Top Ten Things You Learn In Engineering School

The longer I work in this career, the more I realize that engineering school actually was pretty great prep for an engineering career, and, well, life in general. I hope I learned more than ten things for all the effort  I put it, but a list can only be so long. So here are the top things I learned in school and how the long term impact to my life and career.

1.) How To Maximize Your Time

black-and-white-hand-vintage-numbers-mediumThe fact that everything seemed due at once and there was never any time to get everything truly completed bothered me as a student. Why not give us the time to really absorb the material, play around with that design, take it easy and mull it over a bit longer? I was paying all this money! Shouldn’t I be able to do as I wanted? Well, of course not. The real world won’t allow such luxuries. You will never have enough time. You must learn to prioritize, back burner things that are not of immediate concern, and complete the top assignments to the best of your ability. I am sure this lesson comes with any college degree, but something about engineering projects, labs, and class work makes a lethal combination that will force you to grow up. Oh, and don’t forget the oh-so-true Pareto principle: 80% of the outcome is the result of 20% of the effort. Learn to recognize the 80% of the effort that you are wasting.

2.) You Can’t Be Perfect And You Really Shouldn’t Try To Be

What is engineering if not “Professional Risk Assessment”?  You can never know, with 100% certainty that your design will work as intended. But as a profession, we use all kinds of disciplines to get as close as we can. We utilize “All The Knowledge That Came Before Us” to avoid repeating disaster and to instantly acquire all the formulas and observations that smarter people came up with long ago. We will perform a DOE (Design Of Experiments) to maximize our testing plan without breaking the bank or blowing your time table. We will leverage statistical methods to ensure our process is repeatable and reproducible.  And, of course, we will design in a Factor Of Safety to cover us if our calculation are a bit off or the real world throws a variable at us that we did not factor in. But, again, you are not going to be perfect.  Time, Budget, Profits, Knowledge, and Skill will all coordinate to wreck your world.

3.) You Don’t Have To Like Everybody, But You Have To Find A Way To Work Together

man-couple-people-woman-mediumSomething about engineering brings out the, uh, strangest people. It seems that everyone is coming from a different background or has a different view of what would make the project successful. Even if there is a fundamental disagreement, you must understand that a professional setting requires a decorum that you might not use around your family or friends.  As a result, most people develop a professional persona. That is the “you” that you present to others so that your ideas and projects get completed.

In my own life, I have absolutely tuned down the more eccentric elements of my personality when hanging out in the office.  For example, being from Georgia, I learned early on that a deep southern accent would get in the way of communication. So, I learned to even it out a bit (slow my speech down, enunciate more) to the point that when I eventually moved to Michigan people didn’t believe I was from the south.  Was I trying to hide the fact that I was Southern? Of course not! In fact, I probably mention that fact too much. However, it would be very difficult to communicate with people from other countries if was not aware of the potential for misunderstanding that I was in control of.

4.) Problem Solving Skills

I could argue that this is all you do in engineering. We are constantly trying to figure our way out of some jam or another.  If it isn’t a packaging, optimization, testing, or some other design issue then it could very well be a process issue within our development system. That is, something that deals with the design process rather than the design itself.  I have often argued that any large product development or manufacturing company needs a disproportionately high percentage of engineers simply to make everything work. It would appear that, more often than not, the process of design is just as flexible as the design itself.  Companies are willing to pay a higher premium for engineers when a process must be “massaged” because we will find a way forward.  So if you hate problem solving then stay away from engineering.

5.) Learn How to Learn and Never Stop Doing It

This is another skill that you most likely pick up with any advanced degree, but I think it is accelerated with an engineering one. You are just inundated with difficult concepts and, as stated above, very little time to absorb it. So, you learn to learn or you fail. Once you get to the real world, this skill is probably one of the most important ones you can have. I realized very early that you can quickly become an expert, or go-to person,  in any discipline if you have ambition and an ability to learn.  Any if you don’t know something, ask questions! Too many people think that asking questions makes you look dumb. I have learned that the exact opposite is true. People respect that you are thinking through the problem and most people like to be in a position to teach others.

I will give you one of many examples from my own career. I was working in an assembly plant as a manufacturing engineer. One of my crazy-robot-vector-illustration-10776117constant stresses was this robot that installed clips into one of my subcomponents.  The robot was old and finicky, so 4-5 times a week I would get the call that the robot was acting up and production was being affected. Of course we had back up plans, but this required extra man power which we did not always have in abundance.  When the robot would fail, I would call the one guy in the plant that knew how to fix it. After several weeks of struggling with the machine and struggling to get the repair guy out to fix it each and every time,  I decided that something had to be done. We were not going to be able to replace the machine, as this was out of our budget.  So, I asked for a crash course on how to fix it from the one repair guy. He obliged and walked me through some basic operations. I don’t think anyone had every asked him to teach them before. Then, he handed me programming guide (written in basic) and said that there was probably more that could be done if I could figure it out. Armed with this little bit of knowledge, I was able to get the machine back up and running quickly when it became misaligned. Going further, I learned enough about how to program the machine to modify its routine slightly to reduce its downtime by a good 75%.  Within the month, I started getting calls from other engineers to help me out with their machines. I had apparently become the new repair guy. Now, I didn’t want to walk around repairing these things all day, but I was able to help enough people that my reputation grew (“guy that can fix things”) and my network grew (“That is a helpful guy to know. If he needs anything I should help him”).  Having the respect of your peers comes in handy when you need help in return.

