There are 11 unspoken engineer rules you need to follow. Otherwise, you won’t fit in and reach your full potential.
Honestly, I see these engineer rules as the secret sauce of the profession, as well as the pillars of the engineering code of ethics. If you adopt these rules early in your career, you’ll save yourself a ton of heartache.
#1 Problems are all solvable
Many engineering problems might seem impossible at first glance. But with enough time and resources, you can crack the code to almost any problem. Just look at SpaceX, led by Elon Musk.
SpaceX, a private company, is driving the space industry forward by introducing revolutionary rocket engineering technology. They’ve developed near-reusable orbital-class rockets and even safely launch NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), bringing excitement back to space travel. Elon and his team have overcome numerous obstacles and doubters. An industry saying perfectly captures the challenges of starting a rocket company:
“The quickest way to become a millionaire is to be a billionaire and start a rocket company.”
The key to success is to be relentless and not give up easily. Check out the Elon Musk lessons on problem-solving for further guidance.
#2 Present solutions when discussing problems
When you present a problem, make sure to suggest a solution too. After all, you’re the expert, and others see you as the all-knowing engineer. If you can’t propose a solution, then who can?!
Keep in mind, your solution doesn’t have to be perfect or fully fleshed out. Any initial suggestion will have its flaws. But at least you’ll get the ball rolling and fulfill your professional duties.
What’s more, you’ll earn the respect of those around you through your initiative. You’re not just passing the buck. And let’s not forget, this kind of initiative is what creates 10x engineers!
Important Note: When providing a “draft” solution, clearly state it’s a draft. For example, write “DRAFT” or “NOT FOR CONSTRUCTION” on your sketch. I’ve experienced instances where others tried to run with my draft sketches as if they were final, which can get you in hot water!
Poor communication is the leading cause of engineering issues. For this reason alone, don’t hesitate to over-communicate with all parties involved in a project.
If there’s any question about a design element or problem, speak up. Keep asking until you get a clear answer. You might annoy some people in the process, but no one will thank you if you keep quiet and your engineering design later fails.
Also, when there’s a design change or a new solution found for a problem, inform your team members. You never know how even a seemingly small change could impact someone else’s work.
I’ve had cases where engineers told me about design changes just a week before a project deadline. They thought the changes were trivial and wouldn’t affect me. But, surprise, surprise, the changes were significant. I had to work long nights to complete the work. Trust me, I was not a happy camper.
#4 Verify even the most trustworthy sources
Trust people, but make sure to verify the information you’re given.
Picture this: someone from a top global company approaches you, dressed in a three-piece suit, sporting a head full of white hair, and a list of impressive credentials. He tells you your design isn’t implementable in the real world, citing his 50 years of engineering experience. Yet, you see nothing wrong with your proposed design.
You can’t just take his word as gospel if the laws of physics are on your side. Plus, what are you going to tell your boss?
“Uhhhm, boss, the guy in the three-piece suit said it’s not possible. He didn’t provide me with any hard facts to support his case though…”
That’s not good engineering. You need to always verify your sources. If there’s even a 1% doubt, speak up.
Take the search for aliens as an extreme example. The brightest minds on Earth might say aliens don’t exist, but nature doesn’t care what a bunch of humans think. If aliens do exist, human opinions don’t matter one iota.
Surprise, surprise—the truth doesn’t revolve around what any human thinks.
#5 Keep a record of all information and correspondence
Always keep a record of everything related to a project, including:
- Communication with all parties involved in a project
- All drawing and specification submittals, from start to finish
- Equipment cut-sheets
- Project notes
These documents serve as references for your future projects. Moreover, if things ever go south with a project, you’ll have a record to point to.
I’ve had countless instances where people claimed they never said something and then demanded a change order. But since I keep an email record of all conversations, I was able to call their bluff.
#6 Under-promise and over-deliver
Imagine telling your customer you’ll deliver their project in a month, but then you surprise them by completing it in just two weeks. And to top it off, you go above and beyond your scope of work. Trust me, you’ll have a loyal customer for life.
