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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