A lot of confusion surrounds the ins and outs of becoming an engineer. To shed some light on how to be an engineer, I’ll go over 7 easy to follow tips.
This will also help you answer the question of “should I be an engineer?”
I won’t dive into the more obvious things like:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree from an ABET-accredited university
- Work towards a Professional Engineering (PE) license
- Earn a graduate degree
- Pursue professional certifications
These things you may already know about or you can readily find. I want to rather focus on the not so obvious things.
This way you can not only become an engineer, but you can become a superstar engineer. Yes, levels do exist in all types of engineering.
In every profession, we have poor, average, good, and superstar levels. Let’s look at the NBA as an example.
For years, Lebron James ruled the league and still does today after 17 seasons. He dominates the best of the best in the world and other players try to emulate him.
Keep in mind, the average NBA career is only 4.5 years long.
Similarly, in engineering, average engineers follow the lead of superstar engineers.
Superstar engineers in the workplace
I typically find a superstar engineer in every project team. The superstar engineers do the meat of the work while leading projects.
The other engineers in most cases simply provide technical support. They follow the leader’s vision.
In the same way as in the animal kingdom, a hierarchy forms. I find this important in every engineering project.
As good leadership makes project progress more efficient. But, a superstar engineer also realizes they don’t know everything.
This allows other engineers to challenge the superstar engineer. As a result, designs improve through internal discussions. This also gives way to possible newborn superstar engineers.
In summary, not everyone can become a superstar in their field of work. But, you can always level yourself up. Let’s see how!
#1 Know your material
If you design bridge foundations, then learn as much as you can about bridges.
You don’t want to scratch your head in confusion when you hear certain lingo about bridges. As cliché as it sounds, preparation is the key to success.
You need the knowledge to hit the ground running. Plus, in kick-off meetings for projects you want to stand tall by knowing your material.
First impressions count. For example, if you go out to bid on a bridge project, you better know your material.
If you can’t properly discuss bridges, you’ll lose the client’s respect right off the bat. No going back from that. So, know your material!
Also, learn what engineers do. This will also give you a leg up as you work with other engineers.
How to gain more knowledge:
- Books: read engineering textbooks. More than likely you’ve forgotten a lot of what you learned back in school. Even more, read and learn about new subjects.
- History: read about the history of your subject of expertise. From our last example, read on the many bridges built across the world. Learn what makes a successful bridge design, and what leads to failures.
- Google: Google it! Read cut sheets and even credible forums to learn more and get ideas. You have endless information at your fingertips. Take advantage!
#2 Use logic in your work
Engineers by default think logically. We think with ones and zeros a lot, like a computer.
In other words, something either will work or won’t. Emotions rarely bleed into an engineer’s decision making.
Without a doubt, this can drive your significant other crazy. Most people don’t see life as black and white. Frankly, life would become very boring without emotions.
That said, your significant other aside, in the engineering world, logic rules. In fact, if you don’t use logic, then things will break and fail.
I know I don’t want the people who design the planes I fly in to loosely use logic. I think everyone would agree with me here.
So, learn to use more logical reasoning in your work. Strip out emotions and tackle hard problems using rational thinking.
Also, check your work to see it makes sense. If a software outputs a number, don’t blindly accept the output. You may have inputted incorrect values, or the program could be buggy.
In short, learn to think like an engineer to improve your life.
How to think more logically:
- Solve problems: solve problems and then solve even more problems. Practice makes perfect. You’ll soon master your subject and learn when something doesn’t make sense in the real world.
- Confidence: become more familiar with your subject matter to gain confidence. Confidence will make you a better problem solver.
- Deep learning: understand subjects deeply. This way you can see why things operate the way they do.
#3 Always continue learning
Real learning happens outside of the classroom. I’m talking about self-learning.
To put it another way, you’ve chosen to learn in your free time over video games. Thus, learning becomes your hobby.
How powerful is that?!
You’ll become a magnet for knowledge.
As a result, you’ll find yourself miles ahead of your peers. Most people only learn the bare minimum to collect their next paycheck or get a letter grade.
This leads to mediocrity and becoming an average engineer.
I’ve learned so much more by self-learning than I ever did in a classroom.
To drive the point home, let’s look at Elon Musk. Elon didn’t formally go to school to become a rocket scientist.
He self-learned everything he knows today about rockets by consuming textbooks. Also, he surrounded himself with the brightest rocket scientists. He soaked in as much information as he possibly could from each of them.
Elon’s self-learning I believe greatly contributed to the success of Space X today. On that note, I believe most classrooms today have become outdated ways of learning.
How to continuously learn:
- Internet: with instant access to the internet, go consume endless credible content. You can never learn enough.
- Twitter: get the latest information in your industry from leading experts. Once you hear about a subject on Twitter, go dive deep into it through videos or books. This is a great way to stay on the cutting edge of tech.
- Experts: speak with leading minds in your field. Ask for advice to fill your knowledge gaps. Learning from others helps you quickly learn the important stuff.
- 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. Engineers need to always question even the smallest of things.
Questioning combined with curiosity is a great learning tool. Plus, it’ll help you catch mistakes in designs.
To point out, I complete a lot of engineering studies using various software tools. But, I never blindly accept the output results.
The output results depend on my inputs. What’s more, all software has limitations and may even have broken code.
So, maybe I inputted in the wrong value. Or, maybe the values another engineer gave to me were wrong.
Thus, reviewing work in engineering is critical. Also, this is why you need to understand the math behind engineering concepts. Otherwise, you’ll be reviewing blindly.
If there’s something I don’t know, I’ll go research and learn. As I said earlier, questioning things will help you fill your knowledge gaps.
NASA engineering failure
In 1998, NASA launched a $125 million space probe to Mars. In 1999, NASA announced they had lost the space probe.
