15 Tips for Young Engineers on How to Level Up

As a young engineer, you need to constantly look for how to level yourself up. I’m going to go over 15 easy-to-follow tips for young engineers.

This way, you can more quickly adapt to your work environment.

But also, you’ll more quickly get on the path to reaching your full potential as an engineer. That’s what’s most important.

Because then, you get all the following perks:

  • Increased confidence
  • Work on cool projects
  • Make more money
  • Increased respect from your peers
  • New employment, investment, and business opportunities

Now, think of RPG genre video games for a second. My favorite is the Final Fantasy series.

If you spend 80 hours playing a week, your character will quickly level up. Compare this to someone who only plays 5 hours a week.

It’s the same in engineering. If you put in the time, you’ll level up much quicker. And you’ll be lightyears ahead of all your peers.

#1 Take amazing notes

office engineering notes
A section of my office engineering notes

As a young engineer, I thought I could remember everything.

When I figured something out, I told myself, “that was simple!” I figured what I learned would forever stick in my mind.

But, a couple of months later, I couldn’t remember a thing. Then I’d kick myself for not writing it down.

Lesson learned!

At the same time, it’s important to take good notes.

Don’t just take notes in random notebooks or on scraps of paper. Put together a binder with all your engineering notes. Also, add dividers for different subject matters.

Even better, use a cloud service like Google Drive to store and organize your notes. This way you have access to your notes on all your electronic devices.

Also, you can add to your notes in real-time. Just keep a backup copy of your notes just in case.

Important Note: add long-tail keywords for all your notes on the cloud. So be descriptive in all your headers. 

This makes searching through your notes MUCH easier. 

Also, don’t just write out equations without any supporting words. Write down what the equation is and when you should use it.

Then create parent folders with subfolders for your organization.  

This way, you can better use the search function to quickly find the content you need. 

I have a set of notes in binders and on a cloud service. I constantly access my notes too. They’re frankly lifesavers. Especially when I need to trace my footsteps for an old project.

Important Note: what should you take notes on?

  • When you spend 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. Take notes on what you concluded.
  • After you complete a grueling process. Take notes on the entire process. This includes the timeline, who you called, the hoops you jumped through, and so on.
  • When someone teaches you something. 

In short, I can’t stress enough the importance of documentation. Learn to document almost everything you do, no matter how minor something may seem.

You’ll save yourself endless amounts of time, and a lot of future headaches.

#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 base.

If your assignment is to review X, don’t quickly skip over Y in your analysis. Because in a new assignment, you’ll find Y staring right back at you.

Thus, understand what Y is, and how Y and X relate together. The more knowledge you gain, the better engineer you’ll become.

Even more, don’t limit yourself to your own specialized niche. Try to understand the inner workings of other engineering disciplines too. It can’t hurt. It’ll only make you a better engineer.

I often hear, “I have zero opinion on mechanical work because I’m an electrical engineer.” This is how many people think.

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.

I find expanding your knowledge base makes you a better communicator too. As you can then chat up with everyone and get knee-deep in any given problem. Otherwise, you’ll only be a bystander waiting on hands and foot for other people to feed you.

In the end, the best engineers simply have more data at their fingertips to tackle problems. This added data makes engineers more creative. Because now they see problems from different angles.

Important Note: venture out of your office. If of course, your field allows.

As a power engineer, I learn so much by watching the work of technicians, and construction workers. By physically seeing how things operate, you connect the dots much better with theory.

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

#3 Learn and learn some more

This ties to our previous point with curiosity.

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

You need to constantly be on the search to gain more knowledge. Especially in engineering, where technology is advancing at such a rapid pace.

Not only do you want to stay current, but you want to keep your mind stimulated. I find a stimulated mind is a more creative mind.

In engineering, creativity is paramount. I even went as far as to compare the creativity of engineers to Mozart.

Then I also discuss the 7 steps on how to be a creative engineer. I discuss the creativity involved in the development of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The point is, you need to constantly learn. And I’m not talking about formal education either. Heck, I think formal engineering education needs reform.

Rather, self-study on your own. I learned magnitudes more on my own than I ever did in school.

