What Do Engineers Do? 8 Things You Need to Know

What do engineers do? While many people think they design cool things, their work is actually quite varied and often shrouded in mystery.

You’ve probably seen many engineers in movies, where they work hard on shiny new inventions. For example, think of Tony Stark, the badass engineer from the  Iron Man movies.

Tony writes software, creates electronics, and generates power for his suit. We can assume that Tony’s background includes several types of engineering, including mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and software engineering. So, he holds many degrees or may have taught himself. Regardless, few people hold such a range of skills. It’s no surprise that Elon Musk compares himself to Tony Stark!

Elon Musk is Tony Stark from Iron Man

Engineering may not always seem as flashy as what Tony Stark does, but don’t be fooled – engineers are responsible for some pretty amazing feats. While some aspects of the job can be a bit tedious (I should know, I’ve been there), the products of an engineer’s labor are all around us. Just take a look at your phone, the airplane flying overhead, or the car passing by on the street. And let’s not forget about the internet!

So, the next time you’re watching a movie and marveling at the cool gadgets, remember that what you’re seeing is just the tip of the iceberg. Behind the scenes, countless engineers are working tirelessly, many doing unglamorous work, to bring these innovations to life.

The truth behind “what do engineers do?”

As an engineer with well over a decade of experience in California, I can give you the inside scoop on what engineers actually do.

Before we dive in, it’s important to understand that there are many different types of engineers out there. Some specialize in design, while others focus on research or inspections. Some engineers spend their days number-crunching, while others work on a range of other tasks. This holds true across all disciplines of engineering.

I work as a consulting electrical engineer at a small firm, where I get more hands-on design experience on various projects versus a larger company. So in this discussion, ‘ll give you a closer look at what my job entails. This will help you decide if you should be an engineer. And if you do choose to pursue engineering, be sure to check out my article on how to be a great engineer and even a 10x engineer.

1) Finding engineering projects to work on

Engineering is all about bringing your ideas to life through exciting projects. But here’s the catch, you can’t work on any project without having one in the first place. And let’s be honest, new projects don’t grow on trees. You need to work hard and build a strong reputation to secure them, and sometimes it’s like a battlefield where you have to fight against numerous other firms.

At my firm, I spend around 6 to 8 hours a week preparing project proposals and networking. And think of a project proposal like a resume and cover letter you send to an employer for a new job. The employer uses your resume and cover letter to decide if they want to hire you.

2) Job walks at project sites

To learn project details, I sometimes need to do a job walk with the owner. And if we end up getting the project as the prime consultant, we would refer to the owner as our client.

During a job walk, the owner describes the project to all interested parties. For example, if a substation transformer needs replacing, I would visit the site and ask the owner the following questions:

  • Why do you want to replace the transformer?
  • Any design limitations I should consider?
  • Will the transformer rating need to increase due to increased loads?
  • How much downtime is allowed in the cutover phase?
  • What’s the project timeline?

Asking these questions helps me better understand the project, which allows me to put together a stronger project proposal.

Some projects only require a 2-hour conference call instead of a job walk. It’s still firms trying to learn about a project from the owner to put together the best proposal possible.

3) Design work – the heart of what do engineers do

Electrical engineering design drawing

When you think about what engineers do, the first thing that comes to mind for most people is design work. Whether it’s designing a bridge, building, computer chips, planes, and the list goes on.

But let’s face it, Hollywood movies often exaggerate the life of an engineer. Sure, you may have seen those thrilling movie scenes with engineers locked away in secret labs, working on futuristic gadgets. As a kid, I was fascinated by them too.

However, the truth is that actual design work is a far cry from the movies. It’s not something that happens overnight. Instead, the design process is a carefully planned and executed series of steps that require the effort of many people across various engineering disciplines.

In my role, I gather information from the owner and other engineering disciplines to ensure that my electrical design aligns perfectly with the overall project vision.

4) Construction Services

What do engineers do construction services reviewing conduits

Once the design work is complete, it’s time to move on to the exciting phase of construction services! This is where the rubber meets the road, and I’m in charge of making sure my design is executed to perfection.

As the overseer, I wear many hats. First and foremost, I’m the go-to person for answering RFIs (Request for Information) from the contractor. If they have any questions or concerns about my design drawings or specifications, I’m the one who has to provide the information they need to move forward.

Another key part of my job is reviewing the contractor’s equipment choices during the submittal review process. It’s crucial that what they’re purchasing matches up with what I’ve specified in my design.

But even with the best-laid plans, there are always unexpected twists and turns in construction. That’s why I attend countless meetings and keep a watchful eye over the project. You never know when something like dinosaur bones will be discovered and turn everything upside down!

