15 Tips for Young Engineers on How to Level Up

To become a rockstar engineer fast, there are 15 easy tips for young engineers to follow. These tips will help you reach your full potential.

In return, you get all the following awesome perks:

  • Increased confidence
  • Opportunity to work on large scale amazing projects
  • Higher pay
  • Increased respect from your peers
  • New employment, investment, and business opportunities

#1 Take amazing notes and document everything

office engineering notes
A section of my office engineering notes

As a young engineer, I thought I could remember everything without taking notes. But only a few months later, I’d forget a lot of the fine details I thought would never escape my mind. I’d then kick myself, as I had to re-research what I had forgotten. Lesson learned!

Now when you take notes, take great notes. Don’t just take notes in random notebooks or on scraps of paper. For example, with physical notes, use a dedicated binder organized with labeled dividers.

Then with digital notes, use a cloud service like Google Drive. This will give you access to your notes on all your electronic devices. Plus, you can add to your notes in real-time. I suggest keeping a backup copy of your notes for protection though.

Important Note: for digital notes, do the following to make note searching easy:

  • Use long-tail keywords
  • Be descriptive in all your headers
  • Create organized parent and subfolders  

Also always, add supporting words to any equations you write down. For example, define the equation variables and what the equation is used for.

The natural question now is, what should you take notes on? I suggest the following:

  • When you spend significant time researching a question over the internet or in books.
  • When you call an outside agency or firm to ask a question.
  • Anytime you spend hours coming up with a solution.
  • After you complete a grueling process with many steps.
  • When you learn something complex or abstract

#2 Keep a curious mind

A curious mind will take you down many rabbit holes. This is one of the best ways to beef up your knowledge.

So, if your assignment is only to review X, don’t quickly skip over Y in your analysis. Because in a new assignment, you may find Y staring right back at you. If you understand Y and how it relates to X, you’ll become a better engineer.

Even more, don’t limit your curiosity to your own specialized niche. Try to understand the inner workings of other engineering disciplines too. It can only benefit you. This means you don’t want to become an engineer who says the following:

“I have zero opinion on mechanical work because I’m an electrical engineer.”

Yes, you may be an electrical engineer by degree, but it doesn’t mean you can’t expand your learning. Heck, if you memorized every NFL stat line, you can learn about mechanical engineering too.

By expanding the breadth of your knowledge, you’ll become a better communicator too. Because you can chat up more diverse groups of people at a deep level. And the less you’re a bystander as an engineer, the better.

In the end, the best engineers simply have more data at their fingertips to tackle problems. This added data is a great way to become a more creative engineer too. Because you can now see problems from different angles.

Important Note: venture out of your office. If of course, your field of work allows. For example, as a power engineer, I learn so much just by watching technicians and construction workers work. Seeing how things operate, you better connect the dots with complex theory too.

It’s one reason why I say engineering work experience trumps formal education

#3 Continuously learn

Never stop learning. If you haven’t learned something new in a week, you need to change your routine.

I find the best engineers are constantly absorbing knowledge. This is even more important today, with how fast technology is advancing. Because you want to stay current with technology, but also, stimulate your mind.

I find a stimulated mind makes you more creative. And creativity is the main ingredient in becoming a 10x engineer. I even compare the creativity of engineers to Mozart.

And to be very clear, I’m not talking about formal education when it comes to learning. Heck, I think formal engineering education needs reform. Rather, you need to self-study and have a hunger for knowledge. This is independent of any degree or paycheck.

Important Note: complex projects may be offputting. But, they’re the best ways to learn as an engineer. You’ll dive down endless rabbit holes learning so much. So never turn down a complex project, when you have a supporting cast to assist you. 

#4 Hold yourself to the highest standard

apollo 11 moon work
Apollo 11 moon work (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Don’t wait for someone to review your work and spot your mistakes. You may even think because you’re a young engineer, others will do the heavy lifting for you. Not the case!

So, always aim to produce the best quality of work. Then, carefully review your work to spot mistakes. And don’t be afraid to rework sloppy parts. Because your goal is to always deliver high-quality work. This is a part of your code of ethics as an engineer you signed up for.

Now the great thing is, the more you hold yourself accountable, the greater respect you’ll earn. You’ll then set the precedence for everyone around you to work amazingly well too. This creates winning cultures.

What’s more, this level of accountability is how young NASA engineers got us to the moon in the Apollo 11 mission. And I find there are many engineering lessons to learn from NASA engineers.

#5 Ask questions, even if they sound stupid

When I first started working as an engineer, I didn’t ask as many questions as I should have. As a result, I had a lot of unnecessary frustrations and I made silly mistakes. All because I felt some of my questions were plain old stupid. I didn’t fully subscribe to the popular phrase,

“There’s no such thing as a stupid question.”

It’s important to realize, no engineer knows everything. But when grouped together, engineers collectively know A LOT. And this is why tapping into other engineers’ knowledge and experience is priceless

What’s more, you don’t need to limit your questions to just engineers in your office. Ask questions to the following groups of people too:

  • Engineers in other firms you’re contracted with
  • Tradesman
  • Technicians
  • Customers
  • Scientists

I will go as far as to say, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice if you don’t ask questions. You’re letting an amazing resource few have access to, go to waste.

Because an experienced engineer can quickly explain to you all parts of a design. You’ll then understand exactly how something operates without any guesswork. Plus, your question may help teach others a thing or two. A win-win!

#6 Impeccable communication skills

Learning how to properly speak and write is a big part of engineering. And being an engineer is not an excuse to have horrible communication skills. Quite the contrary.

