Advice from Real Engineers

I went to a conference about Early American Literature at the University of Tulsa, but I ended up meeting two aerospace engineers who, when they learned what I teach, had lots of advice for my students. One, a man in his early twenties, had begun living in the U.S. as an international student, with English as his second language, at the University of Oklahoma; the other, a woman in her forties, was a native English speaker. Here it is what they said:

On the centrality of communication: “If you can’t communicate what needs to be done to your superior, then you’re not an engineer.”

On the importance of a proper problem statement: “We don’t only work with engineers, we work with all sorts of people. Mechanics, for example, who only have high school degrees, and they need to be able to read what we’ve written and understand what and why it needs to be done.”

On audience: “When I start writing, I slow down and think out what I want to say, but most of all, who I’m saying it to.”

“The first thing I asked my boss when I started my job was, who is my audience? He told me, ‘you’re writing so that an entry-level engineer can read your instructions and understand them. Someone who’s just starting out at this company–someone who has some acquaintance with the vocabulary, but who’s not an expert. So, be clear.'”

On having English as a foreign language: I wasn’t comfortable with my English, especially in the composition courses I had to take in undergrad, but I ended up doing better than nearly everyone in the course, because I analyzed the structure of each assignment, and simply addressed it on the level of structure. Structure does matter.

On getting a job: “No one cares if you have a diploma from a fancy school. Personality is much more important. I have so many friends with lower GPAs who got better jobs because of their personality.”

“My father, who teaches college, helped me with my resume when I was applying to jobs out of college. He told me, you get along with people, so put that on your resume. I thought that was ridiculous. Now that I’ve been in the industry for 20 years, I understand how being able to adapt to someone who is not a functional team member is key.”

On hiring decisions: “When we were looking for a new person to join our team, we didn’t care about their credentials. We cared about how they’d fit in our team. How they’d adapt. With new engineers, we’re looking for adaptability, not someone who says, ‘I don’t want to change.’ Because I can teach you how to do your job, but I can’t teach you how to be a normal human being.”

“We’re looking for someone who is willing to

  • learn
  • adapt
  • accept new technology

Sometimes this means that a new graduate is better than someone with 20 years of experience.”

On small vs. large companies: “Our firm laid off a couple dozen people months after I was hired. I was like, okay, I guess I’m going to lose my job. But I didn’t. People who had worked at Lockheed for decades were losing their jobs and I wasn’t. I was fresh out of school and I was still there. Those old engineers couldn’t adapt. You gotta think outside of what you’ve already learned. Boeing, Airbus, they have defined procedures. At a little company, we’re always in the process of building those procedures. If you can’t be comfortable with that, it’s a problem. We ask people to be active, to use their brains and be independent.”

“We ask that people here have the ambition to learn something more. That they don’t mind being wrong.”






1 thought on “Advice from Real Engineers”

  1. This is really helpful on writing a resume. And I truly see the importance of communication during my last three college years as an international student.


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