Running to Success: Achieving Engineering Career Goals.

When you run your first marathon the goal is usually just to finish, but as your running career continues this goal changes. Runners begin to set personal accomplishments such as completing a race in a certain time, increasing the distance to become an ultra-marathoner or wanting to finish a challenge like running races in seven continents in seven days. These runners are able to succeed by laying out small feats along the way that help them reach their final objectives.

As a new engineer entering the workforce, it is always recommended that you determine the career goals you want to achieve. When I hire engineers, after about a month I ask what their professional objectives are and which career benchmarks they’d like to reach in this department. Normally, it’s easy to identify the people that have not put thought into their futures. Career goal setting can be the reason why one person loves their work and moves forward, while another finds their job stressful and lacking purpose. After all, you don’t want to work in a position for years only to realize you’re merely spinning your wheels. The key to setting up your career goal is determining what matters to you.

Like runners, you need to setup two types of goals: short term and long term. A long-term goal is usually your overall vision for the future, such as a dream job or how you want to be remembered. For example, my long-term vision is to be a university professor of material science. Once you have established this target, you will be able to determine the short-term goals you need to accomplish along the way.

When setting short-term goals, you want to look at tasks or milestones that can be attained in a reasonable time frame, such as six months or three years. My short-term goals, for instance, revolve around my desire to be a professor so I can use my experience and industry knowledge to educate students. The short-term goals I have completed to move me closer toward my ultimate aspiration include obtaining a bachelor’s degree, acquiring experience as an industrial engineer and a process metallurgist, as well as acquiring quality experience and becoming a department manager. Additional short-term achievements that I have left to accomplish on my path towards my long-term goal include earning my master’s degree and Ph. D.

Now that you have laid out your goals, you want to formulate them properly to make sure you can reach success. Some simple guidelines to follow are:

Be Specific: You might say, “I want to be successful.” But who doesn’t?  A better question is “What does ‘success’ mean to me?” In my case, success is being able to educate prospective engineers and help improve our community and environment for future generations. For another person, it could be only working 40 hours a week so they can spend more time with family.

Don’t Be Negative: Make sure your goals are something you want to do rather than avoid. Otherwise, you might end up abandoning your efforts.

Keep it Realistic: Make sure your long-term goal is compatible with your ability and skills. You will never hear me set a goal like, “I’m going to win the PGA tour.” I can barely golf!

Make Sure the Goal is Obtainable in a Reasonable Time-frame: Don’t set yourself up for failure.  When setting a goal, make sure you include a reasonable time frame to achieve it. Remember to take the large goal and break it down into shorter goals that are easier to manage.

Link Actions to Each Goal: For instance, I needed to become a department manager. To achieve this, I signed up for my Master’s in Business Administration.

Be Flexible: If you encounter a barrier that impedes your progress, don’t give up. Modify your goal accordingly. For me this means it will take four years to complete a Ph. D since I will need to work full time throughout my program.

What items that have helped you achieve your short- and long-term goals?

Running into a Wall: Engineering Problem Solving

Trail runners tend to sign-up for several different events to see nature and experience the feeling of true freedom.  A trail runner will train for a race by learning the different sections of the terrain, studying elevation maps, and reviewing the routes.  Sometimes, last minute changes can occur to the trail route due to unknown events.  A few years back I came across one of these last-minute changes where the race coordinator stated the new route section was going to be EPIC.  Fifteen miles into the trail run, I approached the unknown section and discovered why it was epic.  The new trail section was a good quarter mile of rocks going up the side of a mountain.  What a challenge! Let’s use some problem-solving skills!

For the new engineer coming into the industry, one primary skill that you will need to exercise and perfect is your problem-solving skills.  These skills can be used on small decisions like, “should I wear a jacket today?”, up to the large opportunity such as, “why is their rapid grain growth in solution heat treated 188”?  I work in quality, metallurgy, and management.  Problem-solving is part of the everyday routine. My years of experience have taught me that problem-solving can be implemented in four basic steps: Outline the Problem, Generate Multiple Solutions, Select a Solution, and Implement.

Outline the Problem: You will want to diagnose the situation to focus on the problem, and not the symptoms. A great method is to implement root cause corrective action process.  For quality, we love to implement the cause-and-effect diagram also referred to as a fishbone diagram.

