Genuine Curiosity

Author Dwayne Melancon is always on the lookout for new things to learn. An ecclectic collection of postings on personal productivity, travel, good books, gadgets, leadership & management, and many other things.

 

How To Go From Rookie Engineer To Valuable Asset

I have a position on an industry advisory board for a local university's Engineering department, which means I get to hear a lot about the challenges of newly-graduated engineers who are looking for jobs. I've also had the chance to speak with some of the new graduates who were able to get engineering jobs, but are wondering how to make their mark (or at least fit in among their corporate peers).

Imagine this: You've just spent four to six years getting a degree or two in engineering. That's a solid decision considering the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that all engineering fields have a high median salary and show better than average growth over the next decade. Of course, getting the engineering job is much different than excelling at the engineering job. As a new engineer, your fresh education is your greatest strength and, although only time will make you a veteran, there are ways you can further advance your knowledge once on the job to position yourself as an indispensable member of the team.

Learn The Jargon

All facets of engineering are full of technical language, some of which you learned in school or gleaned from technical writings, and some that you will need to research or learn as you go. Depending on the field and your role within the organization, there is differing terminology; for example, the engineers in the non-destructible testing (NDT) department have idioms that differ from the R&D group. Pick up some of the jargon from resources like The Most Used Engineering Terminology Defined list on StruCalc or go even further and read the policy and procedure manuals word for word, as this is where engineering acronyms are born.

I happen to work with a lot of software engineers, and we have our own jargon - not only about engineering and software development, but also about the processes surrounding the coding (think Scrum and Agile). We don't expect everyone to know our jargon, but we're suspicious of anyone who doesn't :-)

Know Your Journals

For many fields, scientific, peer-reviewed journals are where the newest ideas are shared. Since new concepts are among the most valuable things you can bring to the table, stay abreast of the latest scientific literature. SJR ranks scientific journals by field, citations and country. According to SJR, the best journal for mechanical engineering is the Journal of Nature Materials which is a UK-based monthly journal that brings together multi-disciplinary articles on cutting edge material sciences. Electrical engineers may want to subscribe to the Journal of Nature Nanotechnology for its vanguard electronic sciences. I regularly read the IEEE Journal, for example.

Sites To Follow

In an online world, there are reputable websites for scientific literature and engineering technology, with one of the best for civil and industrial engineering being the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers website. Besides giving you a solid history of engineering, the Army Corp of Engineers is the final word in civil engineering, risk management and safety and occupational health.

For very different reasons, another site to follow is Engineering For Change. Not only does this website offer the newest engineering innovations across technical fields but it does it with a socially responsible, philanthropic agenda. Partnered with IEEE and Engineers Without Borders, Engineering For Change lets a rookie engineer networks with veterans around the world, building up his knowledge and support network.

Carve Your Niche

Having a specialization is a good way to become invaluable to your company. Within each brand of engineering, there are specialties that call for additional education. Quality assurance is one of the largest specialties, as every engineering concentration needs a quality assurance department or liaison. For example, rubber seal manufacturer Apple Rubber is QA certified in several areas; in aerospace, Apple Rubber is AS9100 certified; for medical components, the manufacturer is ISO 9001 compliant. They even have a certified cleanroom which is class 10000, ISO 7 compliant.

Each of these quality assurance specializations requires specific expertise, record keeping and detailed reporting. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists quality assurance in each engineering sector, from electrical to industrial to computer.

Try to find a field or specialization that not only hold your interest, but maps to your talents. For example, if you have an eye for detail, QA (Quality Assurance) may be the specialization for you. If you are adept at chemistry, you may want to get into a laboratory environment creating coatings. In any case, deciding where you want to specialize - and doing that early in your education or career - can help you prioritize and come up with a plan for success. 

Sharper Minds Through Video Games?

I play a lot of video games during my travels - it is a great release to unwind in my hotel room, and I find it very relaxing (yes).  I flit from one to another quite often, but my current favorites are Borderlands 2, Diablo III, and Call of Duty: Black Ops.  I also tend to apply lessons I learn from video games into how I view the world; for example, I have given multiple talks about what information security can learn from video games - such as this brief talk the RSA Security Conference earlier this year).  

With that in mind, I wanted to make sure I wasn't deluding myself - to find out if there really is something to this "learning from video games" thing I preach about all the time.

According to the Entertainment Software Rating Board, 59 percent of Americans regularly play video games, with the industry earning more than $10.5 billion in revenue annually. The survey also showed 44 percent of respondents play video games on their smartphones and 33 percent play on wireless devices. The rise in popularity of gaming has also led to the rise of studies investigating the potential negative effects they have. The Ohio State University found an increase in violent video game playing resulted in a spike in aggression.  

For what it's worth, I can definitely tell the difference between video games and reality and I think this resultant increase in aggression might be true of any competitive activity, such as organized sports.  Of course, that is just my theory...  

Since I know I benefit from playing video games and I don't feel they are harming me, I was curious about the "other end of the spectrum" when it comes to the impact of video games.  As it turns out, more researchers are looking into how video games can benefit us and report surprising results. Boosting memory, delaying cognitive decline and increasing multitasking ability and confidence are just some of the ways we can benefit from regularly playing video games.

