Engineering soft skills and stepping outside your circle of competence

My great great grandfather was a preacher. My grandfather was a great salesman. My father is a great salesman. I am an engineer. One of these things is not the same here. How did I enter a profession often associated with introverts and socially challenged people? Am I doomed to fulfill this stereotype? What kinds of skills must I develop to be a better engineer all around?

I write about these things for two reasons. One, because the skills I’m about to list are necessary in every aspect of life, not just work. And two, because most engineers do not stay engineers for their entire career. Either because of desire for higher pay grade, natural promotion or just wanting to be in charge, most engineers end up in management eventually. I will leave opinions about whether this is the correct path to the comments.

  1. Public speaking — One of the most feared activities the world over, this is a good one to force yourself to practice.  Granted, not many new grads will have much to present about; but once you are tapped for that first presentation, it is likely it is an important reason. It’s probably better to practice your public speaking in front of your design group or an organization outside of work before you’re chosen to speak in front of the company. The best tip I can give is to slow down. You’ll become more aware of what you’re saying and you’ll be less likely to say “um” when your mouth pauses from its usual mile-a-minute pace.
  2. Presentations — I believe Nate (a good friend and frequent commenter) put it best in my post about getting a job out of college, when he said that the engineering education at our school didn’t focus nearly enough time on giving presentations and communicating our ideas to our superiors. When you look at the percentage of time we present compared to how much time we spend designing a solution, it seems much more important than ever was stressed in school. For tips on presentations and powerpoint, I usually look to Seth Godin, marketing guru and writer extraordinaire.
  3. Conventioneering — Not every engineer goes to conferences on a regular basis, but when you do, you have to know how to work it. Remember, it’s not just a food free for all; nor is it time to go around seeing how many thousand pens you can gather. These are opportunities to check out your competition, find new components for designs, see some cool stuff and maybe even make a few friends (or contacts, if you will).
  4. Small talk — You know what you do a lot of at conventions? You stand around a lot. You know what else you do? You make small talk with strangers. But the skill here is learning how to open people up to talking about more than the OSU football team or the weather. Instead you want to find some meaningful information about them and then relate back to them with stories of your own that fit. Getting people to relate to you will help you build your business contacts, drum up leads for your marketing people and again, help you make friends. You never know who you meet that might be working on the next Google or Apple. You just never know.
  5. Networking — Things don’t last forever. In fact, it’s a skill to know when to quit rather than wait for a job to dead end. Unfortunately, people always extol the virtues of networking but never tell you how to do it. Some say blogging is a good idea for networking, but I haven’t hit the jackpot on that one yet. I’d say the best way I’ve found so far is to bite the bullet and call up some people you don’t know (who happen to know a lot) and ask them for some time to talk about what they do. Sure, this works better when you’re not looking for a job, but it works OK when you’re desperate too. Remember, there are a LOT of people out there and the ones getting calls are mostly the ones everyone knows about (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, etc). If you happen to catch a name of a local engineer who does something you do, call him or her up and ask to hear about their job for a while. If you don’t think you’ll be overhearing any names anytime soon, go to LinkedIn and snipe some names off of there. The main thing is to be courteous, be honest with them (if they ask if you are doing this to find a job, tell them yes or no) and most of all, be interested. Playing to someone’s ego may sound bad, but it works because people want to feel important and wanted. Don’t forget the thank you notes either. (For more info on networking, I always like “What color is your parachute” by Richard Nelson Bolles. It is updated yearly and has some great information).

Soft skills aren’t limited to the ones above, but they can get you pretty far in life past the lab bench. Remember, these skills aren’t absolutely necessary–they just help engineers round out their skillsets. If you are an engineer who wants to start a company one day, you’re going to have to sell your idea, at least once. So you might want to think about working on developing the skills listed above; at the very least, recognize what they are and partner up with someone who displays these attributes.

Is there a soft skill missing? Am I way off on any of these? Let me know in the comments!

3 Comments

  1. Seth Godin has a superb TED talk. It’s about sliced bread. If you haven’t seen it, check out the 4/5/07 entry on the TED itunes podcast.

  2. Dude, you are an engineer with a blog. Therefore, you are an extrovert. :-D

  3. As for my two cents, networking is more than just getting a job. The reason people don’t often provide the step-by-step guide to networking is because it isn’t really something you set aside time for. To put that in a corny way, nobody writes into their calendar “2:00-4:30, networking with people I haven’t met yet”. Networking is just making friends and getting yourself in the right place at the right time. If you are looking for a job, this means telling your family you are looking for a job, telling your friends you are looking for a job, telling your old classmates you are looking for a job, telling former coworkers you are looking for a job. Somewhere out there, someone knows someone that wants to hire you. If you aren’t looking for a job, the same still applies!

    At some point you will probably be looking for a new job, and wouldn’t it be nice to have a lot of the work in finding people already done? To turn it around, networking is something employers do too. When they need to hire someone, they have to get the word out until they find the right person. Unrelated to job searching, you can use networking to find a date, or find something to do on the weekend, or meet up for a game of poker, or get a deal on a car, or whatever. Networking is really just another term for “making friends with a purpose”. You don’t have to BE Bill Gates if you want access to his network of people, you just have to join his network. You probably can’t send him a friend request like on facebook, but if you meet him, make an impression and who knows what may come of it. I’m no expert on networking, but if you want to accomplish a goal that requires people besides yourself, you are probably going to have to meet some people and do some networking to get it done.

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