Engineering Career Superpowers: Advice I Wish I Gave to My Younger Self

From the mind and tablet of Patrick Gartner, Director of Systems Engineering

At the midpoint of my professional career and approaching my work service anniversary at a global telco organization, I think of the successes I’ve had along the way. I also remember the failures and challenges I encountered and reflect back on how I could have better prepared my “younger self” to plan for and tackle those obstacles.

If I could write a letter (or better yet, travel back in time to do some 1:1 coaching!), I would give myself the following tips for making the “career growing pains” less severe and help myself be even more prepared to manage, coach and lead teams.

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Dear Pat,
Remember when you were interviewing for your first job? You were nervous and unsure of where this career path could take you. Everything will work out the way it’s meant to in the end, but if I could give you some advice to remember that day, it would be:

Time Management
Yep, I know you want to get ahead. So do thousands and thousands of people. You’ll get there. While on your journey, make sure to create some type of balance between your career, your family and your friends. This is not as easy as it sounds but just find a way to “do it!”

  • Declutter your calendar. You don’t need to be at every meeting, join every professional club or be on every work sports team! Be selective with your time. Attend those meetings where you can either contribute in a meaningful way or learn, learn, learn.
  • Caring about others’ growth and advancement sets the stage for your growth and advancement. There’s enough to go around. Give guidance to others. Always listen, empower, and encourage.
  • Kindness is not a weakness, it is a strength. You need to value it for the long run in your  enterprise career.  This does not mean to be a pushover but to know when and how to push, by understanding the circumstances of the situation.
  • Be a lifelong learner. Be curious and take risks. Make sure you are carving out time every week for personal and professional learning, whether through books, classes or mentorships.  

Career Development
There are a few key skills you should learn right away. These skills will carry you across any industry or role you take as you grow up! I learned and believe in using the “OSI Model” as a guiding principle to help me grow into the technical leader I am today. :

  • Project and Program Management: these are two different skills that build upon each other. Get proficient in these areas!
  • Technical learning in the industry. This means understanding how technical components work, how network protocols are established, how code is built and deployed, and lastly, how it integrates and works with each other. It’s important in any role or business to understand how things are built end-to-end so you know how best to run and lead your teams and help them resolve problems. This is true for any field you might be in - if you are delivering newspapers, learn about the publishing industry and what makes it tick!
  • Take time early on to develop your “soft skills:" those things that help you develop authentic, trusting relationships with people. It’ll help you down the road when you are a people manager in knowing what motivates and inspires them to do their best. Take time to watch body language; it’s important to know how people are reacting to your messages and words so you can adjust to be most effective.
  • Start kicking around ideas on jobs you think are interesting or areas that fascinate you. You’ll probably change your mind a hundred times but it’s good to start exploring interests early.
  • I know you are an early data geek and like to make sense of data; maybe a career in AI or ML would be interesting for you. In any role or industry, it’ll be important to understand data points as a way to be objective and make decisions.
  • I know you enjoy  a good mystery and solving a classic “who done it.” Maybe Cyber Security is an area you’d like to try out. All companies have network security and data privacy functions in their organizations; everyone has to comply because of the increase in cyber theft along with compliance and regulations tied to use of personal data.
  • Last but not least, I know you’re a “build it” kid and are fascinated by how to structure physical or conceptual objects. With everything going digital (yep, you’re gonna freak out when you see all the cool stuff you can do with cell phones, tablets and wearables!) you might be interested in being a software designer for websites or cool eCommerce apps.

Relationships Matter!
One important thing to know asap -- and this is a big one -- don’t just reach out to people when you need something. Take time every single day to make personal connections so that when you do need help, you’ve got that relationship already in place.  And pay it forward, too. Help your connections when it’s needed. If you are not able to make a true, real connection, you lose and the person loses. Share your interests, your knowledge. Be open to new ideas and different perspectives.

Core Leadership Traits You Should Learn Now

  • Learn to close your mouth and just listen. If you catch yourself thinking of an answer to what the person is saying, write it down so you are not distracted and listen some more!
  • Don’t hog all the credit or the ability for others to make decisions. Let your team learn. It’s okay to fail if there is learning.
  • Be decisive with decisions. Your team will lack respect if you are on the fence or wishy-washy on decisions or opinions.
  • Build consistency. If you lack consistency, your team will implode.

People Management

  • You will never make everyone happy. Be nice. Be respectful and learn to be okay with the things and actions you cannot control.
  • Always do what is best for the overall good of the team and the company; put your personal needs behind theirs.
  • The means must justify the end. Don’t make decisions or do things to curry favor from just certain individuals.
  • You will be faced with tough decisions. You have to have tough conversations. In the end, you have to be confident to get the best results. Read the “Crucial Conversations” book; it’ll help you get the practice and process down early on.  

Here is a quote from Jack Welch whom you have never heard of yet?  But trust me, he has done incredible things at GE and will be known as a great leader. “Control your own destiny or someone else will.” This is very true and I live it everyday!!

Sincerely,
Pat