When Senior Engineers Start Over

January 29, 2014

How do you start over as the new hire when you’re the most senior engineer on the team?

Why Do Senior Engineers Start Over?

Industries, economies and people all change over time. While layoffs and commercial collapse may be the first scenarios to mind, there are as many reasons to start over as there are engineers.

“There are a range of economic and personal circumstances, sometimes driven by necessity, other times by ambition or commercial change,” says Steve Nimmons, Fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, Chartered Engineer, and Certified European Engineer. “Sometimes a project or opportunity is just too good to miss. Many of us seek to maximize our social impact, particularly in the later part of our careers.”

Senior Engineers Start Over

USACE Photo by Marc Barnes

Starting over to pursue more socially conscious contributions is more common than one might think, at first; Nimmons recommends Freedman’s Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life to engineers thinking along those lines.

According to Will Robson, thirty year veteran of the software engineering industry and author of Elevated Threat, engineers are often driven to start over by a need for fresh challenges. “Most engineers who have achieved some type of success are internally driven and intelligent,” he says. “Sooner or later a new challenge is required to relight a fire that may have dwindled. Switching to a new company, or to a new technical challenge, can reinvigorate that desire.”

While starting over can mean a financial hit and accompanying stress, many engineers find the renewed drive is more than worth it. “The challenge to their intellect is much greater than the financial rewards a change may bring,” Robson says.

Robson raises a point we’ve heard from many engineers; sometimes, the pursuit of financial gains or higher stakes in the company leads you away from ‘proper’ engineering work. Often, incentives are slanted towards management or sales tracks, which can chafe individuals with a more hands-on, technical mindset.

“It’s not uncommon for an engineer to long for the ‘good old days’ of solving engineering problems,” writes Mark Herschberg, CTO of Madison Logic and MIT instructor, “rather than sitting in meetings, dealing with budgets, and navigating office politics.” Some do, jumping ship to start over as a new hire somewhere else.

“In the case where the engineer is running from the burdens of management, it’s a welcome relief,” Herschberg writes.

Nimmons agrees. “This is the time to shake off any corporate baggage,” he says. “Clearing out your mind is as important as clearing out your desk. This is a cathartic moment, enjoy it.”

What Challenges Can You Expect?

“We’ve all disagreed with a manager now and then,” Herschberg writes, “and it can be harder when you think, ‘I know I can do this job and make better decisions than my manager – because I’ve done it.’”

Senior Engineers Start Over

USACE Photo by Diana McCoy

What causes senior engineers to stumble when starting over is rarely the technical challenge of their new position – they’ve been there and done it, sometimes well before their new colleagues were out of diapers. “It’s more about personal traits than a technical challenge,” Robson observes, and he’s entirely correct. The obstacles you face will almost certainly be interpersonal, emotional, and political in nature.

“Many engineers are not prepared for an environmental change unless they can use the same technical skills over again,” Robson continues. “Those that do embrace the challenge, and humble themselves enough to take a temporarily reduced public stature, usually make the transition exceedingly well.”

Humility is a trait you may need to cultivate in your new position; having ‘paid your dues’ decades prior, it can be difficult to adjust to starting over as a new hire. That’s only one side of the problem, however. You new colleagues and managers could feel just as uncertain, requiring careful handling as you learn to work together.

“There may be circumstances in which you will report into younger and less experienced managers,” Nimmons says. “They might feel threatened. Use your experience to put managers and colleagues at ease quickly and be generous in sharing your knowledge.”

Senior Engineers Start Over

Photo by TAFE-SA

“Never say, ‘in my old job I did it this way,’” Robson qualifies. “They don’t care.”

Having a senior, veteran engineer move into the power structure beneath them can make younger engineering managers nervous. Is this new hire a threat to their position? Will they accept feedback and criticism, or will they buck and unsettle the team’s power dynamics? Gaining their trust and acceptance can be mostly a matter of putting them at ease, Nimmons says. “Demonstrating your true value quickly – and in a non-confrontational way – will help you secure respect and acceptance.”

“On the other hand,” Herschberg adds, “an engineer who has been a manager before can be especially valuable. They will understand better than most why certain decisions are being made, perhaps because of constraints of budget, or timing, or politics. They’ve walked a mile in their manager’s shoes.”

Best Practices for Starting Over as a New Hire

Our three senior engineers stress that flexibility and soft skills are key to getting ahead in your new position. You’ll need to defuse anxieties over your seniority (and assumed ambition), navigate new cultures and hierarchies, and demonstrate your willingness to adapt.

“Flexibility, diplomacy, observation and networking skills are crucial,” Nimmons says. He summarizes his best practices for the situation like so:

  • “Take time and effort to understand the new situation and the opportunities it presents.”
  • “Find out where the power lies, and what methods, frameworks, technologies and tools are preferred over others.”
  • “Understand the corporate culture, key initiatives and challenges and proactively support their implementation.”
  • “Read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.”
Senior Engineers Start Over

USACE Photo by Diana McCoy

“There is much to be said for the chameleon,” he concludes, “so reflect back the values and culture of your environment. Focus on network building, understanding key internal business processes, senior management initiatives, the business strategy and the primary pain points in the current operation.”

“The best advice I can offer,” Robson says, “is to look around for people you admire who have made this transition. Ask yourself, or them, how they did it.” When you get your answer – whether it took humility, adaptivity, or further education – you should take a long and honest look at your strengths in that area.

“When you think you have an answer,” he continues, “ask someone close to you, someone willing to tell you the truth. If your self image is not a match for others’ opinions of you, you may not have the personality to navigate change very well.”