How to get better at your engineering job

If you are just starting in an engineering job, you may find it overwhelming to cope up with the amount of information you have to process on a daily basis, most of which was not taught to you in college. And then there is a problem of getting better at your job. Getting better at your job is different to learning in school because there is no fixed theory for you to first learn and then practise, and you are learning while always being judged by your boss. For the sake of ease of writing, I am going to assume your boss is a male.

What am I doing wrong?

Task related mistakes happen in one of these three categories – input, process and output.

For example, if the task is to prepare a report about the structural calculation of steel connections, the input is all the communication regarding the task till you start working on it, process is the actual calculation, problem solving, design considerations, report preparation etc, and the output will be saving your work, presenting your work to the boss etc.

One other area of mistake is the non-work-related communication such as communication with our colleagues, body language etc.

How do I fix my mistakes?

1. Input mistakes

Understanding the task given by the boss

Being new to this, you may not know all the terms used during a conversation. When the boss is explaining you your task, always carry a notebook to note down the details and important terms. If you don’t know any term or a step of the task, ask before leaving his office and starting your work. Best to clear all the details when he is ready to discuss them. If he was in a rush and said he will explain it to you later, note it down, go to a colleague and ask him. Also, maintain a list of all the new words you hear. Best write it in an excel sheet so that you can go through them time to time. Use Anki or any other method of spaced repetition to recall those words for longer memory retention.

Forgetting what your boss said

As there will be a lot of information related to any task, such as, dimensions, alignments, algorithms, flowcharts, calculations, report format etc., you need to be able to record it. Use a notepad at all times when talking to your boss or wherever there is an exchange of information. Also, it makes you look serious about your job. Further, review everything as soon as you reach your desk because some of that you may have written in shorthand and even you won’t be able to decipher its meaning after one hour. So, rewrite the tasks and important info and make a step-by-step list by own. It should not take more than 10 minutes for you to finish.

2. Process mistakes

Taking too much time to submit

You may be getting stuck at one or several steps of a task. After writing down the steps, mark the difficult part where you may get stuck. Most of the time we get stuck because we want to solve that problem ourselves. It becomes a matter of pride and intellectual challenge. It works in college but it is not an efficient method at work because it costs you time and your time is worth money to your boss. And he will hate to lose any money. So, if you cannot figure out the solution in 15 minutes, ask a colleague to help you with it. Don’t be shy or fear any ridicule. You will make fool of yourself once but not asking will make a fool of you every time.

Calculation mistakes

Calculation mistakes often occur because of loss of concentration. First, get some coffee. Yes, you need to be fully awake and attentive. If possible, plan to calculate in your peak attention time, like mornings before 11:00. If not possible to choose or not a fan of coffee, chew a chewing gum, drink water at every 20 minutes or so and listen to some music you can focus with. I personally prefer some upbeat pop or when stuff gets serious, J.S.Bach is my main man. Stand up and walk after every 30-40 minutes of sitting.

Also, another reason of making calculation mistakes is that you did not consider all the information. Start by drawing a rough sketch on paper and applying all the loads. Go through all the loads Axes by Axes, the x, the y and the z. Consider all the angles and don’t be lazy thinking about difficult loading conditions.

Not making your work checkable

One of my most frequent mistakes was not making my work easy to follow. Generally, when you set out to either draw, model or calculate something, you will use various help lines, sketches, formula and reference material. But if you do not put the correct references where they belong, no one would be able to understand where did you get those values from. Make clear sketches and paragrapgh references to your work. If drawing in Autocad, make sure to pack all the help lines in a seperate layer, so that it can be displyed neatly when needed. The main idea here is that your boss or the person checking your work should not waste his time figuring out how you did it. He should be simply able to see it.

Error in preparing the report in the right format

Your boss may get pissed at little details like the orientation of an image or the font size being irregular because he wants to send this report to a client and this report will represent the company itself. So, it needs to be done in a standard way, down to the font size so as to maintain a level of professionalism and reflect expertise. Ask about an example report from last project and ask if there are any changes to be done with the format. If none, then stick to the script and if yes, note them down and do them before submitting the report back.

Not saving your work

This is a rookie mistake not to save your work if you are working on a software. Because software crash and then you lose your last 2 hours’ worth of work. Again, your time = ka Ching for your boss. So, press cltr + S and save him money.

