15 Tips for Young Engineers on How to Level Up

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

In return, you get all the following perks:

  • Increased confidence
  • Opportunity to work on larger scale challenging projects
  • Higher pay
  • Increased peer respect
  • 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 in, I forget many details, which I thought would never escape my mind. I then kicked myself, as I had to re-research what I had forgotten.

So take organized notes. Don’t just write on any scrap of paper next to you either. Instead, 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 as well.

Important Note: for digital notes, do the following to make notes easily searchable:

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

Also, add supporting notes to equations. For example, define the equation variables and what the equation is used for.

As for when to take notes, consider the following instances:

  • 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 technical 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 while beefing 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. Plus, 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. In the same vein, don’t 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. Because you can chat up a more diverse group of people at a deep level. And the less you’re a bystander as an engineer, the better you can contribute.

In the end, the best engineers have more data at their fingertips, to extrapolate over. This added data is then a great way to become a more creative engineer, as you can view problems from different angles.

Important Note: venture out of your office when possible. For example, I learn so much just by watching technicians and construction workers work. Seeing how designs operate, you better connect the dots with complex theory.

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

#3 Continuously learn

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

I find the best engineers are constantly absorbing knowledge. This is even more important today, with the rapid advancement of technology. You need to stay current with technology while stimulating your mind.

A stimulated mind leads to creativity, which is the main ingredient in becoming a 10x engineer. I even compare the creativity of engineers to Mozart.

And to be clear, I’m not referring to formal education for 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 off-putting. But, they’re the best ways to learn as an engineer. You’ll dive down endless rabbit holes, uncovering things you never knew.  

#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 high-quality work. Then, carefully review your work to spot mistakes, and don’t be afraid to rework parts. Because your goal is to deliver the best possible product. This is a part of the 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.

Even more, this level of accountability is how young NASA engineers took us to the moon in the Apollo missions. Not surprisingly, there are many engineering lessons to learn from NASA engineers.

#5 Ask questions, even if they sound stupid

When I first started work as an engineer, I didn’t ask as many questions as I should have. As a result, I had unnecessary frustrations, which lead to 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 valuable.

Even more, don’t 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. Experienced professionals 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. While being an engineer is not an excuse to have horrible communication skills.

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 need to speak with customers, investors, other engineers, the public, and the list goes on.

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 young engineer. 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 stick to the tips in this article, and 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 struggle with problems. The secret is though, to not quickly wave the white flag, looking for outside help.

Instead, level up by keeping your head down, and looking for solutions. 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 its worth. Notice how I said, “when.”

Because I 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. Mistakes and failures are the best teachers in life.

After each mistake or failure, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What mistake did I make?
  • 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

In engineering, the devil is in the details.

For example, the Saturn V rocket has 5.6 million individual parts. If one part fails, the rocket may not lift off or it may even explode.

This is why it’s important to know your subject inside 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 operating per its rated specs, in the last ten uses. This doesn’t mean though, it’ll 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. So thoroughly review project scopes, before coming up with budgets and timelines.

#12 Just do it

As the Nike slogan reads, 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, at the pace I desired. To get my work done on schedule, I had to work late and on weekends.

Equally important, focus on 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 when I worked with senior engineers, did I realize the ramifications of my decisions.

The point is, don’t ever let your guard down. 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 ensue.

#14 Display your personality

Don’t perpetuate the notion all engineers are like robots. Many people already think this, from 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. The public will then become more receptive to you. This is key, as relationships help drive engineering work forward. For example, when you need to convince a client to choose a certain design direction over another.

#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 nearly 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 the 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 just initiative. You need to have a deep desire to better yourself. Because no one will light a hotter fire under you than yourself. Especially, since many engineers around you will only coast by.

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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