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Defining Moments in Your Career

Defining Moments in Your Career

Defining Moments in Your Career

Seasoned engineers - what were some of the defining moments of your career? Good experiences or bad, what has contributed significantly to the way you work as an engineer?

One of my earliest experiences was working with a technician who's favorite expression was "I don't know, let's find out" .25 years later i tell my new hires to not be afraid to dig in and get dirty

RE: Defining Moments in Your Career

Flangeheads in Oil & Gas are not well thought of. Typically we ware not allowed to touch anything below the wellhead and our input on reservoir matters is not well received.

I had some problems with a coalbed methane field that was performing far worse than the original field development predicted and I was asked to figure out why. As part of the solution, I wrote a radical reservoir model that none of our regional reservoir engineers could discredit (although they all tried). To see if it worked I "only" needed a free hand and something just under $40 million. I presented the model to our VP and she said "You've sold me, but I need buy in from the Tulsa Research Center before I'll commit that kind of unbudgeted money." I went to Tulsa and sitting around the table was basically every reservoir engineer who had ever written anything worth reading on coalbed methane--most of them had equations or methods named after them and all were mentioned prominently in Petroleum Engineering schools across the world. As some of you know, we think of flow in a reservoir as D'Arcy Flow through a porous media. All the reservoir models written up until that time started with D'Arcy's equations. My first slide that day in Tulsa said "D'Arcy is Irrelevant" All these PhD reservoir engineers looked at each other and one of them said "You are going to have to defend that statement". So for the next 5 hours of my 45 minute presentation I did. At the end the same guy said "I don't know if you are right or not, but I certainly can't say you are wrong. We would be fools not to let you try". They let me try and 21 years later the model is still accurately predicting the performance of the wells and the interventions are still working. Kind of a day that changed my life.

David Simpson, PE
MuleShoe Engineering

In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual. Galileo Galilei, Italian Physicist

RE: Defining Moments in Your Career

We once had a general manager who came in and canceled all our IR&D projects, and we all voiced opinions about managerial logic inverters. But my immediate manager explained that in our GM's world, his life expectancy was 6 months to either turn the division around, in which case he would be promoted, or fail, in which case he would be fired. In no future would he have to worry about the lack of salable products a year from then. So, he also forced last time buys on relatively low volume cash cows to essentially book 3 years of low volume sales in a couple of months. 5 months later, he was promoted. The moral of the story is that not everyone has the same concerns and reality.

I once worked with another engineer on a stubborn problem and he asked a stupid (I thought at the time) question. After the question simmered in the back of my mind for a while, it dawned on me that he had actually found the path to the solution, so not all stupid questions are stupid

We had another problem with the same product that involved floating-point divide, and several teams had put it off as being too difficult to solve. Eventually, it was the last problem on the plate, and after studying the microcode and program traces, it dawned on me that the solution was absurdly trivial, as we had already tweaked the speed of the zero-detect for another instruction, but hadn't sped it up enough to deal with this instruction. so, some problems are actually easy to deal with and what's hard is overcoming the fear.

TTFN (ta ta for now)
I can do absolutely anything. I'm an expert! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKorP55Aqvg
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RE: Defining Moments in Your Career

Eavesdropping on Steve Jobs changed my career outlook.

I was hired to do mechanical design on the fancy blue stuff. It was the first time I worked with industrial designers, and it was "those" industrial designers. Tough crowd. Lots of finicky details that seem pointless to the average ME.

One day in the main cafeteria I happened to sit near Jobs while he was regaling some suits. What I heard changed my entire outlook:


"We make great computers, I have no doubt of that. But the average consumer does not make purchasing decisions based entirely on technical merit. That's why we work so hard to appeal to other sensibilities."

That's the moment I realized the difference between engineering and product design. Engineers make machines, but consumers buy products.

