With nearly 40 years of engineering experience, Doug Patton (SAE member, 1987) recounts career learnings nearly as fast as the minicomputer he used during his college days.
"F = ma and Newton's other laws of motion haven't changed, but the things around engineering formulas have changed a lot," said Patton. "Just look at software and computers. When I was in college, we worked on a PDP-11. Now my cell phone probably has more processing power," said Doug Patton, Denso International America's Senior Vice President, Engineering Division.
Engineers need to be ready to change the world and be changed by the world. And for a veteran engineer such as Patton, his career observations, work successes, and job challenges provide an insider's guide for young engineers ready to jump-start their careers.
One of his top suggestions is to get involved with a team-orientated project.
"Whether it's a college senior project, Formula SAE, or another team program, you have to deliver something at the end of the project. And that hands-on experience gives you some exposure to practical reality," Patton said during an hour-long interview with SAE Magazines.
Group projects seldom move along a bump-free path, and that's the point.
"Young engineers who participate on a Formula SAE team are going to be upset if a part, or a system, or a design fails. But those failures are happening within a safe environment in the sense that you're not losing business over the issue, you're not missing a customer's deadline.
"When we hire an entry-level engineer, we like to see that you've already dealt with some problems, such as a part that failed, because that meant you probably had to improvise a solution," Patton said, "We look for that kind of hands-on experience."
Patton earned a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from Bradley University in Peoria, IL. He then earned a master of business administration (MBA) degree in 1984 from the same university while working days as a release engineer and later as a senior market analyst at Caterpillar.
The dual degrees have helped Patton look at things differently, and he encourages young engineers to be open-minded about problem-solving.
"When you sit at your desk all day doing your job, you can become very good at your job. But you sort of get so focused that you don't have a broader picture of what's going on, or you don't look at problems from a different angle," he said.
Disrupting an engineer's tendency to approach product development tasks piecemeal can have positive results.
"An engineer typically looks at a problem from a single component view. But seeing a problem through someone else's perspective can give you a whole different picture," said Patton, "If you attend workshops, conferences, or take a continuing education course, that's a great way to learn how other people solved problems."
Patton, a 27-year member of SAE and member of the Board of Directors for the Engineering Society of Detroit, encourages engineers to network through professional organizations.
"You need to keep your eyes and ears open to an opportunity if it presents itself, and that's something I really wish someone would have told me 30 years ago," said Patton, "It's always relevant if you can learn something from someone else."
While strong communication skills are prized in the workplace, Patton believes that social media platforms are not an absolute substitute for in-person conversations. He also stresses that written correspondence needs to have relevance or the message falls flat.
"With LinkedIn I get a lot of invitations that I don't accept because I don't have any idea who they are. I don't reject every request, but there has to be something more than just 'I want to be LinkedIn with you," said Patton, "If you want me to give you my time, you've got to give me something relevant for my time. It's transactional."
The give-and-take scenario resonates with Patton, particularly as it relates to career advice he once received. 'If you have a conviction for something, you need to follow that through,' were the words Patton remembers.
It proved to be advice that took on added meaning when Patton wanted a specific corporate campus infrastructure upgrade. His suggestion didn't get a green light, but that failed pitch became a career lesson. "There are some things that you need to push. It doesn't mean that you fight to the death. But if you think something needs to happen, you should push it up the corporate ladder as far as possible," said Patton, "I pushed that particular idea, but I didn't push it as far as I should have."
Knowing when and how far to push an idea or a potential development project is situation-dependent. And that optimal-timed strategy also benefits from having a keen awareness of a particular company's culture.
"A lot of companies have unwritten rules. For your career development and career growth, you need to understand what the unwritten rules are. These aren't rules that anybody is hiding from you, it's just that you need to know how to navigate the corporate culture," said Patton.
If the career goal is a management position, know what it takes to get promoted at the company. The job-advancement precursor that Patton observed early in his career was the value of varied work experience. "Nothing was written down anywhere, but if you looked at this particular company's hierarchy, virtually every engineer who had a management job had worked in two of the three disciplines—research, engineering, or test and evaluation," said Patton.
Just as knowing the nuances of different job tasks can help with career advancement, knowing people inside and outside the transportation industry can be highly beneficial. The college years are the start point for many life-long friendships, and friends as well as acquaintances can be powerful allies throughout a career.
"Network with your classmates. You never know when you're going to run into these guys later in life," said Patton, "Your networking practice ground is in college, so don't think about that as something you do after college. Think about it early."
Another importance piece of advice: Be ready to start a conversation. According to Howard Davis, Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, MI, co-op jobs, internships, and industry-sponsored academic projects are filled with opportunities to talk with professional engineers and executives.
"Often one of the biggest barriers to developing relationships is fear. Someone's corporate position might be intimidating, or someone's perceived intense personality might be intimidating," said Davis. "But you need to get past your fear, otherwise that fear becomes overwhelming. Practice approaching everyone so when you get to a situation that's intense, it will become second-nature."
Even small talk has relevance, according to David Anderson, Senior Director of the Automotive Technical Panel And Long Products Program for the Steel Market Development Institute in Southfield, MI. A simple handshake and hello were the start points for Anderson getting to know Howard Davis, Doug Patton, and hundreds of other industry colleagues.
"Networking is very important in the industry because you never know when it's going to come back and benefit you," said Anderson. "Introduce yourself. Say something to break the ice. The weather is always a safe subject, so that's a way to begin a conversation."
Just as business relationships have a start point, so do work projects.
And in an industry where a vehicle development project typically has input from designers and engineers located in design studios and technical centers around the world, someone's job duties influences someone else's job tasks.
According to Patton, "An engineer can design a great circuit board. But if no one can figure out how to make the actuators work, that's a problem. The systems approach and how to bring everything together is very relevant because the solutions aren't always in one area.
"There are many ways to solve a problem. If you just focus on one small area you don't necessarily get the best problem and solution. Which means you don't necessarily satisfy your customers with what they need," said Patton.
Timeline management is Patton's preferred way of addressing the complex challenges inherent when designing and engineering products. And when juggling multiple projects, time-management software is a major assist for keeping workloads on a deadline track.
"When I started working in engineering, you'd work on one project, maybe two projects. But now it's not uncommon to be working on 10 projects. And with those 10 projects there are many more people depending on your work output. So providing timely and accurate information to all the people that depend on your information to do their job is critical," said Patton. "There's just a lot more to do, even for entry-level engineers."