15 Non-Technical Things Every Engineer Should Know

There are 15 non-technical things every engineer should know. Without them, you’ll struggle and not reach your full potential.

Surprising to most, engineering isn’t all about numbers and equations. Even more surprising, engineers don’t sit secluded behind desks endlessly solving problems. Don’t believe every Hollywood engineer stereotype you see.

The truth is, to maximize your success as an engineer, there’s more than meets the eye. Especially today with the internet, where memorizing a bunch of equations holds no value.

#1 Build strong relationships networking in engineering

As cliche as it sounds, relationships are key in the corporate world. So, get to know people around you more than a “hi, how are you?”

Then, reach out to people outside your inner circle to build relationships. I’m not talking about using people but build genuine relationships.

On the same token, think through problems. If you feel someone did you wrong, don’t immediately burn the bridge. Rather, try to figure out what went wrong and see if the issue is solvable.

Because you don’t know what role this person may play in your life 10 years down the road. And you don’t want a stupid disagreement to ruin future opportunities and a friendship.

#2 Never shy away from asking questions

Asking questions doesn’t make you sound stupid. In fact, asking questions shows you have an interest in a subject. Especially since you’ll never know everything, even with 40 years of experience. Subjects are just too wide and deep today.

More importantly, you won’t have the time to constantly research what you don’t know. Many sub-specialty niches require years of experience to become proficient. The information can’t be readily searched online or in books either.

So by asking questions, you’re short-circuiting your knowledge-gaining process. While at the same time, limiting mistakes due to your ignorance.

What’s more, if you act like you know everything, people will assume you do know everything. You’ll then piss off a bunch of people when they find out you in fact know nothing.

Just as important, don’t ask technical questions in front of clients. Questions you should know the answer to, as the so-called “expert.” This applies to other engineers you’re looking to partner with as well.

Instead, write your questions down and research them later on your own. Because you don’t want a potential client or partner to think you don’t have what it takes.

#3 Always continue learning

Every engineer should become familiar with the grind of learning difficult subjects. I’m talking about reading theorems for hours on end trying to make heads or tails. Then, painfully trying to figure out why a design is done a certain way.

Because with the rapid advancement of technology today, you need to stay on the learning treadmill. And yes, formal education is ONLY the first step in your learning journey. I’d go as far as to say I learned much more on my own than I ever did in school. Especially considering,  formal engineering education needs reform.

The great thing is, when you’re passionate about a subject, the knowledge you gain becomes more sticky. In other words, it’s less likely you’ll forget what you learned.

#4 Work in a passion-filled position 

If you’re in engineering for money and prestige, you’re in the profession for the wrong reasons. You’ll more than likely fizzle out, or produce just average work.

I’m not saying you can’t make great money or gain prestige in engineering. But the profession is too grueling to be in it for the wrong reasons. The challenges will be overwhelming and you won’t want to deal with the day-to-day bullshit.

Plus, being an engineer doesn’t carry the same clout as it once did. So, work in the profession because you have an interest in a subject and you love waking up to its new challenges. In the pursuit, you may even invent a thing or two, and strike it rich.

#5 Listen more, speak less

Don’t constantly try to get a word in, just to hear your own voice. Especially when you have no knowledge of a given domain. Instead, listen more, to soak in as much information as you possibly can.

It gets tiring fast when someone constantly wants to get a word in, to show they’re “contributing.”  Yet, their contribution adds zero value to the discussion. Plus, others see through what you’re doing and become frustrated as you’re slowing down the discussion.

To make matters worse, a piece of information may not get shared with you if you speak too much. Others will think you already know the answer, because of your know it all attitude.

#6 Understand engineering solutions and problems

All problems have more than one solution. But, some solutions will be more ideal than others. Hence the word “overengineering” you’ll come across with some solutions.

At the same time, there are countless bad answers. So, understand what makes a good solution, and what makes a bad solution.

For example, the following would make a good solution:

  • Simple design
  • Few parts
  • Within the project budget
  • Safe to use

#7 Empathy in business-client relationships

Remember the one online order arriving at your door 2 weeks late? Then, when you opened your package, parts were missing. S0, you immediately called customer support to voice your displeasure about your order. But instead of a human operator, you had to speak with a tone-deaf machine. Talk about headbanging frustrating!

No differently, a client feels the exact same when you do any one of the following:

  • Ignore and do not reply to messages
  • Deliver projects late
  • Submit half-assed work

So, understand your clients are humans too, and they share the same emotions as you. And as you’re taught in elementary school, treat others the way you want to be treated yourself.

In the engineering world, this means responding to your clients fast. Then, delivering what you promise to deliver.

#8 Mastery of writing skills

electrical engineering grounding specifications

Writing is a critical skill to have as an engineer. I know, sounds counterintuitive. Because all engineers do is complex math, right?… Far from it!

