Becoming the Indispensable Engineer

Being the heart of your team – the truly indispensable engineer – is a less of a stable state than an ongoing commitment to professional development, integrity, and excellence.

Master The Fundamentals … and Never Stop Learning

Indispensable engineers build on mastery of their field’s core competencies, steadily increasing their stock of knowledge while expanding into customer-facing and commercial skill sets.

Credit: Alex Proimos“As in any profession, mastering the fundamentals is essential,” writes Steve Nimmons, a Chartered Engineer, Fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, and Certified European Engineer. “Engineers have enormous responsibility to the profession, their employers, shareholders and often the safety of others.” Twenty years of experience in software, systems, and IT engineering gave him an appreciation for engineers who continually hone and expand their skill sets; consider how much his field has changed since the early 90s, when graphical browsers were relatively novel and there were less than a thousand web servers, period.

“Continuing professional education should be a vocation, not a mere obligation,” Nimmons writes. “Ensure you keep your knowledge of relevant legislation, standards and best practices up to date.”

“The killer skill I value in my engineers,” writes Sid Savara, technical manager for financial systems at the University of Hawaii, “is the ability to make the client happy, even when we are behind schedule, and even when things are not going well.” As a veteran engineering manager, with a number of DoD projects and Fortune 500 companies on his resume, Savara came to value engineers with client-facing skills who could communicate and handle concerns directly from clients. “Technical talent is extremely valuable, but what matters most to me is someone who is able to work with our end users and who I don’t have to manage.”

Similarly, indispensable engineers develop knowledge of the commercial impacts of engineering decisions. While we’d certainly make amazing things for free if we could, technical considerations are by far not the only factors in the success or failure of a project. “The indispensable have commercial nous and find ways to innovate and reduce financial or environmental cost,” Nimmons writes. “Invest time in understanding the commercials of any project including the business case, budgets and commercial imperatives or pressures.”

Be the Best You Can, Do the Best You Can

Credit: Craig SunterThe main characteristics of an indispensable engineer are the same for almost any field or position: integrity, adaptability, and the desire to do excellent work.

“Right out of college, an engineer told me, ‘if you don’t want to do something, do a bad job and they won’t ask you to do it again,’” recalls Gina Smith, President and CEO of Systems Engineering Global. “I was thinking, that just sounds stupid.”

Engineers who slack and avoid unpleasant work are dispensable, by definition. Smith was raised with an uncompromising work ethic and the willingness to set high standards for herself; a characteristic which served her well in engineering. “I concentrated on producing, performing all my tasks to the best of my ability and only to the standard that I would find acceptable,” Smith writes. “I don’t like, or accept, junk.”

“Practice with utmost integrity,” Nimmons writes. “Your professionalism and impeccable values should be uncompromising.” For him, ethics and excellence are inseparable – especially for engineers. Building a reputation for undeviating ethics and honesty is not only moral, but peerless asset. “Coupled with deep domain and technical skills, you will be equipped for the role of ‘trusted adviser.’”

Credit: Grant Kwok“Another trend I’ve noticed,” adds Savara, “is the engineers with the most staying power adapt to change easily.” While your professional ethics must be rock solid, and your commitment to excellence unwavering, becoming an indispensable engineer also requires flexibility in the face of external conditions. Budgets grow or shrink, personnel are reassigned, and project specifications are subject to change with little notice – sometimes, with little reason.

“Someone who pushes back too much, or refuses to adapt, is going to find it difficult to stay on,” he writes. “In a lot of ways, the only way to remain competitive is to keep learning and changing.”

You Can’t Cheat Your Way to Being Indispensable

There is certainly a wrong way to become indispensable: deliberately hobbling your team’s efforts so that your removal spells certain disaster. As economic pressures mount, some engineers respond by designing themselves into the system. Changes go undocumented, resources hoarded, and cooperation suffers.

“An unwelcome side effect” of the changing relationship between engineers and employers “is a lot less employee to employer loyalty, and vice versa,” Smith writes. “I have come into contact with lots of engineers who were so desperate to keep their jobs, they spent a lot of time and energy devising ways to make themselves indispensable.”

Credit: pizzodisevoAccording to Smith, some of the harmful tactics she’s observed are:

  • Refusal to discuss the details of their work
  • Hoarding documents and company resources
  • Not documenting changes or development
  • Constant self-aggrandizement

“I’ve seen some engineers carry this so far, even the supervisor couldn’t get a handle on what they were doing [to] evaluate them,” Smith writes. “These tactics put you on the fast track to being dispensable.”

Savara also observes – with less frequency, in the age of Internet-enabled autodidacts – engineers “who master a specific, obscure skill and become the only developer or engineer with that knowledge.” These engineers may then build solutions around their most arcane skills, ensuring their place in the system. Fortunately, online learning resources and the frictionless spread of new techniques render this tactic a baroque waste of time. “I don’t think this is a viable strategy anymore,” Savara writes. “Now, a competent engineer has resources where they can self-teach and catch up. The person who ‘hoarded’ the knowledge is no longer the only person able to learn it.”

If you want to be indispensable, there’s no substitute for hard work. Cultivate your skills, integrity, and adaptability, while pushing yourself to do your absolute best.