Where did the engineering fun go? How do you get it back?

I can remember the many long nights and early mornings that I spent tirelessly working through electrical hardware design, software development, and algorithm/controls development in my first job. I did not mind that the days disappeared or that I was taking my work home or even coming in on weekends. I enjoyed the challenge of getting things to work, the delights of learning something new and delivering something that was of value, both to the company and the customer. But, something changed.

Has this happened to you? Has engineering ceased to be fun? Let me share my journey with you and I can point out the trap that led me away from the fun and some of the things that I have done to bring back some of that fun.

The Starting Point

I look back to my first job to identify the characteristics that made it fun. I was given a wide variety of problems to solve. With that came the need to solve them quickly and get on to the next problem. Certainly, I was driven by that. There was a need and I was going to fulfill it. Fundamentally, I enjoyed problem-solving.

Now, not all of those problems were something that I understood. I had to learn and there are two aspects of learning I think are very important. The first is the time to understand the principles and second is the chance to apply the principles. Many of the basic principles were understood from my education but some were application specific and I had to understand those in order to put the solutions together.

I enjoyed the trial and error of creating solutions that provided capabilities beyond just the electrical design domain (my education). I got to validate my understandings of the new principles and I got to test them, not only in a lab but in their real operating environment. Jet skis, boats, motorcycles, cars, manufacturing equipment, and test systems. It is fun to experience all these environments and see what you did and how it contributed. It was also incredibly satisfying to see it bring value to the company. And as a small company, the impacts were immediately visible – both good and bad.

I can best summarize these characteristics as: problem-solving, learning, seeing your products in action, and making a difference.

The Change

We did a really good job. Someone decided to buy this small business and that is when it all changed. Every one of the characteristics changed. Fewer problems to solve, less opportunity to learn, seeing fewer products in action and less of a feeling that you made a difference. So, I tried someplace else and someplace else and someplace else etc…

As I moved from job to job, the conditions did not change and in many cases got worse. The development cycles were significantly longer and this had the effect of reducing all of the characteristics that I saw as fun. The goal became getting it right the first time. There was no opportunity for trial and error. The rigors of detailed documentation and supporting evidence outweighed the learnings and validation of understanding by experience. Often, I was so far away from the final operating environment that I didn’t even know what the product did and what difference it made.

The Trap

I hate to admit it but the reality is that the trap is our perception. While my first job appears to have been the most fun, and might have been, it was still just a job. It was work and we are paid to perform services for the company for which we work. It might be more or less fun but we need to perform. Obviously, it would be better if it were fun. So, rather than focusing on what it is not, why not focus on what it is and identify ways to make it more fun?

Getting it Back

In order to get that fun back, I guess I need to have more problems to solve, more learning, see more products in action and get a greater sense that I make a difference.

To have more problems to solve, we must identify them. The reality is, that there are so many of them that there are always a number of them sitting right there in front of you. I always thought the problems had to be related to new products but my experience was that most of the problems that I worked on after that first job had to do with improving the quality or capability of engineering organizations. Maybe not the problems I wanted to work on but there were plenty of opportunities present. I just had to recognize them and treat them the same as new product problems.

Relative to learning, I had done almost all of it through experience. In organizations where the opportunities appeared less, I had to approach learning in a more academic way. I spent more time investigating new methods and techniques to perform engineering. Involvement in professional organizations opened up a wealth of experience and knowledge. Taking these back into the work environment and applying them gave me the opportunity to validate my understandings of the principles through experience.

As the development cycle got too long to get any real feedback, implementation of an agile method allowed the learnings and experiences to happen faster. This was a major game changer for me. I really enjoyed the pace at which I could get that feedback, identify new problems, learn, and feel a sense of accomplishment. I was really starting to have fun again.

Modeling was another tool that enabled me to get back that sense of fun. Be it something like MatLab/Simulink or Vitech’s product GENESYS, modeling gave me the ability to create, explore, test, try, fail, and learn in a very rapid fashion- much like the agile process.

The one thing I could not change in the workplace was how the company wanted to utilize my skills and abilities. While I could make the work environment more fun, I could not always work on things that I wanted to work on. The only solution was to play with these things outside of work. For example, creating solutions for my own personal technical problems or helping others with solving their technical problems.

So, if you know that engineering was once fun for you and you are struggling to see the fun in it anymore, make some changes. Make it fun again. Realize what problems are out there for you to solve. Look for opportunities to learn and bring those learnings to execution. Identify ways that you can increase the speed of your learning cycles. Be observant of the impact you are making. And if nothing else, go play in the garage and create some of your own great solutions.

Happy Engineering!

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