WHAT MAKES AN ENGINEER SUCCESSFUL?
by Walter W. Frey
After working as an engineer for over 35 years, I now conclude that successful career depends on understanding what engineering is, academic performance and personality. And these considerations are not all important for the right reasons.
ENGINEERING IS THE ART OF APPLYING SCIENTIFIC PRINCIPLES TO SOLVE A PROBLEM. It is not a separate area of science such as physics. Engineering projects are bound by 3 variables: the number of problems to solve, the funds available to solve these problems and the delivery date of the finished items. The catch is you can fix two of the variables while the third is determined by the others.
Although a modicum of academic performance is necessary to graduate, a high GPA does not predicate a successful career. The real indicators for engineering performance reside in a person’s personality traits, ability to think innovatively and skill in interacting with others. Personnel departments (often for legal reasons) stay away from trying to rate easily qualified areas, i.e., “GPA, class standing, etc.” Thus, many potentially good engineers are turned away due to poor grades.
The following subjective areas are also necessary for a successful engineering career:
CURIOSITY – the desire to find out how things work, or why they don’t. The engineer notes the good and the bad approaches to the problem.
PERSEVERANCE – this trait is needed to stay with the problem eventhough the solution is not adequate or eludes or seems to fight the engineer. However, this must be not carried to an extreme, i.e. it becomes a futile obsession.
Also, oftentimes a problem will have to be temporarily shelved to work on projects which will produce more immediate results.
SELF-CONFIDENCE – the engineer know his/her capabilities and problem areas. For example, he/she has a tendency to settle on the first solution that presents itself.
COMMON SENSE – the ability to make decisions on partial or contradictory informations. It is also used to balance perseverance against what’s best for the overall program.
SENSE OF HUMOR – this trait is necessary to keep from getting depressed when the solution has been elusive and all sorts of irrelevant problems are obscuring the answer. Humor is also very useful in handling personality problems with subordinates/superiors.
INGENUITY – this means the engineer is not limited to the “by the book” way of doing things. This person is open to unique or unproved solutions to difficult problems; he/she is willing to take a chance if the potential gains are great.
COMMUNICATION – engineering is an occupation that depends on the exchange and interpretation of ideas. An engineer must be aware of how others have tried to solve a problem this knowledge often presents itself when engineers get together and talk shop. Very often, the solution requires merging the best parts of competing solutions into a unified approach. However, this is not the same as when stuff is included just to keep everyone happy. This “team approach” typically results in mediocre products.
LUCK – it is always useful since no amount of planning will replace dumb luck. However, good planning and contingency planning often help or are confused with luck.
Altogether, these eight attributes will more greatly affect one’s performance as an engineer than his/her GPA.
Walter W. Frey is an IEEE Life member