How to get an engineering job at a design firm

I am a Senior Design Engineer at Pensa and recently have added the role of Engineering Intern Coordinator. This new extended role puts me in charge of coordinating the tasks of our current interns and of giving them guidance and advice. But more importantly and better related to this post, it gives me the responsibility of interviewing and evaluating potential engineering internship candidates. In the past several weeks I’ve heard so many awful things at some interviews that I decided to write a post aiming to give some advice to those seeking an engineering job at a design firm. If you are a recent grad, rising senior, junior or otherwise young engineer with little or no interviewing experience, please read this post.

Being Pensa a product design and invention firm, we mostly interview for Mechanical Engineers when looking to fulfilling engineering roles, so the following list is based on what several ME candidates have done/said, but this should also apply to EE,s CSs, BMEs, or whichever your engineering major is.

So, without further ado, here are some of the things you should do before, during and after the interview if you want to nail that job:

1) Do your homework.

Are you really interested in the industry and company you’re applying to? If so, RESEARCH. Go to Google and find them online, check out their projects, see what they do, how they do it and make sure you are prepared to talk about anything that called your attention. Specific projects you found on their website are great topics of conversation since your interviewers should be willing/able to talk about them, especially if the projects have received lots of media. Just be aware that most design and innovation firms work under strict privacy and confidentiality terms with their customers, so your interviewers won’t be able to talk about the details of some projects or clients. Don’t insist.

Then, look at their Careers page. See if they’re recruiting for someone with your qualifications for a role that would be interesting for you. Now, pay attention to what you’re recruiting for: You are an ENGINEER applying for an ENGINEERING job. So, long story short. If you want to get the job, exercise your reading comprehension skills.

2) Know what you are and what you are not.

Just because you would like to spend your days sketching and defining the look and feel of the product doesn’t mean you’ll be hired for that. Why? Because that’s the (oversimplified) role of an Industrial Designer. Which, if you’re reading this post, you are NOT. Again, you are an ENGINEER applying for an ENGINEERING job.

I get it, many engineers want to join a product design firm to switch their careers to a different path, but that doesn’t mean you will turn yourself into an Industrial Designer overnight. It is a completely different set of skills, and these firms are usually already staffed with amazing designers. Your role will be to work WITH them to provide your engineering input into the process of creating a new product, and then to get a design that you know will be feasible and turn it into an actual product.

That sounds really cool, ain’t it? Then why am I saying this? Well, for some candidates it seems it doesn’t. 4 out of 5 engineering candidates will ask about the possibility of being involved in the design of the products, and when probing more on their answers, I get that what they want to do is to become Industrial Designers.

The first realization that you’ll have when graduating is that a job is not an extension of your school. You will learn, of course and you should think of changing jobs the moment you stop learning. But you’ll be learning of the specifics of the job, not a completely new skill set. That’s rare and you shouldn’t really be expecting it. If you’re an engineer wanting to become a designer, then go change majors. Now. Or sign up for additional courses that will give you the additional skills you want to learn. If you’re still in school you can do anything you want. Later it becomes way harder. Or you can always use your free time on the weekends or at night to learn that new skill on your own.

As an example of what an engineering role in a design firm would look like, my current role as Senior Design Engineer is never short of busy days of solving interesting challenges that require creative thinking. From doing user or market research to brainstorming a concept, to figuring out how to bring a sketch from one of my designers into a parametric design that I can easily modify, to coming out with a completely new mechanism to solve a very specific problem, etc. Most times, designers will give you the “skin” of the product, which then you have to figure out how to break into all the parts that you deem make sense, and then how to attach them back together. Figure out all the features, components, the integration, the materials, the manufacture, testing… Oh and it’s all for yesterday. So yeah, I sketch a lot, but also write a lot, read a lot, research a lot, calculate a lot, CAD a lot, prototype the hell out of it and iterate non stop. That’s the process, and it’s really fun to me. It’s important that you ask your interviewers what the role, responsibilities and expectations will be like and then be honest with yourself. Because if you’re trying to give your creative mind a different outlet, you’ll be greatly and quickly disappointed.

Lastly, if you have dual majors or are learning bunch of skills on the side, sit back and think about how you’re going to tell us who you are and what you are. Sometimes it’s confusing if you show us a very artsy portfolio when we’re looking for an engineer. We might be able to pull out some engineering insights from your projects and resume, but if it’s too far we won’t continue the conversation. Again, you’re an ENGINEER applying for an ENGINEERING job.

3) Sell yourself.

Got it, you’re coming right out of school and every single one of your projects were team projects. Fine with it, that’s modern education there for you. And it’s OK. We get it. But as in every team, each member has a specific set of responsibilities and tasks. So tell us about what YOU did. Don’t talk about what the team did because it’s really hard for your interviewer to identify how you applied your skills into the project. Start by describing the project in broad terms, describe the big picture, then describe the team and then dive deep into your own tasks and responsibilities. What did YOU do in this project? How did YOU collaborate with the team? What did YOU learn? Why are YOU showing this to us?

