How to Get an Engineering Job and Keep It (Part 2)
Updated: Oct 27, 2020
In Part 1 of this soon-to-be-epic miniseries, your humble narrators (Max the Magnificent and Adam The Amazing) discussed some of the things you could do while at high school, college, and university to further your goal of landing a job in engineering and keeping that job once you’d got it.
In this column, we’re going to ponder the creation of a resume (a.k.a. curriculum vitae, commonly referred to as a CV) and the joys of being interviewed. In Part 3, we will cogitate and ruminate on how you keep your job, grow in it, and evolve your career.
The Resume / CV
This is a tricky topic because there are so many different facets to it. If you need to create a resume when you are older, one problem will (hopefully) be that you’ve got a bunch of stuff you’ve done and you want to talk about. In this case, the idea is to pare things down to the nitty-gritty. By comparison, when you are starting out, you may not have too many work-related accomplishments under your belt, in which case you need to accentuate the positive and make the most out of what you’ve got. One of our friends summarized this as follows:
When it comes to resumes, more is not better. Keep what you say limited to the essentials for the job. If you don’t have any experience, do not be afraid to say so (your interviewer will find out anyway). Instead, replace experience by talking about what interests you and what motivates you. Soon, this job will be the first on your future resumes.
Things are constantly evolving on the resume front. If you Google this topic, you will find a wealth of advice, some of which may even be useful. One thing to be careful of is asking older folks what they think because any advice they give may be based on the way things used to be when they were starting out.
Way back in the mists of time (well, twenty or so years ago), resumes invariably started with an Objective Statement, which went along the lines of: “To obtain a position in which my experience and education will benefit the organization.” Yada yada yada. This is now seen as being redundant. No one cares.
Another thing that used to be common was to list all the duties with which one had been tasked in previous positions. It’s now considered far better to cover much the same ground by describing all of the things you’ve accomplished while attending to your duties. Even if you have only recently graduated, you may have taken an engineering internship over a summer job (we talked about this in Part 1), in which case you can talk about the things you learned and achieved in that position.
Also, you can list achievements such as hobby projects you’ve created, assuming they are relevant to the position. When I (Max here) was applying to various universities, I always managed to slip the brainwave amplifier I’d created into the conversation, which gave me an opening to talk about different types of brainwaves, potential applications for brainwave amplifiers, the problems of amplifying such low-level signals, and suchlike. Strangely enough, we never got around to discussing the fact that I’d never got it to work, but it can be hard to squeeze everything in.
One thing we’ve seen a lot of people do is to list every office automation application, computer language, and engineering tool they ever touched in their lives in the vain hope we will be fooled into thinking they can actually use these items in earnest. In reality, it’s much more impressive to hear something like, “I have expertise in A, B, and C, and am acquainted with U, V, W, X, Y, and Z.”
One aspect of resumes from yesteryear was their size. Anything less than four or more pages was considered to be lightweight. These days, by comparison, “less is more.” If at all possible, try to boil your resume down (or build it up) to be a single page -- you can always include the catchall “Additional details and references are available on request.”
Older people may also tell tales about how they sent the same resume out to scores of companies. Sadly (or happily, depending on your point of view), we are no longer living in the days of “one size fits all” regarding resumes. Very often, the first-pass perusal of your resume may be performed by a computer application, possibly an artificial intelligence, which quickly scans all the submissions to filter out the ones that don’t make the grade. This means you have to tailor your resume with keywords specific to the position, like the job title and location, along with skills and phrases that are common to your targeted industry.
There are multiple schools of thought when it comes to the visual aspects of the resume. Some people prefer a text-only presentation, while others prefer a more graphical approach. Personally, I (Max again) prefer something that catches the eye, but you have to be careful to not go overboard because you don’t want the graphical elements to document the content. I’m in a bit of a strange position in that I’ve never actually written a resume. I was hired into my first position straight out of university, after which I was offered new positions with new companies as time went by. However, in order to give us something to peruse and ponder here, I just threw the following together:
Pseudo resume (Image source: Max Maxfield)
I’m sure I could do better with regard to the words (especially with respect to discussing achievements) but -- for the purpose of this part of our discussions -- let’s focus on the “look and feel.” The main thing is that when it comes to a human reviewer, you want your resume to “stand proud in the crowd” and catch their eye (in a good way). Based on this, I’m quite proud of the above -- it’s crisp and clean and I feel the eye of the reader is easily drawn from one section to another.
One way to think about your resume is that it’s part of your personal branding. In this case, you are the product that you are marketing to your prospective employers. At the end of the day, the main thing to remember is that a resume has only one goal, which is to get you into an interview. In turn, this means that anything you include in your resume that isn’t focused on achieving this goal is actually working against you.
When you graduate from university and are looking for your first position, by all means research the companies you would love to work with, look for any applicable positions that are open in these companies, tailor and target your resume at these positions, and send copies of the little rascal winging their way out into the world.
