Getting Discouraged in my Engineering Job, Pondering a Career Change

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Hi everyone,

I hope I can articulate what I'm thinking, as I'm unsure if this is specifically an "engineering job" problem or a job in general problem.

I graduated with a BSEE, got an MS right after, and have worked in two companies so far. I had a pretty good gpa for both, over 3.6, so I think I am somewhat competent although of course not a superstar. The first was a start up that promised a lot of things but in reality ended up turning out to be a lot different. Deadlines were very tight, and daily standups for "progress" turned out more to be like daily grilling sessions, followed by frequent inquiries as to "when is it going to get done". I endured this environment for a bit because I thought that this is just how things are, and I need to expect it, but it was really taking a toll on my stress and health levels. I then went to a more established company, but still small compared to the big semiconductor and software names everyone knows about, and things were much different in the beginning.

However, over time, I noticed that things began to evolve more to how things were at the startup I was at. There was little to no guidance for novel problems, and expectations that they were to be done quickly. I was pestered frequently to give estimates to things that I really had no idea how to accurately estimate, and ended up just making up times, only to have me questioned as to why the project was running late thereafter.

Looking online, it seems that this is becoming more and more common in engineering, of a pressure cooker type scenario where employers attempt to squeeze as much as they can out of their employees. I'll admit I'm not the best or smartest engineer as well, but I do try, although both work environments have not been very great in terms of willingness to help from my colleagues, as they are knee deep in their own problems as well.

Nevertheless, I am getting a bit tired of the stress and pressure and am looking at a career change, but I'm thinking first maybe going to a larger, brand name company would be better just to see if things are different. However, it's my understanding that even at companies like Amazon, Microsoft, etc., stress and pressure is very high, at least for the highly technical groups.

Does anyone have any advice for me, or has been through a similar thought process? I would be looking maybe for some more writing intensive or business side type roles, not so much for the "get xyz feature of widget x working in two days" roles.

It is a pity because I am quite interested in Engineering, and enjoyed my time as a student learning many new things. However I am finding that working as an engineer and studying to be one are very, very different things. So I don't know if I'm more suited to being sort of a hobbyist where I can learn things at my own pace.
 
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  • #2
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The first was a start up that promised a lot of things but in reality ended up turning out to be a lot different. Deadlines were very tight, and daily standups for "progress" turned out more to be like daily grilling sessions, followed by frequent inquiries as to "when is it going to get done".
It is unusual for a startup to hire a new graduate. That is not what most real startups are looking for -- they need very experienced engineers with specific skillsets to solve problems and make a product *right now*. There is not much Mentoring that goes on in startups, because that is not what they are about, and not what the Venture Capitalist money is meant for. I question the validity of the startup where you worked -- did you ever read their Business Plan?

I have worked at a startup, and I was only hired because of my experience (10+ years in R&D and consulting) and because my skillset fit their immediate needs. It was a very good experience for me, but only because of my background and experience.
Nevertheless, I am getting a bit tired of the stress and pressure and am looking at a career change, but I'm thinking first maybe going to a larger, brand name company would be better just to see if things are different. However, it's my understanding that even at companies like Amazon, Microsoft, etc., stress and pressure is very high, at least for the highly technical groups.
The more traditional route for a new EE is to join an established company, where they understand that you don't have a lot of experience yet, and will typically assign you a Mentor to help you get up to speed more quickly. After the startup where I worked got bigger and eventually went public, we did make a conscious effort to hire some new grads in engineering to get some "young blood" into the company.

It takes patience and the Mentor investment to nurture a new EE/ME into a productive member of the R&D team, but as long as you hire only the very best new graduates that you can find, the investment can be worth it. We did have a very high bar for the new graduate engineers that we interviewed, though, based on our background as a successful startup company.
and have worked in two companies so far.
Sorry, I don't see where you described the 2nd company that you worked for (I could have missed it). Was it much the same as the first?
 
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It is unusual for a startup to hire a new graduate. That is not what most real startups are looking for -- they need very experienced engineers with specific skillsets to solve problems and make a product *right now*. There is not much Mentoring that goes on in startups, because that is not what they are about, and not what the Venture Capitalist money is meant for. I question the validity of the startup where you worked -- did you ever read their Business Plan?