Boost your memory

Recent studies from the Georgia Institute of Technology show gaming won't necessarily improve reasoning and problem solving, but can help boost your memory. Working Memory Capacity (WMC), is our ability to recall information relatively quickly even while distracted. The study showed that gaming can help strengthen our memory skills, along with our ability to work on a variety of tasks or switch between them quickly.

That makes sense, since practice with just about anything - including retention of data - tends to improve your abilities in that area.

Prevent cognitive decline

Playing games and using the computer may help prevent cognitive decline and preserve brain function. Staying mentally and physically active — whether by socializing, exercising or playing games — could also delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. Game resources like iWin carry a variety of puzzle games and mind teasers that could help strengthen memory, improve hand-eye coordination and encourage problem solving on convenient mobile devices or tablets.

I used to play Brain Age on my Nintendo DS to help in this area, and I know people who swear by Sudoku and other puzzles as a way to keep their memories and minds sharp.  I say you enjoy it and it doesn't cause any harm, why not?

Improve Multitasking

Researchers at UC San Francisco discovered video games, especially 3-D varieties, can actually improve overall cognitive performance in older, healthy adults. Senior citizens who played the games for 12 hours over the course of a month showed an improvement in working memory and sustained attention. Their ability to multi-task also improved as they became more skilled at switching focus during their gaming activities.

Of course, we can't truly "multi-task," but the better we can context switch and get back on our mental feet when switching from one task to another, the better.  I've noticed that my eyes take longer to adjust from close vision to far vision as I get older, and I suspect that resistance to switching from one context to another is a challenge from a mental perspective.

Build Confidence

Scientists at the University of Essex explored if people's self-esteem improves while gaming because it gives them the chance to experiment with characteristics they envision their ideal self possessing. The Researchers discovered gamers enjoyed gaming the most when there was little overlap between their actual and ideal self. Participants reported feeling better about themselves after playing with the personality traits they wanted, such as being outgoing.

I definitely agree with this.  Even though it is an artificial world, I find that taking risks in video games makes it easier for me to take risks in the real world - it can help you feel less anxious in the face of the uncertain.

Improve your vision

While some say excessive video gaming can hinder your eyesight, some new studies show the opposite to be true. Researchers at the University of Rochester discovered action video gamers who play a few hours a day over a month improved their vision by 20 percent. This improvement came from being able to pick out letters from a clutter of images. Gamers played for about 30 hours and saw a significant increase in their vision's spatial resolution.

Again, this feels right to me.  Not only do video games improve my reaction time, they force me to expand my attention to take in more things - this is true from a visual point of view, but also from an overall situational awareness perspective.  I need to keep tabs on where I am, how I'm doing versus my objectives, how the others in my party are faring, pay attention to new threats and opportunities, etc.

The bottom line

OK, so maybe I'm guilty of contrived rationalization, but in my book, the data says playing video games is good for me.  Enough said - I'm sticking with it!

[Updated] SpiShutter hands-on - a great webcam privacy solution for MacBooks

A while back, I shared how you can use cellophane tape to keep people from spying on you with your webcam.

For the past month or so, I've been using an alternative called the SpiShutter which I really like so I wanted to share it with you.  Here is a brief video walk-through showing how it works:

I have the black version of the SpiShutter, but they come in a couple of other colors, as well. 

By the way - the privacy screen I mention is the 3M Gold Privacy Filter for MacBook Pro Retina computers - they are available for most other computers, as well.  That's meant for a different kind of privacy - namely, to combat shoulder surfers and neighboring travelers - and I swear by them. [Updated - corrected broken link]

Don't be a victim in the eBay data breach

If you're an eBay user like me, you'll have seen the news about their recent data breach in which users' names, email addresses, physical addresses, phone numbers, date of birth, and encrypted passwords were taken.  As part of my day job, I have been involved in sharing information about this incident, and thought I would share some of my thoughts here.

From the information publicly shared by eBay, it appears that the data breach involved securely encrypted passwords, which makes it more difficult to gain access to users’ eBay accounts en masse, as it will require brute force decryption (i.e. high-speed guessing) to determine the specific characters in an individual's password.  If you use a simple and/or a short password, the chances of them guessing your password quickly are much higher and if you re-use that simple password on other sites, your risk goes up greatly.  Remember, once the attackers have your email address and at least one of your simple passwords at that point, they can start trying that combination on other sites to see if they can get lucky.

The fact that user email addresses, physical addresses, and dates of birth were taken in the breach is more concerning.  Criminals could use your personal information to masquerade as eBay customers on other sites, or perhaps use knowledge of that data to ‘social engineer’ their way into users’ other accounts on other services.  Unlike the passwords themselves, the other user-specific information was not encrypted and therefore could be easily reused by attackers.

eBay will ask you to reset your password - do it, even though it appears they will make this optional.  Furthermore, use a complex password - I suggest that you use a product like 1Password or LastPass to help you manage passwords online (I use 1Password, personally). These products can help you create a strong password by suggesting and saving a highly complex password.  Of course, you should also make certain you are not using your eBay password on any other sites.

