Sunday, March 6, 2011

More Advice for Engineers from Mechanical Engineering Magazine

Mechanical Engineering magazine continues its recent string of excellent articles with two in the March 2011 issue on engineering management.  In Heads Up, Ears Perked Ron Sledje advises that the laser-like focus that served us well as undergrads might not be the best approach in the workplace.  Ronald Rorrer offers another perspective to Hiring the Newly Minted where GPA is trumped by design coursework.

Focus on Engineering, But See the Bigger Picture

Sledje, author of the Engineering Survival Guide and operator of a networking web site for engineers, advocates that engineers must understand how their work impacts their employer's business.  One particular bit of advice involves identifying problems in your area of responsibility and making sure your boss is aware of them before they potentially and proverbially hit the fan.  But more than that, bring your boss solutions, not just problems. His advice also includes

  • Don't stick your head in the sand.  Be aware of your employer's overall business.
  • Think on the next level.  Try to view your work from your boss' perspective.
  • Work hard and work smart.  Deliver value, because "a company is a money-making entity..."  Hooray!  Here's someone who doesn't shy away from that fact.
  • Develop your business skills.  Understand the bigger picture.
  • Keep your resume current.  Don't miss an unexpected opportunity.
  • Always look for jobs.  Be aware of the opportunities that are out there and the skills they require.
  • Never stop developing yourself.   Continuous learning increases your value and opens new opportunities.
  • Always develop your network.  This is one of the most important things you can do yet one thing engineers neglect the most.
  • Don't be naive.  Do these things to protect yourself and your family.
To me, Sledje's overall advice can be summed up in the old adage "Your education begins after graduation."  Engineers can bring a lot to an organization so do your job and never stop learning.  You can learn more about Sledje at his website

Why Success in College Doesn't Forecast Success in Industry

I love how Prof. Rorrer (Univ. Colorado Denver) begins his article: "Hiring anyone [...] is akin to marrying your significant other who just happens to have the world's best divorce attorney."   The point is that if things don't work out for either party a breakup is guaranteed.  According to Rorrer the biggest disconnect between college and industry is the reliance on GPA over the results of senior design projects.  Rorrer recommends that potential employers seek references from the candidate's senior design instructors because the design experience reveals more about a student's character and work ethic.  Furthermore, the design instructor is likely to have the best insight into the student's potential as a practical engineer.  (Be sure to read the full article to find out what was deemed a firing offense and what happened to the young engineer who would not acknowledge when the manager was speaking to him.)

With an overt focus on the design course, Rorrer provides this guide to interpreting the grades.
  • A - Expectations were exceeded.
  • B - Expectations were met.
  • C - There was a lack of effort to overcome difficulties.  Professors expect technical problems to arise but they also expect the students to work toward overcoming them.
  • D - No effort was applied and the student probably should've failed but no one wants him or her back for another semester.  Really, that's what he wrote.
  • F - While almost virtually impossible to get this grade, this student who receives this grade should never be employed as an engineer.
I will admit to being one of those people who emphasizes GPA.  To me, a high GPA indicates two things: a relative mastery of the subject matter and/or the ability to overcome a lack of mastery (presumably by hard work and study).  Rorrer provides a good counterargument and echoes the popular student's complaint "When will I ever solve a differential equation in industry?"  In industry, success as an engineer involves many intangibles associated with teamwork and collaborative problem solving - the same skills that would help a student excel on a design team.

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