Tuesday, August 26, 2008

8-26-08: Working in Big Industry

For the last ~ 15 months, I've worked for a large aviation company. It's my first job out of college, and I'm only a 15 minute drive from where I grew up. The pay is decent, the benefits are great, and I like the people with whom I work. I'm a Flight Controls Engineer, which is pretty neat to explain, but the job isn't quite as exciting as it may sound. I spend most of my time looking through specifications and schematics, which our suppliers turn into real, working devices. But in a year or two, I'll be in the lab actually testing them, which is a lot of fun.

In the summer of 2006, I was an intern in the same group in which I am now a salaried engineer, so I've seen the company from a couple angles. I'd just like the share a few observations I've made about the job so far:

-    People are remarkably territorial. Whether it's an individual or a group, doling out work is sometimes more of a chore than doing the work. It's amazing to see how people quibble over who owns what. If there's not a formal document saying "You need to provide this," then most of the time, unless there's an order from high above, it doesn't get done without a fight.
-    Engineers are mostly quite funny. I work with some great characters. I started off in a different group and moved over, and that group was filled with some characters. Despite the reputation of lacking personality, there are a surprising amount of engineers with great senses of humor. It makes the day go by faster.
-    Never assume some one does or does not know what you are talking about. I'm often shocked at how some people make grand assumptions about what I or some one else knows. I've seen it go both ways. I had a guy go through a five minute bit on something about which I had no clue. At the end I told him, and he gladly explained. But I've also had a guy just start explaining something to me, only to find out that I had explained it to the person who had explained it to him. However, 90% of the time, they assume you know more than you do. It's up to you to let them know, which is fine.
-    Taking time off is awesome. When I first started working, I was almost distraught at how I'll likely never see the luxury of long school breaks in the summer and winter. But then I realized that, all told, I can have as much as 42 days off, which only includes vacation, holidays, and "school time" that I get for taking classes (which are paid for 100% by the company). If I were to use up all of my sick days it would be 52 days. But with the flexibility, I've realized that being able to choose my days off is pretty awesome.
-    If you don't look busy, you're not busy; if you do, then you are. I didn't want to believe this, but it's true. If you just pretend to look busy, you rarely get grief. But if you work hard on something and decide to take a quick break, and are caught slacking off, then whatever hard work you put into something is negated. I had the same problem when I worked at a pizza parlor in high school. This is primarily just when managers catch you; co-workers rarely care. With engineering, though, there is a catch-all eventually; if you do poor work, people will eventually know.
-    Budgets and schedules often get in the way of good engineering, and vice versa. Good engineering involves a tremendous amount of trial and error, also known as "development." But with all the money wrapped around schedules and contracts, engineers are pushed to get things done far more quickly than reality allows. A lot of the time and energy is devoted to maintaining schedules and dealing with falling behind.
-    Big companies are slow to change, but are remarkably resilient. Despite the advances in technology, it seems as though my company operates about 5-10 years behind the leading edge. We use e-mail a lot, and we have web meetings, but we can't use instant messaging, and a lot of software we use is outdated (we still use Internet Explorer 6, and will likely stay using it for the foreseeable future). But, despite that, we do a good job doing what we do, and the job still somehow gets done.
-    Young engineers and old engineers think drastically differently about meetings. I like to get in, get through everything as quickly as possible, and get out of a meeting. Most of the time, things are discussed at meetings that don't need to involve the time or attention of every one involved. But, after a while, you realize that listening to those discussions can be beneficial in the long run. But still, there are the meetings that are held "just to be held." Those can get annoying, but older engineers seem to love having them to yell about stuff. That can be entertaining, so long as you're not getting yelled at.
-    Face to face conversation is still the best way to get things done. E-mail may have its benefits, such as in providing vast amounts of information, but when you really want to do something with that information, there's no better way than face to face conversation. The next best option is voice to voice, or phone, conversation.

Overall, it's been a good learning experience so far.

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