July 18, 2017

So You've Got an Engineering Degree. Now What?

Dave's Engineering Advice

The son of a close friend recently entered the workforce with an engineering degree. He’s already bored with his first job. Now the poor kid fears he made a terrible mistake and wonders if it’s too late to correct it.

Well, having followed a circuitous route to PebblePost — in 15 years I’ve worked in everything from ad tech to TV to news — I felt qualified to tell him that, no, it’s not too late to change career paths. And just because he doesn’t like the job he has now doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like any job in his field. Not all engineering careers are created equal.

An Engineering Career: What’s in It for You?
For such bright, analytical people, engineers can show a surprising lack of foresight when prioritizing their job prospects. Too many of them base career choices on superficial perks like the opportunity to work in a specific programming language. They forget that many faddish languages quickly fizzle out. When that happens, all you’re left with is, you know, the job. So it had better be one that you like.

Another important factor that many grads fail to consider is corporate culture. Are you a better fit with one of the big name Death Star companies or the startup Mos Eisley Cantina types?  (If you don’t get that reference, you’re probably not cut out for an engineering career.)

The answer might not be as clear as you think when you’re living in a dorm and playing beer pong. Then, the opportunity to work for a Death Star might have a certain name-dropping appeal. But when you’re an entry-level engineer on a staff of thousands, it can be easy to get lost in the crowd. In many cases, a startup can be your best chance to jump right into the game and make an immediate impact, like this guy.

Should I Consult or Develop?
The next fork in the road when choosing your path is consulting versus product development. You don’t have to make this choice right away. Hiring managers rarely consider a career set in stone until you have three or four jobs under your belt. But at that point, if all of those jobs center on consulting, you could hardly blame a firm that’s focused on product development for binning your resume without bothering to schedule an interview. And vice versa for consulting firms.

Here’s a look at the basic differences in these two paths:

As a consulting engineer you can never get too comfortable. Engagements run from two months up to several years. Often you’re dealing with a different industry, different tech stack and vastly different problems than you were at the previous engagement. This can be stimulating if you enjoy seeing new places and thrive on fresh challenges.

I sometimes call consulting “drive-by engineering.” You’re the hired gun. You come in, fix the things that need fixing, investigate the things that need investigating, and answer the things that need answering. And while you make things right for the customer’s needs today, you rarely get to see the consequences of your decisions. Did the system fall over under heavy load? Was the solution supportable in the long term, or was it abandoned and rewritten by another team because it wasn’t fluid enough for changing times? I’ve learned far more by carefully examining my mistakes than my successes. You don’t get that chance when you’re a consultant.

You’re also the perpetual outsider. You are not truly part of the company. And if the company achieves spectacular growth due to your efforts, you won’t reap the rewards like an employee stockholder would. You’ll never be famous. You’ll never be Sergey Brin.

Product Development
Product development engineers get to stay put for long periods and immerse themselves in their projects. Your typical job engagement will be 3-4 years. You’ll probably become a functional specialist like a “big data,” “full stack” or “high performance/high scale” engineer.

As you gain more experience you’ll span across these functional roles but again at a much deeper level than a consultant would. And because you will be working at a company for a much longer tenure, you’ll see the consequences of your efforts. That’s a big help in learning and advancing. You’ll also get a much deeper understanding of the industry that you’re working in. You’ll be a company insider with the full benefits of a clear career path, mentorship and stock participation that allows for much bigger economic success. You might even become famous. You might even become Elon Musk.

Of course, all of those benefits are contingent on choosing the right industry to work in. Make a poor choice, and you might end up like my friend’s son. And no engineer should ever have to live with boredom.

Dave Peterson is Chief Technology Officer at PebblePost.

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