RE: Defining Moments in Your Career

As a co-op student: the president of our small start-up decided that we should do some tests contaminating air with nickel carbonyl in an effort to test our treatment process which might work on it. So the small cylinder was duly purchased, and shipped to us at great cost. The MSDS was duly read: "Those surviving report that the compound has a musty odor..." Fresh grad engineer I was working with (we're friends to this day) sat quietly crying at her desk, figuring that we'd been given a choice between doing an experiment that might kill us all and some of the neighbours besides, or being fired from a job that was quite difficult to get in that job market. I went to our boss- also a young female engineer- and said that I wasn't comfortable working with the compound, so she should let me know when the experiment was going to be done and not to expect me in that day. She calmly told me what mistake I'd made: assuming that she would EVER allow something dangerous to be done under her watch. Then she explained how the situation should be dealt with: not assuming, but using a problem solving approach: "Boss, we've thought about it and think we'll need the following equipment and changes to our apparatus to make this test safe to carry out- and it's clear we can't afford that equipment. Do you have any other ideas?" In hindsight, one of the best bosses I've ever had.

Right after finishing my Masters: applied to the same start-up- same president, but our (smart) boss had moved on by that point. Also applied to a few other places. Got two interviews with a major international EPC, and in the meantime got an offer from the start-up- too low a salary to live in the big city on. They countered with 4% more, and I accepted. Three days later, big EPC makes an offer 13% higher than that. I decline, telling them that I've already accepted another offer and am a man of my word. After spending my money on a Europe trip and first and last months rent on an apartment, with $32 left to my name, I go in to see the new boss, about a week before my start date. "Hi- how's it going? Oh, and your pay's been cut by 5%". I was now making 18% less than the offer I'd turned down, and financially out of options. Welcome to the engineering profession young man!

A couple jobs later: assigned to a project to re-build a plant (not one of ours) which had exploded, with millions in loss but fortunately (and by a freak of good luck) with no loss of life and only minor injury. Working through that project to address not just the obvious "this time make sure it doesn't blow up!", but also to address every single piece of dissatisfaction the client had with his previous plant, was an extremely learning-intensive and valuable work experience. Of course we created some new problems (the control system we used was a poorly supported piece of garbage) but we did tick every box on his list- and they ran that plant for over a decade too. May still be running for all I know- the client company has changed hands a couple times.

Many years later: working on a study project for a new client. In discussion, I find out that our firm and myself in particular came highly recommended by a school friend of his (one of my best clients). I ask him what was said, and was told that my existing client had given a great reference for the company based on his past experience- and further said "...and make sure they assign moltenmetal to your job- he's a bit of an @sshole, but extremely effective". Best reference ever!

RE: Defining Moments in Your Career

At my second job out of college, I worked as a medium sized (~6000 people) civil firm.
The CFO embezzled several tens of millions of dollars.
Because of this, all bonuses were suspended, except, of course, for the executives, who got large "crisis bonuses."
That was the last time I worked for anyone for free.

RE: Defining Moments in Your Career

One of my all-time favorite projects was providing several temporary modifications for flushing multiple systems in a refurbished nuclear plant several years ago.

The goal was to create a continuous flushing circuit by essentially tying together systems which had absolutely no business being tied together - they were just conveniently located in close proximity to each other for the preferred tie-in locations - of course, the client didn't quite understand that and wanted everything done in 3 weeks (I can imagine the feigned shock of everyone reading that statement, haha).

3 months later, we had a fully functional flowpath, right down to piping up a couple of 900 psi pumps (normally used for Shutdown Cooling) to discharge into the Condenser (at atmosperic pressure during this flush). It was very interesting eating up 900 psi of pressure in about 200 feet of piping - we utilized a combination of multi-stage orifice plates and a severe-duty control valve. The technical challenges (not to mention client-expectation managing challenges) on that project were plentiful and, looking back, very rewarding to overcome.

RE: Defining Moments in Your Career

For me, it happened one year after graduation and it was getting transferred from a small, struggling, talent-poor office to a larger, more successful, and more talent-rich office. Not only did this jump start my real engineering education, but it was good for my wife and me to move away from our hometown for a while. We moved back five years later, but the "exile" was well worth it both professionally and personally.

