Monday, September 29, 2014

Questions to Ask Before Accepting a Job

So you've already owned at a career fair, had your interview, showed off your engineering prowess, asked good questions during your interview, and you secured a job offer. First of all, congratulations! Secondly now is a good time to ask some harder questions, and clarify what your life would be like at the job you are considering. Obviously, you should also be working on negotiating salary and benefits at this point in time, but learning about the work environment, job expectations, etc. is also important at this stage. Some of these questions are less important for internships than for full time positions, since sometimes bad work environments for a short period of time just make for entertaining stories later. So here are some questions my friends and I wished we'd asked before accepting job offers.

What are the facilities like? The environment in which you work can have a massive impact on your experience at your job. Some jobs have you in the field working with or around dangerous equipment with only porta-potties nearby, and others are working in cubicles in shiny office buildings with glass walls. If you are interviewing on site, then this may be self evident. Otherwise, if you have any doubt about your work environment and one of the possibilities is unacceptable to you, ask a specific question to get clarity.

Some people aren't cut out for "roughing it"
What are the core working hours? Some companies require that you be in at a specific time in the morning, others only require a certain number hours of a week. If you cannot function before noon or after 3 pm, this may be a particularly important question.

How much overtime do employees work on average? How much overtime is expected? A lot of jobs end up requiring "unexpected" overtime regularly. The two questions may provide slightly different answers and can help you ascertain if you can maintain the work/life balance you want, and if working 40 hours a week will make you a below average employee.

Is the position exempt or non-exempt? AKA are you paid for your overtime? If not, are there performance bonuses? A lot of times engineers work endless hours and feel like they are taken advantage of. If there isn't a financial award system for people who work longer and harder hours, then there is a good chance there are also a number of dissatisfied employees.

What is the n year attrition rate? Pick a number N that is acceptable to you. I'm partial to 2 years- because many people in the younger generation are only willing to stay 2 years at a job they don't like. This question is important to save until after you've been offered a job, since it may hit too close to home for certain companies.

Am I expected to be on call? How often? This is another requirement that people often find out after starting a job. Some manufacturing, utility, and other engineering jobs require employees to be on call like doctors. That means no drinking and no travelling when you are on call- and the potential to be interrupted from everything from a hot date to a good nights rest. It also means you may not be guaranteed to have regular holidays.

With these questions out of the way and information about salary and benefits, you'll hopefully have all the information you need to decide if you want to take the job or not.



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Monday, September 22, 2014

How to Find A Mentor

The other day I was telling my friends a story that an old mentor told me, and I realized me saying "my mentor" was about as specific as Henry VIII of England saying "my ex-wife". Even though I learned all sorts of theories in school, the moment I stepped foot into a real office I needed somebody to show me the ropes and teach me how to actually do what I had practiced so many times in theory. Many work environments have assigned mentors or particularly helpful people who will watch out for you. But if they don't, finding a mentor can be a scary proposition.

Here's some tips I've learned over the years about finding mentors:

No "Define The Relationship" talk is required. Before I started full time work, I read a lot of books which suggested walking into someones office and asking if they would be your mentor. A mentor and mentee relationship doesn't have to be a formalized process involving three letters of recommendation, weekly progress reports, and regular meetings. In my mind, a mentor is just somebody who you can count on to provide guidance. In engineering, I've noticed a lot of experienced people can be intimidated by the idea of having a formalized mentoring relationship because of the time commitment required. By just casually asking questions when you need help, you get to avoid an awkward conversation and most people are more than happy to spare a few minutes here and there to help you.

Nobody wants to deal with this awkward moment

Have multiple mentors. In most environments, everyone has something different at which they excel. Each mentor you have can offer a different perspective on your work and your career, and splitting the work of mentoring makes your personal improvement less of a burden on the mentors themselves. You don't have one professor in college, so why learn exclusively from one person after you graduate? Identify what you want to improve about yourself, and find someone (or multiple people!) to help you do that.

Don't limit yourself by your job description. Sometimes the mentor that you need for a specific task is not in your department. Sometimes they are not even an engineer. For example, I've learned a lot from the union workers and technicians about how parts actually function in the real world (not just on paper), and I've learned from administrative assistants how I can fast track processes.