At the same time, never forget the old saying, “It's not what you know, it's who you know,” which is as true today as it ever was. Think about any friends or family members who are working for engineering companies. What about people you’ve met online or at conferences (although this may be more applicable after you’re already working)? The thing to remember is that the people wading through resumes at companies are only human. If you have someone “on the inside” who can walk your resume into the marketing manager’s office and say, “Regarding position XYZ, I have a friend who would be perfect for this role -- is there any chance you could take a look at this when you get a free moment,” then you have a really good chance that your resume will end up on the “short stack” that will move on to a more in-depth evaluation.
Further to the previous point, it’s fair to say that it’s easier to get a job if you’ve already got a job (although already having a job may make it awkward to attend interviews). We’re not advocating bouncing from job to job like a yo-yo, but we are saying that if you go for an interview and you are asked what you’ve been doing since you graduated university, then responding, “I’ve been working at ABC doing RTS and learning XYZ” will go over a lot better than saying, “I’ve been sitting on the sofa playing video games waiting for you to call because I really, really want to work for your company.”
When it comes to the interview itself, there’s an old saying that goes, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” This is certainly true, although it is perhaps more germane to say, “You only get one chance to make a good first impression!” Unless you have some sort of insider knowledge, you really can’t go wrong by wearing a suit and tie. Even if you are interviewing with a small, casual startup company, they will appreciate the effort. Furthermore, even if the company is reasonably relaxed regarding their everyday dress code, we wouldn’t give much for the chances of an interviewee who arrives scooting around on roller blades sporting a "spanking pink" body-hugging jumpsuit (we won’t be making that mistake again).
One of our friends who is getting close to retirement offered the following advice:
In the past, I made a practice of taking photographs of all my projects. When I was being interviewed, I found this made it easier to talk about what I had done, and some of the more exotic locations where I’ve worked often intrigued the interviewer. There were no smartphones in those days, so I used to go to an interview with a huge photo album. Later, as I progressed through my career, there were also copies of articles I’d written, letters of appreciation, etc. added to the album.
Based on young engineers I have interviewed, I would suggest developing a habit of reading different sources about the electronics industry, both technical and business. Almost everyone I have interviewed recently will answer "Google" and "Manufacturer's web sites" when faced with the question: "Where do you look for information?" What that means to me is that the candidate is reactive and is limited in his/her thought process to the immediate job at hand, resulting in less chance for innovation based on a wider knowledge of electronics.
I would also suggest that the engineer not only look up the potential employer on Google, but also the person who is going to interview them (if that information is available on LinkedIn, for example). Surely it would have impressed me if even one of the bunch had ever said to me: "I read your article on xxx in yyy..." and, better yet, follow up with "I have a question about it..."
All of these are great points. Researching the company in general -- and the division and or group in which you applying for a position in particular -- makes a lot of sense, and doing so is much easier since the introduction of the internet.
There’s an old engineering joke that goes, “How can you tell if an engineer is an introvert or an extrovert?” The answer is, “The extrovert will look at your shoes while they are talking to you.” (We didn’t say it was a good joke.) The thing is that engineers as a group aren’t famous for being gregarious, but when in an interview you need to sit up straight while appearing relaxed, speak clearly and don’t mumble, look the interviewers in the eye (or, at least, at their shoes) without appearing psychotic, and be cheerful and friendly without coming over as being obsequious. Try not to be stilted and feel free to offer your thoughts and opinions, but don’t talk about religion or politics, and don’t tell any long jokes or rambling stories.
As the Prize said in Dimension of Miracles by Robert Sheckley:
“Be admiring but avoid the fulsome, take exception to what you don’t like, but don’t be stubbornly critical; in short, exercise moderation except where a more extreme attitude is clearly called for.”
More seriously, don’t be afraid to ask questions of the interviewers. Remember that interviews are two-way processes -- not only are the interviewers deciding whether they want to employ you, but you should be using the interview to help you decide whether you want to work for them. Do they give you the impression that they are ethical and their company is a good place to work, for example, or have they already raised your suspicions that all is not as it should be? A good clue is if they appear to be performing some sort of bait-and-switch, like telling you that -- for one reason or another -- your actual starting salary will be lower than was originally advertised. If they do this in the interview, imagine how much worse things might get later on. Standing up for yourself at this point -- even to the extent of thanking them for their time, but letting them know you don’t feel this is an acceptable way to start doing business together --will make them respect you more and let you look at yourself in the mirror without wincing.
The problem is that every interviewer and every interviewee and every company is different, so it’s hard to provide specific guidance and instruction. Perhaps the best advice we can offer is to go into an interview with confidence in yourself without being overly confident or annoyingly cocky (the public speaking that we recommended you practice in Part 1 will stand you in good stead here).
Once again, our hope is that this column will at least provide a useful foundation for people hoping to enter the engineering profession. Also, it will hopefully provide the stimulus for other engineers to share their thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.