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Callum Connolly
Callum Connolly

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How to be an Exceptional Engineer

This article and the strategies are a write-up from Robert E. Kelley's paper, "How to be a star engineer," IEEE Spectrum, pp. 51–58, Oct. 1999. For more information, including case studies, please check out this paper.

Every engineer believes that deep down, maybe with the right circumstances, they can be among the best of the best. Many believe that the difference between an average performer and those who achieve their potential is purely hard work, or those with the best qualifications, or is to be found in some combination of OCEAN traits. Exceptional engineers are not stand outs because of what they have in their heads, but because of how they use what they have. They are made, not born.

Outlined below are the 9 key strategies most effective at unlocking your potential and building a name and reputation for yourself. As you read through, spend some time thinking about how you yourself would implement these right now.

1. Take the Right Kind of Initiative

Step forwards where it counts. There is an incredibly important distinction between taking part in the office Secret Santa and setting aside 2 or 3 hours of your time to introduce yourself to co-workers, take time to learn about their projects, and offer a helping hand where you can. It is vital to understand that difference. Even if the help is not required, the willingness to offer support will be greatly appreciated. From these ventures, you can gain skills in areas you otherwise would not have been exposed to. Even things as simple as writing a script to install the new VM are immensely appreciated by co-workers and managers alike and contribute to the rest of the team. It is up to you to make these opportunities for yourself and take decisive action.

2. Knowing Who Knows

Building the right kind of network, not one measured by the quantity of connections but by the quality. It is especially easy in this day and age to build mass connected profiles on LinkedIn of connections with little substance, or post for recommendations which receive hundreds of low-quality responses that need to be chased down. Knowing the people on a more personal basis e.g. what kind of work they do, what their worth it to you, and what you can do for them leads to a much stronger network with real connection. With these real connections finding the information you need becomes much quicker and of much more substance. Networking skills need to be, maybe unfortunately for some, developed as they are an important part of prospective star engineers skill-set.

3. Proactive Self-Management

Spending time where it counts, even outside of managerial approval and work hours can have significant benefits for your career, your colleagues, and your company. There are a very wide range of things that this strategy can encompass such as learning a new programming framework to get a head start on a project or attending and speaking at conferences. This is a very individual strategy which requires a lot of self-awareness and organizational skills to properly fulfill and will enable a lot of the other strategies their time in the spotlight if you are able to self-manage yourself correctly.

4. Getting the Big Picture

Seeing things from different points of view is an invaluable tool. Asking yourself "What would the client think of this", "How would my senior approach this situation", or "Why might my manager see this as the best course of action" and further questions can help you to move outside the box in terms of thinking. Richard Feynman excelled due to his ability to look at things from angles nobody else saw. Countless other remarkable people throughout history have utilized perspectives from outside interests to innovate in their chosen field. It is an invaluable tool and as you become more and more used to asking yourself these questions, seeing the big picture becomes a much easier venture.

5. The Right Kind of Followership

Being a №2 does not just mean accepting the actions of your superior, never asking questions, and just getting on with work. Nor does it mean challenging everything that has been suggested. Finding the balance may mean being a soundboard for a more senior engineer to bounce ideas off of, giving your contributions where you can, and alongside performing to the best of your ability. What is important is that you should never be afraid to voice your opinion or ask questions, especially if it goes against the current train of though. This enables those to perform to the best of their ability as well.

6. Take Your Share of Responsibility in Team Projects

Going further than just taking a group project to mean cooperating with others, exceptional engineers will see this an an opportunity to take joint "ownership" of the project. This can include testing several complex skills, including scheduling, group commitments, goal setting and activities. I've known engineers who from bit-by-bit taking more and more responsibility of a project have rocketed up the ladder. With each project you are working in, understand that it is your responsibility to be a positive contributor to the groups dynamic, helping everyone feel part, dealing with conflict, and assisting others with their problems.

7. Small l-leadership

To many engineers, leadership seems to be an inborn trait. These big-L leaders can flaunt their egos by being in charge, have the power to make most key decisions, and delegate what does not interest them. Star performs understand that leadership is a work strategy, and that leading in the interests of everyone and being the person to take the initiative with the goal of helping is a skill attainable by any engineer. They are small-l leaders.
These small-l leaders seldom have authority over those who they want to lead. Colleagues will often only go along if they believe you are acting with them in mind, and this requires the kinds of interactions only peers are privy to: slogging through the daily grind, the crunches before deadlines, and the late nights with pizza. These leaders know they have to consider the needs, skills, aspirations and power of their co-workers on a team. Exceptional engineers who employ this strategy will never assume they know everything about people, and make it a habit of asking first, even when they think they know. This is far from the big-L idea of the leader who knows almost omnisciently what is best for the followers and for the situation.

8. Know the Politics

Knowing the office politics can be an invaluable tool, especially to those developers that make a choice to be ignorant of them. On the other hand, paying too much attention to office politics can often only lead to problems for yourself, and overly ingratiating yourself will only get you so far and is never a good look. Neither of these approaches are optimal. Paying attention and being aware of the politics, however, can help you navigate where you may have otherwise come on stuck and build the way for future working relationships.

9. Show-and-Tell

Presentation skills are often underappreciated by developers. Having an important message to convey is at the heart of any good presentation but even more so is the skills of knowing what to present to your particular audience. To managers, a more concise and business-oriented presentation would be more appropriate. For co-workers or colleagues, going heavier on the technical detail would not cause boredom. For customers, a slick presentation with all the graphical bells and whistles.

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