I have shared a lot of my engineering career story online of how I didn't really have a structural engineering job before I graduated with my master’s degree. Looking back, I like to think it was the best that could have happened to me.
For many years I have struggled with impostor syndrome because of where I come from. I was born and raised in Colombia and came to the US to play Division 1 tennis at South Dakota State University in 2012. I then got my BS and MS from SDSU.
As I said, I did not really have a structural engineering job in college. I worked various summers in custodial and maintenance, operator for a wastewater treatment plant (overnight shifts), quality control technician for a ready mix company, and international project manager for a LED signage company (like the ones you see at stadiums or concerts).
All great jobs, but not what I wanted to do for the rest of my career. I felt I was not given the opportunities others were given simply because I was an international student. I had great grades and was involved in student organizations such as Engineers Without Borders and the American Society of Civil Engineers. At the end of the day, I was an international student and there are a lot of limitations to where I could work making it harder for companies to invest in us for the long run.
Looking back I can see three lessons from my struggle to find a job in my engineering career:
- It is important to understand to move on when you are not satisfied with where you are.
- Work hard and you will have more opportunities in life.
- Understand there is always something to learn from everything you do, even if it is not clear right now (it is easier to connect the dots looking back)
I didn’t let others define who I was and wanted to work hard to show myself I could become a successful structural engineer one day. I decided to become more involved with professional organizations such as ASCE and SEI and enhance some of the non-technical skills I was able to develop at my previous jobs.
I have been on committees that work on business practices, leadership, student initiatives, and global activities. Being part of these committees has been some of the best experiences I have had. On top of that, I have been really active with EWB helping small communities in South and Central America get access to clean water – a much-needed work, and one that brings me joy coming from a developing country like Colombia.
All of this work and other volunteering led to being recognized by ASCE as one of ten New Faces in Civil Engineering in 2020.
Now, you have probably heard me ask the question about what skills students and young professionals need to develop to be successful in the podcast. There is a wide range of answers but I believe we have all come to a consensus about these five:
- Team work
- Dealing with difficult people
- Personal Organization
Notice that none of these relate to technical knowledge. I, and many other engineers I have interviewed, believe that as long as you develop these non-technical skills there is a greater chance of success in your career. In my opinion, technical skills are easier to teach than non-technical skills.
What are some lessons you can learn from my engineering career journey?
- Ask a lot of questions early on: More important than asking a lot of questions is asking the right questions. You don’t want to waste your supervisor’s time with a lot of questions. I like to tell students to take at least 5 to 10 minutes to try to find the answer (or at least have an idea of the answer) before you come to the supervisor rather than going there with a blank piece of paper.
- Keep record of everything you do in your engineering career, you will need it down the road: Keeping a record of meeting notes, calculations, and any other important piece of information is important. There have been many instances when I had to either repeat a calculation or remember what was said in a meeting for a new project. I personally use Notion for this but there are so many tools that will help you organize your notes. Even a good old notebook will do the trick.
- Get involved with professional organizations: One of the best decisions I made in my professional career was to get involved with ASCE, SEI, EWB, and SHPE. This will help you develop the skills you need to be successful as well as grow your network
- Find the why of your motivation and the how will come naturally
- Never let others define who you are, you are in control of your future
- If you persevere in everything you love, people will appreciate what you do and doors will open
Everyone’s journey is different but we all should develop skills that will help us get to the next level. Take these lessons as an example and examine your own career. Do you see similar challenges? Do you see completely different challenges? There is no right or wrong answer. The fact that you are getting clear on those challenges, will ultimately help you overcome them.