Generate Multiple Solutions:  Don’t stop at one solution.  You should always have multiple solutions identified before starting to evaluate.  This will prevent the common mistake of evaluating as solutions are proposed, resulting in the first acceptable solution chosen and not the best fit. Remember, if you are focused on trying to get results required, you will miss the potential for learning something and allowing real improvement.

Select a Solution:  There are several things to consider when evaluating and selecting the best solution, such as; will all persons involved accept the solution, does the selected solution fit the organization constraints, will the selected solution solve the problem without causing other problems, is implementation likely? Now chose.

Implement:  One of the best ways to implement a solution is to involve others in the implementation process.  This will help you to sell the solution and minimize resistance to subsequent changes.  As part of the implementation remember to build feedback channels to monitor if the solution is giving expected results.  Remember your overall goal is learning for improvement.

As for my trivial problem during the race, I had to act fast and perform a quick outline of what my different solutions were and which to implement. My stubborn personality chose to go through the large rocks by bouldering. The feedback I received from my selection is I am a capable climber and visiting the rock climbing gym has improved my skills. I finished the race and enjoyed my achievement.

 

Problem: How to get to the top of the trail?

Solution

Analysis

Result

Go Back Run about 7 miles until last check point; DNF; Limited Hydration Finish
Go Around Cause damage to environment; Increase time Finish
Go Through Exhaust Energy; Fall; Strain Finish

 

What your Runner Wants: Engineering with the End-User in Mind

For a trail runner that loves a challenge and the most beautiful landscape that exists in the Sierra Nevada’s, I rely on organizations such as Ascent Runs.  When I first wandered upon their website, I was drawn in by their mission statement. “To create and host challenging, fun, and memorable trail running experiences that promote the natural environment of the Tahoe Basin and contribute to the success of local businesses and communities”.  I have found this to be true in every event.  This organization knows which runners they are trying to please and they always try to keep the customer in mind when they design a new race.

This is a significant concept that can be incorporated into all professional fields, but is very important for the up and coming engineers to understand, “you must know your end-user”.  Engineers can be very creative in their field when designing products.  But if your end-user is going to have complications with the design, they will not see value added in the product and most likely reject it.

One of my favorite memories of this occurring, was when a young Mechanical Engineer Intern was tasked to redesign a hydraulic pump system that had to fit in a particular location.  He sat at his computer for weeks drawing up the design, and when he requested the installation occur, the proposal was denied.  The design itself would have functioned perfectly for the required performance; however, when preventative maintenance had to be performed on the system, it was impossible unless you took the entire unit apart making it impractical for use.

So what actions could this young Intern have taken to design a practical system?  The first item would have been to take a step back and determine all parties that would be involved in the end application.  The Intern’s focus was just on the functionality of the system and missed the requirement of maintaining the system.  Before I start developing, I find it useful to discuss with different parties to determine who the end-users will be. This allows for idea interaction from various sources.

Secondly, if the Intern would have kept open communication with all end-users, he could have received their input through the design process and modified the system during development. Unfortunately, he decided not to include communication, resulting in weeks of lost productivity and he had to redesign the system in the end. Communication is a key skill in order to create a value added product.

Third, he forgot about the human element.  As engineers we get excited to create something new and innovative, but it is important to remember human interaction will occur.  You will need to determine what physical attribute, cognitive ability, and ergonomics are required for interaction with the user. Always keep the end-user in mind.

As for Ascent Runs, they focus on their end-user by giving them exactly what they expect; 25 miles with a 6700-foot vert, that you know is going to be rough going up. When you reach that peak, and see that unforgettable view, all pain melts away to success. Your awe moment.

Please leave feedback on what you expect as a end-user?

New Runner Mistakes: What Engineers should take away from Failure

When a person decides to train for their first marathon, they begin to realize how much they must shift their lifestyle if they want to reach certain goals.  This can be adding more exercise to your routine, modifying you eating habits, and increasing your running.  With my “head on” personality, I dove straight in with the no sugar, no more booze, must be up early everyday to run and must stick to a firm training schedule.  I was doing so well for 9 weeks.  Then one of my friends had a birthday party scheduled the night before my longest training run.  I enjoyed myself with my friends until the wee hours of the morning, and had the worst run of my life.  I learned from this mistake just as I have learned from the mistakes I have made in my engineering career.

