What India taught me about being a good engineer

Working in India for 5 months was challenging – both the technical project itself and working with the local culture – but I’m very glad I had the experience. Overall, I feel grew more as an engineer during this time than at any other point in my career. I learned from some amazing, talented engineers and some of the worst engineers I’ve ever had the misfortune of working with. Some of my quiet moments were also spent reading Everyday Ways To Enjoy Success At Work by Robb Thompson (which was free to download on iTunes), and much of what I read echoed what I had been thinking about what makes a good engineer, in fact what makes a great employee in general.

Do what you are paid to do, when you are supposed to do it

Selfies are another way to fill those rare, quiet moments...

Selfies are another way to fill those rare, quiet moments…

One of my – and many other expat engineers’ – biggest frustrations in India was that many people did not do the job they are supposed to do. You’d find yourself repeatedly asking for something – something unbelievably small and simple – to happen; often it took days if not weeks. You show up at an office to chase the Indian responsible and you find them watching YouTube. I get that there are times when you can be at work and have a genuinely quiet moment, and by all means pass the time if you have nothing to do, but when there are jobs to be done you should never waste company time like that. And never, ever lie and say something has been done if it hasn’t – that kind of bullshit is not acceptable.

Go the extra mile

It’s not just a case of doing what your job description says, you need to do more than that. Taking the initiative is really important, and is something that was really lacking in India (that’s not to say there weren’t some wonderful, unexpected moments of brilliance at times). One more than one occasion I was confronted by the exclamation “This is not my job!” There have been times I’ve even uttered that under my breath – being left with a huge mess to clean up, for example – but the fact is once I’m there working, it is my job. It’s shouldn’t be, but it is. Going the extra mile pays off too; who is most likely to get promoted – the person who does only what is in the job description, or the person who shows they are capable of more responsibility by going above and beyond what is required? It’s a no-brainer.

Your attitude at work counts

In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun; you find the fun and SNAP! The job’s a game! ~ Mary Poppins

So you’ve been working over 12 hours daily for the last week or more, sore and weary from shedding blood, sweat and tears in >45°C… And? Enthusiasm makes a world of difference. Trust me that there are times when fieldwork is really, really hard, and no doubt there are those moments in other jobs too. Even when it’s hard to maintain such a positive attitu
de, self-discipline and perseverance will carry you through and ultimately reward you with enthusiasm for your job – I promise. Even when my last trip to India seemed like it would never end, optimism paid off and I found favour with the people I worked with.

Communicate effectively

Communication is “putting information and concepts across in such a way that other people understand what you mean”*. If you can’t express yourself in a clear, concise way in a timely and understandable manner, you are going to be running around like a headless chicken or causing other people a massive headache. Don’t fluff your words because time is precious – too much is as bad as too little – so tell people exactly what they need to know. How you express things communicates a lot to your employer or client about you as person, so be professional in the way you speak, write and project yourself. And as I mentioned before; don’t bullshit, because you will get found out.

India Safety Signs

Strive for excellence

This is the bottom line. When I started my job, I set myself a goal: to be the best engineer in the company, and at the very least I’ve definitely become the best engineer I could be in the last 2 years. One of the biggest disappointments and frustrations of working in India, was that so often there was a halfhearted attitude towards excellence, especially given that some of the best and brightest in the UK are Indian or of Indian descent. When you don’t care about being good at your job, it doesn’t just affect your own results; it sends a message to your co-workers that you don’t value their efforts because you also hinder their productivity. Why else should you care about being good at your job? Robb Thompson summed it up in one sentence for me:

Competence is the non-negotiable currency on the road of promotion. ~ Robb Thompson

That is definitely true, and was underlined by the promotion and recognition of many of the engineers who really gave the project everything they had, which inspired me to knuckle down and make sure I did my absolute best.

My time in India really gave me a good grip on what was expected of me as an engineer. Not only that, it also gave me an idea of what I should be looking for in colleagues, potential employers and perhaps even employees I might recruit in the future. Starting to pay closer attention to those at work around you is really helpful in getting a better clue of how to be good at your job. I also highly recommend giving Robb Thompson’s book a read – it was definitely worthwhile (although it is a bit old-school American businessman at times for me – for example he says you should only refer to yours boss as Mr/Mrs/Ms Smith or Sir/Ma’am, however workplace culture can and does differ enormously, depending on the company, location etc.). Ultimately though, success at work is purely down to the decisions you make every day… What decisions will you make?

*Communication skills for engineers and scientists, Third Edition, IChemE, 2002

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4 responses to “What India taught me about being a good engineer

  1. i feel ya about that part needed something done and it takes forever- the you catch them watching youtube. I don’t have an intense job like you in India but just in daily life here for the last couple years I deal with that so i can’t imagine how much frustration you dealt with. my bf works in india (from UK) and builds artificial coral reefs with an indian team- some of his stories after work are just INSANE lol you 2 would have a lot to talk about.

    • Oh that sounds like a really really cool job that he has – definitely a dinner party conversation piece. After a while I really got to resent some people because of their work ethic, and the fact when you ask them if something has been done, or for them to do something, the first thing they do is pick up their phone, tell you it’s already been done (but it usually hasn’t) then go back to YouTube. The worst part is these are experienced engineers, twice my age and probably earning more, both in relative and absolute amounts. Still it’s done now, and I did a good job, so I’m happy.

  2. Pingback: Oh shit! I can’t believe I’m seriously considering this… | Engineer on the Road·

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