Interviews are a sales process, and you’re selling yourself. Your resume and portfolio (if bringing one) are your sales tools and your presentation skills close the circle. Don’t sell me your teammates. They’re not here interviewing with me, or otherwise please send me their resumes so I can talk to them. Sell me YOUR story, because it’s YOU who wants the job, right?

4) It’s all about the story.

Have you heard the say “don’t let the truth get in the way of a great story”? Well, a job interview is the perfect place to apply this say. No, I’m not suggesting you to lie, not whatsoever. Believe it or not, it is really easy for us to know if you’re lying. And if you are, it’s off. You’re gone. Home. No job. Bye.

What I’m saying is, for example, that if you are showing me a project in which you machined a somewhat complex part based on a CAD that you drew, then don’t tell me if you ended up making it the wrong size for no reason! Just tell me about your design process, how you approached your machining operations, and what you learned. You can omit every detail not important for the overall story. Tell me if it was wrongly made ONLY if what follows is a failure-turned-into-success story. Otherwise what I’m hearing is “Yeah, I made this thing and it was crap. But hey, I love making stuff, so that kinda counts, right?”… Umm nope.

5) Pimp your projects.

Hey, I’m an engineer so I get it. Most of us don’t have flashy, cool, visually appealing projects to show off at an interview. Especially when coming right out of school or when you work on proprietary stuff. But hey, those Matlab plots you spent a month and a half making to show the results of some test, they are cool! Show them! That’s YOUR work  and if you’re proud about it, you should show it. So put it in your portfolio and tell me about the project, your process, the results, how you analyzed it, what was the outcome and what you learned.

One really big mistake that most, if not all, of the candidates I’ve interviewed so far make, is to undersell their projects. There was the case of a candidate that spent several moths as part of a team that built a race car. He wasn’t involved in the design or the manufacturing of the chassis, nor he was the epic pilot that brought it to victory. He was one of the several grease monkeys that took the car apart and put it back together many times when fixing problems or improving components. He was clearly excited about the project, but also clearly embarrassed to say he had been just a mere grease monkey. In my opinion he really missed the point there. He could have told us how much he learned about the importance of tolerances, components, engines, or teamwork! He could have told us about the value of working with your hands, the long hours, the camaraderie, the exciting times during the race, or how he managed the stress of working under a deadline. But instead he just flew over the project and just sort of apologized for not having any fancier things to say about the project. Buzz.

If you are proud of something that you’ve done tell me about it. Show it all and tell me the story. So go spend some quality time going through all the projects you’ve done and pick 3 to 5 that together showcase your whole skill set. Assemble them nicely in a PPT, prepare a script and present to a friend or two as practice. Then come to the interview and show us what you got.

6) Don’t rush it.

OK. Three candidates in a row have flown over their resumes and projects. They had a whole hour and we were done in less than half. I wonder if they were that nervous, but they didn’t really sound like it. It sounded more like they really didn’t have the time to be there, or they felt we didn’t have the time. I don’t know.

When an interview is scheduled, it means your potential employers are giving you time. We think you could be a good addition to the team so we set aside some time of our day to listen to you. So use it all. Be mindful of the schedule but if you have one hour, squeeze every single one of those 60 min. Because that’s all you got to make a good impression. If it’s you who doesn’t have the time to be there, then ask for a re-schedule. It’s really annoying to be there trying to learn about a candidate and the candidate rushing me through his/her projects.

The other day I had to stop the interview and ask the candidate to slow down. We were asking a bunch of questions about one of his projects and he was pulling us away from it, as if he was annoyed we were questioning him. Dude, the best thing that can happen to you is  to have your interviewer asking you a lot of honest questions about your projects. That means you’re doing it right. Answer them. Engage in conversation. It’s better to show fewer, well explained projects, than lots of badly presented ones. We’re trying to learn as much as we can about you: About your projects, your skills, your thought process, your personality, your communication skills, presentation skills, etc. Show us what you got.

7) Its YOUR own career. So OWN it.

A.K.A. Don’t let your mom call your potential employer just because she wants to learn more about the company YOU want to work for. It’s just embarrassing and will really leave you without a job (yes, it really did happen). If she wants to know more about us, she should ask YOU.

Also, if your school has a career services office and they’re helping you with your resume and with contacts in the industry, don’t write the company saying things like “Dear Sir or Madam, I heard that John Doe from my school has sent you my resume, let me know if you have any questions”… DUDE! If you really want the job, YOU send me YOUR resume. If it happens that your school has already sent it, great! That may give you a better chance we’re reading it. But otherwise you just look seriously unprepared for the real world. Don’t be a spoiled brat.

