Four Important Skills for Engineers in Any Field

Greg Wheeler
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There's an unfortunate tendency in the engineering field to specialize beyond the necessary minimum point. Of course, your engineering skills will be discipline specific, so it's unavoidable that a chemical engineer, a software engineer, and a biomedical engineer will have to take different classes at college. Being a successful engineer involves more than having hyper-specialized engineering skills, though. Regardless of your specific engineering field, you absolutely must have certain skills to be effective in your work—whatever your focus.

Math is the first—and most obvious—of the engineering skills that cuts across boundaries. In some areas, the virtue of math is beyond question; chemical, mechanical, and electrical engineers would be lost without it, and so would civil engineers and the designers of medical prostheses and implants. Software engineers might not use calculus in their daily work, of course, but even in largely math-free fields such as theirs, math is a useful tool for developing the clear and sequential thinking an engineer can't do without.

Research is another skill every engineer needs. Regardless of your discipline, and regardless of where you went to school or how long your internship might have been, no single human being can possibly have all the answers. This is where being a skilled researcher comes in handy: If you know your way around databases, can manage your time effectively, and have a library card, you can quickly become something close to a world-class expert on almost any topic you need for work. Whether you're a structural engineer looking into Gothic cathedrals or a city planner who needs to learn about mass psychology before you design an overpass that people won't be tempted to speed across in winter, research is the way you're going to expand both your horizons and your engineering skills.

Learning is nice, but without real communication skills, you're sunk. Many engineers take pride in being reclusive or aloof—as if the inability to communicate with a wider public of nonspecialists means their own engineering skills are that much more rarefied. This is a terrible mistake to make. No engineer works alone, and communicating ideas with a team is as much a part of the job as algebra. Communicating with the public, the nonengineers at your company, and the investors in a project is also critical regardless of field. Learn to write clearly and get comfortable speaking to groups if you want to be truly effective as an engineer.

A subsection of communications is customer service—potentially one of the most difficult skills for engineers to handle. Remember always that even the most brilliant of systems will break down the instant humans try to use it if the engineers didn't talk to the public, hear people's concerns, and discover how they were going to interact with the new chemical, computer program, or road layout. Every engineer needs to learn how to talk to nonengineers in the general public and glean invaluable feedback.

While there's always going to be a measure of specialization among engineers—some of it desirable and necessary—the field at large is more than isolation and toil. Every engineer needs certain engineering skills that go beyond a narrow specialty, and these four make for a good start.



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