Training for the Engineering Olympics

Training for the Engineering Olympics

(Historical post alert:  I started post as a this draft in October 2015.  Trying to get caught up! Should only take me 10 years or so at this rate…)

Recently I attended a workshop of the Engineering Change Lab, at the beautiful (and brand new) Bergeron Centre for Engineering Excellence at York University in Toronto.  It was a fantastic experience to be in such an innovative space, whose design inspirations are derived from creative opposition:  a cloud and a rock.  York’s Lassonde School of Engineering aims to produce ‘Renaissance Engineers’ and the artistic feel of the build conveys that intention.  The building is so new it’s not even on Google Maps or Google Earth yet (I know!) yet we got a tour.

We were also lucky enough to be among the first to see the movie that the Lassonde School of Engineering had made in order to celebrate the launching of their new program.  It’s called Let Me Do It, and the world premiere screened at The Art Gallery of Ontario.  In case you wondered, yes that is me in the trailer!  I appeared a few times throughout and it was equal parts humbling, honouring and embarrassing to hear and see myself on the big screen, alongside folks I really admire such as Dave Goldberg, founder of Big Beacon, and Kai Zhang, a personal friend and fellow engineering changemaker who has since started working for Lassonde.

In the Q&A following the film, a recent engineering grad asked somewhat glumly, whether it was worth it to instill and develop such creativity and design vision in these new engineering students.  We have such mundane tasks ahead of us, he said, that it didn’t seem to warrant those big fancy skills. They’d be wasted, according to him.  All the jobs that are available are boring.  Like designing brake shoes, he offered, with bored roll of the eyes.  It was clear he wanted something bigger, better, more important to do; something that would align with his ambition (I can only assume) to be impactful and inspirational.  Do a job that means something; a job that makes a difference.

Well.  I believe there is great honour in carrying out so-called ‘boring’ jobs.  You can learn a lot from them.  You can be part of something important.  Brake shoes may not be exciting or innovative but they do save lives.  If you want to make a difference in the world, start with something like that.  There are so many examples of how engineering shapes the world around us: protecting our health and safety, keeping us entertained, making our worlds incrementally easier and better.  Doing your first job out of engineering school, you can build the muscles and the skills you need to do the glamorous stuff later on.  Think of it as training for the engineering Olympics!  No one would expect even a very talented athlete to start at the top level.  So why do you expect your first job to fulfill all your dreams?

My advice:  Don’t be so quick to dismiss the positive aspects of a job that might seem routine or devoid of deeper meaning.  You can find pride in carrying out the seemingly mundane, and you can find pride in thinking more carefully about the impact you are having on people in your ‘boring’ job.  Those brake shoes are getting thousands of people home safely to their families.  Those HVAC systems are helping everyone breathe better.  Those control systems are keeping trains from colliding.  You can also learn a lot about yourself and what you want, what you are good at and how you would like to leave your mark on the world.  You may learn that brake shoes are not your
forever love, so you will find something else to challenge you and expand your skills and experience further.  Keep looking for the chance to use your engineering skills in the most innovative, interesting, creative and high-impact ways possible (I know I do!) but do not dismiss the opportunity to learn, grow and enjoy yourself on the way.

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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 http://www.coveralls.co.uk/

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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Open Letter to the Engineering Class of 2014

Engineers of Tomorrow, Welcome to the rest of your life.  
As of this moment, you are no longer a student at an institute of higher education, but a co-creator of this world.  You may have noticed: it’s full of problems, full of breakdowns, full of inconsistencies and contradictions – systems that do not work the way they were supposed to, people who have been let down, things that need to be better than they are. 

That iron ring you’re placing on your finger could be many things; a symbol of your victory over academic onslaught, an entrance into an exclusive club of engineering professionals, but we believe it’s also a call to action. You are being called on to build bridges, but not the type that you can build out of concrete and steel.  
You are being called upon to bridge the gap
between the disappointments of the past and the everpresent hope for the future.  