8) Practice, practice, practice!

Why did you choose to be a ME? Why are you interested in this industry? Why are you interviewing with us? Can you describe in more detail what were your responsibilities and tasks in this project? … Some of these are “Job Interview 101” questions and you have to be prepared to answer this kind of questions. If you can’t answer something as basic as “What did you learn from this project”  then why should I bother to hear anything else about your overdesigned portfolio?

Remember that you are selling yourself, so sell me a good story about yourself, your projects, the things you like and the things you do. Be ready to answer weird questions based on the projects you are showing us. Again, I’m not HR nor a recruiter. I’m an engineer trying to find a teammate, so if I find one of your projects to be interesting expect I’ll try to get you engaged in an engineering conversation about it. Yes, it’s a test. Yes, we’re gauging you. If you can’t talk fluently or factually about a project you just spent several months on, then there’s no reason to bring you into the team. The best thing that can happen to you is if your interviewer is asking you a lot of honest questions about your projects.

There’s really nothing better than writing yourself a short script and then practicing your answers with a friend that has already landed a job, or ask them what kind of questions they were asked (Hint: Do your homework!). Some schools offer mock interviews at their career services office. Go and schedule an appointment. Right now. Yes. Go do it. Go.

9) Show interest and be interesting.

When I ask you to “tell me about yourself”, be ready to snap right into an answer. It’s you who you’re talking about, so it should come natural. Don’t think too much about it or you’re going to weird me out. And I’m really hoping to hear something about your professional self, not about your childhood. Also, if you really enjoy a hobby, feel free to mention it as it can detonate some interesting conversation and it can help you learn more about the company culture, but don’t make all the interview about it. I mean, I get that you enjoy cooking, but I’m looking for an engineer, not for a chef (again, all of this has happened).

Then, if at the end of the interview I ask you if you have any questions for us, please don’t say things like: “Uh, I saw your website, so no, that’s all”, or “Oh yeah, how much do you pay?”, because what you’re really asking me is to hang up the phone.

Interviewing is like dating, I’m sure you’ve heard this a lot. So date. Think about this process as you trying to give your best impression, but also trying to understand if you’d really be happy once committed to this company. Think about what you’d like to know more about: My day-to-day, your potential tasks and responsibilities, company culture, etc. Show us that you’re really interested in us. And show it by asking intelligent questions.

But please don’t start with the super cheesy “What has been your most challenging project to date?”. It’s a good question but everybody asks it. And everybody gets the same answer: “Um, every project is challenging”. These canned questions that you find online just make you look bad. Find a better question to ask, like about the challenges of a specific project (Hint: Do your homework!). Or if you’re sincerely interested in knowing which has been my toughest project, then say it just like that, and then keep probing. Ask me why it was challenging, what did I do, what did I learn, what was the process, the team, the outcome, etc. I’d be so happy to be interviewed by my interviewee. It would show intelligence, confidence, curiosity and interest. Keeper.

Then if you’re thinking of asking about the salary… Sigh… Stop right there.

If we think you’re a good candidate we’ll extend you an offer and you’ll learn about the salary then. If you then think the money is not good enough for you, you can always negotiate. But this is the very first time we speak to each other and that’s what you ask? Come on! It’s like asking about marriage and kids on a first date. Who does that?

10) Mind your language

We are a friendly bunch. We are young and energetic. We joke and laugh a lot. Yes, we’re kind of crazy and we’re looking for someone who will feel comfortable with us and vice versa. But if you’re starting to feel super comfy with us during the interview, please remind yourself you are still at an interview. A really big mistake is to confuse how approachable we can be with us being your friends. We are not. At least not yet. We are a team of professionals evaluating your profile, your skills and the potential of bringing you into the team. So act like you want it. Please be articulate and professional.

I will never forget this candidate, we called him “The Kinda” and I think you already know why we called him that way. Once he felt comfortable his whole attitude changed and was more relaxed, stopped being thorough in his answers, started saying things like “yeah, I kinda did  a lot of actual work for that project”… WHAT? What does that even mean? Oh god… This guy… And he wouldn’t stop.  The worst.

So at the end…

This all boils down to: Be professional, show interest, prepare yourself and do your homework. It’s not that hard, honestly. If you prepare yourself just sufficiently enough to avoid making the mistakes described above, you’re gonna be in a really good spot to get that engineering job at that design firm you’ve been dreaming of. Now, I’ve heard/read similar tips countless times, so I just can’t understand why young engineers are still making the same mistakes over and over again. I wonder what’s missing, and where.

And as a reminder, this was not a list of generic tips pulled from another website. These are real life examples of mistakes that candidates keep making over and over again during their interviews. Please don’t be these guys.

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