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. 

Why Getting Out of Your Comfort Zones Can Make You Happier

What do you do when things are "going fine?" Think about it: generally speaking, you like your job; your boss and co-workers are cool (for the most part); you have a pretty short commute, and the work that you do is interesting and fulfilling. If all that is true, why do you catch yourself daydreaming throughout the workday about learning how to rock climb, or heading out for an epic road trip with some of your buddies?

Actually, the desire to try new things is a normal and natural feeling. As Life Hacker notes, stepping out of your daily routine can actually help you to be more productive and happier at work, as well as in the rest of your life.

Some of the many benefits of getting out of your comfort zone

By expanding your boundaries and taking on new hobbies and interests, you can actually learn to handle any and all of life’s uncertainties. Whether it’s signing up for a cooking class or deciding it’s finally time to take those sky diving lessons, you are ultimately challenging yourself to do something you normally wouldn’t. Once you start stepping out of your comfort zone, you’ll probably find it gets easier to do, in part because you’ll get used to that vague sense of anxiety and fear that trying new things can cause. Over the long term, learning new skills and experiencing all sort of adventures can even help you to become more creative, as well as broaden your mind.

Fortunately, getting out of your comfort zone doesn’t have to be difficult and there are several simple changes you can make to help you ease into the idea of breaking from your comfortable routine once in awhile. Consider the following:

Vary your everyday routine

Stepping out of your comfort zone doesn’t have to involve stepping out of a perfectly good airplane to free fall into space — unless you want it to, of course. As it turns out, even some seemingly simple and innocuous activities can stretch the bounds of your day to day life and open you up to new ideas and experiences. For example, if your commute doesn’t involve only freeway driving, consider riding a bike to work every day for a week. Give up your Wednesday-is-pizza-night tradition once in awhile and try a cuisine that is new to you, like Indian or vegetarian. If you normally wait for a movie to come out on DVD before seeing it, head to your local theatre and catch a matinee of the latest comedy or adventure — and don’t read the reviews first, just go and have fun. These small but different activities can help to jump start your creativity and help you see the world in a different way.

Try a new hobby

Another great way to step out of your comfort zone is to take up a new hobby. As Thought Catalog notes there are plenty of fun, new activities that you can try. If you have always wanted to learn a new language, Duolingo offers free language courses in Spanish, French and more (my daughter loves their Spanish lessons, by the way). If you daydream about owning a motorcycle, why not turn that fantasy into reality by joining a motorcycle club? You can purchase a pre-owned bike or a basic model and then shop for accessories at an affordable company like BikeBandit.com. Once you have your needed gear, look up local clubs that will introduce you to new community of people and some like-minded souls who love the feel of the wind in their face. Other ideas include checking out the community center calendar for dance or cooking lessons or joining the choir at church and giving your pipes a good workout. If you love animals, try adopting a new pet. All of these activities will provide you with new experiences that will help make leaving your predictable routine a positive and desirable thing.

Volunteer

Finally, think about volunteering to do something fun that helps others. Personally, I spend a lot of my time volunteering at a Boy Scout Horse Ranch which allows me to get outdoors, do some physical labor (very different than my routine during the week), and help young men and women develop leadership skills. It is extremely fulfilling.

Whatever you decide to do, don't just do "the usual" - adding some new variety to your life can do wonders for your outlook.

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.

5 Time Management Tips for Top Executives

Maren Kate Donovan

Maren Kate Donovan

I had the pleasure of talking with Maren Kate Donovan, the CEO of Zirtual on a busy day in New York the other day, regarding some insights she's developed around executive productivity.  She has distilled these down to 5 tips through things she's learned on her journey at Zirtual, where she has created a company that provides virtual assistant services to executives.  

She's learned through trial & error, watching more experienced people, and interviewing others who were already doing the things to which she aspired - an approach I love.  Here are her tips, along with some comments from me.

Maren's Top 5

1. "Hire people smarter than you."  Put another way, Maren says , "Don't be the smartest person in the room."  This is where you need to check your ego, and recognize that your success will be greater and more sustainable if you surround yourself with great people.

From my experience, this rings true.  After all, haven't we all heard the old advice that if you want to get better at a sport, you need to play against someone better than you?  

2. "Create a system of accountability." Set expectations by giving people a due date & time, and give them specifics about what you expect from them in terms of results.  Maren says this will help drive greater organization and focus.

I think what Maren says is true, but I'd go one step further - accountability is a two-way street, in that you can expect it all you want, but the other person has to accept accountability for this to truly work.  And that is where the clarity Maren describes comes into play: before you accept accountability for something, make sure you have a clear idea of what success looks like, and insist that you have the time, ability, and resources to deliver.

3. "Make sure your employees are familiar with your products." Maren believes it is vital that your employees understand your products, and how to use them.  Additionally, she recommends you share your expectations of product quality, responsiveness to customers, and other aspects that will come into play as they do their jobs.

She explains:  She often hires people who are experienced in "the business world," but when she brings them into her organization to function as virtual assistants (VA's), she needs to make sure they understand her expectations as a Zirtual VA.  She put them through hands-on training as a VA with a mentor, so they can learn and get feedback in real-time.  This higher touch model up-front pays dividends down the line, where they can work independently while still upholding Zirtual's standards.

I agree, of course, and believe this is critical to a couple of principles I hold near & dear: Know how your company makes money, and figure out what you need to do to stand out from your competition.  I also believe strongly in mentor/apprenticeship types of training - there is no substitute for doing the work when you want to learn quickly.

4. "Use the 'I'd have a drink with this person' test."  Maren believes part of success is in creating a connection with your employees and partners, and that you can tell if that is working by having a drink with them - whether that is coffee, tea, wine, etc.  That activity builds rapport, camaraderie, and helps a culture gel in a way that establishes behavioral norms within your company.  In other words, it is part of what makes it more than just a job.  I find that this kind of approach also helps you develop a natural, corporate, immune system that helps people who don't fit in your company decide to move on to their next gig - and that can be a good thing, believe me.

5. "Figure out what people are good at and leverage their strengths."  To continue along the lines of tip 4's theme of making work feel like "more than just a job," to keep people engaged, Maren suggests you spend time figuring out what your team members are good at and what they are passionate about.  Keep in mind that this may take you beyond the job they were officially hired to do.  She told me stories about people in her organizations that were financially-savvy and, even though their core job was something else altogether, she involved them in financial planning and analysis to keep them challenged and engaged.

I'm a big fan of this approach, too, because I believe it gets employees' creative juices going like nothing else.  It also gives you the opportunity to cross-train people in your team and build bench strength in your organization.  Furthermore, it helps with career progression, in that it makes it easier to provide more options for people who may want to move out of their current job into something new.

As a CEO herself, I asked Maren what her key advice is to new or aspiring CEO's.  Here are her thoughts:

Read everything you can.  Meet with other people who are doing what you're doing, or doing things you want to be doing.  Spend time networking to learn - ask other leaders to lunch, coffee, or just a phone call to chat.  Learn to use the power of delegation - for example, if you hire a virtual assistant for less than $20 an hour and your time is worth more than that, then you're wasting money by not finding ways to delegate tasks that don't play to your unique strengths.

Maren gives great advice, for sure, and I don't think its value is limited to C-level executives.  

What about you?  Do you have any best practices, practical advice, or tips for better time management?  Please share!


Have you checked out the "Toolbox for Success: What You Need To Know To Succeed As A Professional" yet?  In this Kindle-only book, you’ll find a collection of lessons learned, resources, and stories that I offer to help you on your journey to greater success. 

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.