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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Three new must-haves for your engineering job search

Many new grads and 4th year engineering students are stumped by the challenge of finding a job!  Here are three simple and essential things that you can do (either while working or while in school) to prep yourself for a smooth successful job search:
1) An updated, complete LinkedIn profile is absolutely essential.  Once you get your profile set up you should join some LinkedIn groups – there are tons of them, everything from alumni associations (a great source of contacts) to  professional associations to groups about your discipline of engineering, industry of interest or another type of group (e.g. your favourite hobby).  These groups have questions and discussions, and sometimes events too.  Go join those groups and introduce yourself.  Contribute to some discussions or start some yourself.    Voila – new networking buddies!
2) Networking.  This concept is technically not new – but probably new to you! Most students (and I say this with love) have been living in a bubble, where campus events, exams and the universe that contains your friends have crowded out your knowledge and awareness of the outside world.  But you’re getting ready to join that world – so now you need to get out there and spend some time in it!  Online networking is tempting because you can do it in your fuzzy slippers, while snacking and watching youtube videos, but I’d definitely recommend in-person networking too.   Put on some business casual clothes and go out there.  Oh wait, go where?
Check Eventbrite for your city, Career Services at your school, the engineering professional association (OSPE and PEO in Ontario), your school’s alumni association for events you can attend.  You can also try volunteering with some of those organizations, or contacting any one of them –   I’ve also found there is excellent networking available through Rotary, or perhaps another club or association of which you’re a member (Toastmasters?  Boy Scouts? Figure Skating club?).  Don’t be afraid to put the word out that you are looking to connect with a great new opportunity.
 Try to just get out there and learn something.  It can be tedious sometimes but also really enjoyable to meet new people and chat!  You’ll need to stay positive and put effort into thinking about the great job you are going to land.  If you get discouraged, take a break and do something you enjoy until you feel ready to get out there again.   Somewhere, someone out there is looking for you – you want to be smiling and in the right frame of mind to show off your best qualities when you meet them.
3) Follow-up: (You’d be stunned if you knew how many young people take my business card and then do not contact me. Tons!).  Once you have connected with a few people (from your preferred industry or companies you think you might like to work for), ask them if they would be willing to have a quick 15 minute conversation with you to learn more about their career,  their company and what advice they would have for you.  I’d recommend you also ask questions about what those companies are working on, what challenges they are facing, what skills they are looking for.  For example, maybe it’s not pure design they need right now, but some other aspect of your skills that you could offer.
These are called information interviews and they are incredibly useful.  If you ask someone for advice, they will be very happy to give it. If you feel the conversation is going well, offer them a copy of your resume and ask them if they know of any opportunities (or better yet, connect with them on LinkedIn), they will more than likely say yes.   I hear you, this part can be hard.  You will get used to it though.   Being willing to put yourself out there makes you stand out, in a good way.  If 4 out of 5 are really nice and helpful, who cares about that 5th?  :)
Let me stress this – you are NOT wasting their time.  You are not being a bother.  Every single one of us has been there, and needed help and advice when we were first starting out.   People might be busy but they are never unwilling to help, really.
You can also keep an eye on job postings from monster, workpolis, local publications and newspapers, etc.  But more than half of jobs come from the ‘hidden job market’ – the kind of thing you can only tap into by networking, connecting and asking!
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