Oh, and engineering school will teach you to learn, not just to memorize. Generally, you bring whatever you want into an exam. But if you don’t know the material, then you won’t have time to complete the exam.  True story: I went in for an interview for a promotion at my company a few years ago. We have a very detailed product development system that takes years to fully master and is very detailed. Anyway, the interviewers asked a ton of detailed questions regarding the system. I did okay, but could have used some notes to make my answers even better. After the interview (and not getting the position) I sat down with the manager in charge for a “what could I have done better” review.  He asked me point blank why I did not just bring up my notes or fire up my laptop and look up the answer. What?? You could do that?? The successful candidate did. I mean, you still have to know what you are talking about to even know where get the answer, but the successful candidate would not try to memorize everything. Lesson Learned!

6.) Be Okay With Failure

woman-dropped-fail-failure-mediumThis is a tough one for those of raised in the “everyone gets a trophy for trying” era. You will fail. Often. Don’t beat yourself up. Just try to understand why you failed and do your best to prevent re occurrence.  There is even a book about it. This doesn’t mean that you should be stupid, a gambler, reckless. It means that you have to be okay with putting effort in and seeing it not go the way you want. As long as the journey teaches you something (see my point about lifelong learning) then you haven’t really lost anything.  I could go on and on about the number of high profile people that failed more often than they succeed, but that is an article already beaten to death in other places.

7.) How to network

Network doesn’t (just) mean going to conferences and handing out cards. It also means just being helpful to others (having value) that helps others think of you when opportunity arises or if you reach out to them for help. In school, the ability to network can get you access to old tests, helpful hints, professors to avoid, intern opportunities, etc. The best place to start is probably attending study sessions and well, hanging out with your fellow students. Doing this will introduce you to former students, teacher assistants, and similar folks that can help you remove obstacles to your success. But keep in mind that networking is about giving and taking. Don’t just be a leech. When you are in a position to help, go help. See my example in “How to Learn”. It all comes back around again. If people see you as someone who can get stuff done then you are networking effectively.

8.) Shoot for Design Optimization, not Design Perfection

desk-office-pen-ruler-largeThis one kind of goes along with “You can’t be perfect”, but I think it can stand alone as a single lesson.  Engineering is about balancing multiple requirements so that the right mix is thrust onto the eager masses. You could design a non-electric car that gets 100 mpg, but the cost might make it noncompetitive in the market place (gas savings end up being less than the extra monthly payment for the vehicle due to higher base price). Or you could design the safest car in the world (think, a tank) that would get such low gas mileage that no one could afford to drive it. So, design optimization. As of this writing, I work in the world of automotive craftsmanship.  If I designed a mass produced car that looked great, all the time, for all 100,000 units built, then my cost would be high. Instead, we play the odds. The car looks great for 90% of the vehicles, while the other 10% might suffer a slight flaw. A trained eye will pick it up, but most customers would not.

9.) Learn When To Walk Away

man-person-people-emotions-mediumAnything worth doing is going to come saddled with some degree of frustration.  It took many years, but I finally matured to the point where I can walk away from something that just isn’t worth pursing anymore. It might be something where the effort going in does not equal the output (low return on investment) or it might be something that has eclipsed my skill set and I need to bring in outside help.  By walking away from the problem, even if just temporarily, you get to calm down and think about something else for a bit. This is very helpful in many of life’s difficult situations. I am a pretty enthusiastic woodworker on the side, which is a hobby that can get stressful at times if things are not going as you would like. I used to just push through a problem with aggression, more often than not making it worse. I have since learned to walk away for a bit, calm down, and come back to the problem with a clear head. With this approach I can usually come up with a solution.

10.) Take Care of Yourself

healthy-person-woman-sport-mediumI mean this in the macro (you are in charge of your career; act like it) and in the micro (you are in charge of your body; act like it). The career stuff is obvious. We exist in a world were “lifetime employment” is pretty laughable. This mentality was boosted by a pension plan that would kick in only after you had so many years in service (say, 30) and reached a minimum retirement age (55, or something similar). In most cases, the pension amount kicked up considerable once the threshold was reached. This kept many people at one company for a long period of time. Now, of course, you need to manage your own career.  As far as your health is concerned, you can’t give everything up in support of your career. See that whole “you manage your career” thing. What are you going to do? Work your health into the ground for one employer only to be let go? Then what do you have? Take care of yourself. Eat right. Exercise. Get sleep. Find some way of reducing your stress.  You owe this to your self and those depending on you.


That’s about it. Do you have anything else that to add to the list? Reply in the comments section!


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