Become a better engineer and deal with being not-great in the meantime?
September 19, 2013 1:12 AM   Subscribe

I want to design and make things but I keep making silly mistakes at work. Calculations for even the smallest projects feel like a house of cards, and inevitably I've overlooked something crucial, messed up some math, or made a very wrong assumption somewhere along the way. While I did well enough in school, I was not the most responsible student, and I feel like nothing from my education really stuck (calculus, beam equations, material properties, statics, even high school physics). It's embarrassing and I feel like I can't trust myself even after quadruple-checking.

I've thought of studying for the EIT exam as a way to review my fundamentals. Is that a good idea? How else can I re-learn the things I need and keep it this time? What should I focus on learning (interested primarily in machine design, structures, and fabrication)?

What can I do in the meantime? I want to avoid major mistakes and not be so slow. I also want to make a good impression so I'm hesitant to ask for help on basic stuff.
posted by Gravel to Work & Money (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Ask for help. Even on basic stuff.

When you're new on the job, asking is the best way to learn all the things that you need to move ahead. People with more experience (should) guide you through until you can stand alone. Taking the time to ask, and getting confirmation will save a lot of time and money down the road on a project - and that's the important bit for your work here. It's not about you, its about getting the work done. You do what you have to do to ensure the success of your work. You will not leave a "good impression" by hiding your "faults", your mistake will be found and, most likely, need to be corrected at a later date when things have gotten more complicated, and these corrections could cost even more money.

Ask, and keep asking.
posted by alchemist at 1:57 AM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Everyone makes mistakes in calculations. Just check your results, and don't get emotional about it until the fourth or fifth go-round.
posted by hexatron at 5:09 AM on September 19, 2013

Don't ask for "help," ask for "sanity checks." Engineers with decades of experience still need sanity checks.
posted by Behemoth at 5:12 AM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

You're not working in a vacuum (unless you're making space vehicles and then you're working in vacuum... but I digress). You have coworkers that you can ask questions of. No one is expecting you to take a task and provide a finished product singlehandedly. Everything takes collaboration, and I think you'll find that if you ask for help most people are happy to give it, because everyone wants to show off how much they know.

In fact, seeking out help will make you look even better to your management. You can spin this as showing that you are capable of delegation and managing of resources. You're a team player (by getting others involves) and a leader (by directing the work).
posted by backseatpilot at 5:19 AM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

alchemist: "Ask for help. Even on basic stuff."

This. My god, this. And don't let them just take it out of your hands and do it themselves; this will inevitably lead to being told "You should know this by now" by the same people who won't take the time to teach you. Make sure you're shown *how* to do it. Take notes. Cover the room in post-its about various things.
posted by notsnot at 5:52 AM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Asking for help once or twice is a good idea. Asking for help every day, all day, is a HORRIBLE idea. Sanity checks are good. Having everyone else essentially do your job for you will quickly get you a bad reputation.

I'd consider enrolling in some community college classes. Take calc and calc-based physics again. Take diffeq and linear again. Take a programming class. Hell, take 'em online. It'll brush you right back up.

(I am an engineer if it matters)
posted by irishcoffee at 6:00 AM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

( Machine design and fab aren't going to require a lot of calc. )

Get comfortable not having all the answers and making some mistakes. Over long, long time your mistakes get a different character. For one thing, you start seeing the same shortcomings in your skill set and correct them, AND you make enough mistakes that you can start avoiding repeats, at least. Most of the time.

IF something is critical, get consensus. It's OK to ask "Did I miss anything obvious here? Is this the way you would do this?" Do not skimp on safety issues. Do not make critical decisions without review.

Repeat for emphasis... your work can get people killed. Keep that in the front of your brain. Your ego is not a factor. The outside world is. Care for it. Lose your job over it, if need be.

If you are feeling incompetent, it is because you are when you are starting out. It's why newbies get the simple stuff. Competence does not come from education, it comes from experience. When you get experience, you'll have growing competence. Education alone is fairly impotent. Hell, most problems are extremely simple and new grads often over-analyze/over-tool solutions to simple crap. It takes a while to figure out what approach to even use. So lighten up on you while the calendar turns a few pages and pay attention to who around you is the hot shot old-timer and observe/interact/learn.

If you happen to be the only engineer in your company (could be), it's usually trial by fire. Expect to break crap. Expect to buy the wrong thing. Expect your ideas not to work. Expect to work really hard to make them work. Expect subtleties to kill fundamentals, because sometimes, what works on paper fails in steel for silly reasons. Expect to remain forever in a fog of uncertainty that never goes away, but just gets overwhelmed by cockiness and personal power. Expect to forget whatever you learned in school from disuse. Expect to replace it with new and useful stuff.

No one bats 1000 for long. No one.

You'll sweat bullets, work over the weekends and holidays, stay awake at night, fear for your job, maybe get fired. (The last two are unlikely. In 40 years, I have seen no decent problem solving engineer fired and the only one I fired I fired because he kept mentioning the breasts of the ladies working the automatic pick and place machines I had him programming. That's not an engineering shortcoming, as you can tell. His OJT included the lesson that my warnings had teeth. Slow learner. )

While this may sound negative, you are in the place where things can get really fun. If you are still doing what you are doing now 10 years from now, your career has stalled. If you are good and get better and solve problems and ask questions and test solutions and respond to emergencies and work hard and study the problems in front of you, you'll move on and up. Same in all disciplines, I think.

Good luck. What's your specialty? ME?
posted by FauxScot at 7:02 AM on September 19, 2013

Set up your calcs in a spreadsheet to make it easier to correct mistakes. Make sure to include error checks in the spreadsheet. Any good engineer isn't expected to continually get all calculations correct at first try but there should be a review process in place to catch all errors.

Most design calculations are an iterative process. You want to start off with simple, rough estimates on the back of a napkin to crunch numbers quickly. Once more data is known you can flesh it out more completely, getting more SD's.
posted by JJ86 at 10:02 AM on September 19, 2013

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