Eight Life Lessons I Learned Building My Career
(This is part of a YPNG Mentor Interview by Suzanne Dodson)
LIFE LESSON #1 – Identify which of your “passions” are well suited for a hobby, and which are well suited for a career. Don’t choose a major just based on your salary… but weigh your future financial stability and job security alongside your passion for a chosen career path.
I worked hard in high school and did better than average, but I was not at the very top of my class – I got more A’s than B’s, but not by much. I took several AP classes, but didn’t feel like I could take every AP class offered at my school and still maintain a decent GPA.
Based on scholarship & financial aid offers from the schools I applied to, my college choice came down to University of Oklahoma or University of Tulsa. While I got a full tuition scholarship at OU, the cost of living on campus meant I’d need to take out significant student loans. My scholarship offer at TU didn’t quite cover tuition, but I could live at home, work part time, and graduate with less debt. As difficult as it was to decide NOT to go away to college, I had to look at my future – it made more sense to live at home and graduate with a manageable amount of debt vs. racking up student loans just so I could live in the dorms.
LIFE LESSON #2 – Make decisions that take the long-term view of your life. While I missed out on some of the ‘fun’ by not living in the dorm, my college loans were paid off within 5 years (and I still had plenty of fun in college). Several friends who opted to live in the dorms are STILL paying their loans off 15 years later.
When I graduated high school at age 17 I didn’t know a lot about what an engineer did other than it involved science and math. I showed up to enroll at the University of Tulsa, planning to list my major as “Engineering: Undecided”. The administrator helping with my enrollment said there was no “engineering undecided” code in the computer system, so I had to pick a major in order to complete my enrollment, or else enroll as “undecided” (meaning I’d have no roadmap for which classes to take in which order). In the span of 30 seconds I had to make a decision: I chose chemical engineering because I liked chemistry in high school. Fortunately, most engineering degrees are flexible – while a “traditional” chemical engineering career might involve working on refinery design or a chemical plant, there are so many options to branch out beyond what you’re specifically taught in school. A mechanical engineer can take a chemical engineering job particularly if they have some on the job training and vice versa.
LIFE LESSON #3 – Sometimes you just have to make a decision, even if you don’t have all the information you’d like to have. If I had hated Chemical Engineering, I could have changed my major. But if I had instead opted for “Undecided” because I was afraid of making the wrong decision, I wouldn’t have taken the early classes that were prerequisites for other classes, and likely would have spent 5 years in college vs. 4 (racking up additional student debt).
When I was in college my toughest class was called Equilibrium Thermodynamics. After getting an F on my 2nd test in a row, I decided that I needed to drop the class rather than risking a blemish on my transcript (or losing my scholarship). I took a drop sheet in to my professor’s office for his signature, and he asked why I wanted to drop the class. I explained that I had failed the first 2 tests and there was no way I could pass the class at this point. He quietly turned around, pulled up a spreadsheet of all the grades in the class (covering names) and showed me that my score was in fact one of the top scores in the class. He planned to curve everyone’s grades at the end of the semester, but was going to leave people sweating until then so they’d study harder.
Prior to those 2 tests, virtually no one in the class asked questions during his lectures. I assumed that meant that everyone else understood the material and I was just too dumb to get it. After seeing where my grade ranked with other students, I started asking questions the very next week. Multiple classmates came up to me and thanked me for asking questions… they all thought they were the only ones that didn’t get the material!
Clearly many of us were struggling in this subject, so why was I so willing to give up, while none of my male peers were ready to drop the class? Studies have shown that if a girl struggles with a subject she thinks there is something innately wrong her and she just cannot do it. Yet a boy having equivalent trouble in a subject sees poor performance as something to get mad about, so he works harder (often trying to prove the teacher “wrong” about his performance in class). Women attribute success or failure to something innate and unchanging in their ability, whereas men tend to view their success or failure as a byproduct of their hard work. Young women need to recognize that they may have a tendency to underestimate their own abilities.
LIFE LESSON #4 – Don’t underestimate your own ability. You may think that you aren’t as smart as your peers… but maybe your peers are just as clueless as you are (but they hide their cluelessness well)!
