How to Spot and Avoid Pitfalls to Engineering Career Advancement

Tran Thong - August 4, 1995.

I came across an article on this subject recently. It deals with engineering manager and engineering career. In the following I will only relate the points about engineers.

Very often our career starts very rosy and then suddenly we hit a roadblock and our career seems to go downhill from there. According to John A. Hoschette, staff engineer, Loral Infrared & Imaging systems (Lexington, Mass.), "Engineers fail, and more often than is realized." He warns us about the following signs that should be heeded:

1. The engineer is shuffled around projects against his/her will because of real or perceived view that he/she is too disruptive to the team or fails to get the work done.

2. The engineer is passed over for a number of promotions.

3. Raises are minimal and tasks assigned are trivial. He/she is not given credit for his/her work.

Hoschette presented the following six causes for failure:

l. Inept or poor communication skills - This is something we, Vietnamese, need to watch out for since our country of origin cannot be used as an excuse.

2. Poor relations with direct supervisor. This should be no more a problem for Vietnamese than for others. The only exception is that some of us are not as involved in sports and may be uncomfortable about office chit-chat.

3. Inflexible attitude. I don't think this should be much of a problem with Vietnamese.

4. Poor and lax work habits.

5. Too much independence.

6. Technical incompetence.

In "Career Advancement and Survival for Engineers", (John Wiley & Sons, New York), Hoschette explains how engineers might harm their own career advancement and alerts technical types to early warning signs of trouble. He also provides guidelines and recommendations on getting out of trouble. His career recommendations include:

1. Good communication skills are essential for one's technical career. The inability to effectively communicate often keeps an engineer from advancing. Engineers get paid to resolve complex problems using communication skills to bring together resources, people, and technical knowledge for success. "Lack of good communication skills will obviously limit the success of the project and one's career."

By nature and training, engineers focus on technicalities rather than people, and this often makes engineers poor communicators. From his own experiences as an engineering manager, Hoschette observes, "Many engineers believe technical skills are all that count and that they will be rewarded accordingly." However, while technical skills make up part of the criteria for advancement, communication skills are also a significant part of the evaluation.

"An engineer who can communicate clearly, both in writing and speaking, and has good technical understanding, is usually recognized by superiors as someone with high potential." Clear, concise, and easily understandable writing is essential because engineers often must write specifications and technical reports. Poorly written specifications can cause a multitude of problems that then cause delays throughout a project.

Similarly, clear, concise speaking skills are essential. "Career progress depends, in part, upon an ability to sell oneself and one�s ideas." This must be done continuously during meetings with management and peers. Engineers must be able to orally communicate important points contained in technical charts, graphs, and reports; they must also give clear and concise instructions to their subordinates and other employees.

Hoschette recommends that engineers improve their writing skills by taking technical writing courses at a local college, and to look for guidance in old reports, specifications, and other documents previously generated by other people in the organization. Speaking skills, he says, can be improved by observing how people in upper management report, by joining a Toast Masters group, see MT #15 by Pha.m Bi`nh, and volunteering to speak before groups and association meetings. He stresses from his own career as manager: Once an engineer has made a poor impression with written reports or oral presentations, that individual may not be asked to help in certain key activities because of that initial impression.

2. Maintain a good relationship with your supervisor. The personal relationship an engineer has with his supervisor is probably the dominant factor in deciding success or failure. Many engineers "do not understand this and greatly underestimate the importance of their supervisor," Hoschette says.

To advance, engineers must have a good relationship with supervisors. They must be able to discuss problems, report progress or lack of it, identify solutions, and finally, get the supervisor�s approval. Further, the engineer must understand his/her role on the team and relationship with the supervisor as one of cooperation and providing assistance. If things are going well between engineer and supervisor, the engineer should be able to discuss work and problems candidly.

