...or, How to Succeed in Aerospace by Really Trying
Revised and reprinted from the AIAA Student Journal, Spring 1991
Copyright C 1998 by Daniel P. Raymer
This article is written for those "driven" young engineers, who want to get responsibility (and promotion!) as fast as they are ready to assume it. An outgrowth of a talk given at a number of universities, it presents some lessons learned the hard way by a no-longer-so-young engineer who really wanted to get ahead. This eager engineer later had the opportunity to hire, nurture, and promote young engineers, and eventually gained some understanding of what is really important from the boss's perspective.
Considering the factors for getting ahead, ten rules seem most important for success. These are described below. I wish I could say that I intuitively knew and followed these from the moment I joined my first company, but my co-workers from that time would die laughing! I think I followed about six of these in my early years, and painfully learned three more, and am still working on the last. (No, I will not say which is which!)
We all screw up! We have too many assignments, we thought we
understood it when we did not, sometimes our grandmother really
and sometimes we just forget. It is okay to screw up
occasionally, but never, ever wait until the due-date before
admitting it. When it is due, other people are depending on it.
If you are not going to make the due-date, notify the boss as
early as possible. Better yet, pull a couple of all-nighters to
finish the job, and be more realistic in the future when you
agree that you can make a due-date. You will not get the next
responsible assignment if you screw up on the due-date, and after
a while you will be placed in the category of "good engineer, but
can't be trusted with anything important."
Yes, some people get ahead armed only with a nice suit, a good briefing style, and a lot of politics. Luckily, they are few in number and their careers are (usually) limited. To break out of the pack in a technical organization, it is critical that you be known as one of the best engineers. Always do superior work. Get that graduate degree soon. Sign up for short courses in your technical area and in other areas for broadening. Respectfully pick the brains of the experienced engineers. Not only will you learn, but they will think that you are a sharp young engineer for recognizing their expertise.
As you start to become really good technically, you should let others know. Write technical papers and submit them for presentation at meetings. It is amazing how many times a technical session at an AIAA meeting gets just one or two abstracts in response to the announcement in the Aerospace America bulletin. While in school, present a paper at an AIAA Regional Student Conference. Try to write something for the company paper. Give talks to the local or company AIAA branch and to local schools.
Also, do not be afraid to express a technical opinion in
conversations and meetings at work when you are certain that you
know what you are talking about. Do not always try to dominate
every meeting, but do not be a
Willy Sutton was once asked, "Why do you rob banks?" He replied, "Because that's where the money is!" Proposals are "where the money is" for any technical company, and you should become known as a young engineer who can help to win the proposal and get that money! Proposal time is the very best time to impress the bosses, and you should plan to work your hardest and longest when you are permitted to join a proposal team.
The ability to write clear and concise text on a technical subject is probably the single most valuable and rare commodity in aerospace. Take writing classes. Write as often as possible, and seek critical review from someone who writes well. I personally never submit anything, including this article, without finding someone who will constructively hack it apart for me.
When a proposal is approaching the due-date, and it is three
o'clock in the morning, I frequently notice something strange.
The "oldtimers" (over thirty, like me) are all there, and the
young engineers have left. Their usual excuse is that "nobody
told me what to do next" so they went home. If you want to
impress the bosses, be the last person to leave while a proposal
is under way and always ask for more work and responsibility.
"I'm done, what can I do next?" is wonderful music to an
overworked proposal manager, and a great addition to your growing
The Yuppies are right. You will get ahead faster if important people outside the company know who you are. Sad to say, but it is very common for a good engineer to languish in a job until an outside company offers a much higher position, at which point the current company suddenly offers the same promotion. It happened to me (I left anyway!). These outside offers come only if important people know you.
The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) is probably the best networking avenue for aerospace engineers (SAE is good too, but AIAA is fully-focused on aerospace). Attend conferences. Better yet, volunteer to help organize the conference. Work with your local AIAA section, and volunteer to work on one of their standing committees. Once you have proven yourself, run for a local section office.
Another networking avenue offered by AIAA is membership on a National
Technical Committee. While is it difficult for a young engineer
to be invited to join one of these committees, it is not
impossible! You will meet and work with the key people in your
technical area, and have many opportunities to prove your
Some young engineers seem to have the idea that, to be truly professional, one should always remain businesslike with co-workers. Others have a full social circle outside of work, or some other personal situation which prevents socialization with people from the office.