Communicate your questions clearly. If you are worried about seeming incompetent for a question you need to ask, pretending you know what you are doing could lead to disaster. You can always ask questions by saying "I understand that *basic information about how the system works*, but I was wondering if you know how *specific question*". By stating what you know as part of the question it both gives relevant background and shows that you are competent.

Ask your own questions. While asking questions is not a bad thing, being the funnel for answers is not a great thing either. When you are new somebody asks you a question you can't answer, give them the information to try to ask the question themselves.

Thank mentors for their time. It's common sense, but when people take time out of their day to help you succeed, make sure you at least say "thank you".

Mentor somebody else. If you expect for other people to help you, remember to give back to the circle of mentoring by helping someone else out. That can mean helping other people learn something you do well, even if they are generally considered more experienced than you. For example, I taught one of my technical mentors how to write basic scripts in Excel.

Mentors are not always right. Getting mentored is great, accepting facts without questioning and understanding them is not. Like all human beings, even mentors can be wrong. So make sure you think about the advice critically.



Monday, September 15, 2014

Moving and Making New Friends

When I talk to my friends who have moved to do awesome things around the world, there is one theme that transcends different culture, environments, and industries... everyone feels like they have a hard time finding new good friends. It's something I call the "reverse empty nester syndrome". When people finally grow up and leave the security of home and school, they find themselves excited about their future but very lonely in a strange new world.

In school, making friends is relatively easy. You sit down next to somebody in class, introduce yourself, and you immediately have a ton in common (the class, the school, mutual friends, etc). For seventeen years (give or take for various degrees) you essentially make friends professionally. But as soon as you move the tassel to the left side of your cap, making friends is suddenly a complex game. What's worse is that when you still Skype, SnapChat, Gchat, Facebook message, tweet, iMessage, text, and call your old friends, you often can barely find time to make new ones.

Cue you eating delivery pizza and drinking wine in an apartment filled with unpacked boxes watching reruns of TV shows on Netflix. And then telling your friends who are hundreds of miles away about it on Skype, SnapChat, Gchat, Facebook, and Twitter. Sound familiar?

While a night in can be great and old friends are "gold" (according to Girl Scout campfire songs), making new friends is an important part of starting your new life somewhere. Starting fresh can be difficult, but it is also a great opportunity to reinvent yourself. Life isn't about wallowing in sadness, so take ownership of your move and try a few of the following ways to meet new friends.

Sit With People in the Lunchroom

If you have a lunchroom at work, take it upon yourself to find an empty seat and introduce yourself to some new people. Sitting at a new table can be oddly scary, but it is a great way to get to actually talk to people at work. You will definitely not make new friends by sitting alone at your desk, so what have you got to lose?

Go to a Meetup

Meetup is a great way to find people nearby who are looking to do things with new friends. If you are worried about safety, go to ones organized in public locations. In bigger cities, you can find people who have specific similar interests. In smaller towns... you can find people!

Try Volunteering

Try doing something good for your new community, and meeting nice people at the same time! If you don't have a charity with which you have a particularly strong connection, check out VolunteerMatch to find new opportunities.

Those were supposed to be hairnets, but they came out looking more like colonial garb.  Again, I never said I was an artist. 

Find a Cultural/Religious Organization

If you identify with a specific culture or religion, try to find a branch nearby. These can be easy ready built communities.

Take a Class

Make new friends while you broaden your horizons and learn a new skill. I'm partial to taking art, exercise or language classes since they are so different from my profession. These are offered at colleges, community centers, gyms, art galleries, etc. Poke around and see what fits you best!

Join a Professional Organization

Build a strong network and meet new people in your area be joining and becoming involved with a professional organization. If you somehow made it through college without being inducted into any professional societies, SWE, ASME, IEEE, ASCE, AIChE, MRS, or whatever other organization that is related to your field are all great options.

However you decide to meet people, make sure to take the initiative to invite your new friends to hang out. Don't forget, making new friends is a process. Keep trying new things and you'll find yourself feeling at home in no time.



PS. What other suggestions do you have for how adults can make new friends after a big move?

Monday, September 8, 2014

The "G-Word"

As I was in the middle of checking a calculation at work today, my phone rang and when I picked it up a woman on the other end said, "Hey girl!"

Did she really just say "hey girl"? I paused, at a complete loss for how to respond. Thankfully, she quickly filled the silence with technical questions and it was back to normal work. But my momentary discomfort reminded me of an incident that had happened years earlier.