I have worked at a startup, and I was only hired because of my experience (10+ years in R&D and consulting) and because my skillset fit their immediate needs. It was a very good experience for me, but only because of my background and experience.

The more traditional route for a new EE is to join an established company, where they understand that you don't have a lot of experience yet, and will typically assign you a Mentor to help you get up to speed more quickly. After the startup where I worked got bigger and eventually went public, we did make a conscious effort to hire some new grads in engineering to get some "young blood" into the company.

It takes patience and the Mentor investment to nurture a new EE/ME into a productive member of the R&D team, but as long as you hire only the very best new graduates that you can find, the investment can be worth it. We did have a very high bar for the new graduate engineers that we interviewed, though, based on our background as a successful startup company.

Sorry, I don't see where you described the 2nd company that you worked for (I could have missed it). Was it much the same as the first?
At the second company, I did get mentoring from my manager and another senior engineer that was in our group. However, then my manager kept on getting sucked into more and more meetings and had less time for technical work, and the other guy was replaced with one who really had a nasty personality and was very difficult to work with. Whoever didn't get things immediately, according to him, was "stupid" and it was a "waste of time" to try to explain things.

I was hired at the startup because I was told initially that there was a lot of collaboration between engineers and that they would mentor the new guys as well, which just didn't happen.

I didn't read the start ups business plan because I was a bit naive and just kind of assumed what they said would be true. I just graduated out of college and didn't really get a good picture from my internships, which were only 3 months in length and very limited in scope.

To note though, of course when you hire close to the best candidates, you will get very good results. I guess what I am saying is that more and more, it seems, unless you are the best of the best, it is a very cutthroat and ruthless environment for all the others in engineering.
 
  • #4
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I was pestered frequently to give estimates to things that I really had no idea how to accurately estimate, and ended up just making up times, only to have me questioned as to why the project was running late thereafter.
You may want to study up on project management. This sort of request from management is very reasonable. They need you to estimate how long a project will take so that they can make decisions. If you gave them a bad estimate and then they made decisions based on that then of course you will get questioned.

Please recognize that what you are reacting to here is actually a good employer. They did not simply dictate the time, but asked you for input in the project timeline. It is too bad that you perceived it as pestering, it should have felt empowering.

This sort of estimation isn’t easy, but it is a skill that can be learned. It is unfortunate that it isn’t part of many engineering curricula.
 
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  • #5
You may want to study up on project management. This sort of request from management is very reasonable. They need you to estimate how long a project will take so that they can make decisions. If you gave them a bad estimate and then they made decisions based on that then of course you will get questioned.

Please recognize that what you are reacting to here is actually a good employer. They did not simply dictate the time, but asked you for input in the project timeline. It is too bad that you perceived it as pestering, it should have felt empowering.

This sort of estimation isn’t easy, but it is a skill that can be learned. It is unfortunate that it isn’t part of many engineering curricula.
Understood, and I agree it is a valuable skill. But how can you estimate a task that hasn't been done before?

If I overestimate, I'm told the project doesn't have enough hours. If under, then there is criticism and pressure to meet the deadline.
 
  • #6
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Understood, and I agree it is a valuable skill. But how can you estimate a task that hasn't been done before?

If I overestimate, I'm told the project doesn't have enough hours. If under, then there is criticism and pressure to meet the deadline.
I'm not an engineer, but I work in the STEM field in the private sector (and have worked for an engineering firm in the past), and I've found that the work environment has some similarities that I may be able to provide some insights.

Part of your responsibility in giving projections is to try to determine in advance how much time a certain task will take. Here is my advice on how to approach this:

1. Talk to your fellow co-workers on how long similar tasks have taken in the past. Normally, much of the work you are doing is in part a repetition or is in some way similar to what has already been done before, so you have a benchmark for how long certain tasks will take. So use that as an initial guidance.

2. Take that initial guidance as your benchmark on when to finish the task.

3. When reporting back to your fellow project members, take that initial benchmark and add a week or two (or more, depending on the task at hand) as your final deadline, but still work to finish that task on your initial benchmark if at all possible. In this way, you are giving yourself a buffer.