Not using the office method of file management

File management is one thing you cannot learn in college. Every company has its local server where it stores files. And then there is an order of folders and location for each type of file. For example, if a project is about the planning and design of a road, there will folders named – incoming communication, outgoing communication, structural design, drawing, tender documents etc. Save your files in the correct folder and with specified name. The file name is a major game changer when it comes to work place maturity. Learn the right way by asking your boss or colleagues.

3. Output mistakes

Executing everything your boss asked you to do

It will be taken care of if you are writing boss’s instruction down and following a step-by-step workflow. If still it happens, then it was because of some distraction, forgetting where to start from the next day, or because your boss modified some details too late in the job and it was one of the things in the start. To avoid these, take a pause before submitting your work, and review it. Did you check your list? is every concern addressed? Was anything updated? is any details marked red? just pay attention before submitting to these clues.

Communicating your ideas to the boss

This one will require some courage. Now we are in the realm of personal development. You may at some point want to ask your boss about an unrelated topic in your job or make a suggestion to him about a project which you may be your proposal for something new. How do you do that? Ideally, to be taken seriously, you need to be ready to start working on your proposal if asked. So, collect some background information about how you would execute it, or the numbers or steps related to that idea. Then find the right time. Technical communication is part timing and part data. It is okey to have partial knowledge about the data part because you won’t have all the information till you begin to work on it. Observe when your boss is not on the phone and is less engaged with people. Dealing with people requires energy and we don’t want him to be drained before listening to your idea. Then ask for permission to share some ideas and be precise about your idea. Start with your elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is a collection of sentences in which you will explain him your idea in an elevator ride from his office to the ground floor. Then after he decides to listen further, get into detail. If not, try later with a different idea or a different pitch.

4. Communication

Communicating with your client

You may not get a chance to talk to your client in the initial months but once you get to, be structured with it. There must be a mix of personal plus professional communication. No one likes to talk to a robot, so do not be one. Ask about their day before this call, to know a little about their mental state and also to establish a caring relationship. If they want to get to the details right on, ask about their plans for the day or weekend after the work discussion. Or if you know them from last call, ask about that last task. Ask about their opinions and suggestions. If nothing, ask about the weather in their city. But if your company is charging the client for the phone call and you are providing the solution on this call, be specific to the task from the beginning and talk about personal stuff at the end of the call. This way your client controls the time they want to talk and they won’t feel that you are stalling to make money, which would look unprofessional.

General communication skills

This is a topic worth its own article but I’ll try to sum it up here. There are verbal and non-verbal communication. Verbal is your language skills and non-verbal is your body language and dressing sense. To improve your verbal skills, learn the work-related vocabulary. Note down the new words you hear on a paper and keep making a list. Just read it without trying to remember it whenever you get time and make an excel sheet too if time permits you. As you will not look at that list anywhere outside your work as you have a life too, try to revise is every other day for just 10 minutes before starting a task.

Non-verbal communication is dictated by your body posture, facial expressions, tone and loudness of your voice and your dressing sense. Sit straight mostly, slouching posture shows you are bored or lazy. Try to smile whenever you greet someone. Be cautious of your voice as it changes with your emotions. Depending on the discussion, your voice can quiver, become too loud in excitement or anger, or too meek under pressure. Try to be mindful of this. These are subconscious reactions of our body to different situations which are either perceived by the body as rewarding or punishing. To avoid being awkward, this subconscious reaction needs to be controlled. Being mindful of your emotions will help you tame those changes.

Non-work talks with co-workers

If your get time to talk to your co-workers, use it well to develop healthy work relationships. If you are an extrovert, you are already laughing at the very notion of me suggesting you to talk because that is why you probably changed your job. But if you are an introvert like me, you should try to engage a little everyday with your colleagues. It is actually not that hard. Being an introvert, you are already good at listening. Use it. Ask about their weekend, the weather, any sports you follow or if nothing strikes, what are they eating. And build up your questions from the opening question. Follow up one or two question and then diverge to a different idea because you are not interrogating them. Also, talk about your side of the story too.

Am I all better now?

Yes, you are. But always keep an amateur mindset. Keep learning the trade, keep making mistakes. Just try not to repeat them.