Many eBay users also have their accounts connected to PayPal for payments (PayPal is owned by eBay, but their statements indicate that PayPal was in no way involved in the data breach).  For additional security, I recommend you make use of PayPal’s optional feature which uses 2-factor authentication to verify the users’ identity prior to making a payment (you can find more information on PayPal's site).  Given that PayPal is linked directly to your bank accounts, this is a best practice even if there had not been a data breach at eBay - I have been using this multi-factor approach for a couple of years and it adds an extra step in the buying process, but provides a great deal more security.

Finally, eBay users have long been a popular target for phishing emails, and users must be especially wary during incidents like this.  To be safe, do not click on links in emails about eBay security or password changes; instead, type the eBay URL directly into your browsers and log into the site that way to prevent disclosing your credentials to spoofed, malicious copies of the eBay site.

Conquering Burnout, and Achieving a Healthy Work-Life Balance

Do you have to drag your body out of bed on weekday mornings? Does the idea of spending another day at the office fill you with dread? Are you finding it harder and harder to get excited about your job and the work that you do?

If so, chances are good that you are suffering from job burnout. This has been a big topic at tech conferences in the past year (I'm in the tech industry) but I think it applies far beyond tech.

According to the Mayo Clinic, work-related burnout is a form of stress that can cause us to feel mentally, emotionally or physically tired. It can give us unusual doubts about our abilities to perform as well as we usually do. Job burnout can also lead to unpleasant symptoms like headaches, a change in appetite, and poor sleep.

Why Do We Get Burned Out?

Although the reasons we feel burned out at work vary from person to person and job to job, some common culprits include feeling out of control at work. For example, having little or no say over your schedule or assignments, or having a micromanager as a boss can be triggers. When you're spending so much of your day at work, that it feels like there's never enough time or energy to be with your family and friends doing activities that you enjoy, that's when burnout sets in.

Fortunately, these negative and unpleasant physical and emotional symptoms do not have to last forever. There are steps that you can take to reduce job burnout.

Identify What is Causing the Stress

One of the best ways to reduce job burnout is to have an honest conversation with yourself about what is causing you to feel so miserable in the first place. If you feel you spend too many hours in the office, consider approaching your supervisor about the possibility of telecommuting. Or, ask if you can have more of a say in the projects or assignments you're part of in the future.

Take Responsibility For Your Own Well-Being

This is a saying I use a lot, and it relates to the previous point.  When they feel stuck, sometimes people need to be reminded that they can take action to shape their lives - maybe that's you, sometimes.  

For example, take the initiative to share your goals and aspirations with your boss; that can help them see you in a different light and reduce the risk that you'll be "type cast" in a specific, confining role.  Or, you may have skills and talents that they don't know about, so you can make them aware the things you're good at doing.  Or, perhaps a particular aspect of the job is energizing to you and you can ask them to let you do more of that type of work.

Realize That Your Job is Not Set in Stone

As the Huffington Post notes, if your best efforts to change the negative work environment do not pay off, you might want to consider changing your job. Sometimes giving yourself permission to start looking for a new career can be incredibly freeing. Take some time to research different jobs that might appeal to you, and if you can, talk to folks who are already working in those fields. For example, if you have always dreamed about owning your own restaurant, maybe you could speak with some local café owners to get an idea of how much work might be involved. Or, if you have always wanted to work with children, you might consider volunteering at a school to see if being around kids is truly for you. There are websites and services can also help you determine which new career path might be best, and they can even offer educational opportunities to turn your dreams into reality. For instance, if a career in the pharmaceutical field sounds appealing, organizations like the Penn Foster school offer convenient online education opportunities, including a pharmacy technician career diploma.

Nurture Your Non-Work Interests

As Lisa Gerry's article in Forbes explains, it is important to have interests and hobbies that have absolutely nothing to do with work. For example, consider volunteering your time with a local charity. You can involves with a pet rescue group, sign up for a fun fitness class at the gym, or pick up that old box of stamps you collected as a kid and see if you can renew your love of all things philatelic. When you are passionate about something other than work, it can help to keep your life in a better balance.

This can also be a good reminder to create better boundaries between work and home or hobbies.  If you check email all the time when you aren't at work, your whole life can feel like work.  Try to consciously "switch" from work to home when you leave, to give yourself that physical and psychological break that you need to recharge.

Make Sure You are Getting Enough Z’s

Speaking of recharging, if you are routinely burning the midnight oil, do what you can to get more rest. Being sleep deprived can not only impact your mood and job performance, but it can also make you less motivated, making it more difficult to focus and get work done in a timely manner. Getting more sleep will probably help you get your work done sooner, which will allow you to spend less time in the office and more time doing things you enjoy.

Take Care Of Your Physical Health

A lot of what I've presented here is psychological, but don't overlook the value of your physical health.  As I mentioned recently, I've been focusing more of my attention on diet and exercise, and it has helped me a lot - not just from a 'vital signs' perspective, but by increasing my energy level, improving my sleep, and helping me feel better about what I'm doing both at work and away from the job.

The bottom line? If you are feeling burned out, don't just settle for a life of drudgery.  There is plenty you can do to improve things.