4. Make sure you are assertive and able to strongly defend the milestones and timelines you set to your direct manager and to your fellow project leads. Because there will always be pressure from others to cut that timeline, but you must stick to your guns as much as possible, especially in terms of complex tasks.

5. If you know in advance that you will not be able to make your timeline, make sure you let your manager and other project members well in advance. Be able to discuss the reasons why the task or project is taking longer than expected, and provide a new estimate of the timeline.
 
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  • #7
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Understood, and I agree it is a valuable skill. But how can you estimate a task that hasn't been done before?
That is part of what a project management class will teach you. Basically you sit down in advance and break your project into small pieces. You estimate how long each piece takes and which pieces can be done in parallel and which pieces require previous steps to be complete first. Based on that you set up a project plan and milestones. As you progress you can see if you are making your milestones on time or not and estimate how that will impact your overall project.

If I overestimate, I'm told the project doesn't have enough hours. If under, then there is criticism and pressure to meet the deadline.
Part of the project management aspect is making sure that your estimate is well justified. If you just make up a number then of course they will want it done faster. If you show them the project plan then they understand that the number is realistic. If the realistic number is too long then they need to know so that they can abandon the project or pull in additional resources. But that all starts from the project plan.
 
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  • #8
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Deadlines were very tight, and daily standups for "progress" turned out more to be like daily grilling sessions, followed by frequent inquiries as to "when is it going to get done". I endured this environment for a bit because I thought that this is just how things are, and I need to expect it, but it was really taking a toll on my stress and health levels.
This is generally how things are. The pain level varies with management style. We had a bunch of managers for a while who thought nothing of monthly meetings with dozens of attendees, to lambaste the guys whose projects came in a few hundred dollars over. A total waste and demoralizing as well.

Regarding stress: my recommendation is to take your job seriously, but leave it all in the office when you go home. You're not paid 24 hours a day, so don't think about work 24 hours a day. At least, not the bad parts. I often come up with new ideas while "off the clock," or spend time to learn new stuff.

a pressure cooker type scenario where employers attempt to squeeze as much as they can out of their employees
Yep. The whole system is set up so that the shareholders make money, the employees get paid, and the customer foots the bill. There really isn't any slack in there since someone will always say they can do your job for less pay. Or another firm who can do the entire project for lower cost. Competition drives the system.

looking at a career change, but I'm thinking first maybe going to a larger, brand name company would be better just to see if things are different
Worth a try but don't be surprised.

I am finding that working as an engineer and studying to be one are very, very different things.
Yes. Consider this: in school you paid the bills; at work they're paying you.

Re-reading it sounds like I might be a little bitter or jaded. But that's not true at all, I love my work and the job. I think the main thing is in handling the stress. I'm not suggesting that you blow off the deadlines or goof off at work -- it is important to be serious. But really, things can seem very important one day and a week later they're forgotten. Well, that isn't always true either, there are some mistakes that people never forget.

As to estimating manhours: most people are really bad at doing this. Practice (experience) helps but even so it is not easy. It is quite normal to under-estimate and then have to suck it up and work late or on the weekends. If you don't get paid for that time, you'll make a better estimate on the next project.
 
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  • #9
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As to estimating manhours: most people are really bad at doing this. Practice (experience) helps but even so it is not easy. It is quite normal to under-estimate and then have to suck it up and work late or on the weekends. If you don't get paid for that time, you'll make a better estimate on the next project.
That is right, but it does come with practice. I had an employee that really struggled with this. He would give me a low estimate and then work insane hours to meet the deadline. The thing is that if he had told me he needed more time then I would have given him a longer deadline and he wouldn't have had to work insane hours to meet it.

The next project we worked on he gave me an estimate and I challenged him. “Remember the last project and the insane hours that you had to work. Is this estimate going to cause insane hours also or is this a more realistic estimate?” He came back with a revised estimate and only had to work insane hours a couple of days instead of a couple of months.

I wasn't pressuring him the first time, but I just needed the estimate so that I could communicate to customers about the timeline. Any timeline he gave me I would accept, but he needed to estimate it as I didn't know the code enough to do so. Once he understood my attitude and desire he put more thought and realism into his estimates and wound up with a good timeline that was still reasonably fast but with a reasonable quality of life. He was happier because he had evenings and weekends and I was happier too because I didn't have irate customers.
 