The smaller office consisted of 3 civil PEs, me (EIT), two drafters, and one secretary/receptionist. Across the hall we had another branch with two Agricultural Engineers (who I sometimes worked with) and an Agronomist. Before I got there, the larger office consisted of 11 civil PEs, 4 EITs, five drafters, and 4 other support staff.

In the smaller office, I was underutilized (about 1500 hours billed in 12 months) and undertrained. The branch manager had about 15 years of experience, but he was a "big picture" sort of engineer who spent most of his time out of the office doing business development. This was a big need because his predecessor had pissed off most of our clients (I met the guy once and he immediately pissed me off too). Unfortunately, this left me without regular supervision on projects I was working on for him, which meant I often floundered. Our best technical engineer had about 12 years of experience, but he also spent quite a bit of time out of the office dealing with his clients and construction projects. The third PE had only 5 years of experience and was often unable to help me due to his limited experience. He would grow to become an excellent technical engineer himself, but he wasn't there yet.

The branch manager for the larger office was a technically-oriented engineer with extraordinary professional depth and breadth…and a nearly photographic memory. He had about 30 years of experience and was generally considered to be one of the top three technical engineers in the entire company of about 600 people. I learned more from him in five years (and learned better how to self-educate) than I would have gotten in 10+ years in the smaller office. Comparing with the engineers I have encountered over my 38-year career, I would say all but 2 of the PEs and 1 of the EITs were above average and those three were average. That's not a bad environment to learn the profession.

-- Fred

"Is it the only lesson of history that mankind is unteachable?"
--Winston S. Churchill

RE: Defining Moments in Your Career

Meeting between four people - two senior field engineering managers, one VP, and myself, a very green engineer. Told them that their approach (hard copy vs. automation) wasn't feasible. VP blew up on me - both of us became red faced for very different reasons.

He came up and apologized the next day. VP retired, other two were forced into retirement. Project underwent two massive iterations of automation and several smaller ones. Learned two valuable lessons:

1) It's OK to be confident in an assertion that doesn't reflect the norm if you know it to be true,
2) but it's best not to tell a VP "that won't work" when surrounded by a crowd of supporters.

RE: Defining Moments in Your Career

In the first year of my career I was given instruction to start researching and developing an approach to something new for the company to pursue (basically a kind of, what-would-you-do-if-you-could-do-anything pet project). I chose to pursue an industry not serviced by us at the time that I personally was very interested and passionate about.

I knew my project, if brought to fruition would be a years long process before commercialization became a reality. I explained as much very early in the process to the higher ups. After about 6 months I finally got some confirmation from would-be customers that the approval process would be about 3 years minimum. When I communicated this in the next R&D update meeting, they cancelled the project right then and there.

I took it pretty hard at the time and very personally. I sulked for a couple of weeks and made it obvious I was unhappy about the situation.

Eventually, the VP called me into her office and gave me an authoritative, but necessary, cut the BS and don't take things so personally speech.

That stuck with me because I do still tend to get very attached to my projects and they don't all pan out the way I'd like. It was a humbling experience for me at the time, and I think about that moment fairly often still when I need a wake-up call.

Andrew H.

RE: Defining Moments in Your Career

Early in my stint as a Bridge Contractor we had to perform an ASTM pile load test at the start of a project. Retained a qualified lab to do the actual test, but we drove the necessary piling and installed a reaction beam to resist the test load. Halfway through the test, the reaction beam failed... I had not bothered to make the basic calcs to see if the reaction beam was adequate. Had to terminate the test.

Realized it was my responsibility to:
1) Find (locally) a replacement beam that may be suitable.
2) Do the calcs to see if it was suitable.
3) Make arrangements to get the beam to the jobsite.
4) Pay the lab to perform the test... again.

Lesson Learned: Do The Math... early in a project. Engineering Judgement is reserved, as a supplement, for times when math (or at least my ability to perform the math) is not enough.

www.SlideRuleEra.net idea
www.VacuumTubeEra.net r2d2

RE: Defining Moments in Your Career

I used to have long periods at a previous employer where I would regularly work 30 days solid and do 16 hr days & 90 hour weeks, or work right through the night and into the next day. I'd drink about 10 cups of coffee a day just to function, I don't even like or drink coffee regularly otherwise. When the going got tough, I got tough, I was loyal to the core, doing whatever it took to deliver projects for the company.

