The Grunt Years Are Not a Bad Thing!

The Grunt Years Are Not a Bad Thing!

Your first job might not be awesome.

Very early on in my engineering career, I was lucky enough to get a job as a Manufacturing Engineer at Magna. I was involved in all kinds of problem-solving; my team and I connected with multiple people to come up with solutions to problems in real-time. Not only that, but I also got to see the financial impact of my project work on the company, which I found very satisfying. Were there non-glamourous elements to my responsibilities? You bet – lots of them, actually.

Grunt work?  Not a bad thing.

Regardless of how mundane or boring the tasks you’re given seem to be, remember this: now is the time for you to to be a sponge.  It’s a time to break off a little (read: manageable, not insignificant) piece of a real-world problem and make it your own.  It’s a time to earn your stripes, soak up all the training you can get. It’s time for enjoying all those fun and important firsts.

  • first performance review
  • first business trip
  • first business cards
  • first paycheque (how will you spend it?)

These firsts aren’t just fun milestones, they are valuable learning experiences!

Valuable learning experiences are precisely what these first years of your career are all about.  You can make mistakes with relatively little consequence – it’s possible everyone expects you to anyway!

Watch those around you, and learn to build your skills.  You’ve got a head full of fancy math that you’d love to use, but just as important (if not more), some other stuff you probably didn’t learn in engineering school:  selling an idea, getting people to help you, reading between the lines of office politics, figuring out how to get things done, developing your network, and investing in those around you.

Really show up to work every day.

There are piles of advantages to bringing your full creative, awesome, invested, engaged self with you to work everyday. Not only will you get the right kind of attention and earn a reputation for being a great team player and high-impact worker, but you will soak up FAR more learning. Opportunities for advancement and extra training will seek you out, and you’ll be given chances to take on more responsibility.  Then, that’s right, bye-bye grunt work!

Learning below the surface

If you keep your personal goals front and centre, it won’t matter how dreary or bland the meat of your job is. As you keep your eyes on the prize and bring your awesomeness to the table, you’ll be soaking up opportunities that prepare you for your next step.  Think of it as training for the mind, the same way an athlete trains the body.

Bring the full weight of your skill, passion, and investment to every moment – especially the grunt moments – and you will find your way forward sooner than you think.


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Engineering wardrobe: What to wear when you don’t know what to wear

I had a conundrum on my way to a networking meeting this morning.  The contact I was meeting is a potential client for a large engineering firm.  My hope is to get hired to do some consulting work for this firm, so I want to look professional and impressive.  Yet, I want to convey that I have a lot of credibility – that I can roll up my sleeves and get things done.

As far as I can tell there are two distinct schools of thought when it comes to professional dress.  I believe there are good uses for both, and I was caught between the two of them this morning.

1) Gear #1: Blend and assimilate.

What it looks like: This gear looks like someone who wants to most accurately mimic the norms of the given company, industry that you are looking to enter. Your aim is to create a look that absolutely minimizes the splash or impression you will make.

This guy had no trouble picking out what to wear.  Image courtesy of

What you’re trying to do: Your aim is to camoflage and fit in, get a chance to make your name. Your unspoken message is that ‘I understand and respect the norms of this territory. I am humble and eager. I am willing to learn.’

What it looks like: Amongst women, this might mean wearing black or navy, wearing a tailored or boxy suit, keeping makeup minimal. In engineering or other male-dominated industries this might mean wearing khakis, workshirts or other styles meant to make you blend into a typically masculine way of dressing. In men it probably means a suit in conversative colours. The common thread for all genders is that you don’t want to take any chances. You just want to check the boxes and move to the next phase.

When it’s good: When you’re in the very first stages of a job interview process and just looking to get by the various gatekeepers of the process (i.e. HR folks who are not assessing you on your technical skills but on your ability present yourself). When you’re working in a very traditional environment, when you’re applying to your very first job and haven’t got a lot of credentials to fall back upon.

2) Gear #2: Differentiate and work it.

What it looks like: This gear looks like someone who is doing what they please. You want to express yourself, demonstrate your identity.  The beauty of this style is that it can look so many different ways: bright colours, eye-catching styles, stunning eye-wear.

What you’re trying to do: Your aim is to maximize your creative expression of yourself in a way that says ‘hey world, here I am!’. Your aim is to most fully express yourself and make yourself happy and comfortable.