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  • #10
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Deadlines were very tight, and daily standups for "progress" turned out more to be like daily grilling sessions, followed by frequent inquiries as to "when is it going to get done".
I don't know of any industry where that doesn't happen, where crunch time is productive time, even hourly daily, or weekly where demands are asked of people, and it works its way up from the people on the floor through management levels up to the top.
If a company needs more people they will attempt to
From fast food, restaurant, transportation, medical, legal, educational, political one can see that there is always something extra to be done, and downtime milling around the water cooler may be infrequent at times dependent upon the season. Competition, within and external brings this about, from customer demands.
Some companies do have more relaxed atmosphere, and I guess that is through the management style encouraged by the culture of the company, but performance is still expected.
 
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  • #11
I understand that point, but to give the analogy for school, if I knew I had two weeks to finish something, it was well understood by the professors that two weeks was a reasonable amount of time, as this was a task that was done before with well-defined parameters.

Currently, I would not say I am working in a research capacity officially, but many of my tasks require solutions that you can't just google your way through.

So I guess what I am saying is, in a school setting where assignments and how to do them are known, and there is a way to "brute-force" it in a sense, I did pretty well. For research, which requires more creativity and intelligence, I am not so good, and do stress quite a lot if I am able to complete the task or not.

So in the end it may just be that I am in too difficult of a position then for my capabilities, which I am ok with if that is the case. At least in grad school when I participated in research with a professor, he was willing to help and give quite a lot of mentorship, assistance if I was stuck. He didn't just tell me "just keep working harder and get it done as fast as possible." I have heard some advisors are like this but I guess I was lucky I didn't have that experience.
 
  • #12
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So in the end it may just be that I am in too difficult of a position then for my capabilities
That is why I suggested getting some training in project management. That will improve your capabilities. This is a skill that you can learn
 
  • #13
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Have you considered what kind of job you want? You've been given some good advice on task estimation, and it's clear you doin't want to do it, but do you really think there will be less of it in " writing intensive or business side type roles"? For that matter do you think these roles will be less stressful or less of a " pressure cooker type scenario"?
 
  • #14
Have you considered what kind of job you want? You've been given some good advice on task estimation, and it's clear you doin't want to do it, but do you really think there will be less of it in " writing intensive or business side type roles"? For that matter do you think these roles will be less stressful or less of a " pressure cooker type scenario"?
I'll bow out of this thread as I seem to be in the minority of my thinking then. It's not that I don't want to do it, I've tried and been unsuccessful, hence my posting. Perhaps you're more talented than me and haven't been in this situation, but I can assure you that simply "trying" is not always an effective approach for success. I've read all of this advice posted here, and it hasn't amounted much more to than: take the known parts and find the time it takes from them section by section", until you get to the whole of the task." If I could do this, I could estimate the task accurately and this thread would serve no purpose.

I think the answer lies more and more with, well, you can either get the job done or you can't.

And yes, I do think there is a big difference between your examples. Getting complicated code on complicated hardware to "work" is much more difficult than writing or business roles, at least for me. It's a binary situation, it either works or it doesn't, by the deadline set out.
 
  • #15
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I've tried and been unsuccessful, hence my posting.
Really? What project management books have you read or what project management courses have you taken? You seem to be giving up your career for a very fixable problem
 
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  • #16
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It is a pity because I am quite interested in Engineering, and enjoyed my time as a student learning many new things. However I am finding that working as an engineer and studying to be one are very, very different things. So I don't know if I'm more suited to being sort of a hobbyist where I can learn things at my own pace.
I suppose my question for you is: what do you expect your boss to do? There are other people in the organization. The more important your assignment, the more contingencies will depend upon its successful and timely completion.
Your job is to provide your boss a reasoned assessment of how long it will take you to finish your task and not be bullied into silly timetables. That being said you better move heaven and earth to meet the schedule you promised, because others will be depending on it.
Of course the most difficult part of engineering, particularly in R&D, is developing the awareness to make these assessments well and then deliver.