If you EVER want to move up the ranks in engineering, you need superb communication skills. Because engineering isn’t all about sitting behind a desk alone crunching numbers. You’ll need to speak with customers, investors, other engineers, the public, and the list goes on.

Now, to quickly level up your communication skills, check out the following articles:

#7 Self-belief

Everyone starts from somewhere. So don’t feel you’re incapable of future greatness because you’re a new engineer. Just having belief in yourself will take you a LONG way.

Also, it’s totally normal to feel unprepared as a young engineer. I remember I had imposter syndrome in my first engineering job. I doubted myself left and right. But over time, my mental state improved.

So just stick to the tips in this article. Then in no time, you’ll mature into a rockstar engineer.

#8 Embrace challenges

SpaceX Falcon Heavy landing (Photo Credit: SpaceX)

Engineering isn’t a cakewalk. You’ll come across problems where you’ll want to bang your head against a wall in frustration. And let me tell you, this is totally normal.

In fact, even the most senior engineers will come across problems they’ll greatly struggle with. The secret is though, to not quickly wave the white flag. I’m talking about looking for outside help right away.

Instead, keep your head down and try to find solutions. Because this is one of the best ways to learn and level up. You’ll dive down many rabbit holes while forcing yourself to learn all types of new things.

#9 Milk each mistake and failure

When you make a mistake, milk it for all it’s worth. Notice how I said “when.”

Because I can guarantee you’ll make mistakes as a working engineer. We all do. No exceptions!

The goal is though, to not make the same mistake twice. But, when you do make a mistake, do your best to learn as much as you can from it. Because mistakes and failures are the best teachers in life.

So after each mistake (or failure), ask yourself the following questions:

  • What was the mistake I made?
  • What caused me to make the mistake?
  • How can I avoid making the same mistake twice?
  • How can I approach future problems, with the lessons gained from the mistake?

#10 Attention to detail

Engineering is ALL about the fine details. For example, the Saturn V rocket has 5.6 million individual parts!

Now, if several of the parts fail, the rocket may not lift off or it may explode. So, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. And this is why it’s important to know your subject in and out. You can then better identify potential issues.

A great way to learn the details of a subject is to teach it or write about it. You’ll find yourself forced to learn all the hairy details, you didn’t even know you wanted to learn.

#11 Don’t make factless assumptions

Don’t assume something to be true when you don’t have all the facts. Always check, test, and/or verify!

Imagine a device operates per its rated specs the last ten go-arounds. This doesn’t mean though, it’ll properly operate on the eleventh try. If you assume it will without any checks, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Another example is to not assume project costs and timelines without digging into the fine details. A project taking normally two days to complete, may in fact require two weeks. All because you need extra time to pick apart a new design element you’ve never seen before. This is why you need to thoroughly review project scopes, before coming up with budgets and timelines.

#12 Just do it

As the Nike slogan says, just do it!

Don’t endlessly sit on piles of work with upcoming deadlines. When you receive a project, just start working on it. Because you may think you have endless time, but your schedule can quickly go from calm to hectic. Five new projects may all of a sudden land on your desk, all with upcoming due dates.

When I started working as an engineer, I slacked off on some projects. I thought to myself, I had a month to complete the work, so there’s plenty of time. Then the next thing I knew, several other hefty projects landed on my desk with upcoming deadlines.

As a result, I wasn’t able to work on the original project on a normal timeline. To get my work done on schedule, I had to work late and on weekends.

And just as important, focus on the meat of your work. I’m talking about doing technical work, versus sending out countless unnecessary emails. Because busy work doesn’t equal productive work. Don’t fool yourself otherwise!

#13 Never become comfortable

I find many new engineers don’t know the true ramifications of their decisions. I know I certainly didn’t.

At first, I knew I was designing real-world projects. But I didn’t fully grasp how a tiny slip-up could cost millions of dollars. It was only until I worked with senior engineers, did I realize the ramifications of my decisions.

The point is, don’t ever let your guard down. So, just because you’ve seen a problem many times, it doesn’t mean you can speed through it.

As an engineer, you need to always give your utmost focus to solving problems. Small or large. It’s your duty as governed by the engineering code of ethics. I find when you become overly comfortable, problems start to happen.

#14 Display your personality

Don’t perpetuate the notion all engineers are like robots. Because many people already believe this, based on Hollywood’s engineering stereotypes.

Just flip on a Hollywood blockbuster action movie, and take notice of the engineers. A lot of the time, they’re awkward, overly geeky, and badly dressed.

For us to destroy this age-old stereotype, be charismatic and upbeat. Then as an added plus, people will become more receptive to you. And this is key, as relationships help get work efficiently done in engineering. For example, when you want to convince a client to choose a certain design direction.

#15 Humble yourself

looking into the milky way galaxy
Photo Credit: Greg Rakozy

Many new engineers are cocky and think they know everything. But in reality, they know much less than they think. I’d go as far as to say they know near nothing, without any real-world experience.

So, listen to the opinion of others, even if you think you know better. You may learn a thing or two. At the same time, be respectful, be on time, empathize with others, and become a lifelong learner. Because no one wants to work with a pompous asshole.

If you need a helping hand, look at stars in the night sky to humble yourself.

Tips for young engineers wrap up

Starting work as a young engineer can be daunting. But if you have the right game plan to level yourself up, you’ll become an amazing engineer in no time.

The key is initiative. You need to have a deep desire to better yourself. Because no one will light a hotter fire under you than yourself.

What’s more, many engineers around you may just be coasting by. So you can’t let your environment influence you negatively either. Like a videogame, if you stop leveling yourself up, you’ll never be able to advance in the game. The same applies to engineers in the workplace.

Which tips for young engineers do you think are most important? What tips have helped you the most as a young engineer?

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