What’s It Like to Be an Engineer?

What’s it like to be an engineer? It can be like any other plain old job. But if you’re passionate about engineering, it can be very fulfilling and fun.

For starters, the following are the four main pillars behind “what’s it like to be an engineer?”:

  1. Is it just another job?
  2. How challenging is the work?
  3. How captivating and interesting is the work?
  4. What’s the level of pay?

These pillars define the type of experience engineers will have in their jobs.

Of course, though, there are variances to each of these pillars. The level of variance for an engineer comes from answering the following questions:

  • Why did you become an engineer?
  • What type of engineer are you?
  • What type of engineering work do you do?

With that out of the way, let’s discuss each of the four pillars. Before we do so though, I’m going to go over my experience as an engineer over the years.

How engineering has been for me over the years

transformers in hydroelectric facility
Transformers in a hydroelectric facility

I’ve found being an engineer to be very enjoyable.

I’ve been able to work on both challenging and interesting problems. In the process, I’ve learned a lot and I’ve discovered I’m capable of so much more than I had ever thought.

For example, I’ve both led and designed the following types of projects:

  • Water and wastewater treatment plants
  • Water pump stations
  • Substations
  • Renewable energy projects like wind and solar farms
  • Hydroelectric facilities
  • Underground boring

When I started work as an engineer I never would’ve imagined doing this type of work. In fact, the imposter syndrome hit me strong when I first started working as an engineer.

BUT, eventually, I overcame the imposter syndrome.

What’s more, these are the types of projects I’ve always had an interest in as a kid. Thus, this makes my work more enjoyable than being a bank teller for example. Because intrinsic passions definitely play a role in your excitement for a job.

At the same time, my work isn’t ever too repetitive. This alone keeps me on my toes, and I don’t quickly get bored.

All in all, my mind stays stimulated.

My work isn’t always glamours

Now, I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture of my work.

Yes, I do a lot of challenging and interesting work for sure. But the work isn’t all sexy.

For example, let’s say I’m doing a design for a large hydroelectric facility. At first, I’m like, “wow, this is one badass cool project!”

Then once the real work begins, my excitement subsides. Don’t get me wrong now, it’s still very cool work.

But, the client is peppering me with questions, scope changes, and frivolous demands. So the project becomes plain old work in long stretches.

Also, I’m doing the following, which are staples to any old engineering project:

  • Gathering project data
  • Coordinating with other engineers over collected data
  • Doing calculations
  • Running software simulations
  • Brainstorming design ideas

I compare this all to pro athletes. You see pro athletes on the biggest national stages with thousands of cheering fans.

It’s a heck of a dopamine rush!

But these moments are only a blip in an athlete’s career. The bulk of their career, which goes unnoticed is the endless training hours day after day. It’s the same deal in engineering.

Other realities of my job

What’s more, the following are other moments when my enjoyability meter dips:

  • Completing endless project proposals, which includes writing long-winded ten-page plus documents.
  • Chasing sub-contractors around trying to get them to do what they’re tasked to do.
  • Dealing with government agencies over permitting type work. It’s like pulling teeth sometimes.
  • Dealing with irate illogical customers.

But as with any line of work, you take the good with the bad. No job is perfect.

In short, engineering work is like any other job. You clock in and clock out.

BUT, if you have an interest in your work, engineering can be very enjoyable. Plus there’s the following “benefits” too:

  • Most other engineers and people, in general, will show respect towards you.
  • In most instances, you’ll work on impactful projects.
  • You become the go-to person for problem-solving.
  • You’re around bright minds that most of the time, share your passion for engineering.

Overall, I enjoy working as an engineer!

Also, read this article to learn more in-depth about what I do as an engineer.

What’s it like being an engineer at other workplaces

tesla fremont factory
Photo Credit: Tesla Factory, Fremont

I have engineering buddies who work in all types of different places. I’ll capture some of their thoughts below on what’s it like to be an engineer.

This will give you an added different perspective.

Just keep in mind, I will be generalizing over the different job types. I’m only sharing what I’ve learned and what my friends have told me.

