Choosing and managing an engineering career: 7 things to know

A well-managed engineering career means a lifetime career outside the rut. Apply these seven tips to manage a successful engineering career.

By Bruce Slade July 31, 2019

The big, hidden in plain-sight, secret: Choosing an engineering career, being effective in your job and accelerating your career are not independent activities.

Example: If you ever set up a new process control system (PCS) right out of the box, you know there are a myriad of choices you must make during the initial system startup. The consequences of those decisions often do not appear until much later and may limit your options when programming and maintaining the system. Going back and changing those startup options could mean losing all your work and starting over. The same phenomenon exists for your career; early choices can have a long-lasting effect.

Don’t let past choices limit your career. Embrace and capitalize on your past if it fits your goals. If not, adjust your career plan. Manage your career to be happy and successful.

How things should be is another discussion. Below are tips to increase your effectiveness today, right where you are. If those words sound familiar, see the Control Engineering December 2014 article, “7 things control engineers should know about management.

The 1970’s John T. Malloy book, “Dress for Success,” espoused a parallel philosophy: know the rules and norms of your environment to avoid shooting yourself in the foot and act in a manner that will allow you to succeed.

Let’s get started.

Careers require management

All careers require management. Your career is like an automobile traveling down a highway. There may be no driver; there may be a drunk driver; the driver may be a student with a learner’s permit; or the driver could be a race car professional. The highway could be a country road, an interstate or a racetrack.

So it is with our careers; they are quite varied. The key is to master the commonality that exists for all careers and use that mastery to further our own development.

Whether just starting out or are in the middle or later part of a career journey, please do not skip over a topic thinking your career is beyond that milestone.

Read the topic and assess how well you did; you may find a need to go back and recalibrate.

1. A car needs a driver.

Your career needs a manager – you! Very few activities in our lives have a more wide-ranging effect than our career.

Note: I refer to your career as a journey not as a stagnant situation. Why allow it to go unmanaged? Unmanaged is the same as a moving vehicle with no driver. Only slightly better is the drunken driver approach to career management: “You aren’t very happy in your job, and not moving ahead, what advice can you give me about my career?” No comment necessary.

The next level in effectiveness is the student driver approach: you are counting on your boss and the HR department to manage your career for you, which makes you ripe material for a Dilbert cartoon.

Mimic the professional driver. Seek advice from an expert with the most successful career similar to the one you want. Do this when choosing a career, during your career and at the end as you plan for retirement.

I can tell you from experience the best career choice advice is not necessarily from a school guidance counselor. “Bruce, you have good math grades, go be an engineer. Next!” That is exactly how much time and effort I was given. No one identified my desire or need to be creative; not the counselor, not my parents and not me. Some engineering is creative (I love system design), but some is pure rote labor (and that part is torture, it feels like punishment).

I could have pursued movie directing, creating special effects, writing, being a chef… but none of these options were ever considered. I had been buried under an avalanche of “Go be an engineer,” “You’re lucky, you know what you’re going to be.” I was ushered into freshman engineering. My input had been relegated to the choice of electrical, chemical, civil, mechanical… you get the idea. I should have taken control of this very important phase of development and sought enough advice to make the best choice possible at that time.

Realize this is a starting point and adjustments or changes must be made along your career path. Remember, you are in charge of your career for the rest of your life. Take charge and take hold of the steering wheel.

2. Choose a career for happiness, not success or money.

You might think this was the advice my guidance counselor offered. Not so. It is true, choosing a career in a field at which you are good will help you earn a living and pay the bills. It does not mean you will automatically be happy. If you are not happy day in and day out, month in and month out, year in and year out, it will show in your attitude, your work output and ultimately in your career advancement.

Example: True example of a terrible career choice: Early in my career, I was interviewing for a plant electrical engineer (EE) position. The applicant who interviewed the day before had been raised and educated in another country. The HR rep and the head electrician took him on a tour of the electric centers. The interviewee was not familiar with the concept of a motor starter (typically not taught in college EE courses). The electrician opened a size 5 starter door with the cheater screw to show him the components within. Before anyone knew what was happening the interviewee had grabbed one of the live 480V cartridge fuses and asked, “What is this?”

