Top career mistakes made by engineering beginners

Everyone is prone to making mistakes, and beginners especially need help. We gathered advice from several of our experienced engineers. We hope this information will be helpful whether you are a beginner yourself or whether you have beginners on your team.

1. STARTING THE PROJECT

Know the inputs: Beginners commonly jump headlong into a project without considering all of the inputs. Before starting, an engineer must understand the requirements, specifications, and data from other engineers, management, and the customer. Pay attention to the details and ask questions when the inputs are unclear. (Find out more about asking questions under “5. Communication is Key.”)

Avoid feeling overwhelmed: Details are important, but details can also be overwhelming, so a word of advice to beginner engineers is to divide and conquer. Divide the entire process into manageable chunks, and conquer each chunk accordingly. Don’t look at the entire process when feeling overwhelmed; just work on the next chunk.

2. WORKING ON THE PROJECT

Avoid cutting corners: Beginners will be tempted to copy and paste parts from previous projects into a similar project. However, similar parts and similar processes may have subtle but critical differences. This can unintentionally create problems. There are cases when it’s okay to copy from a previous project, but this knowledge comes with experience. Until then, avoid cutting corners.

Escape the “it’s good enough” mentality: When working through a long task, it will be tempting to say that an approximation is good enough. But in engineering, being almost right is not the same as being correct. If a part is wrong, fix it. One of our engineers was on a design team that had to remake a part even though it was less than 1 millimetre too thin. Be precise; never settle for “good enough.”

3. CHECKING YOUR WORK

Be diligent: Beginners want to impress their peers and seniors by finishing projects as quickly as possible. However, they run into problems when they work too fast and don’t check their work. Learn to double- and triple-check everything, especially on first projects. In time, it won’t be necessary to triple-check something, but that knowledge comes with experience. Until then, be diligent.

Do it correctly the first time: One way to save time on checking work is to do it carefully and correctly the first time. By understanding the inputs and not cutting corners, an engineer is well on the way to doing the job correctly, and that will save time later.

4. FINISHING THE PROJECT

Work hard to meet deadlines: Beginners often dislike the schedule, but our engineers want to be clear: the schedule is not the enemy. Having a tough schedule forces a beginner to grow quickly. When a project seems impossible, persevere through it and try to meet that deadline. A great way to gain experience is to work hard toward impossible deadlines.

Don’t be discouraged by negative feedback: Nobody naturally enjoys hearing criticism, but an experienced engineer knows that negative feedback is important. When a mistake is made, someone needs to point it out. Don’t be discouraged when a mistake is found. Fix it.

Avoid thinking that a project is done: Good job, beginner engineer. That project you have been working on for months? It is done. Or is it? Our engineers warn beginners to avoid thinking that a project is done because it may never be done. Even months later, a project may need to be changed. Don’t be discouraged. This is part of the process.

Don’t point fingers: When a problem is found, beginners will be tempted to point fingers at someone else and say it is not their problem. However, that is not a team- or project-cantered attitude. It is selfish. When a problem is found, something needs to be fixed, and a good engineer will find a way to contribute. Be willing to help to get the project done.

5. COMMUNICATION IS KEY

Communication builds trust: If there is a lack of communication, teammates will begin to distrust each other when there are problems. If there is a lack of trust, projects will not get finished. Start the project right by starting the conversations early.

Ask good questions: Remember, beginners want to impress their peers and seniors, and beginners think that they need to know all of the answers in order to be impressive. That is the wrong mentality. It is better to ask a question during the process rather than for a senior to find a mistake during review. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Work through tough problems: We just said to not hesitate to ask good questions, but good engineers don’t go straight to their seniors with every question either. Instead, they work through the problem on their own. They challenge themselves. If they can’t find the answer, then they go to their senior, but they are better prepared than before. This demonstrates that they tried, and the senior will be better equipped to help.

Be humble and admit mistakes: Beginners want to make a good impression, and they don’t like to admit when a mistake has been made. But covering up a mistake does not help the project. Admit when a mistake has been made, and work as a team to solve the problem.

A CLOSING COMMENT

A final word of warning and encouragement: there will be a learning curve. A beginner engineer will continue to be a beginner for a long time, and that only changes with experience. By understanding the inputs, solving tough problems, and not cutting corners, a beginner will be transformed into a capable engineer. Be diligent and work hard. 

Grant Francis works as the business writer for Lumenance, an engineering staffing company.

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