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Ideas in Motion

Staying Relevant for a Long-Term Career

The Pace of Change

Most people understand that the pace of change is speeding up globally, along with the demand for more innovation. In a little more than 100 years, technological development has taken us from the first telephone call in 1876, to the first website in 1991. A mere 16 years elapsed between the appearance of the Internet and the first iPhone (2007). Since then, significant technological breakthroughs are happening each year.

New tech is continually disrupting nearly every single industry from artificial intelligence in automotive to genetic engineering in healthcare. And with faster technological innovation comes faster user-adoption. Consider how quickly people have adopted technology through the years. For example, the AM/FM radio had 50 million users 38 years after its invention, TV took 12 years, the Internet caught on in 3 years, and Twitter only took 9 months to gain 50 million users.

Noted futurist and author, Ray Kurzweil, wrote about the pace of change within context of what he calls the Law of Accelerating Returns. The concept is simple, yet profound: more advanced societies progress at faster rates than less advanced societies, precisely because they are more advanced. Kurzweil suggests that the developments of the entire 20th century would have occurred in 20 years, had they begun in the year 2000, because the rate of progress in 2000 was five times faster than any time throughout the 20th century. At some point in the near future, he thinks a 20th century’s worth of progress will happen in less than one month—a rate of progress 1,000 times that of the century itself. Imagine taking all the inventions of those 100 years and condensing it into just one month!

While these technology advancements have, in ways, made our personal and work lives more efficient, many jobs have become obsolete and others more complex, requiring additional skills training and even certifications or specialized degrees. All of this can be a bit overwhelming. We wonder if technology really is taking over, and whether the ancient expression, deus ex machina (god from the machine), is truer now than ever.

The mechanization and complexity of work also has impacted learning and development. Since 2000, the number of US undergraduate degrees conferred in science and engineering rose from 16% of all degrees to 45% by 2016. Companies are seeing the need to offer technical training, too. For example, Amazon announced that it will spend more than $700 million over the next six years to train 100,000 employees for higher-skilled jobs.

We certainly can applaud Amazon and other companies for offering technical training. After all, there are benefits for both employees and employers. Highly skilled employees are less apt to become obsolete in the workforce, and employers can increase productivity while remaining competitive in their industries.

How Engineers Advance

Engineers, like people in other professions, have a vested interest in remaining relevant within their fields to sustain good careers. However, the ability to advance a career requires more than having current technical skills; it requires competence in leadership, communication, and relationship-building. Clearly, what you know is important, but the way you apply the knowledge is more important for a “winning” career.

As Steve Jobs said:

Most things in life have a dynamic range in which average to best is at most 2:1. For example, if you go to New York City and get an average taxi cab driver versus the best taxi cab driver, you’ll probably get to your destination with the best taxi driver 30% faster. And an automobile; what’s the difference between the average car and the best? Maybe 20%? The best CD player versus the average CD player? Maybe 20%? So 2:1 is a big dynamic range for most things in life.
Now, in software, and it used to be the case in hardware, the difference between the average software developer and the best is 50:1; maybe even 100:1. . . . I’ve built a lot of my success on finding these truly gifted people, and not settling for ‘B’ and ‘C’ players, but really going for the ‘A’ players. And I found something… I found that when you get enough ‘A’ players together; when you go through the incredible work to find these ‘A’ players, they really like working with each other. Because most have never had the chance to do that before. And they don’t work with ‘B’ and ‘C’ players, so it’s self-policing. They only want to hire ‘A’ players. So you build these pockets of ‘A’ players and it just propagates.

Let’s explore some ways engineers can stay relevant for the long-term, be “A” players, and “move up the ladder.”

Staying Relevant: The Basics

At the risk of restating the obvious, mindset is critical. Determine to stay current with technology by committing to life-long learning. Employers today presume and expect that employees will look for ways to become more efficient and effective. We cannot assume that what we learned in school, plus a few conferences and seminars, are sufficient to support a long-term career. Many companies urge employees to develop skills, and sometimes even pay for job-related training. If your organization does not, resolve to pay for it yourself, if practical. Learning doesn’t happen by chance—you must pursue it with diligence.