The head electrician told him to be calm and not move a muscle. He killed the feeder breaker, taking part of the process area down. Later, when asked why he had chosen EE (the plant concluded he did not have an innate propensity towards the subject) he replied engineers are considered an elite class in his country, on a level with doctors and lawyers. He checked local sources, and in his country, EE paid the best. So he picked EE for the potential pay. His chances of being happy, successful or promotable seem low.

3. What makes me happy?

While this seems easiest to determine, it may be difficult.

Hint: Think about what you like to do. Consider how you spend your free time. Take a look where you spend your money. The fact is if you enjoy doing something, someone first designed it, someone is currently operating it, and someone is supporting it. You get the idea. An avid model railroader may love working at the Smithsonian Institute. There are many, many careers out there so choose wisely. Your passion follows your heart.

4. Can I succeed with a seemingly whimsical career choice?

Yes, I know. Some may be skeptical at all this happiness stuff. If my passion is cooking, I may not see myself earning much as a short-order cook at a fast food restaurant. But a happy cook, with passion, will rise above fellow cooks: head cook, manager, sous chef at a fine restaurant, executive chef… a career is a path not a fixed point.

Optimal advancement does not occur without the happiness and contentment that comes from self-fulfillment. Doing what you love can lead to self-actualization (the top level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs where you are performing for yourself, fully utilizing your talents, recognized for your work, and you feel great). You are passionate about your job. When you are in that zone, you are firing on all cylinders, and you are unstoppable.

That is what separates Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Guy Fiery, Bobby Flay, from others. When passion separates you from the pack, rewards follow. If you are happy, and you self-actualize, then you can achieve your true earning potential.

5. Applicability.

Stop, that doesn’t apply to me. I’m not one in a million. Thinking this way will ensure you are stuck in a rut. Following your passion will take you to the level your skillset allows. Regardless of what level you may achieve, it is still self-actualization, and you will maximize your rewards. You can be the best chef in a small town, serve the best pizza in the county (if I’m not a good cook but my passion is food, I can manage a restaurant and make it the best), be the best control engineer in your plant. Always strive to be your best.

Example: Bobby Knight, the legendary college basketball coach, is often misunderstood by those judging from afar. He truly cared about each of his players, instilling the passion to be the best they could be at all times and in everything they did. He inculcated among his players the ideals that would make them winners in life. Making them winners in life would make them winners on the floor. The philosophy carried over to getting good grades, not because of NCAA rules, but because you always do your best.

On the floor, if you knew you should pass but took the shot, you did not do your best. This did not change if you made the game winning shot, you did not do what you knew to be the best action in the situation. You chose an option with a lower chance of success. Luck gave you a positive outcome, but your decision making was poor. If you should shoot and you miss, that is not the best outcome for that one game, but you made the correct choice, you did your best. Over the long haul, always doing your best leads to winning. That is why Bobby Knight maintained close friendships with his former players (like Coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke). His players realize and appreciate the life lesson he passed on to them.

Example: The writers of the Eddie Murphy movie Coming to America got it right when they created the role of Prince Akeem. He took the most menial job at a fast food restaurant mopping floors, washing windows, emptying wastebaskets… but he impressed the owner’s daughter by doing the job with such pride and enthusiasm. Mediocre and getting by is for people who strive to be in a rut for life. If it is worth doing, it is worth doing right and you should do it to the very best of your ability.

