Career Advice For Engineers and Other Organisms

How Running A Business Changes The Way You Think

Career Advice For Engineers and Other Organisms
Capital Thinking | Career Advice For Engineers and Other Organisms

Capital Thinking • Issue #166 • View online

“If there was one course I could add to every engineering education, it wouldn’t involve compilers or gates or time complexity. It would be Realities Of Your Industry 101, because we don’t teach them and this results in lots of unnecessary pain and suffering.” - Patrick McKenzie

Well, yeah.

And about that “unnecessary pain and suffering” thing - it doesn’t just apply to engineering, you know. Patrick’s suggestion to add “Realities Of Your Industry 101” to your school schedule is right on the money.

Now, this isn’t one of Patrick’s longer posts, but it isn’t something you ought to take lightly either. And if you’re not planning on a career in programming or engineering, you’re excused if your eyes glaze over at some of the references, but please don’t leave until you understand some of the points that are applicable to everyone.


All the time.


Take this part, for instance:

Peter Drucker — you haven’t heard of him, but he is a prophet among people who sign checks — came up with the terms Profit Center and Cost Center.

Profit Centers are the part of an organization that bring in the bacon: partners at law firms, sales at enterprise software companies, “masters of the universe” on Wall Street, etc etc. Cost Centers are, well, everybody else.

You really want to be attached to Profit Centers because it will bring you higher wages, more respect, and greater opportunities for everything of value to you.

It isn’t hard: a bright high schooler, given a paragraph-long description of a business, can usually identify where the Profit Center is. If you want to work there, work for that.

If you can’t, either a) work elsewhere or b) engineer your transfer after joining the company.

Or this:

Networking just means a) meeting people who at some point can do things for you (or vice versa) and b) making a favorable impression on them.

There are many places to meet people. Events in your industry, such as conferences or academic symposia which get seen by non-academics, are one. User groups are another. Keep in mind that user groups draw a very different crowd than industry conferences and optimize accordingly.

Strive to help people. It is the right thing to do, and people are keenly aware of who have in the past given them or theirs favors.

If you ever can’t help someone but know someone who can, pass them to the appropriate person with a recommendation. If you do this right, two people will be happy with you and favorably disposed to helping you out in the future.

You can meet people over the Internet (oh God, can you), but something in our monkey brains makes in-the-flesh meeting a bigger thing.

I’ve Internet-met a great many people who I’ve then gone on to meet in real life. The physical handshake is a major step up in the relationship, even when Internet-meeting lead to very consequential things like “Made them a lot of money through good advice.”

Definitely blog and participate on your industry-appropriate watering holes like HN, but make it out to the meetups for it.

And there’s more:

Academia is not like the real world:

Your GPA largely doesn’t matter (modulo one high profile exception: a multinational advertising firm). To the extent that it does matter, it only determines whether your resume gets selected for job interviews.

If you’re reading the rest of this, you know that your resume isn’t the primary way to get job interviews, so don’t spend huge amount of efforts optimizing something that you either have sufficiently optimized already (since you’ll get the same amount of interviews at 3.96 as you will at 3.8) or that you don’t need at all (since you’ll get job interviews because you’re competent at asking the right people to have coffee with you).

Your major and minor don’t matter. Most "decision makers" in industry couldn’t tell the difference between a major in Computer Science and a major in Mathematics if they tried.

I was once reduced to tears because a minor academic snafu threatened my ability to get a Bachelor of Science with a major in Computer Science, which my advisor told me was more prestigious than a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science.

Academia cares about distinctions like that. The real world does not.

Patrick continues:

Communication is a skill. Practice it: you will get better. One key sub-skill is being able to quickly, concisely, and confidently explain how you create value to someone who is not an expert in your field and who does not have a priori reasons to love you.

If when you attempt to do this technical buzzwords keep coming up (“Reduced 99th percentile query times by 200 ms by optimizing indexes on…”), take them out and try again.

You should be able to explain what you do to a bright 8 year old, the CFO of your company, or a programmer in a different specialty, at whatever the appropriate level of abstraction is.

You will often be called to do Enterprise Sales and other stuff you got into engineering to avoid:

Enterprise Sales is going into a corporation and trying to convince them to spend six or seven figures on buying a system which will either improve their revenue or reduce costs.

Every job interview you will ever have is Enterprise Sales. Politics, relationships, and communication skills matter a heck of a lot, technical reality not quite so much.

When you have meetings with coworkers and are attempting to convince them to implement your suggestions, you will also be doing Enterprise Sales.

If getting stuff done is your job description, then convincing people to get stuff done is a core job skill for you. Spend appropriate effort on getting good at it.

This means being able to communicate effectively in memos, emails, conversations, meetings, and PowerPoint (when appropriate).

It means understanding how to make a business case for a technological initiative.

It means knowing that sometimes you will make technological sacrifices in pursuit of business objectives and that this is the right call.

One more:

All business decisions are ultimately made by one or a handful of multi-cellular organisms closely related to chimpanzees, not by rules or by algorithms:

People are people.

Social grooming is a really important skill. People will often back suggestions by friends because they are friends, even when other suggestions might actually be better.

People will often be favoritably disposed to people they have broken bread with. (There is a business book called Never Eat Alone. It might be worth reading, but that title is whatever the antonym of deceptive advertising is.)

People routinely favor people who they think are like them over people they think are not like them. (This can be good, neutral, or invidious. Accepting that it happens is the first step to profitably exploiting it.)

You can find more by clicking on the link:

Don’t Call Yourself A Programmer, And Other Career Advice | Kalzumeus Software

*Featured post photo by Pietro Jeng on Unsplash