And once the dust settles and construction is complete, it’s time to put together the as-built drawings. This is where I take the marked-up design drawings from the contractor, update the final set of design drawings, and provide the client with a complete and accurate set of drawingsImagine I tell you to buy Adidas Ultraboost size 10 blue running shoes, or approved equal shoes.

5) Startup of a completed project

The true culmination of a project is the successful startup testing, which happens only after the construction phase is complete. It’s at this critical juncture that I pack my bags and head to the project site to oversee the equipment’s startup. This is a moment that everyone involved in the project eagerly awaits, including equipment vendors and testing companies, who all gather together to witness the equipment come to life.

For instance, in a hydroelectric project, we conduct various checks and tests during the startup phase. These include:

  • Do the turbine and generator function properly?
  • Do all the generator alarms trigger correctly?
  • How effectively do the protective relays operate?
  • Do all the pipe valves open and close when commanded?”

Generator turbine start up testing

Just like the construction phase, the startup phase is a wild ride, and things don’t always go as planned. You need to have your wits about you, ready to troubleshoot any problems that crop up on-site quickly. But once I’ve given the green light for the successful completion of the startup testing,  the project is officially over from my side!

6) Handling billing and accounting

If there’s one thing every successful business knows, it’s that cash is king. Without proper financial management, even the most promising ventures can quickly spiral out of control.

That’s why I take a no-nonsense approach to managing billing and invoices for my clients. Whether I’m tracking project budgets or requesting extra funds for out-of-scope work, I’m always on top of my game. And when it comes to invoicing, I’m a perfectionist through and through, dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” to ensure that my clients receive accurate and timely invoices that meet their specific needs.

But let’s face it – there are clients who need a little nudge when it comes to paying their bills. It can be a challenge to get them to pay up on time, but it’s another critical part of being the financier. I’m always watchful of who hasn’t paid, to stay on top of them.

7) Downtime as an engineer

Whenever I experience a lull in billable work, I like to think of it as downtime. Sometimes it can last for weeks on end, while other times it may only be a day here or there. But regardless of how long it lasts, downtime provides an opportunity to be productive in other ways.

During these moments, I like to do any of the following:

  • Scour the web for exciting new projects
  • Plan and seek out business opportunities
  • Dive deep into the latest technical subjects and cutting-edge technologies
  • Organize my files and documents

To put it simply, downtime gives me the opportunity to plan and learn for the future. It’s an uncontrolled but crucial aspect of being an engineer, and one that I always try to take advantage of. So, whenever it comes around, make the most of it and use the time wisely!

8) Lifelong learning for engineers

Engineering fields are constantly evolving, and staying on top of the latest developments is essential for success. But why limit yourself to a boring classroom when you can embrace the thrill of self-learning? I believe that passionate self-education is far more effective than just sitting in a lecture hall.

As an engineer, I’m always hungry for knowledge. I devour the latest industry news, inventions, and regulations to offer my clients the best and most cost-effective designs. To think like a great engineer, you need to be ahead of the curve.

Here’s how I keep my curiosity satisfied:

  • Magazine subscriptions: I know, I know, who reads magazines these days? But I do! I love the tactile experience of holding and reading certain magazines. And the best part? Some of the articles cover topics I wouldn’t even think to look up on Google.
  • Books: Reading is a passion of mine, and I’m constantly adding to my long list of books to read. Books help me sharpen my mind and teach me new things, inspiring me to take on new challenges.
  • Equipment suppliers: When I have the time, I invite equipment suppliers over for an in-person presentation. They show me their latest equipment, hoping that I’ll use it in my future projects. It’s a win-win situation for me and my clients. Plus, it’s always exciting to get hands-on with the latest gadgets and gizmos!

In short, being an engineer isn’t just about crunching numbers and designing blueprints. It’s about staying curious, being passionate about learning, and constantly seeking out new knowledge.

What Do Engineers Do? Many Things!

Each of the 8 things I went over in this article has the potential to be a full-time job in its own right. Take a company, for example, where one engineer’s bread and butter may be to pitch and develop new projects. Meanwhile, in another company, an engineer may be neck-deep in design work.

That’s why I urge you to get in touch with someone already living the dream in your field of interest and shoot them some direct questions about their job. After all, the media and professors may not always paint an accurate picture.

And when you finally spot a job type that gets your engine revving, don’t hold back! Slam the pedal to the metal and go all-out after it.

What type of engineering work interests you? What’s your ideal engineering job?


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1 thought on “What Do Engineers Do? 8 Things You Need to Know”

  1. Congratulations for making it with engineering in your life….I’m a first year student at Namibia university of science and technology studing electronics and telecommunications engineering please i want you to tell me more about this course and specifically what i need to know.


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