Perhaps one of the most significant factors that tends to dead-end, or even derail an engineer’s career is lack of “people skills.” Take care of your work interactions by:

  • Managing your anxiety
  • Avoiding gossip
  • Lending a helping hand
  • Skillfully dissolving conflict
  • Contributing ideas in a constructive, respectful way
  • Stepping back and focusing on the customer
  • Accepting that there can be many paths to a single goal
  • Being agile and flexible in the midst of change
  • Thinking about risks ahead of time to develop a mitigation plan
  • Never undermining colleagues’ work
  • Not seeking recognition for work, unjustly
  • Not being cantankerous, moody or sarcastic

Moving Up

Ash Norton, a chemical engineer and noted consultant in the field of leadership development for engineers, has found in his research that colleges and companies usually avoid or truncate soft skills training for engineers. This deficiency causes career stagnation because of a lack of communication, creativity, and interpersonal skills. Experts suggest several competencies, or soft skills, every engineer should develop to advance their careers.

Teamwork. Engineering work today requires people to work effectively and inter-dependently, demanding that each team member works well with the others and sufficiently on their own, too. Teaming up with a positive attitude leads to better relationships, greater collaboration, and eventually more ingenuity. It builds a reputation among subordinates, peers, and management, which can be an important consideration in organizations that use 360-degree feedback to evaluate employee performance. Further, key cross-functional teams usually have visibility at the management/executive level. Good work on a team could be the key to upward mobility.

Creativity. Innovation requires out-of-the-box thinking. Consequently, curiosity is an essential characteristic for innovation. Curiosity fuels creativity, and that soft skill is the differentiator between those who merely learn and those who find problem-solving to be motivational, and between those who are followers and those who are leaders. To learn tips and techniques for enhancing creativity, click here.

Communication. At its core, engineering involves problem-solving and risk mitigation. The ability to communicate solutions and risks to both technical and non-technical audiences is critical. This is especially important when interacting with the c-suite and boards of directors. A good presentation could get you noticed, identified as having high potential, and on a succession plan for promotion. Those who cannot convey ideas and plans well are significantly less effective in their jobs and less likely to receive promotions.

Maintain Objectivity. Sometimes the first solution isn’t the best solution. Additional information midway through a project can dictate a radical change. Embrace the change and be seen as an early adopter. Managers are judging employees’ attitudes and initiatives. The “cheerleaders” tend to move to the top of promotion lists.

Empathy for Customers. It’s easy for engineers to get caught up in a technical project and what they are building; but it is critical that they continually recall who they are building it for, remembering that the consumer’s experience is different from their own. Empathy allows for a better understanding of the problems that need to be solved. Good customer service is noticed and rewarded, especially now days with such laser focus on customer service. Just verify that assertion with any professional salesperson!

Decision-Making. Leaders must have the ability to make good decisions and facilitate the same with a decision-making process. A good leader knows when to make a decision, when to consult with others, and when to step aside and let others decide. The best way to hone decision-making is to think about when decisions have gone wrong and when they have gone right. We learn more from our mistakes than from our successes.

Social Intelligence. Social Intelligence (SI) is a good predictor of effective leadership. Defined broadly, SI relates to the understanding of, and the ability to function in, a variety of social situations and dynamics. Social performance, sensitivity to social situations, and role-playing skills are important determinants of leadership. By exposing yourself to different situations and people, you can hone social perceptiveness and the ability to engage others in conversation.

Emotional Intelligence. A complement to SI is emotional intelligence (EI), the ability to communicate at an emotional level, understand emotions and emotional situations, and be connected to your own emotions. Related to personal charisma, EI gains a likability and respect from colleagues. Increase EI by: practicing reading non-verbal cues and body language; learning to control your emotions, especially annoyance, frustration and anger; and becoming an “emotional actor” by expressing your thoughts and feelings appropriately in front of others. Practicing mindful meditation is helpful for expanding EI; learn more in our eBook, Mindfulness for Engineers.

Political Astuteness. The core of every organization is politicking. People will try to bend rules, gain allies, and push a personal agenda to get ahead. Leaders know how to politic and manage that kind of behavior to avoid group/organizational dysfunction. Learning about people and social dynamics comes through with experience and observation.

Influence. Negotiating and debating are two skills that maximize influence, but they’re not indicative of being genuinely influential. Influence is the essence of great leadership. It is the sum of everything outlined above, but it takes more than that to become an influential player. Having a desire to influence, a strategy for achievement, and a propensity to maintain absolute composure are all major factors to influencing others.

True leaders are set apart by their soft skills. Twenty years ago, technical mastery was the most important competence, but today’s technological rate of change has moved people skills to the top of the list. Career sustainability is about survival; a long-term career is about resilience. Neither occurs by happenstance.

Are you ready to start developing the skills that will take you to the next level of your career? Begin by developing the practices of mindfulness and meditation—a simple catalyst for dynamic growth. Mindfulness for Engineers.