In college I was on the executive board of an organization for women in technology that provided a professional and personal support network. I loved the organization, and always looked forward to crafting funny and welcoming emails to go out to our members about the upcoming events we had planned.

One day, my adviser emailed me asking that I come to her office- and the tone sounded more serious than normal. I sat down tentatively, and she took in a deep breath.

"Vanessa, we need to talk about your use of the 'g-word'," she said very carefully.

"Excuse me?" I asked, completely confused.

"The 'g-word'. You've been using the word 'girl' a lot in your emails and I've been getting complaints from some of the members that it's offensive and demeaning. I know you wouldn't intend to offend anyone, but you should probably choose another word."

I was honestly pretty shocked; I hadn't intended to offend anyone. I just wanted to make it sound welcoming and fun.While 'girl' can refer to a child, it can also just refer to a young woman, or a woman of any age. When starting an email, "Hey women!" sounded too formal and awkward, "Hey ladies!" sounded too sassy, and "Hey gals!" sounded like we are from the 1950's. I mean, 'girls night out' isn't demeaning, it just sounds like fun. How else was I supposed to address a group of women? How could a word that I always associated with fun be offending people?

What place would ever advertise a "women's night out"? It just sounds wrong.
I followed my adviser's advice (because she seemed to always be right about these things, even if I couldn't explain it), but it wasn't until I graduated that I began to truly understand why anyone would find this word off putting.

The only time I heard the word 'girl' at work in the first couple of years was dripping in venom. Men who were annoyed with me (or the rare other woman) would say things like, "Tell that girl that I don't think I should have to do that" or "That girl is being unreasonable". The passive aggressive vendor I mentioned in the email blog post is the perfect example of the type of person who enjoyed using the g-word. It was almost like they had done a one for one word replacement with 'bitch', and thought they'd get away with it since 'girl' wasn't technically a bad word.

I suppose they could have used 'woman', 'lady', 'person', 'human', 'engineer', 'genius', or really any word, and you would have been able to hear the same poison and disgust in their tone. But the perpetrators always chose seemed to choose 'girl', perhaps because it had the bonus implication of being young, inexperienced, and immature. As a side note, I always found that ironic because I think that debasing yourself by insulting people at work is rather childish.

That's how I ended up today, answering a phone and feeling momentarily shocked and defensive at a word I used to associate with fun social events. For the first time I can remember in my professional career it was meant in a nice way, so my defensiveness was unnecessary. But I couldn't help but wonder how a seemingly benign word had become such a weapon in the workplace.

I know that there is a pretty awesome, similarly themed P&G commercial about reclaiming the phrase "like a girl", although it mostly has to do with performing physical activities "like a girl". I think it's important to take that one step further; being young woman has nothing to do with competence physically or intellectually. In the workplace, I have been told that the word 'girl' is never appropriate. Admittedly, when it is used by the older generations, it almost always seems to be used in the form of an insult. But perhaps by banning the word we are unintentionally admitting that being a young female is somehow a bad thing.

I am a girl, even though I am not a child. My gender and my age have nothing to do with the quality of my work. Maybe the solution isn't discouraging people from using the word "girl" altogether (and therefore giving it even more power when used negatively), but using it more often in a positive context reclaiming the word and removing the negative stereotypes. What do you think?



Monday, September 1, 2014

Questions to Ask During an Interview

IT IS THAT TIME OF YEAR AGAIN! Most students are still readjusting to living on campus, but job fairs are starting all over the country and interviews will be soon to follow.

One of the (many) things I used to dread before interviews was what questions to ask my interviewer. I knew that coming in with nothing to ask made you look unprepared, but I never knew what I really needed to know about a potential job (other than a couple questions intended to prove I'd done my research). These questions are an amazing opportunity for you to collect information about different potential careers. Remember, job interviews are a two way street- you need to figure out that you want the job just as much as they need to figure out that they want you.

To help others through the interview question debacle, I've compiled a list of questions which target things that have surprised either me or my friends upon arriving at a new engineering job. A lot of this information may be included in the job description, so make sure to read it carefully and not for information which has already been provided to you. Note that this is most relevant for personal interviews, not technical interviews. If you have the opportunity to ask questions at the end of a technical interview it wouldn't be totally out of line, just know your audience.

