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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Joy in Engineering: Some real-life data points

Big Beacon Manifesto:  The whole new engineering finds joy in engineering and in life.

Last night I hosted the Big Beacon twitter chat, Joy in Engineering.

After introductions to welcome participants from the engineering community (including professional engineers, engineering students and engineering educators) in the US, Canada and Puerto Rico, the topic was served up:


This 1st day of May we’re looking at the 1st point in the #BigBeacon manifesto: A Whole New Engineer finds joy in #engineering and in life.

Q1. What aspects or parts of engineering bring you the most joy? When did you discover what they were?

Although we wondered whether the unlikely topic would yield much conversation, (are engineers and engineering education supposed to be joyful?  are we even allowed?)  it did not take long for our assembled chat group to reveal the sources of their engineering joy, and they were many!


Joy as being part of history

Joy in triumphing over complexity to make something work

Joy in seeing theory applied to real-life experience

Joy in learning together (not from lectures)

Joy in nostalgia (seeing how far technology has come in our lifetimes)

Joy in helping students get something for the first time (that gleam in their eye)

Joy in unlimited possibility (in the number of options that engineering opens up)

Joy from innovating and meeting needs

Joy from coding

Joy from finding and fixing root causes

Joy in helping others solve their own problems

Joy in creativity, innovation and internationality

Joy of machines and the majesty of technology

Joy in creating something that didn’t exist before

Joy in working on products that save lives

Joy via overcoming hardship or joy in doing hard stuff with simple parts


What a great list!   Big Beacon Founder Dave Goldberg (@deg511) shared his presentation deck on the joy of engineering (with passion and pride to boot).

We also uncovered some interesting topics for future chats:  the Marshmallow Challenge,  rigor in engineering education as an obstacle to joy, Olin College as a Beacon for the future of engineering education and rites of passage in engineering.   To read the entire twitter chat on storify, click here.

Thank you to everyone who came and participated.  We love having you as part of the chat and looking forward to more twitter chats!  We meet every Wednesday at 8 pm EDT/EST.

It’s not too late to add your voice to the conversation!  Leave a comment on this post or tweet at us on #BigBeacon.  What parts of engineering (or engineering education) bring you most joy?

Next week’s topic is Entrepreneurship and Education with guest host from Epicenter USA, the national center for engineering pathways to innovation.  Join us Wed May 8th at 8 pm EST on twitter, hashtag #BigBeacon.

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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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Engineering in Canada: A special report

Yesterday a Special Report in the Globe and Mail: Engineering in Canada June 6 came out.  For our international readers, the Globe and Mail is one of Canada’s most important national newspapers.

I was honoured to have my comments included in it (check out bottom of page 2!) because I am passionate about inspiring and supporting the next generation of engineers, and I am excited by what they will bring to the table which will transform our profession and, by extension, our world.  

I’m also lucky enough to have worked and volunteers with many of the awesome organizations mentioned in the report, like Actua Canada, the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers and Engineers Without Borders.

All the stories in this report are incredible stories in their own way but here’s the one that best screams headline in my mind:

By the numbers
16,000:  Number of new engineering jobs due to investments in resource and infrastructure projects,
between 2011 and 2020
95,000: Number of engineers that will retire by 2020
Source: Engineers Canada, 2012

So, next generation, are you listening?  You have a LOT of work to do.  Good thing you are so smart!  The conversations you are having with yourself now about your own goals might seem trivial, but you are part of a VERY important big picture.

Enjoy this report and please leave your comments, questions and contributions to this extremely important and exciting dialogue.

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Is that what you really want? Solving the right problems

conscious businessThis post originally appeared here – as a guest post on my friend Pat Sweet’s blog Engineering and Leadership.  

Just about any engineer you ask will tell you that our profession is all the problem solving. I’ve been taking various entrepreneurship courses and have learned that business is actually all about solving problems too.  Interesting huh?

I can’t help but think of a book that I read a few years ago called Conscious Business:  Building Value through Values by Fred Kofman in which he told a very simple parable to illustrate a powerful shifting idea around problem-solving.  I’ll paraphrase:

Ask me for a glass of water it would seem that your problem is that you do not have a glass of water. If I did not happen to have water with me and I will have to tell you: No, I cannot help you. I cannot solve your problem.

But is lack of a glass of water really the problem? Do you *want* a glass of water?  No.  You want to drink the water, but that’s not your problem. The problem is that you’re thirsty; what you want is to not be thirsty.

So in this example, let’s say I don’t have water, but I happen to have an orange or some juice or some sparkling water.   I can solve your problem, and I can help you, if I recognize that what you really want is not to be thirsty.

The point is that we don’t generally ask for what we want.  We ask for what we think will get us what we want.

In my first engineering job I was working for an automotive manufacturer.  We were solving the problem that people did not have cars.  That’s right: solving it by making more new cars.

Or were we?  The problem really was that people needed to get around.  They were asking for cars because they thought that would get them what they wanted.  What if we had offered horses?  Or scooter?  Or maybe electric cars?  Or (way more fun) jetpacks or teleporters?   In today’s business environment, where things are changing so fast, many large companies are retooling their business models to survive.   That is, they are solving the same problem with a completely different solution.  Orange instead of glass of water.

Nimble business models win the day

Entrepreneurs can have an advantage here because they are likely much more nimble than large corporations.   So it’s still about problem-solving but requires a constant ability to re-evaluate and move along with customers – or to pivot as it is known in Lean Start-up circles.

So I have come to a conclusion that neither engineering nor entrepreneurship today is not just about problem solving.   It has to be about problem identification as well.   Especially with the complexity of the biggest problems we are solving today, we need to bring in the skills to zoom in and zoom out on a problem and think about solving it from many angles and at many levels.  Unlike on the exams we took in school it’s not the best course of action to just in and solve for x!

Making it personal

Applying this principle to your personal career and leadership journey, what do you really want?   Do you want want to run a marathon?  Buy a new car?  Score a big promotion, a fat raise?  Take 6 months off?   These are all great and worthy goals.   Put a timeline on them and they will downright SMART!

But anytime I hear people talking about an outcome that they want to achieve, I think about that glass of water and orange example. What is it that you really want?  How sure are you that you can get it by achieving that specific milestone?  How else could you address that same area?  It may involve taking a smaller bite, shifting your way of thinking about what your need/problem actually is.  Try it sometime with your own goals.

Then try doing a bit of reflection.  Drill one level down.  Your goal is the glass of water – the thing you’re asking for.  What’s the orange – the thing that would serve you just as well?  Generate some alternatives.  Zoom out and think sideways a little.  You may end up changing your goal all together – that is, finding a better solution that solves the problem in a more efficient way.  And isn’t efficiency the definition of good engineering?

I would love to hear your results from taking this approach.

Look for the orange!



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