Here is my successfully distilled method:
  1. Make a careful end to end estimate of all the tasks required for you to complete the project and add these times together.
  2. Multiply this number by 3
  3. Tell your boss the news
Occasionally I have agreed under protest to lesser times and usually the end result was still, despite everybody's best efforts, very close to this estimate.
A mentor can be a great help. If this is not your cup of tea, there are more junior tech where somebody will task you daily. And if your boss is not interested in your estimate of time required, it is time to find another boss
 
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  • #17
Really? What project management books have you read or what project management courses have you taken? You seem to be giving up your career for a very fixable problem
I haven't read any books on the subject but, and excuse my ignorance if I am incorrect, I imagine the gist of them goes as follows:

1. Break down the larger problem into smaller, more manageable parts.
2. Break down these manageable parts into known and unknown categories. For the knowns, use previous experience to assign some time.
3. For the unknowns, consult external resources or people who may be able to provide further assistance.
4. Repeat until each milestone is completed and the project is eventually done.

Here is the problem with this:

Almost always when I think a project may need more time based on this approach, I am told there is not enough time allotted. So right off the bat, my estimate is reduced to a more aggressive timeline that I feel uncomfortable meeting. With more senior people with more experience, again there are fewer unknowns, so this uncertainty is not as prevalent.

Basically I am always nudged toward the under estimate, on the argument of business and budget requirements, creating much pressure upon me. However, this is not necessarily a bad management approach . There is one guy who is a genius who I work with who can meet any deadline and is truly much faster than me. Of course, being a genius, I wouldn't need to ask these questions. He is the shining star of the team and if there were a way to clone him I'm sure that management could.

I think, again, it just boils down to how good you are, less so than some particular project management techniques. However, I will heed your advice and look for some books to read.
 
  • #18
I suppose my question for you is: what do you expect your boss to do? There are other people in the organization. The more important your assignment, the more contingencies will depend upon its successful and timely completion.
Your job is to provide your boss a reasoned assessment of how long it will take you to finish your task and not be bullied into silly timetables. That being said you better move heaven and earth to meet the schedule you promised, because others will be depending on it.
Of course the most difficult part of engineering, particularly in R&D, is developing the awareness to make these assessments well and then deliver.

Here is my successfully distilled method:
  1. Make a careful end to end estimate of all the tasks required for you to complete the project and add these times together.
  2. Multiply this number by 3
  3. Tell your boss the news
Occasionally I have agreed under protest to lesser times and usually the end result was still, despite everybody's best efforts, very close to this estimate.
A mentor can be a great help. If this is not your cup of tea, there are more junior tech where somebody will task you daily. And if your boss is not interested in your estimate of time required, it is time to find another boss
I understand my boss completely and I am not faulting him. At the end, it is his interest to get things done, and as quickly as possible. My point is that, well, I don't think I'm completely incapable, I did graduate from a reputable school and have a good academic background (or so I think). But I'm unsure if I just ran into situations were I wasn't mentored as much as I needed to be, and sort of thrown into the sharks prematurely.

However, I have seen other very talented people succeed in this environment, so I'm not quite sure what the conclusion is. Hence my posting in the first place.
 
  • #19
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I suggest that you stick to your guns, do the best and most honest job you can, and let other people worry about criticizing your efforts. You need to give yourself a break. That being said if you see shortcomings in your knowledge, do something affirmative about it. You might end up in a good place.
If in fact you are not an asset, someone will let you know! But only worry about the criticism from those you respect.
 
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  • #20
I suggest that you stick to your guns, do the best and most honest job you can, and let other people worry about criticizing your efforts. You need to give yourself a break. That being said if you see shortcomings in your knowledge, do something affirmative about it. You might end up in a good place.
If in fact you are not an asset, someone will let you know! But only worry about the criticism from those you respect.
Thank you, I will keep trying hard. I've gotten things done and have had good performance reviews so far but I feel much of it has been a fluke because I lucked out as the deadline approached and somehow figured things out. But it's more so the constant feeling of pressure and impending uncertainty that has me down and questioning if I should continue.
 
  • #21
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Not a fluke. Just life.
It does get easier when you realize its not a fluke.
 