What it looks like: Amongst women, this could be floral prints, more jewelry, maybe a nice manicure to make it pop.  It could mean dressing in a figure-flattering way, accessorizing with scarves or adornments, or great flashy or high-heeled shoes.  For those of us that grew up on the shop floor this was never an option; below the ankles was all about steel-toed shoes, so you’re clomping more than strutting.  Also, you may to be picking things up and getting dirty.  A friend of mine once laughed at me for wearing my girl guide uniform pants to work, but you have to admit that there’s some logic in wearing decade-old pants in a grubby environment. (I was NOT working it back then – but that’s a whole other story).

When men want to work it, they can add a pop of colour or some statement eye-wear.   I always admire a man who goes out of his way to add a little fashion sense to his look, without any fear of compromising his masculinity.

When it’s good: When you want to be remembered.  When you know who you’re meeting and what they are looking for, and you can express it through your appearance.  For example, a pop of colour can say – hey, I am creative and innovative.  A statement button that helps you show common values with your audience.  I wear my Rotary pin when I know I’ll be interacting with others that will enjoy the ‘Service above Self’ message.  When you work in an environment where you can energize others through making a bit of a statement (which is probably every workplace!).  Of course you need to accommodate all safety regulations.

Most ‘what to wear’ for engineers will tell you that Gear #1 is the only one you’ll ever need.  You’ll need to recognize when being different is going to hurt your credibility or otherwise cause trouble for you.  But I would encourage you to weigh the cost of not being yourself in the long term. Gear #1 to get the job, Gear #2 to keep it.

It’s a fine balance. What do you think? What approach are you taking in picking your engineering wardrobe? Good luck!

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Try to work and live at the same time

image courtesy of

You can’t read very many articles without hearing the term ‘work-life balance’ – and with good reason.

Balancing personal and professional commitments is a lifelong task.  As an engineer, I think of it as a design challenge for which there might be no one ‘right’ solution, but rather various options that have tradeoffs.  Also (and this sounds bad but it is your saving grace), all will shift over time.
Have you heard of the price/quality/time triangle?  It’s the idea that you can have to make tradeoffs between doing things cheap, well, and fast when you are managing a project or designing a new product.   Usually, the saying goes, you have to pick two.
From product design to life design
What does this have to do with making good life decisions?  Well, you are constantly making tradeoffs.  Do I want the job that pays more, or the one that’s close to home?  Do I want the project that will challenge me, or the one that will make me look good?  Do I want to work with a company that’s in the industry I trained for, or one that will broaden my horizons?
 Obviously there is no one ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer.  The main goal is to get good at assessing and reading these parameters (basically doing a cost/benefit analysis) and re-visiting it often.  You’ll be keeping up with new opportunities, and find yourself able to judge subsequent goals and changing factors as you go.
More evaluating, less rushing to a decision

Also, you’ll find as you get good at this process, you will be able to search out and evaluate more opportunities, which increases the probability you’ll find the one that’s juuuuuust right.  Figuring out how to do this puts you WAY ahead of many other people in today’s workforce!  Often, because the process of job-searching and life-option-evaluating is so scary, people rush through it and choose the first or second option they consider.  It’s a relief just to have something, right? 

Choose at haste, repent at leisure

Then, they get into the workforce and wonder why they are not happy, or why their day-to-day activities have nothing to do with their aspirations.  This situation is completely avoidable but it takes work.  It takes extra courage to stay in the  discomfort of the option-evaluation phase a little bit longer, and you’ll need some tools to help you do it right.  Luckily engineering students and recent grads are in a great position, because creative application of all those things you soaked up in school works like a charm to make great life decisions.   That is, in a nutshell, what Engineer Your Life is all about.
…but balance what?
While I wholeheartedly support the concept, I have a problem with the term ‘work-life balance’, since it implies that work and life are two opposite things.  Guess what though?  You are living when you’re at work!  So you might as well enjoy it.  My radical notion is that you can work and live at the same time!
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What engineering exams can’t teach you

When I speak with young engineers, as I often do in my work as founder of Engineer Your Life, I notice how focused many are on impressing their new employer and getting a good job.   I remember feeling that too.

I also remember thinking that, when I entered the workforce, my success would depend on my ability to plug the right numbers into the right formulas, as it had when I was a student.  I’ll get the right answers and it’ll be okay, I reasoned.  I will save the day and be rewarded with a good salary the same way I used to be rewarded with a good mark.  Hurray!

The truth of what I found was very different.  Treating the workplace like an equation to be solved is incredibly limiting – at best ineffective and at worse career-shortening.  I wrote this post because it wasn’t until several years after I graduated that I realized that  students are absorbing these conclusions about life from their studies without even knowing it.

