Engineering Stamina

7 Oct

In this article, I’d like to explain what stamina means in the world. At a good engineering firm, you’ll need lots of it to build better products, to solve amazing problems, to match pace with your colleagues, to survive…

 

Let me share a personal experience in this matter. This incident happened during the first quarter mid-term examinations of my first year at Drexel. I had chosen a course load that proved to be quite tough mainly because of the scheduling. Every Wednesday, I had Microwave theory and techniques from 2 – 5 PM followed by Computer Networks from 6 – 9 PM. I royally ignored the warnings given by seniors who suggested I take these during separate terms because I was just starting out for an intense course load. I felt an urgency to take them in the first quarter because a) I was really interested in those topics and b) I wanted to evaluate ASAP whether I could pursue them for further research.

 

What I had grossly underestimated was how tough taking the back to back exams would be. The mid-terms especially came very quick as I was still adjusting to a new country, friends, a very different education and testing system. My first exam went well. It was three hours of good thinking and I think I did well on it. In the hour break between the two courses, I would walk across the buildings and grab a snack. Most of the times, it was a Snickers Bar and a pretzel since they fit the time/money criteria. Midway into the Computer Networks exam, I felt my brain slowing down. Almost five hours of non-stop thinking were now taking its toll. At the end of it, I was completely saturated and just wanted to fall on my bed. As we were heading back, some friends and I were generally talking about the questions. One of my friends AJ asked me what I got as the answer for one of the questions. Our answers differed and he asked what my approach was to solve it. What I remember saying was “Hey, we just got done with the exam. Let’s not discuss anything now and just wait for the results.” AJ was insistent and of the approach that “Why shouldn’t we discuss? This is important as we can learn right now and not have to wait for the results” In my brain saturated phase, I didn’t realize at the time how prescient his approach was.

 

The engineering world will ask you to solve a lot of problems. Quite a few of those will be really tough and will require a team to attack them. You will be working on problems so complex that different teams will attack a different part of the puzzle. While you may not necessarily have to switch topics from microwave theory to computer networks, you never know! There will be days when you go home with the solution still evading you. On some of those days, there will be deep dive discussions at the end of the day so that teams can plan for the next steps. There is no external result waiting in the pipeline. You’ve got to learn real-time. That’s when your thought stamina comes into play. Despite hours of thinking and working, you’ve got to have the ability to engage in a brainstorming session for a few more minutes.

 

Not doing so could mean in a product that can’t be released. It could be a product that has a bug, a fault, an inefficiency, or it works in a sub-optimal manner. Majority of engineering work these days is in a thought-based environment. We are paid to come up with innovations, to implement them, and to improve them. How you handle the tough problems that stretch you beyond imagination will determine your success. I’ll repeat, it’s really how you handle yourself, how engaged you are, how committed you are that will determine the types of problems being given to you. Needless to say, the bigger the problem, the challenging the problem, the better your growth will be both professionally and financially.

 

So, what can you do make yourself better? Here are a few questions and action steps you can take in your daily life.

 

Let’s take an example: a power optimization update in a product requires a new SW build. Everyone’s made their changes and now the build is crashing. Now there is a hue and cry about the crash.

  1. Solve one problem at a time
    1. Many a time this gets muddled up in the hue and cry of team activities. Learn to ask: what is the first problem that needs to be solved first? Examples: We know the power optimization is the end goal. However, to get there we need to get the build to work. Only when the build works, can you dig into the next problem which is power measurement. Only after you’ve measured the power will you know if it needs to be reduced and if so, by how much. A marathon is run one step at a time. Same principle at work here.
  2. Be an objective thinker
    1. Learn to ask What, How, Why and understand the dependencies. Example: If the power doesn’t meet your requirements, figure out which are the various components that contribute to it. Of those, maybe a questions is why are they all ON at the same time. If they can be turned off, how can you do so and what is the best approach to bring them ON.
  3. While the days can be long, do learn to take short breaks where you can switch your brain off. I’ll take a 10 or 15 min coffee break and focus on just drinking the coffee. This is to intentionally take a break from the work problem to allow my brain a fresh perspective when I return. Some colleagues prefer reading a newspaper, some go for a walk.
  4. Observe and learn from the team. The best part about being in a team is that everyone brings something different to the table. I have learned many ways to attack a problem from my peers and directors alike.
  5. Be calm. Trust that you will solve the problem. The solution may not be apparent now but trust your abilities to solve it. If you stick with it long enough, trust that you can and will solve it. I recommend learning meditation if this is an area you would like to improve.

 

You may want to think of your career as an endurance game. As you keep going, you will get better and better.

 

If you would like to share your examples and/or tips, do let me know and I’ll share them with the rest of the community.

 

Cheers,

Hemang.

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