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Success in Engineering Demands That You Never Stop Learning

By John R. Platt

Technology is a competitive field. Keep yourself informed, learn to work in teams, be flexible, and understand the expectations of your employers and customers.

Education Never Stops

You're only as good as your last refresher course, certification exam, seminar or degree. Today's technologies are evolving rapidly, so your education must keep pace. Luckily, employers understand this and encourage your continued development.

Take advantage of that--read industry journals and trade publications, attend seminars, and add as many certifications as are appropriate to your field. Get out of the office to attend conferences or trade shows in your area of technology. Then, when you're done, bring those new ideas back to your company. It will help to illustrate your value to your employers.

Silicon Valley Isn't Everything

A few years ago, engineers had one destination for the best tech jobs: California's Silicon Valley. But that's no longer the case. Sure, San Jose is still home to a huge number of tech companies (as are other Cali towns like Los Angeles and San Francisco), but New York City, Boston, Atlanta, Dallas and other big cities have consistently high levels of tech employment.

But those cities aren't alone. The truth is, high-tech companies are everywhere, and smaller cities may offer a more competitive lifestyle and better quality of life. Your salary might be a bit lower in Montgomery, Alabama, but your cost of living of living will be, too.

Teamwork Is Everything

Engineers don't work by themselves. They tend to work in small teams, which expect and require creativity, speed, and interaction. The better you learn to work with a team, the easier your projects will go. Be prepared to share your thoughts freely, don't be upset if your ideas are shot down, listen to your teammates, and keep your eyes on the problem you're all trying to solve.


Some people think that engineers work insane hours. That's true once in a while, when projects demand it. But most engineers report working just a 40-hour week.

Of course, as a newcomer to the job market, that 40 hours could be on a different shift. In the global economy, businesses need to keep their systems running 24 hours a day. That means many engineers are assigned to work evenings, nights or even weekends.

Be flexible when projects demand you put in extra time to make a deadline. In return for your flexibility, companies are increasingly offering flex-time and telecommuting, great bonuses if you are starting a family (or if you just want to avoid burn-out).

Google's policies embody another form of flexibility: they give their engineers 20% of their work time to "pursue projects they're passionate about." This freedom to innovate keeps employees happy and challenged (and often leads to great new products for the company).

Women & Minorities Get a Boost

With so many engineering projects tied to government contracts, companies must keep very close counts on the numbers of their minority and women employees. This makes it a very exciting time for women and minorities to get into the job market -- and an even more exciting time for them to start their own businesses.

Patents and Intellectual Property Rule the Business World

Intellectual Property (IP), including patents, copyrights and trademarks, are increasingly the lifeblood of today's companies. Let's take IBM for example. For years, IBM Corporation has maintained one of the (if not the) most vigorous patent filing operations in the world. The company has a portfolio of more than 40,000 active patents, and aggressively licenses them. Another company might ultimately build a product using the patent, but as the patent holder, IBM gets paid no matter what.

Academia has also bought into the patent frenzy, especially since a large percentage of academic research is funded by corporate partners, who share in the findings. Universities rely on royalties from their patent holdings to maintain their budgets, and they need their research teams to keep developing new patents so they can continue to lure new corporate funding.

What does this mean for you? If you're working in corporate R&D, your research should lead to practical applications. If you're working in academia, you may be working toward a loftier goal, but you may still have milestones and deliverables placed upon your research.

Publish or Perish

If you're working in academic R&D, you may find yourself judged on how often your papers are accepted into technical journals. Different journals have more cachet than others, so prepare your research carefully and submit it to the journal that matters the most to your peers and bosses. Your annual funding (not to mention your career) may depend on it.

John R. Platt is a freelance writer and marketing consultant who often writes about technology, entrepreneurship, and the environment.

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