For the new engineers coming into the industry, mistakes will be made.  How you act on those mistakes and use them in the future is what will help you to have a successful career.  Mistakes are how we learn and improve for our future projects.  By following a basic guideline, you can turn failures into success for the future.

Step 1:  Admit that you Made the Error: This is the most difficult part for people starting a new career. If you are unable to acknowledge that you made the mistake, then you will never be able to evaluate objectively to find what went wrong.

Step 2:  Learn:  Evaluate what occurred and retain this information, so that the error will not be repeated in the future.

Step 3: Do Not Fear Failure:  Once you have failed you have hit the bottom.  The only way to go is up! New engineers tend to beat themselves up when a mistake is made, but the best thing to do is accept responsibility and move on.

Step 4: Find Innovation: When a failure occurs, this opens the opportunity to try something new and creative to resolve the error.  This also helps you to be less restrictive on taking risk.

So, what was taken away from my running mistake?  I have learned that drinking large sums of alcohol after 9 weeks of sobriety is not recommend.  I am no longer 20 years old, and am unable to recover after staying up all night.  It’s also okay to modify my training schedule when there are events that I want to attend that could affect my run.

Work Smarter and Train Harder: Time Management Tips from an Engineering Runner

It requires a lot of dedication, determination and discipline to be a superb distance runner.  You can’t just wake up one day and say, “I am going to run 50 miles in under 6 hours today”.  If you try, I guarantee you will not succeed.   Runners have to evaluate the season and adjust their diet accordingly.  For me, this means my diet becomes clean; full of whole foods, tons of veggies, and I deny myself the joy of brownies or refined sugar. With this change comes the added task of meal preparation and scheduling the appropriate time to supply my body with fuel. The next task runners must do is setup their training schedule for the season.  Mine consist of five running sessions, (various types of runs), three strength training sessions, and one Yoga/Pilates session per week. People have asked, how do you keep up with such a rigorous workout routine when you are a manager, college student, and wife?  My answer is:  Time Management Skills!  The same skill that helps me in my engineering career.

Several new engineers have asked how I fit everything I do into my schedule.  Simple.  I have many years of practice developing my time management skills.  Without these skills I would not be able to maintain the amount of work I perform in a day.  There are several techniques to improve your time management skills, but I will share the few I have identified to be beneficial in reducing stress and increasing productivity.

Plan:  Scheduling tasks needs to become a habit.  I carry a planner and list task as I identify them.  I like to categorize task by work, home, school and health.  At the start of the day form a to do list, prioritize the items so you can focus on the essential tasks.

Deadlines:  Now that you have a task list you need to set deadlines for when these task need to be completed.  This will help you to avoid procrastinating on the task which results in a negative effect on your productivity.

Do Not Multitask:   Even through most of us believe multitasking is an efficient way to get things done.  The truth is, the human brain functions better when we focus and concentrate on one thing.

Take Breaks:  Too much stress can take a toll on your body and have a negative effect on your productivity.  Go ahead and schedule in your break time. This helps you relax so you can return to your tasks energized.

Be an Early Bird:   When you get up early, you are more calm, creative, and clear-headed.  Your energy levels start to decline as the day progresses affecting productivity, and you may not perform as well.  My solution is to assign the tasks that require less creative thinking and problem solving for later in the day.

Time management skills are an essential part of making your day just a little easier. Find what works for you and stick to it. When you accomplish something, celebrate it! How you celebrate your accomplishments is up to you. But for the runners my word of advice is to keep whatever you choose to do healthy, make sure it’s something you really enjoy, don’t do it in excess, and don’t let it cause you to get further behind.

Teamwork to the Finish Line: The Importance of Working on a Team

Long distance relay races are a fun experience that all runners should try at least once. Every runner on the team plays an important role; whether they are the best trail runner, the fastest distance runner, or the runner who can sprint up a mountain at a six and a half minute pace.  Relay races require you to be accountable, because you do not want to let the team down.  You will push yourself for the good of the team to run your best.  You can learn from your teammates, picking up skills, enabling you to become a better runner.  During your leg of the race, your team is cheering you on giving you that internal feeling of bliss.  When a teammate is running their leg of the race, you cheer them on, encouraging them to reach their full potential.   Teamwork has so many benefits and we see these benefits in our professional careers as well.  Let’s evaluate the importance of why teamwork matters.

