When I was in high school in Australia in the early-aughts, I was trying hard to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I wanted to be an engineer, but had no idea what discipline I wanted to follow. I was lucky that my local college had a first-year engineering program where students were able to complete subjects in all areas spanning electrical, materials, chemical, civil, and mechanical engineering. After that year, I decided to major in mechanical engineering because I felt it provided the best avenue to a varied and challenging career.
As it turns out, a diverse career is exactly what I have been able to realize through a variety of industries for large and small companies. I first started off working in a small, six-person consulting group designing and testing large road trains to transport iron ore in the Australian outback. Then, I expanded my capabilities and experience when I scored a job designing primary aircraft structures on the Lockheed F-35 fighter jet project. Afterwards, I moved to the U.S. to work for a tier-one aircraft component manufacturer. After six-and-a-half years of living it up in the U.S., I returned home to work on defense projects, eventually becoming an engineering manager.
I hear you saying that all sounds great and that I got some good opportunities and took advantage of them. But the fact is that my success so far is due to careful career planning from the start.
Let’s back up a bit. At the beginning of my work-life, I had taken a somewhat ad-hoc approach to career development; my first job was from an internship at university, and my second job was from an internal referral. It was at my second job that I formed my first mentor-mentee relationship and I started to take a planned approach to what I wanted to do, and what I needed to implement from a training and experience standpoint to get there.
With input from my mentor, and talking to work colleagues (especially the more experienced engineers and managers) I developed a plan outlining my short term, medium term and long term goals. This planning process revealed underlying ambitions and goals, which would remain unfulfilled if I did not take a calculated approach to achieving them.
I executed my plan, although it took a little longer than I thought, and have since completed my MBA while working in the U.S. for seven years. After returning to Australia, I started as a capability engineering manager for a major defense contractor.
So that all sounds great, but what does the plan look like, and what does the practical application entail?
The following plan can help you form the framework for a great career and provide ways to implement it. And this is it: Start with a long-term goal and create shorter-term goals that help fulfill the long-term.
Long Term (10 years)
Engineering Manager: In order to fulfill this goal, I needed to make sure I had a sound technical engineering base before embarking on a management path. This is not a hard-and-fast rule. But from my experience speaking with experienced engineers, it helps build respect for “doing your time,” so to speak.
Medium term (3-7 years)
Build engineering experience, work in the United States and engage in management education. As I defined my long term goal, I needed to build a solid technical engineering basis on which to launch my management career.
After consulting with my mentor, I found that one of the best ways to get a variety of experience, was to work as a contract engineer. Many of these opportunities were available in Europe and the United States. So I chose to pursue opportunities in the US.
I spoke with contracting houses to find out what experience I needed and planned my current activities to feed into these requirements. Then I used these requirements to build my short term goals. At the same time as working as a contractor building my technical skills, I planned to complete my MBA and try to get exposed to the business side as often as possible while working within the technical roles.
Short Term (1 year)
Build analysis experience as a contractor. When I let supervisors know the type of experience I was looking for, and if any opportunities in that field arose, I wanted to be considered.
I also identified company training opportunities that aligned with my current job and my future plan.
In addition to this, I regularly sought out people within the company who had experience in the fields I wanted to work with, and let them know my ambitions.
My Top 10 Rules to a Successful Career
- Engage your career plan early
- Revisit your plan regularly (yearly), make adjustments accordingly, and check you’re on track to meeting your goals in a timely manner.
- Set realistic goals.
- Enter into a mentor/mentee relationship as soon as possible. If there is an opportunity at a college, take it.
- Be proactive developing your career and don’t rely on anyone else but you to take control of your destiny.
- Develop a good working relationship with your supervisor to help them enable you to execute your career plan.
- Seek out and talk to as many experienced members of your organization.
- Build a network.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help
- Engage your career plan early.