A straight path is not necessarily the best route to your dream job. That certainly wasn’t the case for me and my career in engineering.
In high school, I was gifted in math and science, and I had a good guidance counselor who nudged me in that direction. In college, I gravitated toward calculus-based electrical engineering and learned how to be an excellent problem solver. Then, I got my master’s degree in electrical engineering and became a microwave engineer at GE, working on aerospace projects—things like defense, radar systems, and guided missiles.
I went through a lot of experimentation in my early career to figure out what kinds of assignments and companies I liked. I changed jobs about every two years, doing everything from simulation and layout to CAD-software administration and training.
Then, I started a company called Linius Technologies, where I was the applications engineer, product manager, tester, product designer, website developer, and publicist. It taught me things I liked to do, things I didn’t, and things I was skilled at. It landed me in the field of product management, which is my favorite role.
Autodesk acquired Linius in 2003, which meant instead of doing 12 jobs, I could work on mastering product management. And now, I’m running a cross-functional, global software-development team of 700. It took a lot of introspection to get where I am. Based on my experiences, here are four recommendations for a successful career in engineering.
1. Focus on Experimentation. Don’t let your job become too routine or yourself too complacent. If there’s an opportunity to take on a stretch assignment, go for it. For example, you could ask your manager: “I’m trying to figure out if I want to be a manager someday. Do you have something I could do that would make your life easier and allow me to test the waters?”
You could work with peers to ensure the budget is allocated and spent, drive the hiring process for a new position, or take on a committee assignment. Then, you’ll understand some of the less technical roles that are important to the machine and decide if they are a good fit for you.
The best thing you can do is have an open relationship with your manager—and express your future interests—because managers don’t read minds very well. Have you expressed that you want to learn a particular skill? Maybe you want to do marketing, but you’re in product management; if so, you should own that and try to make a change with your manager’s help.
If experimentation leads you to another company, that’s okay. I encourage people to think about what they’re learning and whether it’s going to help them get to their next job or the job they want in 10 years. If you have a good relationship with your manager, he or she can help you see if there is a good match in your current company first.
2. Rise Above an Unwelcoming Office Culture. Almost 40 percent of women with engineering degrees leave the profession or never enter the field, whether due to the work culture, lack of confidence, or other factors.
A good college friend once said to me, “I don’t understand why you’re working so hard, because you’re just going to stop working when you have kids.” Clearly, that didn’t happen. But for the most part, I didn’t hear many of those biased messages because I was oblivious to them. I was really passionate about what I was doing, and I just pushed on through.
However, some environments can be unwelcoming to anybody. Mature, established teams may not welcome new people. Or if a product has a particularly high degree of domain expertise, new engineers may not enjoy the learning curve required.
Anytime you encounter an unwelcoming situation or a person who is hard to relate to, create opportunities to interact outside of the day-to-day work environment—whether it’s lunch or a walking meeting. And in social situations, try to avoid potentially exclusionary topics, such as children and sports. I often bring up things like travel or food because that can be more welcoming to everybody in the group.
Also, work on building your confidence. Many women I’ve worked with have more self-doubt than I’ve experienced with men. If you’re unsure of how you’re doing, find someone to check in with after meetings to get in-the-moment feedback. This can build the confidence you need to realize you are an expert in the room.
3. Master the Art of Buy-In. As a product manager, I was the center of the storm because I created the product strategy while interfacing with the customer, sales team, and development organization. I had to translate the customers’ needs to help the development team understand the problem they’re trying to solve, as well as communicate that back to the sales team in a way that would allow them to relay that value back to the customer. It was superbusy and superfun, but it was a high-influence job because none of those people worked for me. The challenge was getting their buy-in.
What helped me advance in my career was building high-trust relationships. One of the most important things to understand is the constraints that your collaborators are facing. There is probably a lot going on at your company that can result in multiple competing priorities. But if you can put them on the table, it helps.
You might say, “My No. 1 goal is that we have blue water,” and your coworker says, “Well, my No. 1 goal is we have green water.” With this additional context, you can understand why it’s so awkward every time you’re trying to do something and avoid conflict.
4. Be Careful What You Ask For. Some people want to move up too fast in their careers. The truth is, you probably can get a new job somewhere else with a bigger title, but there are a lot of unknowns. You need to be intentional about those moves. Time in a position is usually not an indication of readiness. The important questions to ask are, “Am I ready for the next position? How will I measure up against my new peers? Have I mastered what I needed to master to be successful?”
Rather than asking for a raise and a promotion, engineers should ask for more scope. In other words: “I have the capacity to solve another problem for you. What else could I do?” It’s more productive to have conversations around scope and follow that up with a conversation about being fairly compensated. After all, your title and compensation are a small part of having a fulfilling career in engineering. The most important factor is how you feel when you walk in the door every morning.