didn’t formally go to school to become a rocket engineer. Rather, he self-learned everything he knows today about rockets by consuming textbooks. Also, he surrounded himself with the brightest rocket scientists, to soak in their knowledge.
I believe Elon’s self-learning greatly contributed to the success of Space X today. And now today, you too can learn like Elon, by leveraging the following:
- Internet: Consume credible content and go down endless rabbit holes.
- Twitter: Get the latest information in your industry from leading experts. Once you hear an interesting subject on Twitter, go dive deep into it through videos and/or books.
- Experts: Speak with leading minds in your field. Ask for advice to quickly fill your knowledge gaps.
- Books: Read textbooks, manuals, specs, digital books, and anything else with written words.
#4 Question everything
Never blindly agree to a solution or presented fact. Instead, question everything, even if there’s only a slight amount of doubt.
I use a lot of expensive engineering software to complete various studies. But, I never blindly accept the output results. The outputs depend on the inputs I put in, and all software has limitations and possibly bugs.
Maybe I inputted the wrong value, or I received the wrong value from another engineer.
In the same vein, understand the math behind engineering concepts. Without understanding the math, you may not be able to fully review and understand the work. And if you find you don’t know something, go research and learn.
Questioning and being curious are great ways to learn and fill in your knowledge gaps. Plus, you’ll prevent engineering failures.
NASA engineering failure
In 1998, NASA launched a $125 million space probe to Mars. Unfortunately, the next year they announced they had lost the probe.
The mission failure was due to the improper reading of units by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The engineers failed to convert English to metric units when exchanging data.
Sounds like an insanely silly mistake, but engineers are humans. And all humans make mistakes, with no exceptions. This serves as a reminder, no detail is too small to question. A perceived stupid question may prevent a $125 million disaster…
Heck, even as a newbie engineer, speak out against an engineer with a head full of white hair. Or, if they have the alphabet soup listed after their name. Look past the facade humans create, and focus on facts!
Then one step further, when you sit home alone, question everything around you. Ask how planes fly, how electric cars work, why burning coal hurts our planet, and so on. Like with anything else, questioning is a skill you need to hone.
#5 Build people skills
Communication has become a lost art today.
Thinking rationally and working hard will only get you so far. To further level yourself up, build great communication skills. Especially for introverted engineers, having a clear and confident voice is crucial for success in the field.
The higher you move up in engineering too, the more diverse group of people you’ll work with. This includes people who don’t have a sliver of technical background. So you need to know how to dumb yourself down to relate with people of all backgrounds. While also avoiding the stereotype of speaking like a monotone robot.
I find most engineers have a wealth of knowledge and cool stories to tell. But, their personalities and skillset prevent them from properly expressing themselves.
To become a better communicator, try the following:
- Regular discussions: Learn to have everyday discussions with strangers on all types of topics.
- Public speaking: Learn how to give public speeches.
- Comfort zone: Step outside of your comfort zone and find friends from all walks of life. Many engineers are introverts, and socializing is mentally taxing.
- Dumb yourself down: Practice explaining complex subjects in simple words.
#6 Become Paranoid
Your work as an engineer affects public safety in most instances. With this in mind, don’t ever become comfortable with the work you do. Instead, double and triple-check your work. As previously highlighted, all engineers make mistakes.
I’ve made silly mistakes myself. Naturally now, I’ve become paranoid, and paranoia helps you better spot mistakes.
Also over time, the volume of mistakes you make will hopefully drop. Especially, as you add more filters to catch mistakes.
You may even think I’m being overly paranoid myself here. But, think of all the overly paranoid engineers who design the planes you fly in. They allow you to safely fly over oceans in a metallic tube with wings, all because they thought over every last design detail to death.
One mistake or forgotten design element can lead to catastrophic failure. As a professional, public safety needs to become your number one priority, engineering code of ethics aside.
To ensure you deliver impeccable work, do the following:
- Check your work: Always double your work, at every stage in the design.
- Design review: Take your time when you review designs. Then if you think a problem exists, don’t fear speaking up. It’s better to delay a project by a month or two than to have an angry client due to a failure. Or even worse, someone gets injured or killed.
- Review with a fresh mind: After you complete a design, review your work several days later. You want to remove any biases from your mind.
- Embrace criticism: Give your design to others to review, and don’t become defensive to criticism.
- Create processes: Create a process for checking your design work. Make it idiot-proof, so nothing falls through the cracks.
#7 Design in the real world
Many engineers sit inside an office all day long doing design work. Naturally, their design work heavily relies on what they’ve learned from textbooks alone. This isn’t ideal, as most engineering products operate in the real world.
You need to use real-world knowledge with all its nuances, to create the best design. Otherwise, your work won’t translate over from paper, and construction workers will view you as an idiot.
It’s why I always parrot the importance of hands-on experience over formal education.
Ground rod install example – theory versus the real world
When designing electrical systems, we drive 8-foot copper-clad steel rods into the ground. This is done for ground fault protection.
Textbooks and the National Electric Code suggest installing the top of ground rods flush with grade. But, in my designs, I often require the top of the rod to be 1 foot below grade.
Why? Because if the ground rod top is flush with grade, it can become a tripping hazard during rainy seasons as the soil erodes. It can also be a danger for passing vehicles.
The point is, don’t just rely on what you read in textbooks. Frankly, many authors don’t have real-world experience. To be a better engineer, build a strong background in both theory and hands-on experience. I suggest doing the following:
- Go outside: Visit job sites and watch over construction. You’ll understand why certain design elements frustrate construction workers. Also, you’ll learn what translates from paper to the real world.
- Watch smart content: Watch engineering and construction shows. Flip on the Discovery channel or even Youtube and watch what interests you.
- Speak with others: Speak with consumers and construction workers, to better learn about your product.
“How to be an engineer?” wrap up
There you have it. If you follow these 7 easy-to-follow tips, you’ll be on your way to becoming a better engineer. Maybe even a superstar engineer.
Not only will you create safer and better designs, but you’ll also gain the trust and respect of your colleagues and clients.
Even more, apply your engineering skills to your everyday life and you’ll become a superstar all around.
What’s your favorite tip on how to be an amazing engineer? What do you think it takes to become a superstar engineer?
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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.