Weekend Journal — Starting an Engineering Job

Last week I wrote about how I was leaving my engineering job, taking a week off and starting a new job this coming Monday. I’ve spent the week working on some of the projects I hoped to, but it went far too fast. The last task was to write about how I am preparing for my new job. Obviously I won’t know how it went until I actually start, but I recall starting my last job and wanted to try and do some things differently now. I’ve tried to generalize them for an engineer starting their first job or their thirteenth job, so hopefully you can find something useful in here.

So what should you do when you’re starting your new job?

  • Get to know the technicians, manufacturing people and customer engineers — I eventually got to know these people at my last job and my life got much easier once I did. Say you’re a new hire and tasked with trying to redesign a circuit board. You  could easily dig in and start fixing what you see wrong. But this might not solve the past problems and might create some more in the process. Instead, it’s prudent to talk to technicians (who have been repairing the ills of past products) and the manufacturing people (who had to create the last product)  and figure out how it can be better. I assume you’re getting input from customers if you’re redesigning a product, but talking to application or sales engineers are another good idea because they can summarize what many of the customers don’t like.
  • Get to know administrative assistants even sooner — Sure, the people above will get you valuable information when doing a product design, but administrative and department assistants will make your life easier in every other way. Not like “fetch my coffee, shine my shoes”, but the “know the most efficient way of actually getting things done”. Why is this the case? Because they deal with similar problems from a variety of people over and over again. Your desk chair broke and you want to get a new one delivered the next day before you come in? Yeah, they’ve probably seen that a time or two. Need to get paperwork processed so you can get a reimbursement check before your credit card statement comes due? They know all the people that need to sign off before you get your dough and the best times to catch those people at their desks. I plan to stay on their good side of any and all assistants! They rock!
  • Keep an open mind — This wasn’t a real issue for me when I started my last job because it was a completely different industry (going from working in a fab to doing board level precision test equipment). But this job is much closer to the circuit level work I did before–I presume this is a reason they decided to hire me. I need to remember though, there are lots of reasons things might be different. Perhaps precision isn’t important in this new application I’ll be working on and I’ll instead have to optimize cost or speed or reliability. Whatever it is, I need to remember that this is a different situation and that I will have to apply the general design principles I know (and possibly forget some others). This also goes for the process of developing products. Different companies have different ways of getting their products out the door and just because it’s different doesn’t mean it is bad; in fact, it could be much better than what I am used to.
  • Assume everyone is a genius — I made the mistake of doing the opposite with a few co-workers the last time I started a job. Sure, some of it was me being  a naive, egotistical kid (at least in my head), but more of it is not giving people a chance. I assumed last time that a software person didn’t understand hardware, when in fact he was great at both. I ended up looking silly when I tried redesigning something he had done, only to find out how much he knew about the problem at hand. Luckily I took to the opportunity to learn from him shortly thereafter. This time, I’ll assume everyone knows a LOT about what we’re working on; if that’s not the case, I’m sure that will come out eventually and I can adjust from there.
  • Establish social routines — Though I generally consider myself a social person (at least as social as most INTJ type engineers get), I got in a bad habit of not eating lunch with my co-workers at my last job. Granted, I was often taking that time to find articles to talk about on The Amp Hour, but I also missed a lot of camaraderie with my co-workers. Since I wasn’t part of that group at lunch, I missed out on some of the social activities after work, because the assumption was I wouldn’t show up. I also took longer to get to know my co-workers. The office is a social place and it pays dividends to get to know your co-workers, regardless of if you end up being best friends with them. I plan to make more of an effort to establish a social routine that will help me get to know my future co-workers better, faster.
  • Get context, quickly — The worst thing about sitting in a math class (or similar) is not having context for why it’s supposed to work a certain way (think triple integrals and why the heck someone would need those). If you have context, it becomes easier to learn and hold your attention. I asked my new boss to sit in on system level training classes; not just to meet the technicians and support staff, but also to learn why we’re doing what we’re doing in the systems I’ll be designing. If I don’t know how they ultimately work, how can I design for them? First, I need to become a user.
  • Break some stuff — Another way to get context and experience is to break something. Oh, and try to fix it as well. For this, I don’t mean breaking something on a system level, I mean breaking it by changing components and trying things out at a board level (so switching out an op amp or similar). Another way to achieve this is to simply start repairing already broken items,  by asking to be able to work someone else like a technician or someone in the repair department. Once you see how things normally break (and yes, probably break them in a different way when you’re trying to fix the first thing), you quickly grasp how a system works and what is going on inside that is critical for operation.
  • Learn the documentation system as fast as possible — Knowing how to find information is a big task when starting a job. Either navigating a document control system at a large company or knowing where to find theory of operation documents (even if the solution is “go ask to borrow Gary’s copy”). Once you learn how to find this information, you can research topics unbounded by others’ availability. You want to make sure you understand how to quickly document your work so when you know even more at the 6 month or 1 year mark, you can go back and check your own work. Plus you’re not a drag on the team as someone contributing unsustainable work (because of a lack of documentation).
  • Don’t be the “new guy (gal)” for too long — Yes, you get a couple months of “I dunno, I’m new here” as an excuse. But that goodwill runs out after about 3 months of hearing it. If you’re not learning at least something about the product you’re working on and supposedly designing, you’re probably doing it wrong. Or you’re stretched far too thin and should discuss the situation with your boss.

I’m glad I had a bit of time before starting work to actually think about what to do when starting a new job. Oftentimes the job transition process is stressful enough without trying to remember what you did right or wrong during your last job jump.

What about you? Is there anything you do specifically when starting a new job? Is there anything on my list that I missed?

Thanks (for the second week in a row) to Steve-h for the picture!

4 responses to “Weekend Journal — Starting an Engineering Job”

  1. Mike Burr

    Chris,

    That was spot on advice. I did some of those things when I came into my current job. I was originally hired on as a repair tech. I spent that time going through the schematics and trying to figure out why they did things the way they did. Eventually I moved over to part time engineering. I used the knowledge of the Analog engineer as much as I could. Now I’m the Digital engineer trying to move some of the older analog systems to a digital world. Always try to gain as much information as possible, you never know where your next project will head.

  2. Alan Wolke - W2AEW

    Good notes Chris, especially about not under-estimating your coworkers. However, being “new”, you have the unique possibility to question “why” when it comes to various design decisions, etc. Sometimes a fresh look at a project/design from a newbie to the organization can open up new ideas to tackle a problem (or revisit old ideas that were abandoned in the past, but may now be viable due to advances in technology). Best of luck in your new position!

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