A calculated plunge
By KEN NEOH
So, you are contemplating a career in technology, are you? But, you are uncertain if this is the path for you? How will you know if pursuing a career in technology will be the road to your happiness?
Here are some things to consider as you stand, with toes curled over the dive board, above a pool of technical careers.
I have some years of experience in a career in applied engineering R&D (research and development) and will share a few of my observations based entirely on the many talented, creative and innovative individuals with whom I have the pleasure of working.
1. It’s a big, big world
Technology permeates our daily existence to an unprecedented extent. By and large, we work with it, rely on it, play with it and there is no sign of IT (!) receding into the shadows anytime soon.
Career opportunities in technology are plenty and diverse, requiring specialists (and generalists) throughout. Banish the thought of white lab coats or techies wearing coke-bottle glasses; sure it takes them but also a whole other cast of characters.
Whether you’re deep in the bowels of manufacturing or up to your elbows in grease supporting your customer or training a room full of eager early-adopters to your company’s latest gadget there is need for a broad range of skills and talent.
An undergraduate foundation in science and engineering prepares you for a wide array of careers. Why is that? It is because at the heart of these majors is the finely honed skill of problem-solving. That’s a skill that is always in vogue.
2. Learning, the constant kind
I have observed that the most impressive individuals in my field share some common traits, chief of which is a constant desire to learn. Combine learning with the ability to apply new knowledge to your world and you get adaptability.
I had a supervisor once who made the entire engineering team read Who Moved My Cheese, and while we chortled at that tome, inwardly it belaboured a lesson we all clearly already new; ‘adapt or perish’.
So ask yourself, are you the sort of individual who cherishes knowing all the answers and having a high dose of predictability in your future?
If you scoffed a little at the very question, realising it hardly ever is that way but you’d have to figure out the rest anyway, then you might be a fit!
3. Communication skills
There is a stereotype that engineers cannot write or communicate. It is oft-celebrated and proudly subscribed by many.
However, I am here to declare that while you are certainly entitled to indulge in said stereotype, if that indulgence is motivated by an attempt at being fashionably ironic, then please don’t!
It is my belief that the fuel behind passion, drive, determination, and stubbornness is made up of some little speck of ego.
We want our good work to be recognised and respected, it is only human and practically at the top of Maslow’s pyramid. Therefore, develop those communicatin’ skills now and share your genius with the world!
Chances are, you will be working in a team of fellow engineers, scientists, you-name-it.
Sure, revolutionary ideas come from the rockstars of innovation but there is a likely probability that, until you are said rockstar, you will be toiling away in some organisation.
There is sometimes room in an organisation for the individual who only marches to the beat of his own drum; but there is always room for a team player. Remember that.
5. Planning and organising (aka manage your risks)
In not so many words, are you a “list maker” or do you tend to go with your instincts?
Even in a creative environment, some degree of respect for a methodical, repeatable process is important.
It can go a long way to ease tension and instill confidence in those that have seen fit to put faith in your technical prowess.
Conversely, this can be taken too far and before you know it, everyone’s cudgeled at the altar of the Process Gods.
Somewhere midway between blue-sky, laissez-faire creativity and slavish adherence to rigid processes lays the happy compromise between your creative space and the continued willingness of stakeholders to preserve the reality of it.
6. Coping with unintended consequences
This is a corollary to the mobile-cheese scenario. Ideally, life works in the following order:
- Customer requests a rocket to the moon to collect rocks for fortune
- You learn to build rocket to the moon
- You build said rocket, collect a bunch of rocks
- Customer is overjoyed
- You’re one happy camper
Reality is more like: You’re orbiting the moon and realise you’ve had a fuel leak that forces you to think rather quickly.
These things happen, and of course we can never truly be 100% prepared.
However, there are two things we can do in advance.
First is to plan and integrate a little slack into our lives; it helps buffer the shock of an ‘’oops’’.
Second, is to understand our own involuntary reactions to such predicaments and be ready to respond accordingly. For some, adversity results in frenetic activity. In others, perhaps the response is a withdrawal into inaction.
Knowing your reactions under such conditions can be valuable and can provide a means for mitigation.
Engineers tend to be a risk-adverse bunch and one should note that it is very impossible to plan for all eventualities and so a balanced, moderate compromise is the order of the day.
Sometimes there is no getting around a risk, we just accept it.
In your career, there will be occasion to traverse bridges over grey-murky issues where clear-cut decisions are scarce.
Often, you will have to deliberate ‘should-do’, ‘right-way’ or ‘need-to-do’ as competing, conflicting options. That you spend the time considering your choices matters as much as the decisions themselves.
Prior to graduating, one of my professors asked us all to write our own epitaphs. I found this a valuable exercise in helping secure the internal compass that guides my motives to this day.