Let me explain.  As an engineering student you study a lot of equations.  You memorize a lot of information.

(At least we did back in my day!  Today engineering schools do wonderful things like this and this, but I digress…)

You solve a lot of problem sets.  If you’re lucky you get a design course or an industry partnership project which allows you to glimpse the realities of how all of those math and physics tools will be used in the real world.  But mostly you solve a series of pre-made  hypothetical problems in ascending order of difficulty.

Answer too simple?  Must be wrong

You start to know that you’re on the right track when you use all the equations you’d memorized for that particular course or module. If it was just hard enough to solve, it would be right.  You can feel it.  If it seems too simple, it’s definitely a trick question. You’d better go back and produce a 5 line equation answer, unless you wanted to get a mark of 20% on the test – and nearly all of us had our share of those!

A non-technical solution is absolutely out of the question. Doing nothing is never the right answer. In fact you learn to scoff at any solution that didn’t have an equation or at least a good graph in it.  Anything that was too easy was NOT engineering!

We (engineering students) grew proud of the fact that our courses were difficult, and that we carried a freakishly heavy course load: 35 hours a week compared to the 10 to 12 hours schedule of class for our Arts and Science friends.

I love this video because it pokes fun at the pride so many engineers come to feel for how hard our courses are, and how we can come to identify with the tools (math and science) and not the masterpiece.  It’s a light-hearted look at a really good point: our education inadvertantly teaches us to think about ourselves as work-hardened numbersmiths, and we embrace it!

Equations are not enough

Basing your professional confidence on a belief that you have an equation ready to fix any problems that they might have is foolish, because those equations alone will not make you a good engineer.

Real life is not simple or pre-fabricated or hypothetical.   Problems do not organize themselves into neat logical order for your benefit.

Sometimes the right answer is to do nothing at all.  Sometimes you’re solving a problem that hasn’t happened yet.  One formula is rarely ever good enough to solve any problem worth anything, and – imagine the horror when I discovered as a young manufacturing engineer – sometimes it doesn’t even matter if you have the right answer!  These are not conclusions you’ll learn from your coursework.

Beyond the ‘right’ answer

Sometimes your attitude  matters more than the quality of your solution.   Sometimes it comes down to who you have convinced that your solution is the right one.  You nearly always need to do a mixture of managing the change and calculating the solution; the latter might take you one glorious afternoon alone with your spreadsheets, then the former an entire year.

In my own experience, it doesn’t have to be mathematically difficult to be important.   Chances are you at any given point in your engineering career, you will have way more data than you need.  The hardest part is organizing and filtering the information to turn it into wisdom, or at least a reasonable sound conclusion.   Formulating the question, testing and discarding hypotheses about what the problem really is, and then figuring out how to measure it.

So you see, kids – in the real world, before you calculate the answer, you have to make up the exam yourself, so to speak.  Then you’ll have to get the job done in less-than-perfect conditions and then make it matter to the right people: that’s engineering too.

So study up, learn your equations, but ask yourself – what else do I need in my toolkit?




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Studying engineering: The upside of difficult

Mountain climbing is like engineering because it’s really really hard!

There’s been a lot of talk lately (in my world anyway) about how hard studying engineering is, and whether it has to be. Check my post on the engineering education site Big Beacon here. (Note there’s a virus issue on Big Beacon’s site right now but I will put the link in as soon as it’s fixed).  You can re-read the twitter chat about it here.

Considering this question got me thinking about my own university experience, and while I fully support the movement to bring engineering education into line with the realities of the profession (which might mean loosening up on its obsession with technical rigour), I can’t regret what I went through back then, as brutal as it was at the time. So when an engineering student asked me whether I thought it was a good thing to learn all that math and physics this past weekend, answering purely from my own experience, I had to say yes. Here’s why.

Once upon an undergrad

I went away to university with questions lingering on me: here I am, at the base of a mountain I am maybe not ‘supposed’ to be climbing. Will I fall? Will the grade be too steep for me? Will I be kicked off?

My sensitive, thoughtful side was frightened by these disaster scenaria. I wanted so badly to be successful; not to fall, not to embarrass myself, not to continue relying on my parents.

My warrior side was determined: we were getting the hell outta that little hometown of mine! And we WERE going to be successful. Climbing a big tough, steep mountain where the girls weren’t necessarily supposed to be seemed a better bet than climbing a more lady-like mountain (something everyone would expect of me).

Even at that age I understood I wanted to do something solid, something substantial, something relevant and real. So I’d need a solid ticket. Something that would show that I was tough, strong, smart. Worthy of being listened to and included in big decisions; even though I was a girl.

