Engineering spin on IT career article

The CIO article is targeting IT, but can be adapted to engineering readily. Here’s my engineering spin on the author’s 20 “don’ts”.

  • Jumping ship: sometimes really negative situations come about because you yourself didn’t apply corrections earlier. This is assuming it’s an engineering-based issue, and not an abusive issue. Take a breath, take a walk, work it out over the weekend. If it keeps happening, try to find a common thread.
    • Have you outgrown your position? Hopefully you’ve been keeping up with your network…
    • Is the company/department unhealthy? Find some articles on that topic to review.
    • Is there a finite term to the problem? Some massive overtime due to something missed at the CDR? Manager out of their league swatting at staff?
  • Folding under pressure: Are you too personally invested in the project? Have you been keeping yourself financially secure and well-networked so you don’t feel your life depends on this project? Have you been diversifying and growing your knowledge so if things implode in the worst possible scenario, it’s just an inflection point (possibly a very positive one in the long term).
  • Burning bridges: The author lists the obvious case, but how about preemptive bridge burning that occurs because of social media or other behavior? Nothing posted is private despite settings, and just about nothing done is private either, considering potential risks.
  • Missing Opportunities: I like how the author cites internal and external opportunities. Sometimes a senior manager will throw you in the lake to see how well you can float with a heavy load. Surprise them and you might rocket past your peers. Also keep apprised of overall market/tech trends in your sector. Is your company riding its laurels on a product that’s been outclassed by a nimble competitor?
  • Skipping social events: Wherever you are in your career, there may be more social events than you can handle. Pick the ones that involve peers and higher-level people. As an undergrad, I had a postdoc I didn’t even know offer me a ride when they saw me walking since they had seen me talking with the Dean etc. Sulking in the corner is a gateway to a stalled career.
  • Aiming low: I’ll take a different tack on this an say aiming low is also from how you dress, speak and act. Do those for the position you aim for, not your current position. Are you well read to discuss beyond popular media?
  • Shortchanging your compensation: Consider the opposite side of perks as well. They can be cheap for employers, particularly when they’re not actually used by the employees. Are the commuter benefits useful from where it’s affordable to live and commute (in time and money).
  • Not knowing your worth: If you aren’t being early promoted, why? Have you maxed out in your dept/company or aren’t you being effective in your own growth, or is it some other unresolvable/resolvable factor? An informational interview, especially over lunch can help you get an objective sense of your professional status and trajectory.
  • Failing to understand the business: This can be a sign of burnout, or failing to keep up with the industry. Or a lacking in understanding of the business. We all need a business sense to advance beyond the lowest echelons.
  • Forgetting who’s writing the checks: This could be an article in itself. I snatched away my competitor’s largest and most profitable clients, even though I was at a geographic disadvantage and so young I couldn’t grow a mustache. But I acted like a professional, and more importantly was professional personally and publicly. I also had well exceeded the competitor’s technical competence even though I charged quite a bit more than they did. Several clients simply got tired of the competitor’s low-balling and broke decades-old business history to go with me.
  • Trouble with non-tech staff: Learn to speak to C-level people without dumbing down or babbling too fast. As a kid I would listen to Nextel and other investor calls. If I couldn’t make an investor call live, I’d do the playback on speakerphone while I took a bath. You have to absorb the language and demeanor, particularly when you weren’t raised in such an environment. Why listen to an investor call in the bath? I was awake, but relaxed, where I could passively listen and absorb at a subconscious level. This technique is used for other kinds of language learning (not without some controversy).
  • Staying in your comfort zone: Be sure you’re not spending too much time working at a low level. Keep comfort learning for out-of-office hours. You can spend too much time learning about new functions when you could be instead doing the best during your most productive and wakeful hours.
  • Lack of interpersonal skills: Having worked in prestigious internationally-acclaimed labs and collaborated with scores of such people, it’s clear how important “soft skills” are. Particularly for the highly upwardly career mobile and for advanced degrees like Ph.D. Brilliance without people skill can keep you on the bench and your ideas on the back burner…forever.
  • Failing to adapt: This is sometimes what I think when I see someone(s) using seemingly arcane methods to do something. To be fair, some wrongfully think Fortran is arcane. Yes, Fortran 77 (which is what they seem to equate Fortran with) is arcane. Fortran 2018 is easy to use and great for Matlab-like syntax for parallel processing that scales from Raspberry Pi to supercomputer with simple syntax. Yes, the best language is often what we’re most familiar with…but check at conferences. What are the most savvy colleagues using? It is gaining momentum? E.g. Python over IDL in astronomy.
  • Pursuing graduate education w/o focus: I don’t think this is so much a problem in electrical & computer engineering. One can do a Master’s degree in 12-18 months, and so the payback is pretty clear, even more so when your employer is paying for it. Usually if the student isn’t up to it, they simply aren’t admitted to grad school. For Ph.D., that is usually filtered out by the need to find a faculty advisor to advocate for you at admissions time. Be aware before you start your Ph.D. how very different it might be from what you are used to, even if you were at a leading research lab.
  • Wandering away from a training opportunity: Typically companies will pay for their leading employees to take Master’s courses or get a Master’s degree. This can be a good deal. Otherwise, employer paying for a conference or two per year where you’re presenting is typical. Don’t just coast along without some measurable continuing engineering education, you’ll fall behind.
  • Not being Zen: Yes! Don’t master a particular topic too well. That only works for tenured professors, and even there, there are better pathways to avoid inertia/stagnation. You should always be looking for the next challenge.
  • Thinking you made it: Even if you’ve hit that holy grail of 1000x ROI on exiting whatever venture you made, many of these folks go on to become angel investors, making positive changes in the next generation of startups. So much more so for the more typical cases of bagging the new job or promotion. Don’t waste your money on foolish depreciable things, invest the increase and dig in for the next jump. Do so by educating yourself to the new level, seeing where others have been too risk averse, etc.
  • Not asking for stretch assignments: When you get a sense of politics and it’s not stepping on toes, try to nudge yourself in above your current pay grade. Try to do something you don’t know how to do, get a mentor to help. You will really make an impression when you succeed at it.
  • Looking too far ahead: Instead of not looking past two years, I would say more like look out in stages to five years. Start with what am I doing this week, this month, this quarter etc. and be sure you meet most of those advancement preparation goals. Don’t let nonsense, too easy tasks consume too much time in fooling yourself that you’re productive.


Written by Michael Hirsch, Ph.D. //