Promote Synergy and Unity in the Workplace

Teamwork has the group focus on a shared vision, and encourages cooperation from all persons.  Each individual knows their own responsibilities and the importance of their output is being relied upon by the other team members.  This creates an environment based on loyalty, trust, support, and respect, which also results in a more efficient work group.  Teamwork reduces the risk of not having success in developing, formulating, and implementing new and innovative ideas.

Improves Efficiency and Productivity

Teamwork allows the workload of a project to be shared.  This results in reduced pressure on individuals, and helps promote task completion within a set time frame.  It permits goals to be more attainable, enhances the optimization of performance, and improves job satisfaction. Teamwork encourages a more efficient work output at a faster pace.

Provides Great Learning opportunities

Teamwork allows the group to gain insight from different perspectives and the learning of new concepts from more experienced coworkers. Experienced coworkers can expand their skill set and discover fresh ideas from newer coworkers.   Teamwork encourages innovation to problem solving and endorses the generation of ideas more effectively.

 Offers Different Perspectives and Feedback

A team environment will allow the group to brainstorm collectively which can increase the success in problem solving.  Sharing differing opinions and experiences strengthens accountability and can help make effective decisions faster than when done alone.  Good teamwork structures provide your organization with a diversity of thought, creativity, perspectives, opportunities, and problem-solving approaches. Team effort increases output by having quick feedback and multiple sets of skills come into play to support the project.

Teamwork is an important concept in all aspects of our lives.  In engineering, just as in relay racing, teamwork can promote a greater sense of accomplishment when racing towards a goal that you would not have been able to achieve working alone. This combined with a sense of belonging, appreciation and recognition, can drastically improve the groups self-esteem.

Inspirational Quote: Do dream of wining; train for it! -Mo Farah

Leave a comment about your teamwork experience.

Ethical Dilemma for the Running Engineer

A runner had entered a difficult trail race hoping to beat their Personal Record(PR), from the past year.  The trail was a torturous single track trail, with three elevation gains of 1600 feet.  The runner was doing so well, that they were going to pass their old PR by approximately 30 minutes.  At that very moment the runner heard a snap.  Another runner fell to the ground in pain, unable to complete the race.  The runner has to make a choice at this point, to lose achieving a phenomenal PR, or leaving the injured runner out on the trail to complete the race.  Engineers face these types of ethical dilemmas every day.

When entering into the engineering workforce, ethical dilemmas occur frequently.  Unfortunately for the new eager worker, black and white answers to these dilemmas, such as the one for the runner, do not exist.  You will need to rely on your moral judgement.  So how do you determine the correct decision and maintain your integrity?  Here are some basic steps to follow:

  • Gather Facts:  You never want to jump to a conclusion.  You may not have all necessary information.
  • Define the Issues:  Determine the ethical basis for the issue you want to focus on.
  • Identify the Affected Parties:  Determine who the stakeholders are.  See things from their perspective.
  • Identify the Consequences:  Think of both the positive and negative for the affected parties, and the magnitude of the consequences.
  • Identify the Relevant Principles, Rights and Justice Issues:  What obligations are there due to the ethical principles of the situation? What obligations do you have due to the rights of the stakeholders?
  • Your Character and Integrity:  What specific virtues are relevant in the situation and how do you want to be remembered.
  • Potential Actions:  Think.  Are there alternatives you have not considered?  Determine if you have been unnecessarily forced into a corner.
  • Check your Gut:  Intuition is a good source in decision making; knowing something is not right.

Remember, making the decision is only the first step, the second is being prepared to justify your response to those who disagree.  By following the steps above, you will have all data required to stand your ground.

As for the choice the runner made at the beginning of this blog…I would never leave another runner out to dry!  I helped the injured runner to a location out of the sun, and we waited together for another runner to show up before I left to get help.  In the end, I finished the race two and a half hours over my PR, but I gained a running buddy.

Please leave your comments or story of similar dilemmas .