Whoever you are, your engineering career is based on hard work, social privilege, and networking. Everything else is tactical.
Engineers Work Like Machines
Engineers sink ridiculous sweat and hours into mastering the fundamentals of their chosen discipline. Very early on, they learn to juggle and streamline tasks to keep up with a seemingly endless demand. There are no shortcuts — until an engineer invents one.
An appetite and aptitude for hard work is one of the three pillars of every engineering career.
Working harder isn’t enough — if that were the case, elephants would rule the Earth. Engineers are uniquely qualified to work smarter. The skills engineers hone in their projects and problem sets, applied to the day-to-day process of getting things done, can accomplish the work of a thousand lesser mortals.
I mean that in the most literal sense; we used to carry water around in buckets.
As engineers who cross into management will attest, the rigor and discipline of an engineering mindset takes you a long way. Make learning to work harder and smarter a major element in your career positioning plans.
If hard work were all it took, engineers really would rule the Earth. Work is only one leg of a tripod, however. The second is capricious, unforgiving, and almost completely beyond your control.
Race, Class, Gender And Your Engineering Career
Suppose, for a moment, the myth of the Apple garage were true: founders slaving away in their parent’s garage, living on peanuts and ambition. Hard work and a dream! Weren’t we just celebrating the engineer’s appetite for rigorous effort?
Consider the whole system behind the education and training of an engineer and you’ll see we’ve much less control than we want to believe.
Our plucky, mythological founders were born to the following initial conditions:
- Supportive, financially secure parents who own their own home.
- Access to technical equipment and hands-on instruction from an early age.
- Financial means and educational preparation to attend one of greatest engineering schools in the world.
- Regional networking opportunities among like-minded, similarly-equipped collaborators.
- No cultural obstacles to pursuit of computer science.
These “cultural obstacles” stem from being born on the wrong end of racism, sexism, and wealth hoarding. To paraphrase Mr. Scalzi, Steve Jobs was playing on easy mode, with all the cultural, economic, and racial difficulty options turned off. An honest discussion of career outcomes demands acknowledgement of the circumstances, beyond individual control, which set the starting conditions of our work.
Does this mean his success was in some way undeserved? No, that’s ridiculous. But to ignore the fact that women, minorities, and marginalized groups — anyone, essentially, who’s not born a well-off, white, straight male — are laboring under under significant, structural disadvantage is equally ridiculous.
Of the three structural elements of your engineering career, social advantage is the one we can do little about in the short term — but we must do everything we can. Where, how, and to whom you’re born remains, way more than is remotely sensible, the single most determinant factor of future success.
In order to reclaim engineering as the most meritocratic of trades, we must act to minimize the impact of gender, race, orientation, and class on career outcomes.
As an interesting example of gender conventions determining career prospects, I offer the decision of a few key marketing departments to sell home computers as gendered toys — their choice of box art, advertising images, and ad copy. These seemingly trivial, commercial decisions set the initial conditions for a generation of aspiring computer science and software engineers – and planted the seeds of a toxic culture within today’s software development community.
These unintended consequences, for female engineers, are ongoing and significant.
If you were male, you were much more likely to have grown up messing with your own computer and enter college with a significant advantage. If you were female?
When I look at this chart, I see generations of doors, slamming in faces. While female participation in other, equally demanding fields rose, women have actually lost ground in computer science since the 70s. Since the 2000s, they were practically driven away.
Race, gender, and class may always be factors to some degree, but they play a much larger role in shaping the possibility space of an engineer’s career than we should be at all comfortable with. Morality aside, this is a stupid way to run a planet.
We’ve no control over our own advantages at birth, but we can act to maximize the number of capable, free-acting, and empowered individuals produced by the next generation. Efficient markets, technological progress, and our moral character as a species are all served, thereby.
Reasonable people disagree on how to achieve those ends, but we will never get very far into this problem without squarely acknowledging it is way harder to get ahead around here if you’re not ethnically white, male, straight, and reasonably well-off.
Then, with work and good sense, we can start trying to steer this thing. It shouldn’t be left to chance, whether the next Steve Jobs gets a fair shot or is shoved to the margins.
The Rest is Networking
While the first pillar of your career can be learned, and the second is a combination of circumstance and the actions of previous generations, the third comes to you via a few million years of trial and error.
If you squint just right, the main focus of human evolution is networking.
From the incredible amount of socially-focused hardware in primate brains, to the long-distance trade and innovation of the Upper Paleolithic Revolution, the entire arc of human history can be understood as a series of efforts to facilitate the cooperation of ever-larger groups of people towards compatible ends — especially groups who’d much rather punch each other in the nose than work together.
Language, agriculture, money, technology, law, politics, the Internet, almost everything we do either facilitates or emerges from networking. Why should your career be the exception?
During research for the Guide to Getting an Engineering Job, we determined that engineers with contacts at their target company accounted for 30% of interviews and 50% of successful hires, despite comprising only 6% of the applicant pool.
The term ‘soft skills’ is extremely misleading; communication, networking, and team dynamics are foundational elements of your career. If you’re not temperamentally inclined towards networking, you must figure out how to do it anyway.
Fortunately, thanks to our largest network to date, you can draw on the efforts of others to develop your own networking strategies. Max Nisen has authored a number of articles on introversion in professional life, as have Dorie Clark and Maya Townsend.
One of the best introductions to professional networking you’ll find is Cornell University’s Networking Made Easy, which offers goals, techniques, and practical examples of networking in professional contexts. Cornell’s guide is a must-read for engineers who find this aspect of their career development particularly challenging.
It bears repeating: if you’re not temperamentally inclined towards networking, you must figure out how to do it anyway.
There are three foundational elements to your engineering career: hard work, social advantage, and effective networking. While efforts to reduce the impact of race, gender, and class on career outcomes are ongoing — cultural change is agonizingly slow — you should seize every opportunity to strengthen those elements under your control.