This was a choice that was a long time in the making; I decided to change jobs in order to get more design work than I currently had (my recently-departed job was partially a support role in manufacturing). So when I had the opportunity to work on some brand new products and learn a lot about a new industry, I jumped at the chance. And yes, I also had a net positive change in my salary, but this was not the primary motivator.
I thought I’d do an article this week about leaving an engineering job and then try and do an article next week about starting an engineering job. If your math skills are keen, you’ll notice that I also took the opportunity to have a week off between jobs. With the holidays coming up and my overactive hobbies in the past year, I am really looking forward to this time to reconnect with loved ones, work on some hobby projects and work on my house a little bit. In fact, it’s the first time I’ve had a full week off since college! I’m sure after a week without work I will try and schedule similar weeks off in the future!
Anyway, back to the issue at hand. How do you go about leaving an engineering job? The first thing I did was to research how to write a resignation letter. There are tons of examples online, so I won’t detail all the different ways here. But I favored information and brevity over anything else. I thanked everyone, I said when my last day would be (as opposed to asking a boss when it should be) and I laid out some information necessary for my departure. That’s it. Nothing fancy from me, all business. And that’s an important point: this should be a business decision. It’s a fool’s game to speak your mind and try and get someone back as you’re walking out the door; karmically, you’re bound to run into that person again and need something from them. So stay polite in all manner of your leaving your job. You’re welcome to try your luck if you really have an issue with someone, but I can’t imagine it’s ever worth it.
Next, I had to break the news to my boss. He had been very good to me and I really regret the position I left him in, in terms of staffing and having people that can do the work. However, since this is a business decision on my part, I decided to do what was best for me and my family. I could have decided to wait until a time when there was less work, but how is there any guarantee that day will ever come? And how could I line up a job offer that matches that convenient time? No, I think it’s an unfortunate reality that when job opportunities arise, you need to seize them. So I called my boss into a conference room; I did so without saying it was for something else, just saying “I needed to talk”. I didn’t want to trick him because I wouldn’t want someone to trick me. I feel it’s best try and be straightforward. He ended up being a bit shocked as I had not given any indication of wanting to leave, but ultimately understood the opportunity was good for my future and he wished me well. I really liked my boss and I hope I was able to convey my appreciation to him. I also tried to lessen the burden on him by suggesting some potential hires.
Next was talking to human resources and higher level management. Both asked if there was anything they could do in order to change my mind. I think this is an item that begs more discussion here: If you have another job offer with competitive pay and similar tasks, I think that is the only time when it is acceptable to approach your company in order to ask for more money. If you have no intention of staying at your current position, you should stand firm and say there is nothing the company you’re leaving could do in order to entice you to stay. Doing so could have deleterious effects in 3 to 6 months if you end up deciding to stay (perhaps your boss will always suspect you of looking for a better offer) or if you decide to still leave they will wonder why you bothered asking if you weren’t interested. While I did consider approaching my former company with the opportunity to keep me around, the fact that I wanted a significantly different job role was enough to bypass asking about it. Had my interest in changing jobs been purely monetary, that is a situation where I could have considered it (though that has its own set of traps).
So now I’m officially leaving the company. What should an engineer do next? I applied the golden rule (not to be confused with the golden ratio): Do unto others what you would like done unto you…in the form of documentation. There is little worse than entering a situation where you have no idea what’s going on; the only thing that could make it worse is knowing that someone once had all of this knowledge in their head and didn’t bother passing it along to you. That is quite frustrating. So if you’re leaving an engineering job, you should make sure that all of your projects are written up and that others can easily understand what was going on. Obviously, you’ll never get every detail down about a project. But a good starting point is making sure you have easily findable folders with all of your schematics and hopefully a theory of operation. Don’t leave tons of raw data laying around unless it’s relevant to the project, as that can often confuse and confound. Leave your lab notebooks, but try to make sure they’re in good shape. If you’re keeping a proper lab notebook (where the pages should never be ripped out and all progress should be kept over time) try to make sure you highlight the important sections with a sticky note or similar.