  • #22
I'll try to give an analogy for getting a phd. I don't have one, but I have a few friends who are going for one, and one guy who completed it at a top school. From talking with them, this is what I concluded:

1. Your organizational and project management skills are important, but at the end of the day, like everything else, it is about results. The guy at the top school is unquestionably the most talented, and I'm not surprised he has been the most successful, and has published the best results. I think he would have been successful in whatever he did and he'll likely become a professor, or probably invent something and start his own company.

2. The other students are not bad at all, but need more mentorship to succeed. However, they didn't get it, and complained that their advisors gave minimal to no help in solving their research problems, and they often felt despair and very high stress. Their situations are up in the air, I think with a huge effort they will finish and achieve the title, but overall both say that the time commitment and strain has not been worth it and they would do it over.

Of course to have talent in any field is a prerequisite for being successful. My thinking though, is that engineering in particular, and you can include the sciences and mathematics in this category, because they are filled with very high intellect people, being successful in these fields is even more difficult and demoralizing if you are not, than others.
 
  • #23
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One thing you need to keep in mind that you often will have to adjust your deliverables to the resources you are given. In academia the attitude of often (not always!) that you should keep working on a problem until it is fully solved and fully understood bur in a commercial environment this rarely possible, you are given a set amount of resources/time and you have to adjust your deliverables to that.

Hence, getting some training in project management is a good idea. But you have to get used to the idea that even if you were able to come up with a perfectly accurate plan for the amount of resources/time you would need to achieve a goal you will still be asked to deliver with perhaps 80% of the resources you asked for. That is just the way the world works and it will be true in most jobs.

What I am saying that some of the skills you need are "political"; and ultimately about learning to "manage" people (especially your managers!); the best case scenario is that you can give yourself some wiggle-room by e.g. asking for more time/resources than you actually need, knowing that you will be given less than that; thereby ending up with right amount.

No one is "naturally" good at this; it is just a skill you need to learn.

Also, it most definitely NOT directly related to your technical/scientific skills. There are lots of successful engineers/scientists in both industry and academia that are only "mediocre" when it comes to the technical aspect of their job but are very good at the "management/political side of their job.
 
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  • #24
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Thank you, I will keep trying hard. I've gotten things done and have had good performance reviews so far but I feel much of it has been a fluke because I lucked out as the deadline approached and somehow figured things out. But it's more so the constant feeling of pressure and impending uncertainty that has me down and questioning if I should continue.
One of the problems you are stating is that you feel constantly pressured to stick to ambitious timelines that you are not comfortable with. The point here is you have to pressure them back!

In other words, you have to "fight" with your manager or other project managers for more time if you can justify it. One of the ways to do so is stating it like this: "To get project X done, then the following is required: A, B, C. To get A done will require at least a week because of ....... To get B will require input from others, and thus requires another 2 weeks. Similar to C. So the earliest we can get project X is 5 weeks, with no room to shave off any more time."

Stating it in this manner will thus inform your management and project members about what is required. Since you made the case for your time, if they want to have the project finished earlier, then the onus is on them to help you make the deliverable. Whether that means more resources (e.g. more engineers to work with you) or pressuring other members to speed up their deadlines (if you are relying on other people to finish their work before you can begin yours).

The key here is that you must be assertive and confident. If you are assertive, then you will not have other co-workers walk all over you.
 
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  • #25
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The thing about industry that was most difficult for me to first comprehend was that time is very much more important than money. In the end, of course, it is always money, but time was always the more precious commodity: if I needed something or someone to expedite my endeavors it was nearly always happily and rapidly supplied. Of course the more expansive and expensive the request, the more were expectations generated.
I once asked my R&D engineering VP (BS Mathematics, MBA, really good guy) whether the MBA was worth the effort. He passed on some MBA wisdom:
He asked me the question, "What if you have something you really don't want to do... difficult or tedious........ how do you schedule it?"
I fell into his trap and said "Well I schedule it first"
He gave me the best advice I ever got when he said, "No, ......you do it now"
If you don't see how different is that perspective then you are probably not a procrastinator. He said it was worth the price of the degree. I agreed but got it free!
 
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