Career Positioning for Engineers

April 15, 2014

Featured in 2015 Guide to Getting an Engineering JobWhen you decided to become an engineer, you probably had some ideas about what you wanted to do. But are you thinking about your career, or are you only concerned with your next job?

Career Positioning Starts At The End

Career Positioning for Engineers

Credit: Anthony Albright

Career positioning is a buzzword that means, basically, “having a plan and knowing how to make it happen”. In other words, thinking long-term instead of short-term. Career Consultant Todd Rhoad of BT Consulting sets out the most fundamental rule of career positioning: “A career plan begins with defining your end goal.  Where do you want to end up?  Don’t worry about getting it right.  Your end goal will change with time but you need something to get started.”

Trainer and mentor Randall C. Iliff of bb7 concurs. “Start out by stating where you are and what strengths you have to build on.  Next, identify the end point you’d like to reach.  That gives you a start and end, but leaves the connection between the two fluid.”

Then, you can start to map out your route for how to get there. Figure out what you need to do to achieve each step. Work out what skills you will need, what experience will benefit you, and where you can get it. What sort of companies do you want to work for, what sort of projects do you want to work on, and where do you want to fit in?

As Rhoad points out, you’re developing a process. “This ensures that you can thrive in any environment, because your progress has a process as a prime mover as opposed to a short list of activities to get you to the next step.  The process keeps you focused on achieving small steps while pushing towards an end goal.”

A Plan Is Not A Blueprint

Career Positioning for Engineers

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Things won’t always go to plan. Make sure to give yourself options and stay flexible. You may change your mind about what you want, or you may spot an opportunity you hadn’t even dreamed of.

“Treat that plan more like a navigation aid than a route map,” advises Iliff. “List all of the available ‘roads’ you could take that head in the general direction of your destination. From the end, list all of the available ‘roads’ that come from the general direction of where you are. That greatly reduces the uncertainty in the middle, but usually doesn’t make the full connection.  That’s actually a good thing, since it keeps you constantly looking for ways to connect the two and thus helps you opportunistically ‘hitch a ride’ whenever something is heading in a direction you like.   Likewise, anything taking you sideways or backwards is a warning sign.”

Rhoad agrees, but for a slightly different reason. “Today, organizations are changing at high frequencies, forcing professionals out of the company through outsourcing, downsizing, offshoring, et cetera. Your tenure is driven by your ability to survive these organizational transformations. Without a plan, your success becomes a victim of circumstances.”

Focus On What You Want, Not The Job

One of the most important aspects of a career plan is that it should be built around you, not the job. “A career plan built around position titles or salary isn’t nearly as useful as one that optimizes personal satisfaction,” says Iliff.  “For example, I found the rewards of mentoring and teaching new engineers far outweighs any economic compensation that goes with the role – something I’d have missed out on completely if the only metric was position level.  Like many engineers, the opportunity to bring something completely new into the world has special value to me.  (How many people can say they designed a $300 million dollar neutrino detector now installed and operating at the South Pole?) Everyone is different, and priorities change with age and experience, but self-awareness is the key to happiness as an engineer.”

Rhoad adds that it’s important to consider a wide range of factors.”You’ll need to also think about the type of people you want to be around, the type of work that you enjoy and the many ways you can grow, such as learning new skills, working globally, etc.”

Work On Your Most Important Asset

Career Positioning for Engineers

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Inevitably, as you progress through your career as an engineer, almost everything you know will change. Technology is always evolving, new business practices become fashionable, and what was cutting edge a decade ago is old-school now. “Your mind is the only engineering tool you will use throughout your entire career,” says Iliff.  “All of that investment in mastering one software package, language, or development environment will be obsolete within a few years.”

The path to success lies in using your skills as broadly as possible. Iliff uses a powerful technique to help students maximize their knowledge: “Use the abilities you have learned as an engineer to extract fundamental patterns and principles from one area and comfortably apply them in another. For example, Project Planning is virtually the same thing as engineering modeling.  In a similar way we share Innovation as a state machine, and Proposal Strategy as simply another type of interface control. Anything an engineer knows about modelling can then be cross-compiled to create almost instant mastery in the project planning world. What you learn about fundamental logic, setting up problems, engaging users, keeping stakeholders happy, and so on lasts a lifetime.”

Set Yourself Up For Success

Your career may not go to plan, but you have a much better chance of realizing your vision and your dreams if you at least have a plan. Whether you want to design racing cars, develop new forms of energy, explore space, or build hospitals, your approach should be the same. Identify your goals, figure out how to get there, and take every opportunity that leads you closer. Nobody else can do that for you.


How did you get here from there? Share your career positioning advice here, on Google Plus, or with a tweet to @EngineerJobs.

Featured Image Credit:  PShan427 on Flickr