I raised these working conditions multiple times, but the work continued to be piled on, it became the new normal. At one point I had nearly 20 people working for me indirectly on a large project, and it felt like I was the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, catching and intercepting 80% of these people from doing dumb shit on a daily basis in addition to doing my own design responsibilities. I took on all the fixing to be done to push stuff to completion, as I felt it was the only way to get the result required. Quicker than explaining and getting the original designer to correct their mistakes. I wasn't always nice to some of these people, something exacerbated by the stress I was under.

The stress I put myself under was immense looking back on it and usually I excelled under these conditions and just got on with things. But eventually one day it all came to a head and something snapped and gave way. I collapsed in the office in a meeting with clients, I was taken to hospital in an ambulance, not knowing what had happened to cause the collapse. Turned out I had simply hyperventilated, brought on by the stress I was under.

The experience changed the way I thought about work, and the company I worked for and what it was all worth on a personal basis.

What soured me the most looking back on it was the fact that no one from HR even contacted me to see what had occurred and I had many personal friends in that department, employee well-being seemed to be right down on the list of things they were worried about in the situation.

Once I recovered I made some demands and had some promises regarding reducing workload but didn't really see this eventuate in practice. I eventually handed in my notice much to their surprise, they asked me what it would take to stay and I made a throwaway offer of 10's of thousands more in salary in anger, fully expecting them never to match it as they were fairly good at offering sub inflationary pay rises at the time (just after the GFC). They strung me along for months putting together some offer and eventually gave me ~80% of what I asked for but I just couldn't continue as I'd had enough and left shortly afterwards.

The icing on the cake was I had about 90 days of leave owing, and the manager at the time decided because I never replied either way to their offer, that I must have accepted. He put my pay up to the new level and my holidays all got paid out at the higher level. But on the other side they decreased my bonus, at a time when the company was making record profits. Win some lose some I guess.

Moral of the story, don't let yourself get screwed, know when to put your foot down & importantly always be nice to others. Be loyal, but don't be so loyal to a place of employment that it clouds your judgement or holds you back. Pay attention to your health and work life balance.

Next job I had I barely ever did over 10 hours a day (on purpose) to avoid falling into the same traps. I got paid significantly more over time, starting out on the same as my increased salary at the previous place and never felt like I had to fight for this which was a nice feeling. They recognised the worth I guess. I eventually learned to recognise and avoid the triggers for the hyperventilation as well.

RE: Defining Moments in Your Career

Agent666: your story is a very, very important lesson for others to learn from.

Fortunately I too learned this, and very early in my career.

At the start-up I mentioned, there were really two of us doing the lion's share of the testing work which led to sales. Others in the group were more responsible for executing on projects that had already become orders, bringing in sales inquiries that would ultimately need testing, or developing our next generation of technology. So the pressure was on the two of us, and we were working very hard at it. 70 hour weeks were the norm. There was no time for a life in the real world- there was just the job, the commute, and brief down-time that was mostly spent trying to de-stress enough to be able to survive the next day at work. But every day I was in there, there was another test I could do that might make the treatment unit cheaper and hence easier to sell, so it was never an option to just say, "that's good enough". And a lot of salaries were riding on those sales- not just my own.

Sales dried up for a bit, and the company responded by cutting us down to four days per week. A government program kicked in 50% of the reduction in pay resulting from so-called "job sharing".

I woke up and realized a few things:

1) I was working 70 hours but being paid for 40 hours
2) If we made a sale, I was still being paid for 40 hours, and still working 70 to get the next sale
3) If we did somehow turn the company into a success, there was no real up-side for me aside from keeping my job, maybe a pay raise that I likely deserved anyway because I was new in my career and SHOULD have been on the steep slope of pay rises that come with increases in experience, skill and responsibility
4) There were no shares, no bonus, no options - nothing - for me, at least.

