It's easy to make the argument that a good number of engineers in the early to middle part of their careers must like the companies for which they work. That explains why most of them reach a point of suddenly worrying if their work is excellent enough that they can stay on. Few realize that the key to becoming a solid part of their companies' foundation involves balance, rather than a top-heavy skill in one area or another.
Remember the "fire triangle" we were introduced to in grade school showing us the components necessary to initiate or avoid spontaneous combustion? At any company and occupation, there's a triangle for success for keeping fires out. The engineers most successful at being indispensable will be those having the best mix of technical acumen, an appreciation of their coworkers as weighed against company politics, and an understanding of economic tradeoffs—both business and personal. Ignore any component and you risk spreading a virus that leads to feelings of being under-appreciated or even unwanted, along with all that goes with it.
Most of those fortunate or unfortunate enough to have worked for a major corporation have been told at one time or another, "One man can't hold back your progress in a big company." Actually, a single person can, and it doesn't have to be a top boss. Usually, the person who leaves a job is someone who's resisted a person or a policy in a strong and negative way. That includes heavy-duty technical types as well.
Sometimes the confrontation must lead to a parting of the ways. But if your overall balance is strong, you're going to find that you're indispensable. Strong technical skills are vital, but strong people skills are the thread holding your image together. Here's how you weave that thread:
- Make a conscious effort right now to work on the "areas of your game" in which you're not particularly strong. Everything is connected. One way or the other, you're going to need those skills tomorrow. Good basketball players learn how to dribble and shoot with both hands. The best in baseball are the ones who can hit, run, field, and throw. The most successful physicists are the few who have a full command of the theoretical and practical. It's the same in engineering.
- If you're involved in the software end of the business, don't underestimate the importance of certification. We seem to be entering an era promoting a "classless society." Equal opportunity to excel often turns into a mandate to be equal. But don't discount the need to know what you're doing to the Nth degree. Microsoft, Novell, and Cisco all have versions of their certified network/NetWare engineer, with Cisco's on-site testing of lab skills being particularly demanding.
Seek out the toughest challenges. Most in the know estimate that software certification is worth $10,000 to $15,000 more a year in your salary. Don't worry about pricing yourself out of the market. The top companies seek the best, often paying your way to certification. They recognize that one has to spend money to make money. Successful companies always find the budget to stay competitive.
The political part of your job is a bit more challenging, but can be managed by anyone who's not in the business of building empires. The skills that make the owner of the neighborhood hardware store competitive against national chains are the same ones that will make you competitive in the workplace. They're referred to as added value, and they demand more from an engineer than having total knowledge of a product. A major component of added value is people skills—something many managers lack.
- Recognize that you're a part of a team, not an entity unto oneself. Resist the temptation for self-promotion. You're a cog in the machine, filling in selflessly wherever there's a need. Over the long haul, it's the deeds of the team that are gratefully acknowledged, not the boasts of an individual. In a good company with good leadership, the world is big enough for all.
- Establish your independence by stating your opinions on company decisions on policies or projects. Keep those beliefs while doing your job and maintain quiet dignity, no matter where the decision falls. In the long run, it's the only way your views will be respected, your contributions recognized, and your "stock" can rise. Never play both ends against the middle. Sooner or later, it will be viewed as a weak character trait.
The economic and lifestyle considerations are probably the most difficult parts of the triangle. This is simply because much of what we encounter is out of our control.
- Arrive earlier than usual to ease into the day's work. You must decide whether long days on the job are for you. Don't let that negatively affect your demeanor, and your relationship to coworkers, and the company.
- Improve your efficiency for the bigger projects. Your goal is to stay fresh and focused for the long term. Set up the next day's activities and realistic goals the night before. You'll find yourself saving an hour a day to do more, while leaving the office in a good frame of mind.
Doing an excellent job, earning respect within the company, and maximizing your mental health and free time with friends and/or family are all possible. It's mostly within your control. Customize this pyramid to your personality strengths and weaknesses and have the discipline to stay with it. Then you'll sleep better at night with fewer on-the-job worries.