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Getting Discouraged in my Engineering Job, Pondering a Career Change

  • #26
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  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
I don't like the factor of 3. I tell my boss the same number, but increment the units: hours becomes days, days becomes weeks, etc.
 
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  • #27
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pressure them back
And they want to be pressured. That's how they manage things. If multiple groups say "Normally this would take two weeks, but I can't promise it in less than four, because we can't schedule enough time on the widget-making machine" they will conclude they need to get another widget-making machine or something like that.
 
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  • #28
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Of course the number will vary for each human, but I really did use this method with remarkable accuracy and success. My friend Rick ( also a physicist but more erudite) used an estimating factor of pi.
 
  • #29
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Most managers will, over time, develop a sense for each employee's estimates. "Bill is always a factor of two low." "Rachel is always a third low." Etc. A good manager should not be expecting the "new guy's" estimates to be very reliable.

Another estimating tactic I have used: find out who will be working on the project. Find out the due date. Assume everyone works full time on it, this gives you a maximum number of hours. For some projects, this really does provide a good estimate. Small job, dedicated assignments, there you go. And sometimes that's realistic: you end up working full time until the deadline. Then you're done. This follows the "what's the best we can do in the allotted schedule" model.

For a big project with lots of contributors, obviously this is a crummy model. But there again, the "new guy" shouldn't be estimating the overall manhours on such a job.
 
  • #30
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Let me say something else unfortunate. If you want to have one of these nice cushy jobs where you manage your own time, you need to be able to estimate task durations. You need to be able to tell your boss how long a task will take, you will need to schedule your own time efficiently. and you will need at least some ability to estimate the time it takes other people to do tasks that interrelate with yours (we call them "dependencies").

If you can't do this, you will need a job where your boss manages your time for you. Such jobs tend to be less impactful and lower paid.
 
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  • #31
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I've worked for over 25 years with a variety of Silicon Engineering companies, and I've never heard of the kind of work culture that you describe. There is a lot of pressure to get the job done on time, but I have never been "grilled" about why a particular task was not completed on schedule, and I've never heard co-workers complain about grilling. That kind of pressure is often counter-productive and demoralizing as you rightly point out, particularly for a new grad, who needs a supportive environment to gain confidence to tackle difficult tasks.

The part about the one engineer calling others "stupid" for not understanding something immediately was ridiculous. I've never seen or heard anything like that. I often get help from my peers and I pride myself on patiently giving help to junior engineers, even if they take longer to catch on than others. In the very worst case, my requests for help are rejected, but I am never called "stupid", at least not to my face.

It sounds to me like you have been unlucky to have picked the wrong companies to work for. I don't think it's a matter of company size, as I've worked for small and large companies, and the culture is pretty supportive for people who are willing to put in substantial effort. However if you are constantly asking for help, like every day or so, and not trying to work through problems on your own, then I could see how that would be a problem for the management.
 
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  • #32
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... I graduated with a BSEE, got an MS right after, and have worked in two companies so far...
You have collected many good pieces of advice in this thread, please, go back and study those carefully.
I have not much to add, but my own experience: obtaining practical experience from hands-on field work was much more fun than trying to do office work that I could not fully understand coming right from school.

In 1983, I started like you did, and I went through similar experiences until 1985, when I took a more practical type of engineering job.
I was assigned to huge responsibilities, but working side by side with welders, machinists, structural installers, refrigeration technicians, all at once and all depending on my "technical advise".

These persons had years of field experience and I had some theory.
They did not know how to calculate things, reason for which they needed me.
I did not know it then, but I badly needed their practical experience in order to do decent calculations and designs, as well as to organize and manage a big installation industrial project with proper seriousness and acceptable precision.

From welding to sandblasting to cutting and conforming huge pieces of steel, day after day, I learned the right way to do things from those field workers.
They showed me many times the reasons for which my first designs wouldn't work, ot couldn't be lifted and transported, or couldn't be assembled.
With time, I got better and they became happier, since my work made theirs easier and more rewarding.

It was hard and uncomfortable work, but it helped me much when it was time for me to go back to do office type engineering work.
I wish you the best luck in your next engineering jobs, keep pushing forward, you have invested much time and effort in becoming an engineer, just keep learning from the good persons that cross your path and don't mind the ones who will never care about you and your career.

