Engineering and Leadership || Ways to become an exceptional engineer

[Note from Pat: This is a guest post from my friend Zubin Ajmera from the blog Industrial Inside. There he shares career tips and strategies for industrial engineers who want to get ahead and thrive in their careers.]

How many times have you seen the same old boring articles on goals, resolutions, success, impressing your boss, and improving performance? Too many to count, I bet.

I’m going to try and offer a new perspective on things with this post. I won’t be educating on how to reach your goals and maximizing performance. I’m assuming you’ve already read about that elsewhere. What I want to talk about here are the keys to becoming an exceptional employee.

In otherwords, I want to tackle Pat’s mission for this blog: how do you go from a good engineering to a great engineer?

My story

When I started my first job, just like anyone else, I was super excited. But, three months into my job I started wondering “Getting a job is one thing, but I want to thrive. How do I actually become a success in this job?

Since then, I’ve been thinking non-stop about what it takes to become successful and, having become a successful engineer myself, have established four keys to being successful as an engineer. Today, I’ll explain these four keys and how you can start putting them into practice today.

Success Key 1: Don’t Be Vague

If you google something like – “How do I become successful at my job?”,  you’ll see dozens and dozens of articles using tired corporate terms like teamwork, communication, analytical skills, confidence, blah, blah, blah.

Here’s something I have learned about advice like this – nearly  always it’s from someone who hasn’t followed the advice themselves. The problem is everyone thinks they are a career expert, but only a few have gone through the real-life experiences and know what’s good and bad. 

When people use broad sweeping terms at work, it tends to signal the same thing – they themselves don’t really believe what they’re saying or know what they’re talking about. You need to be very careful not to fall into this trap yourself.

What to do instead: Be Ultra-Super-Specific about Everything

Don’t ever be vague in your communication. Instead, be ultra specific wherever possible. For example:

  • Your work reports
    • Bad : “I will finish all the reports by today
    • Good : “I will complete the [project/topic name] report by 2 pm today. Later, I can will working on the xyz project discussed last week. Towards the last hour, I’ll spend some time to prepare on tomorrow’s work – reports, whom to meet, what to work on, etc.”
  • Your Emails
    • Bad: “I will check all my emails and reply to all by the end of the day”
    • Good: “I will assign the the first 30 minutes when I get into my office to prioritizing and organizing my emails, and the next to replying them”

It doesn’t alway have to be your workplace, you can apply this to real-life, too.

  • Your Gym
    • Bad: “I will start going to the gym tomorrow”
    • Good: “I know I’m lazy, so I will start small. I’ll go only twice a week, for 20 minutes only. Once I reach this level, I can move to the next”

Success Key 2: Create Your Unique Positioning

When I started working, I spent a lot of time working in MS Excel, which I enjoyed a great deal. I would approach people at work and ask them if I could help them with any of their Excel-related work. Other times, they would approach me. 

Over a period of time, I became the “guy-who-knows-excel”. When I was introduced to someone new, they would say – “Meet Zubin, he is our Excel wizard.”

I became the go-to-source for Excel. In other words, I created an unique positioning which nobody else in the workplace had.

So, what is your Unique Positioning? It doesn’t have to be a specific software tool per se, just some special skill or talent. If you don’t have one, you can probably create onw within 1-2 months.

Some questions to help you discover or develop your own unique positioning:

  • “What can I do at my job ALL day if I had to? Write good emails? Organizing projects? Manage people?
  • “What type of questions do people ask me often?” (You can see patterns if you see similar type of questions)

Success Key 3: Solve Few Problems

I’ve learned that you don’t need to do hundred things a day to earn people’s respect. Instead, you need to focus on fewer, more important tasks in order to get noticed. There are two ways to zero in on what constitutes an important task:

Solving Your Manager’s Problems

Lots of people simply see their manager as someone who tells them what to do. Obediently, they do what is asked of them, which is fine.

But here’s the thing – you manager has tons of to-do items that aren’t assigned to you. If you could help take away some of them, that will be incredibly valuable to that manager.

Now, it’s possible that your manager don’t want to give you some tasks, or already have someone else to do it; however, 90% of the time, they will have something which they don’t want to do, and if you can solve that problem for them, that is pure magic!

Plus, it changes your overall perspective completely. Everyday you go to office, you sit on your desk and you keep asking yourself questions like –

  • What does my manager want the MOST right now?”
  • “What is likely to be on the top of his/ her mind?”


Solve People Problems

Once every week, I suggest you set aside 10-15 minutes of your calendar and meet just two people from your work. These can be your colleagues, associates, directors, senior management… anyone. Just make sure these are people who have decent authority at your company.

You should ask them two questions

  1. What are you working on right now?
  2. Are there any specific challenges you are facing?”

Mostly, they won’t give you any specific details and will give a generic answer, and that’s OK. What you want to know are some high-level areas of opportunity where you can contribute.

Once you get that, you can try to dig deeper. For example, you could say “Oh, I didn’t know about [topic name], what do you mean by that?” Now, they’ll open up more about it.

Using the the 5-Why Method is another way to get to the bottom of what they’re talking about: keep asking the question why till you get to the core of it.

After you know what is it they really want. Now, you have 2 options:

Option 1: If it’s a challenge you can help with, offer to help and solve it for them

Option 2: If it’s something you can’t help with, offer whatever ideas you can. You can say something like “Interesting. I’m not sure if I can help with that. But, I know [person name] who is extremely knowledgeable on this. Or you can check this [website/resource name], they have amazing information on how to solve this.”

Suddenly, by just doing this, you become a trusted source. This looks simple, but if you just do this for 1-2 weeks, the results can be very powerful.

Success Key 4 : Find Out What’s Working And Do More Of It

Like I mentioned before, you don’t have to do tons of things to be successful a your job – only a few activities can bring in massive differences.  

And one of the key elements to success is doing more of what’s working and less of what isn’t. I recommend evaluating after 2-3 weeks of trying something new.

One great theory on this is the Pareto principle (the 80/20 rule) by economist Vilfredo Pareto. The rule states that 80% of your results will come from 20% of your efforts.

After you go through this process, which I believe will take you about 2-3 weeks, start to analyze where you got your small wins and results. In order to better facilitate this analysis, it’s a good idea to keep a journal of what you’ve been doing so that you can accurate reflect on your successes and failures.

Leave a comment below and let me know which one out of the 4 above you liked the MOST and you’re going to try.

About the author:

After working for several companies and a couple of startups, Zubin started Industrial Inside where he helps Industrial Engineers in their career endeavors — Crafting the perfect Resume, Interviews, Getting a Job, Classes, etc.

To get a FREE IE Resume 3-step checklist, download it here

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