However, an engineering organization is a social grouping as well as a structure for accomplishing technical tasks. Engineers are people, and will be far happier working with people they feel they know than with some unsmiling automaton whom they only see at work (and therefore in stressful situations!). Also, as you get ahead you will encounter much less resentment if people know you from the softball team, or the ski club, or some other outside socializing.
Along the same lines, try to be nice! I know this sounds silly,
but your career is over if you are labeled as a "great engineer,
but one nobody wants to work with". Smile, say hello, and take a
few seconds for social pleasantries before leaping into a
discussion of the current panic!
You are the hottest graduate from the hottest school, and you are ready to take over something really important, right now! Kelly Johnson did it, why not you?
Because things have changed a bit since the 1930s. Aerospace is a mature business, and aerospace organizations are bureaucracies. The bosses' careers depend almost as much on not doing anything wrong as they do on doing things right. If they trust you with something really big, and you screw up, they will look worse than if they had appointed a seasoned veteran who had made the same screw up!
Also, your effectiveness as a rising aerospace leader depends as
much on your ability to get quality work out of other people as
it does on your own output. If you are perceived as a person who
only cares about the immediate promotion and who wants to be the
boss all the time, others will resent you and will work poorly
for you. So be aggressive, but not excessively or overtly (easy
to say, but for many of us, hard to do!).
Some young engineers develop an unfortunate and even dangerous attitude about secretaries, treating them as typing/copying servants. After all, engineers have one or more college degrees and are the lifeblood of the company, whereas a secretary....
A secretary is the boss's closest co-worker, and is usually a personal friend. A good secretary adds about 20 to 50 percent to the boss' productivity (or more!), and is far more important to the boss than any new-hire engineer. A really good secretary would have no trouble destroying a new engineer's career! Even a "department" secretary (i.e., one who does not work directly for the boss) is used as a source of information about which of the new engineers have the most promise.
Furthermore, a secretary can make you look good by improving your writing, by offering hints as to what the boss really wants, and by moving your typing or other jobs up on the priority list. Treat the secretaries as equals who perform a job different from yours, but important just the same. Be friendly (but not too friendly, if you want to stay out of really big trouble!).
(2007 update: Times change. Secretaries no longer do the typing for engineers -
now we have to do it ourselves. Everything else still applies, so I still say ....Cultivate the Secretaries!)
If proposals are "where the money is", then briefings are "where the reputation is". Skill at giving a clear and enjoyable briefing is an absolute requirement for advancement in a technical organization. The only way to get this skill is practice. Give talks at every opportunity. Perhaps take a class in speaking or acting. Toastmasters is a fine organization for perfecting speaking skills.
Also, ask the good briefers in the company for help when you have a briefing to give. You will learn that a great briefing results from great preparation and organization as much as it does from the "gift of gab".
<---- Raymer's first AIAA presentation - love the Sonny Bono hair and John Travolta white suit!
Again, the Yuppies are right. You will be entrusted with more
responsibility, and given promotions sooner, if you look like a
trustworthy, competent person in the eyes of your company's
customers. In our culture that usually means a suit and a
"normal" haircut/style. The "correct"
dress varies from company to
company, and even from department to department (people in the
computer department can wear anything!). Don't "put on airs",
obviously overdressing to curry favor, but look like you would
fit in just fine at the next level up. A good rule of thumb is to
dress approximately half-way between what your boss wears and
what your average co-worker wears.
You are being paid to work. Period. Always look like you are working, even if there is really nothing to do. Do not read Spiderman while waiting for the computer to respond. Also, no horse-play, foul language, practical jokes, or other foolishness on company time. If you are not sure what is acceptable, imagine that your boss and your company's most important customer are watching.
Do not ever, ever do anything that could be construed as sexual harassment. No off-color jokes, come-ons, or even excessive compliments concerning looks or dress.
Also, avoid office romances. The concern by management is that productivity will suffer, especially when office romances end. Most importantly, avoid office romances with the boss or the boss's secretary!
(What about cultural differences? Click here. )
Well, those are "Raymer's Rules." Hopefully they will help you
get ahead. If they help so much that I wind up working for you
someday, I want a raise. A big one!
(If you are not yet a graduate but are aiming for a career in aircraft design, read Raymer's Rules for Would-Be Aircraft Designers.)