Example: Mark. My high school guidance counselor sent Mark off to pre-med. He studied for four years with the goal of becoming a pharmacist. His senior year he realized he absolutely hated what he was doing. He graduated with his degree (always do your best), but his Dad reminded him how much he loved tinkering with cars. At the time, the holy grail of carburetors was a book written many years earlier. Mark read the book and got an entry-level job. With his love of cars and enthusiasm evident in his day-to-day performance, he was selected to travel on the racecar circuit. He was helping drivers he had idolized for years. His passion soon made him a trusted resource for many of those drivers. Eventually, he opened his own automotive performance shop in a small town in Western Pennsylvania. Those race car drivers continued to call on him for their carburetors, setup to their individual specifications. Soon he added a machine shop to his business so he could plane heads and turn brake drums, then he began teaching automotive mechanics at a local college in the evenings. A career is a journey.

His starting point was hating what he spent four years (and many dollars) learning. Instead of falling into the rut he changed course (the past is sunk cost, it must not override future planning) and ventured out at entry level in a field he loved. Odds are you never heard of this person, but his career is something to emulate.

6. Already there: Your career is already chosen, and it’s automation?

The truth is automation engineering ranks among the highest in happy careers (Fortune magazine, March 9, 2015, quoting statistics from job site CareerBliss)! The very nature of our job leads to great self-fulfillment.

Example: Several years ago, I spoke at the opening session of a Siemens Automation Summit, a Disney resort in Orlando. I pointed out we were surrounded with the Disney slogan, “Where dreams come true.” How can that not make you smile and feel warm?

At our plants, the automation group can be Disney-like, we can make management’s, operator’s and maintenance personnel’s dreams come true.

We may have stumbled in our journey to get here but we are in an excellent career field (I certainly love it with a passion). We only need to learn how to maximize our enjoyment, our happiness, and our passion, which is career management.

What do you love about automation? System design, configuring block ware, sizing relief valves, specifying instrumentation, control loop engineering, safety instrumented systems (SISs), troubleshooting, panel design, human-machine interface (HMI) screen design, alarm management, loop tuning, optimization, or plant-wide data utilization? Is it one aspect, a combination of these, or all of them? It’s worth asking the question and taking stock.

Equally important: what areas do you hate about automation? Now look around for jobs that match your passion. It may lead you to plant maintenance, capital projects or even jumping over to the dark side: a career with an automation company (I actually enjoyed my time with an automation company, I just missed the urgency tied to day-to-day production). Within an automation company, there is product design, testing, troubleshooting, system design, marketing and sales. Don’t limit your vision.

Even if you’re “there,” you must set a career goal. If you are not moving forward in today’s marketplace, you are dropping behind. The biggest problem with setting a target too low is how many times you hit your target! Once you identify your dream position, go get it! Be proactive.

7. I can’t get there from here. This is the battle cry of the perpetual rut dweller.

First: Set your goal. Choose the position that will truly make you happy. As you develop you may change that goal with the knowledge you gain over time. That’s encouraged and necessary for continued success.

Second: Develop a path to get there. Make that path logical and attainable given your present circumstance.

Third: Go get it.

Caution: Rut dwellers may sit back and complain. Determine what obstacles are in the way and start to eliminate them. Review your list of obstacles weekly and ask yourself what did I do this week to overcome one of these? Get training, make contacts, find ways to get necessary experience. You’ll find you enjoy these activities even more knowing they are leading you toward your career goal.

Do not get hung up on politics; learn the lesson at hand: Fulfill your dreams. Really want it and have the passion to go get it.

It’s good to take a step back and refocus every once in a while. Dad always told me, “When you are up to your navel (paraphrased) in alligators it is hard to remember your primary objective is to drain the swamp.”

He also said, “If it wasn’t painful, you didn’t learn anything.”

That pain sounds a lot like being in the rut. Don’t let your time in the rut discourage you or snuff out your dreams. It is a new day, take charge and manage your career for success.

Bruce Slade, president/owner, Byte Size, a process automation and process safety consulting firm. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media,

KEYWORDS: Engineering career tips, automation career management

Without active career management, you’re letting others steer.

Do you have career goals, and are you working toward them?

Look toward your interests to help refocus.


Are you managing your engineering career, in a rut, or allowing others to steer?

Author Bio: Bruce Slade, president/owner, Byte Size