I realized I was making a "sweat equity" investment in a company. That investment had a downside- poor salary, and working 70 hour weeks while being paid for 40, and no work-life balance at all. There was no financial up-side for me. There WAS, however, a financial up-side for others more senior- they DID have shares, or bonuses, or something else to motivate them.

So I realized that I'd been given a gift: I'd been cut down from 70 hours to 32 hours per week, in return for 10% pay cut - and I had a day off every week to find another job. I realized something else- I was a workaholic. And 4 days a week cured me of that- I quit workaholism cold turkey and NEVER went back.

My colleague left first- left the industry and engineering entirely, for a time. They put me back on five days per week, and suddenly (since I was the only one left doing those sales-related tests) seemed to express some concern about whether or not I was happy in my position, and what they could do to make me happier. I gave it some thought, and gave them a list- ten different options. A week later, they came back and said they couldn't do any of those things. One month to the day after that, I handed in my notice. I took a job for 20% more base pay which also paid overtime.

Here's the lesson, folks: working for free as an employee is a mug's game. Just don't do it. We're not talking about helping out colleagues during occasional and brief periods of peak workload, spending some unpaid time learning new things or fixing things you've screwed up and feel bad about- we're talking about consistent unpaid overtime. Make sure there's an upside for you personally, or don't do it. The upside can be a meaningful bonus, shares, options, time in lieu which you are actually able to take when you want to, or compensation at regular or overtime rates- or even a top tier base salary- but there has to be something in it for you personally- monetarily- or else you are being scammed- taken advantage of. If you think you're buying brownie points with your boss or management, think again- all your efforts will be accepted, that's a certainty- not necessarily compensated for, acknowledged, remembered or even NOTICED, but they certainly WILL be accepted! If you are bored and want to volunteer, do so for one of the many organizations that are doing good in the world- not for a for-profit company.

RE: Defining Moments in Your Career

Was in a very similar situation to Agent666 and MoltenMetal in my first engineering job, small company start-up, only two engineers designing products, both of us fresh out of uni. In my first performance (and salary) review the MD actually said to me "Sure you are single with no children or mortgage, you've no real need for a lot of money"

I foolishly stuck it out for several years but my defining moment marked the beginning of the end for me in that company. Myself and the other engineer had evolved into sort of joint engineering and production managers. We worked really well together which was a real positive experience. There was one product the company bought in and re-branded, it was a seasonal product with a long lead time from our supplier. Entering the season we had stock sitting from last year, we looked at the previous years sales, figured the stock would carry us until after Christmas and didn't panic about re-ordering. An extreme weather change the following week shot demand through the roof, our stock was gone within a week at the start of Nov with more orders streaming in. Demand would change again with the weather and our customers wouldn't wait on the 2 month lead time from our supplier. We discussed it and decided we should try to design and make our own and get a couple of batches delivered before Christmas. That was 4 weeks to do what would usually take us 4 to 6 months. I went to the MD and he said "I don't think you'll be able to manage it but give it a shot."

We pulled together what was now a 5 strong engineering team, discussed the design, what components we had in stock we could use, what we could do to replicate long lead time plastic parts etc etc and as a team divied up tasks between us according to strengths, I still remember that discussion in the office, everyone was up for the challenge and the office was buzzing, reminded me of the A-Teams signature preparation sequences before the big battle. The project went perfectly, everyone was engaged, communicating and performing without any project planning software or milestone meetings - enjoyably efficient

We made a prototype and predicted what sub assemblies would potentially fail and got on with the manufacture of the other first batch of sub-assemblies. We made great use of live FMEA so that when the prototype got sign off, the first batch was already waiting for final assembly with second batch fabricated and in paint. We had sales guys out on the shop floor doing assembly, the accounts team out sorting delivery dockets, all hand on deck. It had been 70-80 hr weeks, we were exhausted and we'd had to slide the pallets by hand over the hard packed snow on the yard to the tail-lift of the delivery truck just to get them loaded but at 5pm on the Friday deadline, the team of engineers, productions guys, sales and admin helpers stood triumphantly in the doorway of the factory watching the truck drive out the gate. Exhausted but the energy and efficiency and lack of BS in the whole process had us on a high.