At some point in your career, you’ll need to convey your thoughts to others. Consider the following material you’d write:

  • Procurement and/or construction specs
  • Emails to contractors, customers, investors, and service providers
  • Design drawing notes

In short, you can’t escape writing as an engineer. And the higher you plan to climb the engineering ranks, the more you’ll need to write. Check out my following articles to improve your writing as an engineer:

#9 Become a great public speaker

Like writing, at some point, you’ll need to speak to a crowd of people. If not a crowd, you’ll certainly speak with others one-on-one.

The trick is to learn to speak confidently with crowds. Then, it becomes a breeze to speak with anyone one-on-one. And keep in mind, most engineering positions require a good amount of speaking. Especially, the higher you climb the ranks.

The following are some examples of speaking situations in engineering:

  • Presenting your product and/or service to potential customers
  • Discussing project details to customers
  • Debating solutions to problems with colleagues
  • Explaining heated situations to your boss or customers

Check out my article on how engineers can improve their public speaking.

#10 Double and triple check designs and calculations

Don’t ever assume your design and/or calculations are correct on the first swing. ALL engineers make mistakes. No exceptions!

This is why it’s super important you always put in extra effort to check your work. Because a single mistake can cause millions of dollars in damage, or even worse, kill people.

So use proven engineering review techniques to check your work. Below listed I discuss how I check my design drawings and calculations.

And if you’re ever unsure about something, then ask for help. It’s ALWAYS better to say “you don’t know” than to cause problems.

#11 Be confident, not arrogant

Becoming an engineer doesn’t give you the green light to be an arrogant prick. You may think you’re smart, but you just have a highly specialized skill. Just like hundreds of millions of other people.

Go read my “how to humble yourself by looking at stars” article. It’ll give you perspective on your place in the universe. Because no one wants to work with a prick. And to be straight to the point, don’t do any of the following:

  • Ignore other people’s opinions
  • Purposefully avoid eye contact
  • Arrive late
  • Use condescending words
  • Always think you’re right
  • Blame others for your mistakes and shortcomings

BUT, you still need confidence. Confidence and arrogance are two separate qualities. Having confidence, you’ll stand tall behind your engineering solutions without being an ass. Even when 10 other engineers are staring you down saying “your design is wrong!”

Remember though, confidence allows you to stand tall because you HAVE triple-checked your calculations. Plus, you HAVE successfully completed similar yet more complex projects many times before. And if you side with the other 10 engineers, people COULD get hurt.

This is why confidence in high-level engineering positions is highly sought after. Because in these positions, you’ll make impact decisions daily. Then people will hang off your every last word. No pressure!

#12 Learn about other engineering disciplines

spacex falcon heavy landing
SpaceX Falcon Heavy Landing (Photo Credit: SpaceX)

Don’t put your head down and only focus on your own engineering trade. The best engineers I know are experts in their fields. But also, they have a broad knowledge of other engineering fields too.

Just imagine working on a rocket at NASA or SpaceX. The project design will include near every type of engineer. Because rockets are insanely complex. Look no further than SpaceX’s Raptor engine.

So if you even understand a sliver of the role of other engineers, your work will naturally improve. Because the work of all disciplines of engineers is like puzzle pieces you need to fit together. And the greater knowledge you have, the better the puzzle pieces will fit on the first try.

#13 Gain financial knowledge

If you’re not working in a big company, you’ll more than likely directly deal with project finances. So, having a basic understanding of finances can give you a leg up in your work.

For example, with every project, you’ll need to ask and answer the following question:

How to stay within your client’s agreed-upon overall budget?

Because your budget will dictate how you approach your design. So, it’s important you know how to create and follow budgets with every project.

#14 Time management 

If you’re the brains of a project, you’ll be very busy. So, time management is critical to get through your long daily to-do list.

But let’s not put the cart before the horse. You first need to create a to-do list. I suggest creating daily and monthly to-do lists for yourself.  This will keep your schedule on track, and you won’t lose sight of any work.

Just as important, learn how to focus. Cut out any and all distractions when you work. For example, a quick search on Reddit can kill hours of your time if you’re not careful. You go check something simple, and next thing you know, you’ve gone down endless rabbit holes. Then, your entire daily schedule will be off.

To improve your focus and productivity, I suggest learning how to work like a machine.

#15 Organization of physical and digital files

Organization skills are key to becoming a successful engineer. So, learn how to best organize your physical papers in folders. And, how to organize your digital files on a server or cloud service.

Personally, I hate searching for things I just did. It’s the biggest time sink. Thankfully, you can avoid this situation if you stay organized and document your work.

I suggest instantly filing documents as they come in. Also, save any new work you start, in the right location from the start. Don’t save a document on your desktop, and tell yourself you’ll save it in the right place later. Later may never come, as ten new documents may land on your desk in the span of a day.

“What every engineer should know?” wrap up

Every engineer should know and then apply these 15 tips. These tips will only make you a better and more successful engineer.

Because engineering in today’s competitive world requires more than just technical chops. You need the full 9-yards to set yourself apart from your peers. You need to be a Swiss Army Knife, otherwise, you’ll just become another cog in the wheel.

What do you believe every engineer should know, to have a successful career? What non-technical skill do you find is the most important for engineers?

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