Fame, wealth, global-good; what special blend will define you?
8. A healthy curiosity, it is okay to ask ‘why’
Many creators are unignorably curious. It is the gnawing itch that makes one question without hesitation and not be easily placated.
This rigorous flipping over of every stone be it in device or process leads to re-validation of traditionally accepted methods or ideas.
Sometimes, the terminal questioning reveals flawed or outdated premises leading to opportunity for innovation.
9. Getting the most out of school
School-life is a simulation of real-life; everything is there, just smaller, safer. You get do-overs, you don’t actually crash. This is the only time in your life this will be true.
If you are among the lucky minority with a lifelong passion for a particular field of study, then all is good.
For the rest of us, it is expected that you spend a minute to see what “floats your boat”. You will do the world a far better good as a passionate wildlife biologist than a reluctant nuclear physicist.
All that said, the single most important skill that can be culled in college is learning to learn.
Beyond that, as a techie, do not ignore your soft skills; make every effort to develop your ability to communicate and participate in teams.
According to Wikipedia, innovation is borne of being different, having a new perspective on either a yet-articulated need or an entirely different way to solve a problem.
By that definition, there is no solace in crusty traditions or group consensus.
To innovate requires an unwavering belief in yourself matched with gumption to see IT through. Conviction is your passport to innovate.
Naturally, there is genuine risk that being a zealot of your convictions would affect your team-play ability.
To further fuel this dilemma, be assured that compromise, ethical-angst and nothing-is-black-or-white will be served up in generous portions.
There will not be an “easy button” when it comes to honouring your convictions.
11. Few (perfectly good) ideas lead to great innovations
Thomas Edison said:
“Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration.”
To successfully promote a new idea, concept, solution, mouse-trap demands payment in courage, effort and vulnerability.
Yet, despite application of heroic efforts, talent and tears, we sometimes fail. This is perfectly normal and should be expected. Think about that.
Brene Brown has written extensively on vulnerability and it as a component to success; Google-up her TED talks, they will be worth your while.
12. Get your hands dirty
Like the Nike commercial, sometimes you just have to “do it”. Good ideas flow freely in coffee shops and barber’s chairs but you must germinate these seeds for them to provide any utility.
Nothing validates a good idea more than the reality-check you get only through implementation.
When working in a team, under deadlines, analysis-paralysis can be a liability. It is often preferable to assume the risk of a mistake over the certainty of damage through inaction. There is a time to cut bait, and then it’s time to fish.
13. Passion, do you feel it?
It may seem peculiar to include something like “passion” while discussing careers in the sciences.
However, it may be worthwhile to contemplate that your vocation may constitute significant portions of your adult-life.
One could easily imagine your entire life to this point re-lived in a given career, perhaps even twice over. In that time, you will likely be confronted with the choice of career over family and vice versa.
It is entirely feasible to merely work-for-a-paycheck. However, when a project demands your creative energy, it will be clear that the “work” will not be easily confined to the hours of nine and five.
Dedication and passion will be essential to success as you negotiate the trade-offs between work and personal life.
14. Test drives are a good thing
I was once given the advice of testing a car before buying a new one. Not just any test-drive at the dealership, but rather taking an old, worn car with a million miles on it for a spin.
I believe this logic applies to your career as well. If possible, get an internship along with a mentor. Observe and listen to all the people in the organisation, not just the ones in your anticipated career-path.
You are not there just to validate your decision (that’s too easy) but also consider the adjacent paths. No task is too menial to do poorly; your efforts to cultivate a robust work-ethic will be noticed.
Volunteer for what interests you, it is the only way to discover your true vocation and do not entirely discount the cantankerous old codger in the corner, there might be a worthwhile lesson to be had.
15. Compromise, is not a bad word
Over the years I have had the good fortune to work with many talented individuals. Taking a little poetic-liberty, there are two memorable characters.
For one, there was never any solution to be found, unless we could buy it. For the other, no store-bought solution was ever good enough and every solution had to be engineered from the floorboards up.
Naturally, these cases are exaggerated but compromise is a good thing. Young engineers often come to me lamenting why we have not chosen to do things the “right way”.
Unfortunately, there is no ultimate right-way, instead there are trade-offs (read compromises) all around us.
As we depart the CAD-world of picture-perfect simulations to the real world of tolerances and finite component sizes, it is appropriate to celebrate success despite imperfection.
Ken has worked in applied engineering R&D for more than twenty years. He has tinkered around, fixed things and helped people in various ways all his life. To connect with Ken, email firstname.lastname@example.org or leave your comments in the box provided.
Published in English daily The Star, Malaysia, 24 January 2015