Day 6, Graduate Engineer’s New Job: Confident not Cocky

Dear Diary, Day 6. At tea break, Steven, the engineer who pranked me last week, invited me to join them for breakfast. On Monday mornings, most of the team take an extended tea break and go to a nearby cafe for a fried breakfast. John, the Engineering Manager, turns a blind eye, he says most of them are good for nothing on a Monday morning anyway. I was pleased to be asked, it made me feel part of the team.

Later, Don, the company owner was in the office and spoke over. “You must be the new whizz kid?” I had been warned that Don was old school, he had started out on the shop floor, worked his way up and built the company with his bare hands. He was particularly proud of the fact that he had done all that without a ‘fancy degree’. He was therefore very much of the opinion that Professional Engineers hadn’t really earned their stripes.

Obviously I wanted to impress him so when he asked me what I am bringing to the team I said, “Other than my obvious good looks, I have significant knowledge in manufacturing processes”. “Really?” he said, with just a little more suspicion than I would have preferred. It had been a real area of interest for me so all the knowledge studied at university had stuck. I told him I had become the go to expert for my friends during project work. I said “I know about all the manufacturing processes and what sort of designs you can make on them so I know about a lot more options when I am designing.” Knowing he had worked up from the shop floor, I thought this would be good common ground.

Don settled back against a desk getting comfortable with a knowing smile on his face that said he was ready to be entertained and he asked this question: What would a typical tolerance be on the position of a hole, laser cut into a sheet metal part which was then folded into a channel and welded onto a frame work. “That is fairly straightforward” I answered, “there is a tolerance on each process, the cut, the fold and the weld and they are all affected by the machine capabilities.” Come on, I thought, that is basic stuff.

He looked at me with a slightly evil glint in his eyes and smiled before replying: “What about the cut tolerance on the edge you measure the fold position from, or the edge that mates to the frame for welding, what about weld operator error or the tolerance of the welding jig, or wear on the folding tool, or spring back on the fold, what about the grain direction in the steel part.”

OK now he was just making stuff up. There is grain in wood but there is no grain in steel it’s just metal all the way through (or so I thought!). He is trying to trick me here, I’d heard he would do that and I didn’t want to look gullible. I decided to call him out on it. . . In hindsight I probably should have kept my mouth shut. He just looked at me quietly with a look that said I should probably research that one later.

I tried to stage a comeback stating that of all those tolerance figures are just standard information stored in tables but that it is my knowledge of what is capable in manufacturing processes that would benefit my design. He had bored of me by that point and just concluded that the biggest problem for most graduates coming out of university is that they don’t know what they don’t know therefore they think they know everything just because they got the degree. I was more than a little crest fallen.

To rub salt on the wound he then told what I can only presume to be his favorite joke: What is the difference between God and an Engineer? – God doesn’t think he is an Engineer!


Lessons from Day 6

There is a theory known as the Dunning – Kruger Effect which suggests that when people don’t realise they are unskilled i.e. they don’t understand the skill levels involved, they will tend to over-estimate their own skill level. A good example of this is young drivers, they tend to drive faster and break more rules of the road because they believe they are good drivers but are also the category responsible for more road accidents. The lesson here is be aware of this effect and exercise caution.

At university everything is academic, theory based, proven facts and true. In industry there is a lot of stuff that tends to just be universally true, even though nobody knows or understands why. Think of it a bit like myth, legend or folklore. Experienced engineers know this stuff, as a graduate, it would be fair to assume you don’t.

Assume you have knowledge gaps, even if you don’t know what they are. Make every effort to learn from any experienced engineers (and manufacturing employees) around you, even if you don’t know what you are going to learn. Ask to sit in on technical conversations, buy them a coffee etc. It would be useful to take notes but be careful not to stifle conversation or miss anything, sometimes it is best to record notes afterwards.

The skills, knowledge and understanding that actually make you competent at something, tend to be the same qualities that are needed to realise you are not competent. The more you know, the more you will realise you don’t know.

Around 40% of people can handle constructive criticism. They will break down and evaluate everything they did that led to the thing they were criticised for, they will address it, move on and won’t take offence. 60% will take offence, become annoyed with themselves or deny the failing altogether. Work on being in the 40%, you will go further.

At the start most graduates under perform because they don’t know what good performance is or how it is measured. If you are not given performance reviews, ask for them.

Engineers are often perceived as arrogant. General opinion suggests that it is not actually arrogance but an honest confidence coupled with less than perfect social skills. Regardless, take care not to further perpetuate this misconception.



Coming up, Day 7, Just Good Enough – Can our new engineer get to grips the balance between efficiency and perfection?

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