Please, don't ever get discouraged!
After many years of work, you may regret what you did not try and do.

:cool:
 
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  • #33
Thank you I will certainly heed your advice and continue to work to improve.

To note, I am not asking for help all the time, it is usually a method of last resort. However, I do still feel that my "successes" are more of a fluke rather than rock solid understanding of the solutions to my assignments. I hope with time that will continue to be less and less.
 
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  • #34
.Scott
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First, this "pressure" isn't a "today" thing. I've been a SW Engineer for 50 years and it was there day 1.
Also, estimating a job is not one of the skills you walk in with. More than most things, it requires experience.
The temptation is to estimate how long it will take you to do everything you can think of - but in reality, most of the time will be taken by things that you don't think of at first. So you need to predict the type of activities your going to get involved in. For example, every time you interface with someone else's stuff - expect spend a couple of days on just that interface.

There are basically two purposes behind the estimate. The first is that you are working as part of a team and a predictable schedule helps the whole team - financing, ordering supplies, setting up tests, dealing with customers, etc.
The second is that it puts pressure on you - as much from yourself as from anyone else.

An estimate is some combination of:
1) A prediction;
2) A request for resources; and
3) A promise.

Start by making predictions, stating then as predictions, and thinking of them as predictions.
Especially as you gain experience and your predictions become more and more credible, they will be taken as a request for resources. That's fine - but consider whether you want to ask for the most likely amount of time, or a bit less, or a bit more. The consequences of an over or under estimate depends on the situation.

Of course, it's hard to avoid the "promise" interpretation. And it's not just your managers that do this - you do it as well. A certain amount of pressure is good. If nothing else, it's nice to know that someone really wants what you're trying to accomplish.
 
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  • #35
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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.

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.
More specifically, Aspirin gengineer, look up Gantt Charts and maybe play around with them some to gain some idea on scheduling. Edit: And, sorry to tell you. If you thought scheduling was difficult, wait till you deal with other issues like scope creep.
 
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  • #36
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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.
That is part of the benefit of PM. But it also gives you an overview of all the sides of doing business and how these ( should) come together to finish a plan or design a product. Hopefully, having a better idea, understanding of the issues involved will help you estimate your time needs more accurately.
 
  • #37
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One thing that served me very well in my industry jobs was resolving never to be the bottleneck - never to be the guy whose contributions were causing a schedule to slip. Yes, this resolution required some 60 hour work weeks, especially in my first year with new companies.

But the pay-off was I was able to make requests for double digit raises and was always promoted ahead of schedule.

I also learned never to say I couldn't meet a deadline, but to ask for what I needed to do it on time. If you can clearly articulate what you need to meet deadlines, then it is their fault if they can't provide it. But if they give you everything you say you need, then it is your job to deliver.
 
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  • #38
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To reiterate what Dale suggested, learning PM may give you a better idea on how the parts of a project come together, which may help you make more careful and accurate time estimates.
 
  • #39
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One thing that served me very well in my industry jobs was resolving never to be the bottleneck - never to be the guy whose contributions were causing a schedule to slip. Yes, this resolution required some 60 hour work weeks, especially in my first year with new companies.

But the pay-off was I was able to make requests for double digit raises and was always promoted ahead of schedule.

I also learned never to say I couldn't meet a deadline, but to ask for what I needed to do it on time. If you can clearly articulate what you need to meet deadlines, then it is their fault if they can't provide it. But if they give you everything you say you need, then it is your job to deliver.
I agree with you that if a particular deadline is important, then the onus is on us to clearly state what is necessary to meet that deadline.

At the same time, there are situations where you may be asked how much time a given project will take, without a firm deadline being decided as of yet. In that circumstance, then it is important to provide estimates of how much time the project will take, given the current level of resources available to you and not taking overly optimistic assumptions.

A subtle difference, but worth pointing out.
 
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  • #40
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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.

It sounds like you're working at "cool" companies. Maybe aim for a boring, time-tested company. EE should get you a job in any market, no matter where you are.

I'm an IT recruiter now, but I used to recruit EE and ME grads for heavy equip manufacturing in the Chicagoland and Metro Detroit areas. These aren't sexy start-up jobs, but they usually come with less stress both in terms of management pressure as well as job security.
 
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