BONUS TIP: For those of you who identify closer to the socially awkward end of the spectrum (you know who you are), make sure to consider your tone as you ask these questions. You want to sound conversational and not like you are grilling the interviewer in a murder investigation. If you aren't sure how you are being perceived, practice asking your questions to a friend or family member before the actual interview.

What is the position? 

I can't even begin to tell you how many job postings I've seen that say something along the lines of "Engineer needed to work with cross functional team to develop quality products and solve problems." Note that this could be a description for literally any engineering job on the face of the planet. All it really tells you is that somebody who knows nothing about engineering wrote this (probably somebody in HR who was just told "we need more engineers!"). So in your interview, ask some follow up questions like: What niche are you looking to fill in your organization that has motivated you to hire for this position? What other departments or people would I be working with? What product or type of product will I be working on? If you have technical people on your interview board, you can also ask: What type of engineer are you looking to hire? People with technical backgrounds close to yours will be likely to give you a technical answer to this particular question, while business people will be more likely to give you a general "somebody who can engineer" type of answer that won't really help you.

Use the answers to relate your skills to the job for which they are hiring before asking the next question on your list. Creating a dialogue will make the interview feel more natural for you and your interviewer, and will allow you the chance to sell yourself after the initial round of questions.

In addition to helping you get the job, these questions will help prevent the bate and switch. By this I mean some job titles say "engineer" but you don't get to actually engineer anything. Knowing what work will be required in the position will help you decide between potential offers down the line.

What engineering tools do you use for the job I would be doing? 

Many job descriptions do not list what software programs, lab equipment, etc. you will be expected to use. For these positions, finding out what engineering tools are used for the job you are expected to do gives you insight to how much they are willing to invest in helping their engineers perform their jobs. It also clarifies what the job will actually entail, and gives you talking points to align your skills to the work that they need completed. For example, if one job requires you do all of your sketches in Paint and another requires CAD, this may factor into your decision of where you would best fit.

I wish this wasn't an "engineering tool" I've seen people use.
Tailor this question to the types of tools you would expect to see at the job (especially ones you are trained to use!) since "engineering tools" is a pretty broad category. It will both give you a more meaningful answer, and let you highlight your skills (if they haven't already come up earlier in the interview).

Is there a training program? What does it entail?

If you are going to do technical work at a full time job, there should be a legitimate training program. Some internships include training or a mentoring program, although they are rarely as thorough since companies cannot afford to invest in short term employees as much. No matter how thorough your education is, there is plenty to learn in the specific area in which you will be working. When the training program is more of a "trial by fire" program, consider seriously how much of an issue it would be if you messed up and didn't have a mentor to correct you. If you are working on the landing gear for an airplane, this may be a bigger problem than if you are working on televisions. On the other hand some companies have such rigorous programs that employees are fired regularly before they "graduate", which can be an extremely stressful experience.

How would you describe the company culture?

It's an open ended question that I love to ask during interviews because I find that the unspoken reaction of the interviewer is often more important than the actual response. If they seem to be struggling to say something positive, that's indicative of a real problem.

How long has the position been open? Why is the position open?

These types of questions can help you assess if they are having difficulty filling the position or retaining employees. While these facts don't mean that a workplace is bad, you should take into consideration that there may be a reason everyone is leaving. Be careful when asking this, it can easily sound more aggressive than intended.

What is the career trajectory for this position? Where would you see me in 3 to 5 years? What are the advancement opportunities like?

If you imagine yourself quickly rising through the ranks at a new job, it's important to be sure that this is even an option. Some companies don't promote internally, others will quickly promote you out of an engineering role all together. 

Are there any social activities outside of work?

Some companies have coworkers who go out for drinks weekly, or play softball, or some other type of activity. Others never associate with each other outside of work and pretend they don't recognize each other if they run into somebody at the grocery store. If you are moving to a new town, having a built in group of friends may make a difference to you. If you are a misanthrope, required coworker hangouts may be the worst thing ever.

That's all the questions I have for now, thank you!

Hopefully at this point they'll say something that naturally leads to you asking for their business cards. If you really liked the job, don't be afraid to follow up. Hardly anyone ever does it these days, so this can really help you stand out.

Good luck!  



PS. What questions do YOU wished you asked during an interview?