Government position

There will be long stretches of doing nothing. So the work can get boring, but at the same time, it’s a laid-back work atmosphere.

Also, in most government positions, you don’t do a lot of engineering design work. More so, you’re managing others while doing a lot of paperwork.

Because core engineering work is almost always contracted out to the private sector.

Personally, I’ve found government engineers just make sure a plant runs smoothly. Also, they create proposals for how to improve the plant.

Where the private sector does the major design work for the plant.

Tesla and SpaceX

The work is challenging and fast-paced. You’re working A LOT, and your skills need to be and remain sharp.

So, the work can be stressful, and there aren’t many down periods. Elon Musk has a fire lit under everyone as he shoots to change the world.

Plus, the workplace environment is VERY different than anywhere you’ve ever worked before. I’ve put together a list of the 20 workplace rules found in Elon Musk companies.

To point out, all my friends who work at these companies love it. They love working with the brightest minds in the world. At the same time, working with the latest technologies.

They find it very cool too how they’re leading innovation and building the future world.

Microsoft

As a large established company, the work at Microsoft is much different than at a place like Tesla. You’ll still do some challenging and interesting work.

But, there’s still a lot of bureaucracy and politics involved. This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

Naturally, as a result, the company moves at a sluggish pace.

4 Pillars that define “what’s it like to be an engineer?”

spacex rocket launch
SpaceX rocket launch

Let’s now go over each of the pillars we outlined at the beginning of this article.

#1 Is it just another job?

At the end of the day, being an engineer is just another job. There aren’t any magical feelings you’ll gain from being an engineer.

As I mentioned for myself earlier though, the trick is to like engineering to begin with. That’s when your job will become much more enjoyable versus becoming a drag.

Yes, a job is a job. But a job you hate can make your life a living hell.

Because let’s face it, you’re spending most of your waking hours in your job. You want to at least have some passion for the work you do.

#2 How challenging is the work?

It’s a given engineering work will be challenging, no?

The reality is, not all engineering work is challenging. In fact, in many instances, you may only do the same repetitive cookie-cutter type work day in and day out.

I’m talking about recycling the same design over and over again. Only with small design tweaks here and there.

This type of work can get old fast. Especially if you have an ounce of ambition in you.

Because many people became engineers to do challenging types of work. You know, to tackle large hairy projects.

This is one of the reasons I became an engineer.

I didn’t sign up to do work that I could teach a high school student to do in a couple of weeks.

#3 How captivating and interesting is the work?

This ties back to #2 with the challenging types of work.

Not all engineers work on captivating and interesting work. It all comes down to where you work, and the type of position you hold.

Some engineers work at SpaceX trying to design rockets to one day travel to Mars. They work on the bleeding edge of technology.

Then there are some engineers who push papers all day long. They write project proposals for other engineers to execute.

I’m not saying one position is better than the other.

The paper-pushing engineer may enjoy their job. Maybe they don’t have an interest or skills to do rocket engineering. And that’s totally okay.

But if you’re an overly ambitious engineer who wants to work on rockets, you will NOT like pushing paper. You’ll hate it!

#4 What’s the level of pay?

Depending on where you work and what you do, you’ll get paid accordingly. If you just recycle the same low-level designs over and over again, you’ll get paid peanuts.

But if you’re the lead engineer in a given industry, you’ll get paid handsomely.

In general, you can lead a great middle-class life as an engineer. Then if you drive yourself harder, you can definitely move up into the upper-class echelon.

“What’s it like to be an engineer?” wrap up

A lot depends on the following two factors, assuming you like engineering work:

  • Where you work
  • What position you hold

These two factors alone will shape your experience as an engineer. It’s kind of like answering the question, “what’s it like driving a car?”

It depends on the type of car you drive, and where you drive. Your driving experience will greatly vary if you drive a 2020 Tesla versus a Ford Model T car.

Then driving in the Vegas desert varies greatly from driving on the Hana Highway in Maui.

In the end, if you like engineering work and don’t settle for any given job, you’ll enjoy your work.

What’s it like to be an engineer to you? Do you find engineering work experiences vary greatly?

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