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Class is in session: 5 lessons you may not have learned in engineering school

March 07, 2019

By Jaimie Handscomb

Advice to help aspiring engineers build confidence, design better projects, and develop stronger client relationships

I’ve spent more than 25 years as an engineer. During this time, I’ve learned many valuable lessons that I wasn’t taught in school. Now, I look for opportunities to share those lessons with people new to the field. I recently spoke to a group of new engineers receiving their licenses at an event for the Professional Engineers of Ontario (PEO) in Waterloo, Ontario. I embraced the opportunity to give back to the industry and provide new engineers advice about important elements of the job.

Mostly importantly, I emphasized this: You can excel as an engineer if you’re able to look beyond the numbers on your project. You need to realize the importance of context, clear communication, and checking your assumptions.

So, here are five lessons that you may not have learned in engineering school. Keep these in mind, and you’ll be on your way to a successful career:

1. Establish context

When you start a project, ask yourself key questions: What are you being asked to do? Does your work align with what the client wants? Sometimes, engineers leap into a project with gusto and focus straight ahead. There’s time for that enthusiasm, but before you shift into high gear, put your project and work into context. As I’ve heard other engineers say, “There’s nothing worse than an exceptional design to the wrong problem.”

Really listen to what your client wants and needs. Understand the background of the project. Ask questions if you’re not sure. Validate your assumptions and the client’s desires by recognizing what’s important.

2. Step back and think

Here’s a related point: When you put your project and work into context, take a minute to step back and think. You don’t need to spend an eternity mulling it over but do take a moment to analyze your approach.

Here’s an example: I once encountered a situation where a client’s equipment generated too much heat, and we needed to find an energy-efficient way to cool it off. My team members dove into the problem. They figured out the amount of heat generated, investigated radiators, and considered a cooling system that created more heat than the original equipment. At one point, someone asked if we could put the equipment outside. But that wasn’t an option, since the equipment needed to be protected.

Eventually, we came up with the idea of blowing the heat outside—and that’s the solution we used. My team initially focused on trying to cool the equipment down, but we should have stepped back first to realize the right approach—getting the heat out. Sometimes there’s an easier way to tackle your problem.

Tip #3: Maintain constant communication with your client, so that you’re always on the same page.

You can excel as an engineer if you’re able to look beyond the numbers on your project.

3. Maintain constant communication with your client

Here’s another crucial factor to a successful project: Prioritize clear and constant communication.

You resolve problems when you communicate. I’d rather have a client say: “This is great, but it’s more information than I need,” than: “I haven’t heard from you in six weeks—how are things going?”

Sometimes, new engineers just don’t want to bother the client—and I appreciate that. People are busy, and you don’t want to bug them. But it’s important to discuss your communication schedule with your client at the beginning of each project. I always say: “These are the kind of things that we’re going to need to talk about throughout the course of the project. Would you like to talk weekly, biweekly, or monthly?” Then, define that schedule. Otherwise, you might run into miscommunication issues.

4. Check your assumptions

During my experience providing independent reviews and peer reviews, which I occasionally perform for the PEO, I’ve realized something: It’s not the math that engineers typically get wrong—it’s the assumptions they make at the beginning of a project.

Nearly every project starts with a list of assumptions. Often, engineers input those assumptions because they don’t have the data. But if you don’t check those assumptions with your client, you could run into issues.

For example, an Ontario-based client might ask you to design something, and after you design it to function in Ontario, you realize the project is going to be built in Arkansas. Or, if a client wants you to design a warehouse, you plan one based on a typical non-hazardous mail facility or steel parts facility but discover that the warehouse will store fertilizer and needs different design specifications.

If you make decisions based on assumptions, list those assumptions on your design criteria, and include code compliance requirements. Put the assumptions on your drawings. That way, when you meet with your client, you can ask: “Is there anything here that doesn’t match up with what you expected?” You’ll be able to catch potential problems early on. And those small details can make or break a project.

Tip #4: Check your assumptions when meeting with your client early on in a project.

5. Find a second set of eyes

My time performing reviews has taught me something else: You need to get a knowledgeable person to give your design a critical look. Some firms have internal resources for reviews. Or, you can pay someone else to do it for you. A second set of eyes can catch little details that will make the difference between a good project and a great one.

Build your confidence and build a career

Keep these tips in mind early in your engineering career, and they’ll help to build your confidence. Your projects will look good and meet your clients’ needs. Plus, clients will appreciate that you took the time to understand what they wanted.

To all you new engineers, I hope these five points help you, and I wish you good luck in the industry.

  • Jaimie Handscomb

    Jaimie is a recognized leader in mechanical engineering design, analysis, and management of industrial and manufacturing facilities.

    Contact Jaimie
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