Mission failure was from the improper reading of units by Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Engineers failed to convert English to metric units when exchanging data.
Sounds like a silly mistake. But even top engineers make mistakes.
This shows you that nothing is too small to question.
Also, don’t ever feel stupid to question something. You may end up preventing a $125 million disaster.
How to learn to question more:
- Question everything: speak up. Don’t fear questioning an engineer with a head full of white hair. Or, an engineer with the alphabet soup listed after his or her name on a business card. Humans of all backgrounds make mistakes.
- Don’t fear to ask stupid questions: I’m sure many thought questioning NASA’s space probe units was stupid. Look how that ended.
- Ask yourself questions: even when sitting alone at home, question everything around you. For example, question how planes fly, how electric cars work, why burning coal hurts our planet, and so on. Like any other skill, sharpen your questioning ability.
So, if you don’t know something, go learn about it. It’ll only make you a better engineer.
#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, you need good communication skills.
So yes, engineers need people skills too. Otherwise, you’ll get stuck endlessly doing the same work behind a desk.
To put it differently, you need to know how to communicate your thoughts and ideas. Until the day robots rule the world, you’ll need people skills.
The higher you move up in the engineering world too, the more people you’ll typically deal with. At this stage, the technical world begins to blend in with the business world.
You’ll also deal with many people who don’t even have a sliver of technical background.
As a result, you’ll need to know how to dumb yourself down to relate with people of all backgrounds. This means not speaking like a monotone robot.
Normally, the higher your position, the more business work you’ll do. So, casual non-technical conversations will become even more important.
Your communication skills will help you build up trust with others. As well, it’ll help you connect with people outside of your work environment.
Most engineers have a mountain of captivating knowledge stored in their minds. Also, they have many fascinating stories to tell. But, their personalities hold them back from properly expressing themselves.
How to become a better communicator:
- Regular discussions: have non-technical discussions with non-engineers. Learn to have everyday discussions with strangers over all types of topics.
- Public speaking: give public speaking a go. Even speaking to small groups of people will benefit you.
- Comfort zone: step outside of your comfort zone and find more friends from all walks of life. Many engineers are introverts, and socializing can become mentally taxing.
- Dumb yourself down: practice explaining complex subjects in simple words.
#6 Become Paranoid
As an engineer, your work affects public safety in most instances. With this in mind, don’t ever become comfortable.
You want to double and then triple check all your work. Things slip through the cracks, and mistakes happen.
All engineers are humans and make mistakes.
I’ve made plenty of mistakes myself. For this reason, I’m always paranoid and I check my work again and again even when I think I’m done.
So, paranoia will help you better spot mistakes in your engineering work.
Over time, the volume of your mistakes will hopefully drop too. Especially, as you add more filters to catch mistakes.
You may 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.
One mistake or forgotten item in a design can lead to failure. As a professional, public safety needs to become your number one priority.
How to build a healthy level of paranoia:
- Check your work: always double and triple check your work. Also, do the same for the work of others when you get the chance.
- Design review: take your time when you review designs. If you think a problem exists, then don’t fear to speak up. It’s better to delay a project by a month or two than to have an angry client at the end. Or even worse, to injure or kill people because of a failed design.
- Review with a fresh mind: after you complete a design, review your work several days later. You can always spot new mistakes with a fresh mind.
- Embrace criticism: give your design work to others to review. No shame in allowing a separate pair of eyes to review your work to spot mistakes. So, kick your ego out the door and learn from others.
- Create processes: create a process for your design work. Try to make it idiot-proof, so nothing falls through the cracks.
#7 Design in the real world
Most engineers sit inside of an office and do their design work. They never leave the safety and shelter of their office.
As a result, their design work relies on what they’ve learned from textbooks alone. Not very practical since most types of engineers operate in the real world.
You need to use real-world knowledge in your designs. Otherwise, construction workers will view you as an idiot.
A design may look good on paper and in theory, but it may not translate over to the real world. Construction in the real world includes many hidden variables.
A textbook can only teach you so much. The rest you need eyes on experience.
Ground rod install example – theory versus the real world
In electrical designs, we drive ground rods, 8-foot copper-clad steel rods, into the ground. We do this for ground fault protection for electrical equipment.
Textbooks and the National Electric Code say to install ground rods flush with grade. But, in my designs, I almost always have ground rods installed 1-foot below grade.
Let’s think about this. If you install a ground rod flush with grade, then what happens when it rains for instance?
Over time the ground rod would poke through the soil, as the soil erodes or spreads because of a windy or wet season. The rod then becomes a tripping hazard and danger for passing vehicles.
In summary, if you don’t have field experience, you’ll blindly follow whatever you read in a textbook. Keep in mind, many authors of these textbooks don’t have real-world experience either.
Thus, to become a better engineer, you need a strong background in both theory and fieldwork.
How to learn more about real-world engineering:
- Go outside: don’t live inside your office. Visit job sites and watch over construction. You’ll soon understand why your designs frustrate construction workers so much. Also, you’ll better learn how to visualize your designs for the real world.
- Watch smart content: watch engineering and construction shows. Flip on the Discovery channel or even Youtube and find something that interests you. This way you can better visualize how designs on paper get transferred over to the real world.
- Speak with others: go speak with consumers and construction workers. Do your best to understand your product.
“How to be an engineer?” wrap up
There you have it. Follow these 7 easy to follow tips to become a better engineer. Also, to possibly become a superstar engineer.
You’ll not only create better designs, but you’ll earn more respect from your peers and clients.
As with anything in life, you need to leverage all the tools around you to level up.
Even more, apply the best engineering skills to your everyday life. Then become a superstar in your work and personal life too.
What’s your favorite tip on how to be an 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.