Hackaday readers are a vast and varied bunch. Some of us would call ourselves engineers or are otherwise employed in some kind of technical role. Others may still be studying to gain the requisite qualifications and are perhaps wondering just how to complete that final leap into the realm of gainful employment. Well, this one’s for you.
What sort of job are you looking for?
You might be a straight, down the lines, petroleum engineering graduate who’s looking to land a job in the oil and gas industry. Conversely, you might be an arts student who’s picked up a few skills with electronics over the years and are keen to gain a position doing grand installation pieces for musuems or corporate clients.
There’s a broad spectrum of jobs out there that require high-level technical skills, and my first piece of advice is that you shouldn’t limit yourself. There are things you can do to keep your options open, even over a long career – these could pay dividends when you’re looking for a seachange.
Can You Do The Job?
One of the reasons people enter degree programs is that the piece of paper is, ideally, proof that you have a certain set of skills. You can show up to an interview looking for a chemical engineer and you can wave your paper around that says “Yes, I know how to do that!”
It’s a grand idea, but today the degrees you work so slavishly for are more about keeping your resume in the pile than anything else. Once you get to the interview, there are two main things you need to achieve. The first is to prove that you’re a decent human being who can get along with others and show up to work on a regular basis. This is common to all jobs. The second is to prove that you are capable of completing the work required and that you have the necessary skills to do so.
“How do I prove that? Surely that’s the whole point of the degree!” you might say. The degree is great at proving you have passed a lot of exams on theory, but doesn’t prove your experience. Alternatively, you can tell people you know how to analyse fluid flows and optimise assembly code until you’re blue in the face, but talk is cheap. You need to show people you can walk the walk.
The trick is to draw on your prior experiences to back up your story. If you tell me you can write HTML code and create a decent website, I might believe you or I might not. Backing that up with a certificate might help a little. However, if in the interview you can direct me to check out TarasAwesomeWebsite.com and I find a super-responsive, clean, well designed page and you can then walk me through the development process, then I am seeing first hand that you’ve got what it takes.
Once upon a time, I was a student studying Aerospace Engineering, and wasn’t paying too much attention to where life would take me after university. As my studies drew to a close, however, it was time to find some work experience to meet the graduation requirements. I’d worked a few jobs here and there in the retail sector, mostly stacking shelves and scanning tickets at the local stadium. Application after application went out and after months of applying, I had precisely zero interviews. In the end I had to beg the university to give me a summer project to fulfill the requirement and thankfully, I was able to graduate.
It was around about this time that I’d also become deeply involved in music. I didn’t want to graduate and head straight into a 40-hour-a-week desk job, and wanted to live the life of a musician for a year or two. But I was also keenly aware that a long sabbatical after my degree combined with minimal real world experience was not going to put my engineering career off to a strong start when my fledgling band inevitably sputtered and died. I needed some way of keeping my engineering skills fresh while I was spending my days writing depressing grunge songs.
My plan was simple. I would leverage my electronics skills and start a business designing and building guitar effects pedals on the side. I figured I’d learn more about electronics, as well as the skills necessary to produce a product in volume and bring it to market.
It was a bumpy road at first – I spent a great deal of time developing a digital effect pedal that never came to fruition, before falling back on a simple analog distortion pedal as my first product. I went into business, suffering all manner of problems with suppliers and fit and finish, eventually shipping product all over the world and completing two successful crowdfunding campaigns.
Two years out of university, I took stock of the situation. The band was falling apart, and I wasn’t making the sales I needed to live off my effects business. It was time to look for an engineering position.
At this point, my resume was starting to look thicker, and juicier. With my final year university project and running my own business to fill things out, suddenly I had a breadth of real-world engineering experience. The key thing to note here is that this wasn’t given to me, or something I got by luck. It didn’t require connections or knowing the right person to score an internship. All it took was investing some of the money from my night jobs to start a business. I did things incredibly slowly and almost never paid for express shipping, so my customers had to wait, but it meant that I scored all this experience for well under $2,000 invested. All it required was a steady income from my boring night job, and the dedication to grind away at design and marketing.
I now had a flashy website thanks to Squarespace, and an amazing prop to take to interviews – a distortion pedal of my own design. I also had a great story to go with it – research online, through to a garage build and a crowdfunding launch combined with all the intricacies of running a business suddenly made me come across as a lot more experienced than I was two years before.
After a small handful of interviews, I scored a job working for a major automaker as a graduate engineer and all of a sudden, I’d cleared that first job hurdle. I was a real, working, employed engineer.
This was all thanks to the experience I now had, that I created entirely by myself. So often, people are turned down for jobs because they simply “don’t have the experience”. I would implore anyone in this position to make the experience yourself.
Overall, it comes down to this. Employers use interviews to try and determine if you’re capable of getting the job done. If you can show them you’ve already done it before, or something very similar, then you’re well on your way to landing the position. Real proof is worth a thousand pieces of paper, and if you do build something cool, it’s always a nice touch to hand the interviewer something you bootstrapped and built with your own two hands. It speaks volumes about your abilities as both an engineer, and a self starter.
I hope some of you out there find this useful, and I’d love to hear your tips for both gaining a technical role, and for building a strong career!