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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Try to work and live at the same time

image courtesy of cts-c.com

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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So what does an engineer do? 4 data points from real engineers

So what does an engineer do?  4 data points from real engineers

‘Engineer’ is an identity I have worn quite comfortably for the last decade or so, and it’s a profession I have enjoyed practicing, but when I started the Engineer Your Life project I realized I wasn’t clear even to me exactly what an engineer does.

Was it what I was doing?  Who could tell which activities were really engineering, and which ones were just, well, what I happened to be doing at the time?  When I made photo-copies, was that duplication engineering?  (Silly example, but you get my point).

As a starting point to figuring out just where that line lay between true engineering and incidental activities, I asked a group of fellow engineers:

What the single most important thing that your engineering education gave you?

since I knew that tell me how what they acquired at school actually gets used and which sits on the proverbial dusty top shelf of their minds, never to be used.

Some of the answers touched on the benefits of being an engineer, rather than the activities involved, which was nice to know but not very informative:

  • The freedom to take big, exciting risks, secure in the knowledge I will always have a job to fall back on because my skills are useful and transferable. I can get stuff done!
Some answers hinted at the benefits of the experience of engineering school itself, in that you find your tribe:
  •  My friends. The amazing women I met during my education are pillars of strength – they inspire me, encourage me to take risks, and love life. It also taught me how to live the life I love – and gave me my first opportunties to “write my chapter” differently.
  • Connection to other people like me…which gives courage to be even more me!
 Awww!  Very sweet.  But it does not really answer our question either.
Then we started getting somewhere:
  • Single most useful thing I learned: how to build and test hypotheses. Being an engineer, I took it for granted that this was the way people thought; after graduation I was amazed to see that most other people don’t think like that
  • An organized problem-solving approach that requires being explicit about your assumptions. Very useful in academic research, and in life.
  • The ability to think critically, the desire to challenge everything and the skills to sound like I know what I’m talking about. :):)
  • Critical, organized thinking, and a desire for making evidence-based decisions.
  • The ability to problem solve and to consider – and discard – ideas based on evidence and data until you find the best fit. Being comfortable with best fit rather than perfect fit.
  • And probably most important of all, understanding that the public good is paramount, tap, tap, tap.
Okay so to summarize.  What does an engineer do?
1) Think critically.  Respect evidence.  The ability to build and test hypotheses is thought to belong to the realm of pure science or research, but it nonetheless shows up as a well-worn tool of practicing engineers today.  Take an idea, strip it down, test it out, and put it back together.
2) Know your biases.  Explain yourself.  All that knowledge in your head is going nowhere and accomplishing nothing if you have no ability to relate your framework, approach, assumptions and ideas to those around you.
3) Solve problems.  Be comfortable with real life, not perfect conditions.  At some universities, including mine, the Engineering Faculty is referred to as ‘Applied Science’.  So don’t spend all your time nerding out on theory.  Roll up your sleeves and solve something.
4) Recognize your responsibility to public welfare. In Canada, we wear an iron ring to remind us of our responsibility to do our work properly.  The tap-tap-tap refers to the sound we make with the ring to taunt the younger, not-yet-ringed students.  The complete story of the iron ring is found here.
I have one more answer that doesn’t fit into the question I am exploring in this post, but it did make me laugh!
  • To see everything as black and white. Some times that cause issues on “normal” life (at home for example) :):)

How about you – do you agree that these were the most important takeaways from your engineering education?  How you do draw the line between engineering and not engineering?  Leave a comment or a tweet!

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