There are danger signs to watch for in relationships, Hoschette warns. "If the two of you are usually in disagreement, it�s time to realize a poor relationship exists," he explains, "which can be career limiting." He advises finding common ground, identifying what you can agree upon, and concentrating on this. If poor relations are caused by a difference of technical opinion, the best solution is to at least agree to disagree, and concede that there is an honest difference of opinion. If you disagree about your performance, it�s an entirely different matter. Essentially, he advises, "you�ll have to start performing the way the supervisor wants you to, and not the way you want to".

3. Become more flexible and understanding. Unfortunately, inflexibility is taught in college. Engineering students are taught there is only one correct way to work through a problem. On the job, however, problems are not so well-detailed and there exists a multitude of solutions. Solving problems on the job requires a team effort, with ideas and solutions from many people. Often cost and schedule do not allow you to score a perfect 100. In fact, the final solution may be far from the best. All of this requires the engineer to maintain a balance in his work.

Being inflexible can cause you and the team a multitude of problems. Most people pull away from someone who is too inflexible, and flexibility is the key to career growth. You must change your style in relation to those around you to stimulate them as well as yourself to get the best performance.

4. Eliminate poor or lax work habits. Engineers often fail due to poor work habits and work schedules. If left unchecked, bad work methods eventually will shortcut a promising career. The reason they are so career limiting is the dramatic effect they have on the quality and quantity of work an engineer can accomplish. Being easily distracted, can turn an easy, short task into a major one. This type of performance causes cost overruns and missed schedules. Jumping from one problem to another before an engineer completes the last one leaves him with nothing ever being accomplished.

"Lack of discipline and being disorganized are two major reasons most projects fail or end in cost overruns," Hoschette explains. "I cannot believe the number of times experiments or tests had to be rerun simply because the engineer was not organized or failed to pay attention to details or never bothered to record test conditions or results." Poor work habits are a failure mode.

5. Become a team player and contributor. Most engineers are members of a design team, and team members must work closely with each other and draw from each other to accomplish their goals. If an engineer becomes too independent, the team can suffer. Some engineers believe they can do it all and try to take on bigger assignments than they are capable of handling. Others want to work alone with no one overseeing their work. Don�t be too independent, he advises. "It is career limiting." Engineers must try as best they can to be team players, and take the time to share results with other team members. He stresses, "Do not be afraid to ask questions and get clarification" if you need it. "You may not have all the solutions, but neither does anyone else on the team," he declares. To this I would like to add that you should do your homework before asking a question. I have dealt with certain senior engineers who will spend the time explaining to you a problem if you can show them that you have seriously thought about the particular problem. The same engineers will dismiss you if they thinks that you are asking them to do your job!

If an engineer is a loner by nature, Hoschette agrees that it will take sometime to make the transition to team efforts. "Take things slowly at first," he advises, and at a minimum, "at least show up for team meetings." If the engineer is afraid to share his work in front of the team, then he should schedule some time to review his work with only the team leader. �The point is that the engineer must change to survive, and only he can do it,� Hoschette says adamantly. If, however, the engineer is already a team person but is experiencing problems working on a team, he must find out why. Ask others if they are having similar problems. Some teams gel and click, while others only develop a multitude of problems. Remember: There will be another team. The best way to move up is to do your best on the present task.

6. Continue learning to avoid technical incompetence. Engineers fail because of technical incompetence, and this usually surprises many people. An engineer must face technical challenges to accomplish two things: broaden his technical knowledge and experience base, and technically update herself throughout his/her career. To neglect either results in failure eventually. Should an engineer, for example, expect some day to advance to the position of team leader, he/she had better expand or broaden his/her background to be able to deal with many diverse disciplines, often nontechnical. Should the engineer prefer to remain competent in one area only, then that individual must periodically update his/her knowledge in that field. Hoschette warns: Not updating yourself will only result in failure eventually.

Now for a final TT paragraph of wisdom. 2a. If you have an insecure manager, either run away to another group/department/company quickly, or accept his/her whims. Don't ever fight your manager! 9 out of 10 times you are the loser. Voting with your feet is the best way to signal upper management that this particular manager has a problem.

This page is maintained by VACETS.