An engineering career is a challenge, not something for people who aren't passionately interested in the intriguing practice of mechanical, electrical, civil, or other engineering disciplines in the real world. As engineering students, you endured and conquered a hefty load of advanced coursework in math, physics, and other subjects that may not, at times, have seemed to have any practical application in the real world.
Soon after starting your career, however, you realized that your academic education was just the beginning, and that career-relevant continuing education is critical for success. In his book, "Stuff You Don't Learn in Engineering School," Carl Selinger writes, "Engineers are concerned not just with technical competency, but with so many things ... that their engineering education has not prepared them for." Investing in continuing education should be a life-long commitment.
When it comes to improving on technical competencies, classes, books, websites, white papers, and other tools are readily available to help you learn the theories and methods. But there are other subject areas engineers must also be good at that are equally, sometimes more, important; and these aren't as easy to figure out on your own.
Engineers need to develop plans that equip them to tackle priorities systematically and continuously improve competencies such as:
• Creating and delivering effective technical presentations
• Documenting work products
• Transferring knowledge to peers
• Meeting commitments and accepting accountability
• Participating in team meetings
• Working well with others
• Delegating work to junior associates
• Influencing colleagues to accept new ideas
• Negotiating compromises
• Making good business decisions
• Following company-specific processes
• Contributing to the organization's continuous improvement
• Accurately estimating time and effort needed to complete assignments
• Managing conflicting priorities
As engineers take on project leadership roles, it can be a major challenge to significantly improve in the areas listed above.
Improving estimation skills
Let's take estimation skills as an example. The inaccuracy of project estimates is one of the biggest problems that concerns business managers.
When engineers lack knowledge of robust estimation methods and a track record of reasonable accuracy, managers tend not to trust estimates and often push for unachievable project schedules.
This problem can be avoided through education about the fundamentals of project estimating.
The first step you can take to immediately improve the accuracy of estimates is to make sure that the scope of the project is defined, bounded, and clear. If not, speak up and ask for clarity and boundaries.
Inform the people who are responsible for scope definition that a well-defined, bounded scope is a prerequisite for accurate estimates. If pressured to provide an estimate with unsatisfactory project scope, provide your best estimate based on conditions that you define, and make it clear that your estimate is based on those conditions.
The next step is to break down your tasks into manageable pieces. Each task should have a duration of no more than five days. If you are defining tasks that extend beyond that, break them into subtasks until no task or subtask exceeds five days.
When you break down your work with this granularity, important details are realized that might have been overlooked otherwise. Another benefit is that estimation errors are generally minor with short task durations, and over/under errors tend to be balanced such that the net accuracy is acceptable.
Professional development plan
Too many companies let productivity issues, low morale, and retention problems eat away at their profits because managers aren't adequately directing employee development. It's great when human resources departments are driving training and education, but that's no substitute for managers who are really tuned in to the needs of the people who directly report to them.
Management deficiencies can't be solved overnight, but a culture of self-management can be established by equipping engineers and managers with comprehensive professional development plans. A good development plan serves as a roadmap for ongoing contributions that meet or exceed an employer's expectations.
If you believe in your plan, you should be motivated to follow it on your own. Managers should be supportive, but you should create your own development plan.
Four steps for creating your plan
1. Assess your strengths and weaknesses broadly using the competencies listed earlier. Combine them with important technical proficiencies and other known skills that are currently needed and those needed for career growth.
2. Prioritize the weaknesses. Ask trusted managers and colleagues which weaknesses would be most beneficial to address.
3. Focus on the top three competencies to develop. Create a detailed plan for each competency and include a timeline for completion.
4. After satisfactorily developing those three competencies, reassess and repeat indefinitely.
Over time, it's likely that different skills will become a priority while other skills languish a bit. This is especially true for technical skills, as new technologies and tools replace those that become obsolete or irrelevant. One example is shifting from a role where management skills (scheduling, budgeting and planning) are important to a role where leadership characteristics (influence and negotiating ability) are essential.
These are the situations that require a strong commitment to continuing leadership education.
Gary Hinkle is president and founder of Auxilium, Inc., a firm that offers product development services and continuing education for technical professionals. His experience includes a variety of management and staff assignments with companies involved in the development and manufacturing of high-tech products. He consults on R&D management and leadership and technical teambuilding. His SPIE webcast, Essential Skills for Engineering Project Leaders, is available to SPIE members online.
Developing your ability to influence
Developing leadership ability and becoming more influential could be the most challenging aspects of your professional development. The information available on leadership is often conflicting, which makes the challenge even more difficult.
Gary Hinkle of Auxilium likes to simplify leadership development by focusing on the specific aspects that are most beneficial.
An excellent resource who does this well is John C. Maxwell who focused a series of blog posts earlier this year on leading difficult people.
Hinkle also recommends Influence Without Authority by Allan Cohen and David Bradford, which has many practical examples and a useful website.
SPIE Leadership Series
Looking for inspiration or advice about becoming a successful optics and photonics professional?
Find the Leadership Series online at spie.org/leaderseries.
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