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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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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