Suiting up at the basecamp of life

So that was that. Between the insurance I’d need against my gender, and the fact that I hated to back down from a challenge, the warrior side convinced me to sign up to climb Mt. Engineering. As I started the climb and the academic rain started to come down hard, I found myself straining. It was a blow to my ‘smart’ ego; maybe I wasn’t so smart after all!

On top of the degree of difficulty there was the scorn (or was it just indifference?) of my professors. They really didn’t seem to be reassuring me that it was ok, that I still belonged, that I could still make things right. Most didn’t speak to me in any language that I really understand. They spoke in a sort of code, and we were playing a sort of game. The game was I had to listen, write down the code and repeat the code back to them then I’d get a treat. Luckily I’d always been good at puzzles, and the treat (a passing grade) functioned like the reassurance that I wanted. It made the indifference bearable.

Really all I wanted to know at the time was that that I was okay, that my life would be good, that I belonged, that my contributions mattered in the world. Calculus and thermodynamics and phase diagrams did not provide that reassurance, but at least it gave me something to do.

You know you’ve found your people when…

The saving grace was my peers. I met smart people, lots of them who also had varying interests, big dreams, and the ambition to do… something. I don’t really remember us knowing what, but we were all pretty determined and I could definitely see that they were capable. The academic rain was falling hard on everyone – endless classes and labs and homework – and so I figured if it’s not just me, we might as well all push on up the mountain. No point in turning back now.

Bring it on, calculus!

In fact we kind of gloried in how bad the weather was at times. Our trek took on a sort of epic flavour; a band of misfits, plucky talented, beaten but not broken. (This video by some UBC Engineering students is wickedly subversive and nails that warrior feeling!). Struggling but still jubilant, a flask of ale beneath our shabby clothes to steady and warm us against winter’s most vindictive storms. We may have been getting our asses kicked by the terrain and the weather, and we might have been lost on that mountainside, unsure of exactly where we were going or whether we might even want to go there. But by golly we were in this together. There really is nothing like the bond you share with your mountain-climbing buddies!

So at last, there was victory. Our reward for reaching the top was an iron ring, a rented gown and a handshake from the Principal. The last treat. Hardly even a moment to savour it before we had to base-jump off the mountain, into this thing called Real Life.  But I’ll get to that later.

Our knowledge reworked and rewritten

Just over a decade later, I am going to be reuniting with several of my classmates tomorrow to write a paper together using our obscure materials knowledge to write a metaphor paper about various modern business organizations.  If you’re reading this you probably understand that that is 10 different types of geeky awesomeness.  I can’t wait to see them again.  Though most of us aren’t close anymore, they will forever be my mountain-climbing buddies, bonded and strengthened by what we went through together.

So to all those engineering students reeling from spring’s exams and wondering if you can do it:  until schools revise their curricula to make the workload more manageable, just keep pushing on up that mountain.  You might feel lost and alone but the path is well-worn ahead of you.


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Engineer Profile #2: The Point of Quantum Mechanics with Lindsay Watt

Engineer Profile #2:  The Point of Quantum Mechanics with Lindsay Watt

Hello engineers!  I am really excited to bring you the second in the Engineer Profile series with tech-business-finance-traveling man Lindsay Watt.  He is a true thinker and a doer, and a natural story-teller. I think you’ll really enjoy this interview.

Click here to listen now!  (And by the way here is Engineer Profile #1 if you missed it)

If you’re a student now, or if you are an engineering educator, I am sure you will find Lindsay’s take on engineering education really encouraging and interesting.  He also references Lebron James, Thomas Edison and Mark Vandreesen (though not all at the same time!), defines his most important ABC (great advice), and reveals his top three criteria for picking that perfect first job:


1) Make sure it has something that you’re passionate about in it.

2) Look for a position where you can learn as much as possible, and they will just keep throwing things at you!
3) Is in a place where things really get done, so you can put thing out there in the world and see how it feels.

You might be surprised by what he said is not so important in that first job.  And I was certainly surprised when he explained the relevance of the Quantum Mechanics course he took in school.  He tells us his perspective on the five-year plan, and why he choosing to study engineering was such a great choice for him.    He also dishes on why his first start-up failed, and the benefits he experienced of getting an MBA.

Please leave a comment below and let me know – was Lindsay’s advice what you expected?  What provoked most insight for you?  Any temptation to research a new interest or aha’s about your next steps after listening to this?  (A degree in Engineering Physics , perhaps?) :)    Enjoy!

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