Who doesn’t love getting more than they paid for? It’s the same principle behind all those irresistible deals at department stores and online. Consider doing the following:
- Add extra details to your design
- Include additional documentation to enhance your customer’s understanding of their project
- Identify and address any overlooked issues beyond your scope
Just remember, though, only go the extra mile for good customers—not the difficult assholish ones.
#7 Develop a plan of action
Don’t just dive into your work without a plan. It rarely ends well. Instead, invest time in creating a project schedule and plan to follow. You’ll waste less time and avoid engineering issues.
Think of it like building a house. You don’t just grab a piece of lumber and start hammering nails. First, you create a blueprint and then develop a step-by-step construction plan.
Be prepared, though, for some outsiders to view your planning phase as laziness, since you’re not doing actual design work. That’s where the question “are engineers lazy?” comes from. But trust me, this kind of “laziness” is a good thing.
In the end, everyone will thank you when the project wraps up smoothly and without any hiccups.
#8 Mindfulness over potential problems
Problems are part and parcel of engineering, especially when working on the cutting edge of technology. I can’t stress this enough: never get too comfortable or let your guard down. That’s when problems tend to sneak up on you.
I’ve seen engineers who believe they never make mistakes, and as a result, they don’t properly review their work. But guess what? Their work becomes a prime source of problems because all engineers make mistakes—no exceptions!
That’s why the review process is crucial in every engineering project. And don’t brush aside the problems you uncover, even if they seem minor. Tackle each issue as soon as possible.
When leading a design project, it’s your responsibility to solve problems. Don’t pass the buck, hoping for a miraculous solution to appear on your doorstep.
#9 Be the commander in charge
Picture this: a foot soldier under your command makes a mistake. They leave the camp to investigate strange noises at night and end up wounded. Sure, it was the soldier’s fault for leaving, but it was also your responsibility to ensure they didn’t. Maybe you forgot to lay down the ground rules.
In other words, own up to the problems that arise under your leadership. Great leaders do this. Many engineering issues stem from poor leadership and a lack of initiative.
For example, if you’re an electrical engineer and notice a mistake in a mechanical engineer’s work, speak up! Don’t just assume the mechanical engineer will catch the error. They might not, and the problem could snowball into other areas of the design, ultimately leading to construction failures.
I know it’s often best to stay in your lane, but in engineering, if you spot a potential issue, it’s your responsibility to address it. Engineers wield significant power, and people’s lives are in your hands. As the saying goes,
“With great power comes great responsibility.”
#10 Get work done
No matter the obstacles, great engineers get the job done. This could mean any combination of:
- Pulling all-nighters week after week
- Taking work home on weekends
- Diving into textbooks for research
- Contacting vendor after vendor
- Collaborating with fellow engineers
- Constantly brainstorming ideas
The more responsibility you have, the more you’ll find yourself doing these things. It’s especially true when working on the cutting edge of technology. There’s a whole process for coming up with creative engineering solutions, and the goal is to optimize it to minimize headaches.
Take the NASA engineers who worked on the Apollo program, for example. They faced the seemingly impossible task of landing humans on the moon. But through careful planning, they successfully put a man on the lunar surface.
#11 Take no bullshit!
Don’t take bullshit from people who try to make you do unethical things, like bending the rules to save them a few bucks. It not only goes against the engineering code of ethics but also wastes your time.
Also, stay focused and don’t do unnecessary work. If someone asks you to do something unrelated to your project scope, hit the brakes. I’ve found that many non-engineers push certain tasks, thinking they’re helpful. It’s usually not their fault, but it’s something to watch out for.
In the end, it’s your responsibility as the expert to draw the line. Explain why certain tasks won’t be done. Doing bullshit or unethical work will negatively impact everyone involved.
These hidden engineering rules apply to all types of engineering. If you’re not following any of these rules, it’s time to adopt them. They can only benefit you.
I like to think of these rules as the foundation of a bridge. The more pillars you build, the stronger the bridge becomes. The same goes for engineers.
Which hidden engineering rules do you find most important? Are there any other rules you think engineers should follow?
Featured Image Photo Credit: SpaceX (image cropped)
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Author Bio: Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2019 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 well 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, sports, fitness, and our history and future.