Reflections on 10 Years as an Engineer

In nearly a decade as a professional engineer the following statements are almost certainly true.

  1. I’ve picked up a few things
  2. I’m not nearly as seasoned or wise as I think I am

Still, perhaps some of my observations will be useful to others. More importantly, it’ll be cathartic for me.


Don’t be quick to disparage the work left by a former employee

This is such a bad look and seems to be common among new hires. To be fair, what’s easier than attempting to immediately look good by letting everyone in earshot know that the code/hardware/whatever you just inherited from a former employee is total garbage and you would have done much better?

Why is this a bad idea? For starters, it’s likely that your coworkers liked the former employee and perhaps even thought highly of her/him. But optics aside, it is very possible that you’re mistaking shoddy work for complexity. The elegant simplicity of initial designs often doesn’t survive your project’s first encounter with the real world. If you end up with something leagues better than what you inherited then take quiet pride in your accomplishment. I bet, however, you’ll find yourself making similar compromises to those of the employee whose work you so hated.

Be humble, and don’t trust engineers who aren’t

The best engineers I know are self-doubting, quick to point out when they’re out of their depth, and eager to have holes punched through their designs. They realize there is no shame in being wrong early, the real problem is discovering a problem only when a bad idea meets up with reality. At Feynman said, “Nature cannot be fooled.”

The worst I know scoff at the idea of their peers (especially junior peers) attempting to critique their designs. They say things like “I’ve done this before and it worked” while ignoring valid criticism. The first line of defense against these types is management. If you find yourself in an environment where folks like this have seniority, strongly consider finding a new job.

Take the time to learn first principles

Nothing makes up for a lack of first principles knowledge about your field. The fancy tricks you know, the complicated tools you’ve used, all of it is less important than making sure your fundamentals are strong. Ask yourself, could I get through an undergraduate physics/programming/etc course right now? If the answer is ever “no”, go back and read up or take up a hobby project that forces you to relearn the basics.

Say yes

Sometimes the best way to get paid to learn something new is to say yes to a project that is far outside your comfort zone. Don’t fret, it doesn’t make you a fraud. It’ll be uncomfortable at first but you’ll come out the other end with an entirely new skillset.

Written by David Friedman on 09 September 2017