Important Note: complex projects may be offputting. But they’re the best ways to learn great new things. 

You’ll dive down endless rabbit holes this way.

So never turn down a complex project, when you have a supporting cast to assist you. You’ll come out a better engineer in the end. 

#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 think because you’re a young engineer, others can do the heavy lifting for you. In engineering, the last 1% of the work in most instances is the heavy lifting.

Instead, aim to produce the best quality of work possible each and every time. Carefully comb through your work to spot mistakes.

Then don’t be afraid to rework parts that are sloppy. Your goal is to always deliver the highest quality work.

This level of accountability is how NASA engineers got us to the moon in the Apollo 11 mission. Without a doubt, NASA engineers taught us many engineering lessons.

What’s more, accountability will gain you the respect of everyone around you.

You’ll also become a better engineer point-blank. Plus, you’ll set the precedence for everyone around you to work amazingly well.

It’s why a constant winning culture is so important in sports.

A team can cruise by in the regular season playing half-ass. But, once the playoffs hit, they’ll fall short, because they never built the right winning habits.

To point out, by doing low-quality work, you’ll get done much quicker. On the same token, doing high-quality work will take you many more hours. But the peace of mind of putting out high-quality work is priceless.

#5 Ask questions, even if they sound stupid

When I started working as an engineer, I didn’t ask as many questions as I should have. In return, I had a lot of unnecessary frustrations and I made silly mistakes.

In my case, I felt some of my questions were plain old stupid. I didn’t apply the popular phrase, “there’s no such thing as a stupid question.”

Even more, no matter how much you think you know, you don’t know everything. In fact, no engineer knows everything.

To drive the point home, you never will know close to everything even in your specialized field.

Thus, the importance of asking questions.

Other engineers have a boatload of experience and knowledge you can tap into.  Plus, most engineers enjoy teaching.

So to accelerate your learning, ask questions!

Also, you don’t need to limit your questions to other engineers in your office. Try asking questions to the following groups of people too:

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

The point is, don’t feel shy or feel you’re above asking questions. You’re only doing yourself a disservice. Don’t let your amazing resources few have access to, go to waste.

An experienced engineer can quickly explain to you all parts of a design. You’ll then understand exactly how something operates without all the guesswork.

Plus, your question may help teach others a thing or two.

#6 Impeccable communication skills

Learning how to properly present and write is critical in engineering. I can’t emphasize this enough!

Don’t think because you’re an engineer, it’s an excuse for horrible communication skills.

By improving your communication, you’ll instantly become a better engineer.

Because engineering isn’t all about sitting behind a desk alone crunching numbers. A huge part of most engineering jobs is communication.

I discuss in the following articles how you can sharpen these skills:

To go one step further, learn how to dumb down your technical talk. Many people you speak with won’t have a technical background.

So you need to easily be able to communicate your thoughts to them. Otherwise, your talk will sound like a bunch of jibberish.

Even more, teamwork is a critical part of engineering. Great communication will allow you to become an awesome team worker.

In short, know your audience and learn to communicate!

#7 Self-belief

Everyone starts from somewhere.

Don’t feel you’re incapable because you’re a new engineer. Belief in yourself goes a long way in accomplishing amazing things.

I overcame the imposter syndrome in engineering over time. And let me tell you, imposter syndrome is very common in engineering.

So, stick to the tips in this article religiously. Then over time, you’ll become a rockstar engineer.

#8 Embrace challenges

SpaceX Falcon Heavy landing (Photo Credit: SpaceX)

Engineering isn’t a cakewalk. Far from it!

In fact, you’ll come across some problems where you’ll want to bang your head against the wall. This is totally normal too as far out as this may sound.

Even the most senior engineers will come across problems they’ll immensely struggle with.

In these instances, don’t quickly wave the white flag. I’m talking about looking for outside help right away.

Instead, keep your head down and work hard. Try to crack the code and put the puzzle pieces together.

I’ve found when I struggle the most with problems, I learn so much more. Because I dive down one rabbit hole after another.

This forces me to learn things I didn’t even know I wanted to learn.