You are being called upon to imagine the world that your heart wants to live in, that your sense of right and wrong says there should be, and then to find yourself a way to help change that idea into a reality.  You are being called upon to use your skills for good; not just for your own enjoyment or profit but also to benefit and take care of others.  
You are being called upon to contribute to something you believe in
– as a member of this professional community and as thinking, feeling citizen of the world.  

How will you choose?  However will you accomplish this lofty and vaguely-defined goal?  How will you know what to do with no one to tell you? Where will you start?  The same way you would walk a journey of 10,000 miles –
one step at a time.  
You’ll need your creativity and imagination every bit as much as your mad math skills.  You’ll need your intuition and empathy as much as your analytical prowess, and your heart as much as your head.  
Up until this moment you were a consumer of knowledge, a navigator of systems, a follower of orders, a passer of really tough examinations.  Your parents and professors seemed to knew more than you; always seemed to have the upper hand.  It may be a while before you assume positions of formal power and influence, but make no mistake:   
you are now one hundred percept in charge of you.  
You will never stop learning and growing but using your curiosity, you will keep creating your own education.  You may not have infinite job offers in your hand, but your inner wisdom will always bring you to the opportunities that are perfect for you.  You may have no idea where you fit in, but your courage to speak up and take action will guarantee you will never be alone.

Take that job you’re not quite sure you can handle.  It’s character-building to fail.  
Try that volunteer opportunity that has you work with people who think nothing like you do.  Learning to honour differences rather than hating them is one of the toughest and most useful skills you’ll ever learn.  
Making diversity into fuel for innovation and revelation is really the only alchemy you will ever need.  
It’s the perpetual motion machine of this world.  
Do that thing you’re scared to do that gives you goosebumps just thinking about.  Try.  Risk telling your truth.  Open your ears when others do the same.  
Dig deep to make a difference, however you can, whenever you can.  

What do you want to do?   The future, in so many ways, depends on you. 
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Engineer Profile #1: The Engines of Democracy with Chris Iskander

Engineer Profile #1:  The Engines of Democracy with Chris Iskander

Hello engineers!  I am really excited to present the first in a series of interviews with engineers who have already done some life design, made some progress in their career and have a story to share.  The subject of the first Engineer Profile is Chris Iskander, mechanical engineer from Toronto Canada.

If you were hoping to collect more data on what fellow engineers are doing, look no further!

The Engines of Democracy with Chris Iskander
(interview run time 20 min – you can right-click to download,  left-click to play in a new window.)

The subject of today’s profile is the multi-talented Chris Iskander, who graduated from the University of Toronto with a Mechanical Engineering degree.  Today he works for Dominion Voting Systems, a company that provides products and services to support elections.

So Chris is responsible for the engines of democracy.  (I like to say so anyway!) Hence the title of this post.  Very timely topic considering tomorrow’s big election in the US, no?

He came on as employee #15 over eight years ago, when the company was just two years old.  He shares the reason that his company survived as a startup, and what he feels their biggest competitive advantage is and what makes him most proud to work there.

It’s really a fantastic interview.  He surprised me with a reference to something we all learned way back in high school.

He took the words right out of my mouth when it comes to true fulfilment in your life and career.

You might be surprised to hear his reasons for ignoring his father’s wishes, or to learn why he had to go to the Phillipines eight times in 2010!

Chris also very generously offered his own approach to making good career decisions.

He offered some tremendous advice to the engineer who is starting out:

“If you’re not happy, don’t internalize it. Don’t make it personal. Don’t let yourself believe it’s something negative about you.”

I’ll be interviewing more inspiring engineers in the weeks and months to come.   We hope you will find these interviews informative, thought-provoking and enjoyable, starting today with adrenaline-loving, often-traveling, highly-risk-tolerant Chris Iskander!

Would love to hear what you think of Chris’ advice or anything else we spoke about in the interview.  Drop me a comment or a tweet.

Engineering involves using both sides of your brain!

 

 

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