The production guys started back into the shop to clear up, being 5pm on Friday (5:30 was official finish time) i'd told them to go on home and we'd help them clear up on Monday. At that point the MD arrived out "Oh you managed it, well done" and to the production guys now walking out towards their cars "Where are you going, that workshop needs tidied" and to us; "What have you lined up for these guys tomorrow (Saturday)" . . That was the exact moment I decided to resign!

RE: Defining Moments in Your Career

When I first started out over 30 years ago at McDonnell Douglas, by boss and I hit off right away. We got along great. I was willing to learn anything, he was willing to let me.
I had my hands in everything: mechanical, electrical, software, automation, CAD, etc.
He taught me if you want to keep moving forward, be willing to learn new things and get your hands dirty. I do.

Chris, CSWP
SolidWorks '17
ctophers home
SolidWorks Legion

RE: Defining Moments in Your Career

I had a great job in a state highway dept as head engineer of a new department with no one in my way to three grade steps up. Could stay there forever. However, had an employee (geologist)doing job as foreman of a test boring section. However, he had no sense of mechanics and really goofed up things with "inventions". Disregarded my instructions on me making all decisions on anything "new'. I gave him a failing annual evaluation due to this insubordination . Result he took me aside issuing a physical threat. Result I demanded he be fired or I would quit. They had hin take a mental exam and said he was confessed. I quit and took a private company job at equal pay but lead to me being part owner, etc. and eventually my own boss as a consultant. All later resulted in much more fun and money than I'd ever get from the state DOT.

RE: Defining Moments in Your Career

Too many defining moments to count but here are a couple of the most memorable.

My first job after college, I was working with someone I thought was a pretty annoying and rude coworker. My second week, I made a pretty big mistake and accidentally destroyed some company property. I told him, expecting him to chew me out and honestly expecting to get fired. Actually, he told me not to worry about it, patiently helped me sort out the situation and talk to my boss. About ten years later, we both work at different jobs but are still good friends.

Another time, had to go abroad to a manufacturing facility in Asia. I saw firsthand how bad working and living conditions could be for many people outside the US, and how little can really be done about it. It really put things in perspective for me, helped me realize how lucky I really was.

RE: Defining Moments in Your Career

In my case, it would be August 1977, when my boss decided to send me to California to take a week of training for the new CAD system that our company was in the process of procuring. Three years later, I quit my job, moved to California and went to work for the company that had sold us the CAD system. I retired from there 35+ years later.

John R. Baker, P.E. (ret)
EX-Product 'Evangelist'
Irvine, CA
Siemens PLM:
UG/NX Museum:

The secret of life is not finding someone to live with
It's finding someone you can't live without

RE: Defining Moments in Your Career

I wouldn't consider myself a seasoned engineer. But a defining moment occurred when I applied for the first job that I was eventually hired to do.

I had cold-called every company in the city, hand delivered resumes and shook hands. But the response was generally the same: "We don't hire summer engineering students that aren't in the co-op program." or "We only hire applicants with graduate degrees." At the time I had finished all my required courses, but had a year of electives remaining on my degree.

I walked into ABC COMPANY and handed in my resume in a neat little envelope. They got one of the partners to come accept it. He opened it up and said "I've worked here for 15 years and we've never hired a summer student, so I don't know what to tell you." I remember smiling (but in my head saying @!*# YOU) and then saying "Well, maybe I'll be the first." A month later I got an interview with them and I was hired on. By the time the summer was over they had offered me part-time employment as I finished the last year of my degree.

I learned a lot with that company and was even more motivated to do so knowing that they gave me a chance. The rhetoric of "We don't hire ______" or "You need ____ years of experience" or "You need ______ degree" has been so common throughout my career. It limits the talent pool to whatever the company desires it to be. So what I learned, and what I believe is memorable, is that you keep challenging those systems, you keep showing skills, confidence, and good work ethic. The real engineers will listen and call back.

RE: Defining Moments in Your Career

The day I first realised (as a 19 year-old) that my boss wasn't only wrong, he was deluded. And my answer was as good as anybody else's.


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