Real Career Advice for Young Engineers
I’m an Engineer with gray hair. I worked in Product Development at six different orthopedics/spine companies over three decades. During this period, I have worked with hundreds of talented engineers. I have witnessed poor career moves that have rendered Engineers stagnant for decades grinding it out in a cubical. I also have seen brilliant career moves by Engineers who rocketed their careers within a few short years.
So, based on this experience, I would like to share advice for young Engineers who are ambitious and want rapid career progression. This advice assumes that you have the right degree(s), you are competent and are working in an Orthopedics or Spine company.
- Find a mentor – Many engineers who move up quickly in an organization have an informal “sponsor” in upper management who looks after them, shares their accomplishments in closed-door executive meetings and hooks them up for opportunities not available to the other faceless Engineers in the organization. Ask an executive inside or outside the company to be your mentor and have coffee with you once a month. Believe me, he/she will be flattered and say “yes”.
- Get closer to the customer – Bottom line. The Engineers who have more interaction with surgeons make more money and move up quicker.
- Learn how to manage other engineers – It is not easy to go from being a single contributor (Engineer) to managing at least one person (Engineering Manager). In order to jump the chasm, you must have some informal management experience. Find a way to get it. The Engineers who have “mentored” other Engineers on projects (even if you cannot say “managed” other Engineers on a project) are the ones who get the nod for the open Engineer Management position.
- Learn how to delegate time-consuming detail work to others – Engineers who are on the fast-track get more work done each week than their peers. Many fast-track engineers persuade others into helping them. “Please review this design, review this test plan, go to this meeting for me, talk to this vendor while you are there, add my quote to yours, etc.” By delegating some of the time-consuming detail work, fast-track Engineers have more time to work on the other areas for advancement.
- Hon your Communication Skills – Management loves the Engineers who can articulate complex projects to others. Engineers who can express themselves clearly get invited to present to management, investors, regulatory agencies, surgeons, etc. Be one of those Engineers. Take a course. Read books on effective oral communication. Watch and learn from other great presenters.
- Build a project portfolio – Each time you complete a large or challenging project add it to your LinkedIn profile. LinkedIN Portfolio allows you to create a wall of projects by adding text, images, outside links, and videos. Use it.
- Ask questions in group meetings – Perhaps the best way to gain visibility in a company is to ask questions in public settings. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room to ask a question. Most likely all of your fellow Engineers have the same question anyway. Be the one who asks for it.
- Assume responsibility for things that need fixing – Don’t ask for permission. Take responsibility for designs, procedures, processes, presentations, reports that are broken and fix one, even if it is not in your job description. Management loves this and will label you a “go-getter”.
- Find a way to get into surgery – Every company is different. As crazy as it seems, many Ortho/Spine companies don’t want “rookie” engineers to attend surgeries. Tell your boss you want to go. Heck, tell everyone. Invite yourself. Tell every sales person that you meet that you want to attend (the secret: many sales pros “love” to have Engineers in the OR because it makes him/her look better in front of the surgeon.)
- Invite a company executive to breakfast or lunch – Tell your supervisor so he/she doesn’t get blind-sided. You will be surprised when the executive says “sure”. Have a bunch of questions prepared (the secret: it’s really a chance for you to get visibility with upper management). Engineers who are “known” by upper management tend to get promoted faster.
- Present your own work – Don’t let your supervisor present your design and testing work. Insist on presenting your work directly to management. To make your boss more comfortable, do a practice presentation to your boss so he/she can see that you will not make a fool of him/her.
- Spend less time on CAD – This may be counterintuitive, but the more time you are on CAD the less time you have for the other 15 areas. Great CAD work will not get you promoted.
- Don’t worry about your salary – Early in your career, experience trumps salary. After 10 years, you can start to compare titles and salaries with others, but for now get the most experience as fast as possible.
- Network within your field – Yes. Network like crazy with people at other companies, and don’t burn bridges. This industry is small. Your next job will likely come from someone in your network.
- Don’t get an MBA – But instead, learn what you need to learn about the business aspects from people who have complementary skills. Learn basic accounting, ROI, earnings, SG&A, differences in start-up company legal structures (LLC, C-Corp…), and project/time management. An advanced engineering degree (masters or Ph.D.), focused certification course (FDA/ISO seminars, Executive training course, patent agent license training…) are better for career advancement than an MBA.
- Go work for a startup – Yes, at least once in your career. There are many advantages to working in a startup – here are 7 of them.