How to be a successful engineer

20 Tips to become a successful engineer

Jacintha Verdegaal

You don’t just want to be a good engineer. You want to be a great engineer! So what will it take to be a successful engineer? Whether you’re just starting a career in engineering or feeling stuck with where you are, it’s always good to take a step back and evaluate if you’re still doing the right things. We’ve put together some great tips that will help you to be a successful engineer.

Figure out what you’re passionate about

It all starts with deciding what kind of engineer you want to be. Don’t focus too much on the title, but think what kind of problems you would like to solve. After all, you’ve become an engineer because you like solving problems, right? Most problems will require experts with different specialties to get solved, so what role would you like to play?

No one says you can’t switch to a different field later on, but if you’re committed to being a successful engineer then choose an engineering field you won’t lose interest in.

Stay focused on your long-term vision

Being a successful engineer is a long-term goal. No one starts off being excellent. But because you’ll be making career decisions along the way, it’s good to determine for yourself what that long-term vision is.

What would you like to achieve? And what would it take to get there? Do you need certain certifications, work experience, etc? However, remember that the world is always changing and that there are multiple ways to achieve that vision. So make sure to be flexible.

Not every career move has to be a step up

Especially when you’re just starting a career in engineering, you might think that every step has to be a step up. More seniority, more money, etc.

But remember that long-term vision! To be a successful engineer also means that you’ll have a lot of experience that you can apply to solve a problem. Therefor, a side-step to broaden your experience could really help your career. Don’t focus too much on that career ladder. You wouldn’t be the first one to climb to the top of the career ladder to then realize it’s leaning against the wrong wall.

Join teams with people you can learn from

Being a successful engineer doesn’t mean you have to be the best at everything. Actually, what successful engineers have realized is that they need to surround themselves with people they can learn from.

Figure out what you want to learn, whether it’s about engineering or other skills. What would be the best environment to teach you that? Working with the best and brightest will be a great learning experience and it will encourage you to give it your all.

Be a team player

Your ideal way of working might be working alone, but everybody is part of a team. You can’t do everything by yourself. A successful engineer understands the strengths of different team members and how to work together. When you’re able to get your team to achieve great successes, that success will reflect on you as well.

Stay hungry to learn new engineering skills

No matter where you are in your career, you’re never done learning. The field of engineering is constantly evolving. What might be in-demand today, can be irrelevant tomorrow. So make sure to be pro-active when it comes to staying up to date about the latest technology, new tools and learning new skills. A successful engineer knows how to stay relevant and in-demand.

Don’t forget to work on your soft skills

And when we say develop your skills, don’t forget your soft skills. As we mentioned in our post about the 10 most important soft skills for engineers to get hired, your soft skills are equally important as your technical skills.

A successful engineer is not just the one with the best engineering skills, but also the one who is good at communicating and collaborating, or leading a team.

Get the right qualifications and certifications

A successful engineering career is not all about the grades and diplomas, but it certainly helps. Relevant work experience can get you far, but depending on what your long-term vision is, you might need to invest in getting the right qualifications and certifications.

There are certain companies that won’t hire you unless you have a Master’s degree. And if your ambition is to have an international career, it helps if you can show certifications that are internationally recognized.

Find a successful engineer to mentor you

In addition to joining a great team, successful people also always look for mentors. A mentor is someone you can learn from, but usually not someone you work with. At least not directly. This way you can openly discuss whatever is on your mind and they’ll be able to help you move forward.

When approaching someone to be your mentor, be specific about your ask. What is that you would like to learn or develop?

Strive for perfection

It almost goes without saying, but if you want to be a successful engineer, you need to pay attention to the details. We’re not saying you have to be perfect (after all, nobody is), but when it comes to the work you’re delivering, strive for perfection.

Work as hard as you can and make sure that the people around you know that if they want to get something done well, you’re the one to work with.

Successful engineers learn from their mistakes

And because you’re only human, you’re going to make mistakes. Nobody likes it, but it’s also the best way to learn. After all, you can’t learn everything from a text book.

Try to be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. And if you think you need help to avoid that mistake in the future: ask for it!

Consider the bigger picture

As much as you love engineering, there’s a bigger world out there. A successful engineer understands that bigger picture when working on a problem.

Don’t only focus on the job you were hired to do, but think about what the company wants to achieve. Who are your customers and how do they really think? Be aware of your contribution to that bigger picture and you’ll be able to come up with more original and valuable solutions.

Successful engineers keep an open mind

If only you would always have all the answers…. But you don’t. Many people (not just engineers) suffer from the ‘not invented here’ syndrome. If it’s not their idea, they’re not interested. Even it that means that what they’re working on will never be successful.

If you want to succeed, listen to the people around you. Your peers, the people reporting to you, or senior management. It doesn’t matter who comes up with it, a good idea will lead to success, and don’t you want to be a part of that?

Work with people who are not engineers

If your goal is to climb that career ladder, then people who aren’t engineers will influence whether you succeed or not. Working with people that aren’t engineers will help you with that broader picture that we just discussed, but will also help with your visibility in the organization.

Make sure that people see you as a valuable member of the business, not just of the engineering team.

Work for different types of companies

As you develop your engineering career, you’ll want to switch both roles as well as companies. Being part of a large engineering team at a corporate is completely different from being one of two engineers at a start-up. Both have pros and cons as you’ll quickly discover, but everything will be a learning experience. The important thing is figuring out where you can thrive.

Get noticed outside your organization

There are not many people who enjoy the process of applying for a new job. Successful engineers know that if they work on their profile and visibility outside the organization, the offers will come to them.

As much as you love your current job and working with your team, don’t forget to spend time outside the office. Offer to share your expert knowledge, join a professional network, attend conferences and meet-ups, etc. Give people the chance to get to know you. Networking takes time and can sometimes feel awkward when you don’t know many people yet. Just don’t give up and thank me when you get approached for that dream job.

Not everything is a science. Trust your instincts

When making decisions about your career you’ll never have all the information. Take your time to evaluate your options, talk to people you trust, but in the end… trust your instincts.

Something might look great on paper, but if you have a bad feeling about the interview process and the people you met, then trust that feeling. Even when you can’t explain it.

It’s okay to feel nervous about a new step, but a successful engineer knows the difference between nervous excitement and nervous anxiety.

Don’t forget about your life outside of work

Work-life balance. Easier said than done, but so important. It’s great to be passionate about work, but don’t forget that’s what it is: work.

The most successful, visionary minds out there know how important it is to take a break. To rest and recharge. Plus you don’t want to be missing important moments in your life because all you’ve done is focus on work, right?

Define your own success metrics

Maybe we should have started with this, but what does success mean to you? Not the definition of your parents, teachers, managers or friends. But you. Is it really climbing that career ladder? Or does success mean having the freedom to spend time on the things and people that matter to you most? Is success making money or is it working on projects that excite you every day?

Don’t let anyone dictate your version of success. And that long-term vision we discussed at the beginning? It’s okay if that changes over time. Do what makes you happy!

Have fun

Because didn’t you want to have an engineering career because you thought it would be interesting and fun? Then what better way to measure your success then by asking yourself if you’re still having fun.

If you are: amazing! If not, it might not have anything to do with engineering, but with the way you work. Could you change where, how and with whom you work? Would a change offer you more freedom if that’s what you’re looking for.

As the (very) successful engineer Sudha Murty once said: ‘Doing what you like is freedom. Liking what you do is happiness’. So thrive for that, and you’ll be the most successful engineer you know.

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