How to Improve & Gain Experience as a Young Engineer
When you’re just starting out as an engineer fresh out of college, it can be intimidating to get up to speed on how to actually apply the concepts and techniques you’ve been learning in an academic setting in the real world. Especially since your title implies that you have expert technical knowledge when almost everyone you work with will have more functional knowledge than you.
Well, don’t worry, because all engineers (and most professions) go through this period. The good news is you have 3 to 6 months of time where people don’t have many assumptions about your knowledge and you can freely ask questions. Spend your time wisely and apply yourself, and you’ll be up to speed quickly. This advice is targeted to those who are fresh out of college, but people who have a little more experience under their belt can also use it.
Your first goal as a young engineer should be to gain hands-on experience working in your field. Your schooling has provided enough scholarly knowledge that you can solve problems in the office when all the facts are given to you, but you probably don’t have the skills yet to go out and gather those facts yourself or to apply the solutions you create. When you’re a more experienced engineer you’ll most likely have technicians to perform hands-on work, but you absolutely have to understand what someone will be doing before you ask them to do it.
- Shadow Technicians - To get that hands-on experience, ask your manager if you can assist or shadow the technicians as they test and assemble parts. Or, if they’re working on software or firmware, shadow them while they implement and test it. This might be tough, and you’ll be in their way, but gather some courage and ask them about what they’re doing. Ask them if you could do one of the steps yourself. Ask them about other tools and equipment they’re using. Ask them what they like and don’t like about what they’re doing. Don’t be a pest, but don’t fade into the background either. Becoming familiar with what you’ll be working on and what you’ll have access to is paramount.
- Do It Yourself - Next, try and do it yourself if possible. Whether you’re testing a PCB, assembling a part, or testing code you wrote, find a simple implementation of what you’ll be working on and try and do it yourself. If you don’t understand it, do a few Google searches and try some solutions to see what you can come up with. Use tools you have some amount of experience with and don’t work with anything dangerous. Only work with equipment and tools where the price of failure is wasted time and not a ruined $250,000 part or a lost finger! It might feel like banging your head against a wall, and you might feel stupid for not understanding something that seems simple, but it’s better to get those feelings out of the way now rather than later. (And once you understand it, it’s never as hard as you thought it was).
- Assist other Engineers - Finally, you want to get some real projects. You’ll probably be assigned some by your manager, but also keep your ears open for other opportunities. There are going to be parts of the job that other engineers don’t like – like writing procedures, formatting data, or designing fixtures. Offer to help with those tasks, even if you don’t feel entirely confident. The engineer will most likely say that it’ll be faster for them to perform the work and they won’t want to give it to you but tell them that you have a ton of time (a rarity for most other people in the team most likely) and that you can work on it in the background of what they’re doing. When you do get a project, do your best at it and get feedback from your manager and other engineers. Repeat this process over and over, and you have a career!
Building Relationships and Getting Mentors
If you look anywhere online for advice, you’ll see posts calling out for you to get a ‘mentor’. But how the hell do you actually get one? Don’t stress about it. From my experience, whether you’re formally assigned one or not, you’ll naturally build multiple personal relationships that fulfill a ‘mentor’ role.
When you’re first starting out, go ahead and ask your manager if you can have a mentor assigned to you. If so, great. However, still go out and start building informal relationships with your colleagues.
- Who to talk to - Try and talk with everyone you work with to see how open they are to teaching and to judge their personalities. If they’re constantly overworked and busy, they won’t have time for you even if they really want to teach you. If they’re not busy but seem to not care about their job and constantly complain, don’t learn from them. Look for people who are positive, intelligent, and aren’t super stressed.
- How to get them to teach you - To get people to teach you, start by asking them for help on a specific task and don’t ask for general advice. People are more likely to engage with you if they know exactly what they need to do, especially if they can demonstrate their experience. After working on it with them, don’t run away to finish another task. Start asking them more general questions about their role and their thoughts on the company, and about their advice on other tasks you have.
- Building a relationship – Now that you have the start of a connection, you can start engaging more easily. Ask them for general advice more regularly, make small talk with them, and eventually you’ll naturally start talking about personal lives, careers, and about extremely specific technical solutions. They’re now your ‘mentor’! (Informally).
Building Your Own Toolset
And now for the fun part! As you gain more hands-on experience and work on more projects, you’ll start to see common challenges and tasks pop up. Whenever you need to repeat tasks like finding information, handling data, or designing common solutions, start engineering personal solutions to speed up and simplify your work!
One common issue is finding reliable information. Google searches are great, but it’s yet another time-wasting step to Google information that you’ve had to look up before. If you find yourself consistently looking up the same information, obviously you can just bookmark the page, but also consider copying the information into a database you design which makes more intuitive sense to you. This way you don’t need to go hunting for information as often, and you can pull up your program or spreadsheet for easier access. (Also some webpages have a habit of disappearing or reformatting on you).
For quick access to webpages, Launchy is a great program to quickly access sites without needing to use a mouse. For simple equations, I’ve found MathCAD to be a good program to store templates which can easily show variables. Of course, you can also make a personal reference folder to store documents. And if necessary, you can write yourself a VBA script or Python script to automate the boring stuff. Though you may be tempted to ‘perfect’ it and spend more time making the program than solving the problem manually would have taken!
As a final note here, keep an eye out for solutions other engineers have built. Look through your company’s database to see if there’s anything good and ask your co-workers what they use.
I hope these tips help you feel more confident as you grow in your profession!