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Sep 13, 2013 3:00 PM

Things I Wish I Learned in Engineering School

Things I Wish I Learned in Engineering School


By Chris Baird, Digi-Key Application Engineer


Vern Law once said, “Experience is the worst teacher. It gives a test before presenting the lesson.” The

difficult experiences of school and budding careers give practicing engineers a perspective rarely seen or

appreciated by students grinding through those seemingly endless years of school. While experience is

unique in its ability to fully capture and infuse life’s lessons, gleaning wisdom from others offers a close

substitute. A look back at the naïveté of my college years stirs a mix of regret and nostalgia, as well as a

motivation to encourage today’s engineering students to learn from my triumphs and mistakes.

The topics on which you’re most likely focused in school are foundational math and physics, theory,

principles, equations, limited applications, and how to learn even more. The unquestionable importance of

these topics is confirmed by endless textbook pages, mountains of notes and homework, and seemingly

impossible test problems. While these building blocks are essential to your degree and career, there are

additional topics which do not fit well into scholastic structures such as deadlines, exams, and accreditation

reviews; thus schools largely tend to ignore them. Abilities such as innovation, creativity, salesmanship,

professional networking, and interpersonal skills all exist within a graduating engineer, but might suffer from

years of malnourishment and neglect. Honing these skills and pairing them with a fundamental

understanding of electricity (and how to manipulate it to your liking) will lead to far greater success than

someone graduating with a 4.0 GPA who is unable to passionately communicate their affinity for electrons,

if one exists.


Before I delve into these topics, let me clearly state that activities like excessive drinking, endless video

games, and even innocuous activities like debating superiority of operating systems, core architectures, or

programming languages will eventually be tallied in the “regret” column. While practicing engineers might

occasionally partake in these activities in moderation, they can easily become an overwhelming detriment

during the formative years of a budding engineer. A few successful engineers, along with most of those

who dropped out (or switched majors) will confirm this. College is simultaneously a launch pad into your

career and life, and merely what you make of it. You won’t get these years back and can’t afford to redo



1: Innovation. The most basic requirement of an engineer is the ability to solve problems. In school,

problems conveniently consist of relatively few variables in sterile environments with known solutions.

Details like conductor loss, stray capacitance, trace inductance, and noise are almost completely ignored,

but are unavoidable realities of physics and must be addressed in the real world. Solutions to these

problems are not scripted or predetermined, nor is there a single correct answer. Innovating your way out of

a corner requires an excellent knowledge of the fundamentals of your craft, a drive to overcome problems,

and a healthy dose of:


2: Creativity. The only design limitations in the real world are those disallowed by physics, manufacturing,

government, and cases where a part or material doesn’t exist (although you can invent them). If a solution

to your problem exists within these confines, it’s up to you to find it. Unlike school, where maps (textbooks)

and guides (instructors) exist to hold your hand as you learn a predefined path, industry requires you to

storm into uncharted wilderness and find elusive solutions. Navigating these terrains requires knowledge

and experience. However, without the courage to jump in and create (and risk failure) projects go nowhere.

Once a design is created, developed, and polished the next step is convincing someone to part with their

(sometimes) hard-earned money in exchange for it. This requires knowledge of the customer’s need, an

intimate understanding of the very technical product you’re selling, a degree of confidence in its capacity to

make the customer’s life easier, and an ability to communicate these things effectively. This is called:


3: Salesmanship. Salesmanship can be thought of in the traditional sense of promoting and selling your

product, but it also applies in the sense of being able to sell yourself to potential employers. Consider your

talent, experience, training, personality, and ambition as the product being offered for barter, while the

employer is actually the customer you must convince to part with their money in exchange. Both parties

must benefit or the transaction (hiring you) will not take place. You benefit more from a paycheck than

video games or job searches, and your new employer benefits more from the application of your abilities

than the salary being offered (which averages around $60,000 for starting engineers). Compare your

usefulness to what’s being offered (salary + benefits). If the terms are mutually beneficial, sell yourself! Be

aggressive! Give them valid reasons to believe you’re worth more than that paycheck and worth more than

others pursuing that paycheck and they’ll be fools not to hire you.


The process of selling your widget or service is aided greatly by gaining the respect of many colleagues,

employers, and customers. This process is known as:


4: Professional Networking. Networking does not come naturally to many engineers, but is essential in

developing a successful career or business. It’s worth studying and practicing. Engineers who may not be

as talented or ambitious as you may be more successful due to a broad network from which they discover

job and sales leads. Professional networks also provide essential professional and character references for

potential employers, clients, or customers. Networking and relationship building is accomplished almost

exclusively by your:


5: Interpersonal Skills. Unfortunately, stereotypes exist for a reason. Engineers: you know both the topics

and individuals to which I refer. Engineers are a unique breed and are often misunderstood and

unappreciated by non-technical types. We prefer those who speak our language and understand our lives,

but you’ll need non-technical people around to do the things you can’t or don’t want to do. It’s wise to

develop skills like leadership and public speaking through organizations on and off campus. Always keep

your best foot forward (while still being yourself) as you never know when you may meet your next

employer or customer.


The world of the practicing engineer is a delicate balance of design, troubleshooting, advocacy for your

ideas, and furthering your career and company. Life, as with design, involves trade-offs at every step, and

can make for difficult decisions. Learning from others’ experiences can reduce the impact of bad decisions

and maximize the benefit of good ones. Many seasoned engineers are willing to share their experiences

with their young counterparts. Humility and respect go a long way in furthering both their willingness to

share, and the depth of your character and wisdom

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