The golden rule also applies to the cleanliness of your workspace. If you’re a particularly messy person (as I am), you should definitely clean up your workspace. In my case, this meant offloading some boards I had “collected” from the junk box and the usual site of bric-a-brac-a that collects on a workbench: random screws, bits of solder, plastic tabs I had accidentally broken off of this or that, the list goes on. Be sure to save the important stuff and get the rest in the garbage can. Your predecessor hopefully did not leave this junk for you, you shouldn’t leave it for your successor. If you have any particularly important equipment that would be of use to someone else in your group, be sure they get it before the “vultures” come around and try and swipe it (this is less of a problem if you have controlled equipment with tags and labels and such). Be sure to get your manager’s permission, of course, before handing it off to co-workers. Also on the list of things to clean is the computer: you should send any relevant files to your co-workers and make sure your boss has access to your computer. Once those are both done, trash the irrelevant stuff. I had a lot of random downloaded files from my personal email account and just from saving silly pictures when I thought I would want them later (you never do). It’s best to get rid of those.
OK, so your responsibilities are officially handed off, you’ve given your official notice and you have documented all the necessary parts of your projects (which hopefully you had been doing the whole time anyway). What next? Next, you make sure you can be found after you leave. The most surprising thing for me in going from school to work is the interconnectedness of an engineering ecosystem and how small of a community it truly is within a geographical area. I ended up finding out about my new job from a distributor representative, who had been talking to one of his other clients and their need for a new employee. This is not an uncommon thing. So what does this mean for an engineering leaving a company? It means you make it easy to find you in the future, possibly so someone can give you a job. In my case, I was sure to send out an email with my personal email, phone number and a link to my LinkedIn profile. Think of how it’s best to reach you and the method your co-workers would likely use to contact you; I did not bother giving my twitter account info to my co-workers because 95% would not use it. I also copied myself on the email I sent from my work email, so I have a sure copy of everyone’s email address. One thing that was a bit different for me than maybe some of you readers out there is that I also made it very clear about my online activities, such as Engineer Blogs and The Amp Hour. I really had never told many people at work before due to personal preferences (see below). However, if any of them are now reading this, hello former co-workers! The main takeaway is that you need to keep in touch because this might get you a new job 6 months or 6 years down the road. You just never know. If you’re so inclined and you really like your co-workers, you also might want to consider scheduling a meetup outside of work. I had one last get-together on a Friday night at the local bar and was sure to invite others who had recently left the company. It was great getting to hang out with co-workers one last time in a relaxed setting.
My last note about leaving an engineering job would be to watch your back. Not for rogue co-workers, but for documents you might have signed when you started at the company. It’s pretty standard practice these days to have engineers sign an NDA when they start working, myself included. I was sure to ask for a copy of the NDA when I left, so I knew exactly what I could talk about and couldn’t talk about. In general, these are common sense documents: don’t talk about the secretive and competitive advantage stuff you know about the company. But since it’s a contract, it’s still a good idea to have a copy in your records. Oftentimes these contracts also specifically lay out that anything you have worked on, patented or non-patented, while working for that company is their property. If you see similar wording in your NDA, check with a lawyer before starting a company based on that wonderful widget idea you had while you were still working for Company X. If you have some success and they prove that you worked on it in some capacity while you still worked for X,Inc. you could lose a lot of the rights to that idea.
My own experiences with my past company were really great and I’m glad my transition went well; like I said last week, I realize how lucky I am as an engineer and as a person. I’m sure that there were many more things that could have gone wrong during my transition. If you decide to move jobs and are in a more negative situation, I sitll urge caution while walking out the door on the last day. Though the picture for this article is a burning bridge, I don’t suggest burning any bridges when you leave a company (I just liked the shocking imagery!). You just never know what will happen in the future and the small amount of pleasure derived from telling someone off likely won’t pay dividends over the long term. I’m glad I had such a great experience at my last job and hope my future job is just as great.
I plan to talk about my former job a little bit more on this week’s episode of The Amp Hour. I always kept myself pretty quiet about the work I did, just because I felt that was the right thing to do (there was no policy against it, to my knowledge). I won’t be talking about anything sensitive (see above) but I will feel more at ease talking about the industry I used to work in and some of the issues surrounding it. As for the new job? No, you won’t hear about that from me until I move on from that. I need to stay consistent, after all.
What about you? Have you had any good or bad experiences leaving an engineering position that you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments!