Your Next Project: What’s in it for me?

When starting a new project it's easy to get bogged down in the minutia of the repeated aspects of accomplishing your job or task. But, have you ever stepped back and asked what's in it for me in this project? What am I gaining and learning from tackling this project? Sure the pay, or joy of completing a project is rewarding, but growing your skill base and developing yourself can be even more rewarding.

Starting out

When I got out of school and got my first real engineering job, it was a pretty straight forward proposition. First of all, I was glad I found a job and I was excited to start working somewhere that offered annual leave and 401K benefits. Secondly, because the job was very specialized, I was going to be trained, mentored, and educated on how to do the job from the “ground up”. That made it easy not to feel overwhelmed.

The organization that I worked for had an inventory of approved calibrated instrumentation equipment (sensors, conditioners, amplifiers, A/D converters, stand-alone Data Acquisition Systems (DAS), standardized cable bundles). In order to keep the cost down, I was taught to always try to re-use the equipment that we already had to design all of the systems for the new tests.

Buying new equipment, wasn’t only expensive, it also presented problems due to acceptance testing that we had to perform to qualify the equipment to be utilized for our tests. We had a dedicated group that was responsible for introducing new equipment into our inventory, but it would sometimes take months before we released new hardware. So I was encouraged to use what we already had certified and in our inventory.

The way it's always been done

At first, I saw this as part of a challenge, keep patching up new systems from old equipment. Sometimes this presented a real problem when some new measurement was asked for, there was always a clever way of doing something, but at times it was also frustrating. There might have been a very simple off-the-shelf solution that was available, but I didn’t have access to the hardware to implement it. However, the real problem was that after a couple of years, the job became real…boring.

The reason for this was that I felt I was doing the same thing over and over again. Sure, I worked on different projects, but I was repeating the set-ups using the same equipment. On top of that I felt that after being out of school for a few years, I was losing touch with the advancement in technology.

Nothing prevented me from putting in a full day at work and then taking a few more hours to read through trade magazines, attend professional workgroup meetings, and set up a small lab in the back of the garage at home. That would guarantee that I would keep up with new developments, and at the beginning that is exactly what I did. But as time went on and I bought an older house (that needed a lot of work), got married, and started getting interested in hobbies that I could finally afford like mountain biking, cooking, and traveling, I had less and less time for my “continuing education”. I was having too much time.

My daydream was to somehow figure out a way to continue my understanding of developing technology at work. But I just wasn’t able to figure out how to do that…until I met Janet.

A new mindset when approaching projects

Janet was a DAS expert in our area. She was known as an expert on high speed real (or near-real) time data acquisition. She was called in because we were trying to ensure that four different systems, that have been custom designed for older applications, could be synchronized in such a way as to ensure that every data sample taken on any system would be would be synchronized to within nanoseconds from any other system. Janet was going to design proper handshaking to implement that and then merge the acquired data from all four systems into one database. It was a big job and I was assigned to work along Janet because I was responsible for one of the older systems that was being utilized.

After studying the problem, Janet presented a way forward sketching out a rough approach, schedule, and budget. Part of her request was for some test equipment, She requested a high-speed data logger that recorded data and was able to send out control signals and would allow her to measure (if there were) any phase shifts between different systems. That was the first piece of new equipment that I was going to get to work within almost 3 years. I was pretty excited.

But I got really excited when I went to visit Janet’s lab. Wow! It was like being in a candy store. There was new testing equipment, racks of new amplifiers, a scaled down version of a pressure sensing DAS, and even a workbench outfitted with the latest strain gage installation gadgets. I expressed my admiration for her lab and asked if I could spend a bit of time getting to “play” with the new equipment. She graciously agreed and we got to talking about how she ended up with such an up to date facility.

Turning "No" into "Yes"

Janet told me that because her passion was new DAS developments, she adopted a philosophy that with almost every new projects assigned to her, she would try to imagine what aspect of the project could be utilized to feed her curiosity about the advances in DAS technologies. In our particular case, she couldn’t acquire any equipment to be used during the test, but because she was curious about the high-speed data loggers she saw a direct benefit of getting the new equipment as a way to validate her synchronization work.

Janet told me that what she likes to do when asked to perform a task, is phrase her responses in terms of: “YES (we can do this), AND (we can do it cheaper, faster, better) IF (we utilize this)”. This was refreshing because I have been used to hearing: “NO (we can’t do this), BUT (we might do that)”.

As short as our conversation was, it really got me thinking about how I can approach my job to make it fun and help me grow as a professional. I started looking at every new project as a means to pursue some new interest that I felt might help me grow as an engineer (or as a person).

Putting the new approach into action

I got to try that mode of thinking almost right away. A few weeks after my discussion with Janet, I was asked to design movable racks containing conditioning equipment. This was to facilitate sharing resources between different facilities and involved doing not only signal diagrams but also physical layouts. At the time I was very curious about some of the newer CAD software packages and I asked for new off-the-shelf CAD software. I got the software and learned how to use it, and had a blast with the whole project.

The next project that came up was short on staff and there was a real need to have someone working on up-keeping schedules. I volunteered and not only got the license to use project management software, but I also started to understand the real-life relationship between schedules and budgets. This really fascinated me, especially the glimpse of how money moved through the organization, so the next project...well, you get the idea.

I pursued this idea not only in my day job but also in my drawing comics’ endeavors. Drawing a western? Sure, what a great opportunity to learn how to draw horses! Put them in even if the script doesn’t call for any! Drawing a crime noir story? Great opportunity to learn how to create mood with shadows. Science fiction story? An opportunity to dream up designs that are both far out and familiar at the same time.

Conclusion

So next time your boss gives you another project, look at it and think: “What’s in this for me?” Don’t be afraid to daydream and think “out of the box”, because every new project is a chance to change and redefine your job into something that you are excited about!

For more career advice on how to ensure you have a successful engineering career make sure to check out this great article on 5 mistakes, you should avoid in order to achieve long term success.