#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.

The goal is though, to not make the same mistake twice.

So, when you do make a mistake, do your best to learn as much as you can from it. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What was the mistake?
  • How can you improve your future work from the mistake?
  • What caused you to make the mistake?
  • How can you avoid making the same mistake twice?
  • How can you approach future problems, with the lessons gained from the mistake?

Mistakes and failures are the best teachers in life. Hands down!

So when you make one, learn as much from them as possible. You’ll only become a better engineer for it.

#10 Pay close attention

Before you touch a device or equipment, be sure you know how it works.

You want to understand the big picture of a system before making any changes. At the same time, pay attention to all the details in your work.

Between the details, is where those pesky “gotcha” moments lay hidden.

I always find it best to double your time in any analysis work. This way for certain you know how something works.

You’ll also learn all the inner workings.

What’s more, learn to explain subjects to others who have limited expertise. If you can do this effortlessly, it means you properly understand a subject.

#11 Don’t make factless assumptions

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

Imagine a device operates properly the last ten times. This doesn’t mean it’ll operate properly on the eleventh try.

This is how failures happen.

Another example, don’t assume project costs and timelines without digging into the details. A project that can normally take two days, may in fact require two weeks.

All because you need the extra time to pick apart a new design element you’ve never seen before. As a result, you now need extra time to verify your solution.

The alternative is putting out a poorly engineered product.

#12 Just do it

As the Nike slogan says, just do it!

Don’t endlessly sit on work. When a project comes your way, get started and work on it.

You may think you have endless time, but you’ll soon find out you’re overloaded with 5 new projects at once. Even more, all projects are due at the end of the week too.

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. Thus, there’s plenty of time.

The next thing I knew, several other projects landed on my desk that had to get done ASAP.

As a result, I wasn’t able to work on my original project on a normal timeline. The entire time thereafter I was scrambling to get my work done.

At the same time, do productive work.

I’m talking about doing the meat of the engineering work. Versus sending out countless unnecessary emails.

By “meat” I’m referencing design work as an example. Or, fixing a failed piece of equipment.

So when work comes your way, just finish it!

#13 Never become comfortable

I find many newer 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.

I only fully grasped the result of my work after being around senior engineers.

The point is, don’t ever let your foot off the gas.

So, don’t think because you’ve seen a problem many times over, you can cruise through it.

As an engineer, you need to always give your utmost focus to solving every single problem. Small or large.

It’s your duty as governed by the engineering code of ethics.

Once you become too comfortable, that’s when problems start to happen.

#14 Display your personality

Don’t perpetuate the notion all engineers are like robots. Because many people already believe this to be the case.

Just flip on a Hollywood blockbuster action movie, and take notice of the engineers. A lot of the time, they’re not well respected. Plus, they speak monotone like robots.

Instead, be charismatic and upbeat. This will make people open up to you much more.

The relationships you build will then drastically help you in your work too.

No different than how a friend will bend over backward to help you. Whereas a random stranger would probably give two shits about you.

#15 Humble yourself

looking into the milky way galaxy
Photo Credit: Greg Rakozy

Many new engineers are cocky and think they know everything.

For one, you know much less than you think you know. And more importantly, no one wants to work with a pompous asshole.

Listen to the opinion of others, even if you think you know better. Let other people talk!

This helps build connections and makes people feel a bigger part of a project.

For example, in meetings many times I already have a solution in mind. But I always let others give their thoughts.

Especially when it comes to technicians and construction workers. This removes any elitist engineering bullshit. Plus, a lot of the time I end up learning something myself.

Knowing when to shut up and being open to the opinion of other people is a great skill to have.

All in all, just be a good person who others like to be around.

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 gameplan to level yourself up, you’ll become an amazing engineer in no time.

The key is initiative.

You need to have the initiative to level yourself up. No one is going to light this fire under you.

What’s more, most people around you may just be coasting by. So you can’t let your environment influence you and become comfortable. You need to always push forward.

Like a videogame, if you stop leveling yourself up, you’ll never be able to advance in the game. The same goes for engineers in the workplace.

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

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