I worked part time my freshman and sophomore year at an airport rent-a-car company. While any work experience is better than no experience on your resume, I knew that I needed experience related to my major at some point. I utilized TU’s career services and applied to several summer internship opportunities for the summer after my sophomore year. After interviewing on campus with multiple companies, I got an offer with only one – a small drilling company in Houston. I was twenty years old and moved to Houston on my own, getting an apartment with a 3-month lease and renting furniture. I really enjoyed upstream oil & gas, drilling, and the people I worked were fantastic. However, I discovered I was not too fond of Houston’s 110º summer heat and non-stop traffic gridlock. It was a great experience, but when they made me an offer to return the following summer, I decided I was going to explore other options. Having 1 summer internship under my belt gave me relevant work experience and made me a more attractive candidate. I applied for ten summer internships the next summer (after my junior year) and got nine offers.
LIFE LESSION #5 – Any work experience is better than no work experience, and it gives you a stepping stone to better jobs. My job at a rent-a-car company showed that I was responsible, showed up to work on time and met sales goals. That landed me my first internship. And that first internship made me a more attractive candidate to the company I really wanted to work for when I applied for a 2nd internship. So, get a part time job (any job!) while you’re a freshman in college – even if it’s just a few hours a week, it will open doors for you in the future!
I’m often asked by college students how to get an engineering summer internship. Students usually start thinking about summer employment during the spring semester, but that’s getting a really late start! Many companies are interviewing on campus as early as September for their internship opportunities for the following summer, 8 months in advance. Grades matter, but if your grades are just mediocre you need to do things that set you apart – don’t just join a club, become an officer if that club. Volunteer your time with a non-profit, join an intermural sport, or plan your sorority’s fall social. One antidote I love to share comes from a recruiter who visited numerous college campuses interviewing students for internships. He would throw away any resume with a perfect 4.0 GPA unless he saw something on it that indicated that person had interests outside of classwork. He was looking for a well-rounded candidate would be able to work collaboratively with people and fit into the company’s culture and had found that the students who focused so hard on achieving a perfect 4.0 often failed to build their social and teamwork skills outside of the classroom. I would encourage everyone to sign up for activities in college that demonstrates you can work effectively in groups. The same applies to kids in high school. Volunteer for things so you can talk about how you worked in and organized groups. Be persistent when you are talking to recruiters and follow up with that hand written thank you note. It will count for a lot if you show you really want the internship.
You can prepare for your internship interview by thinking of situations where you’ve worked in a team – at work, a school project, a volunteer project, or planning an event with an organization. Think about things you did that showed teamwork, leadership, or creative problem solving. Most interviews will be behavioral based interview – you’ll be asked to identify a time when you worked in a team where things went well or didn’t go well. Having recently thought about several teamwork examples will give you multiple things to talk about that cast you in a positive light.
I mentioned I got 9 internship offers for the summer after my junior year… I took an offer from Williams, a company I had admired for years. I had a fantastic summer working in their project management group, managing (very small) projects involving adding clay to soil in a tank dike and overseeing design & construction of minor piping changes. When they offered me a full time position I eagerly accepted. I graduated in 2002 and started work at Williams… the same summer as the Enron scandal, which made the entire energy marketing & trading business implode. Williams stock plummeted based on “guilt by association” to the Enron debacle. A few months after I was hired, Williams started massive layoffs and they gave me a termination date.
LIFE LESSON #6 – You may love your company, and your boss may love you… but your COMPANY cannot love you back. Keep your options open, and maintain a good network of contacts. You never know when an unexpected layoff might occur.
At this point I was 21 years old and “employed” but looking at my termination date a few months in the future. I was still an employee until that date and I was determined to try to change the company’s mind. When I heard that one of the engineers staying on at Williams decided to move to another city, I made a point to speak to the manager of that group about why I would be a good fit. I knew my experience was minimal – a single summer working in the Project Management group on very tiny projects. I had to make a convincing argument for why they should fill the position with someone so inexperienced. Luckily, I had kept an “accomplishment log” so I could go back to my time as an intern and give specific examples of what I had done to add value to the company. Since the rest of the group was comprised of senior level engineers in their 50’s, I advocated for myself by making a case for why Williams should look at passing along “institutional knowledge” to the next generation of employees – I turned my relative youth and inexperience into a plus. I must have made a convincing argument, because I was given a position in the project management group… and avoided the layoff.
Life Lesson #7 – Advocate for yourself. Too many people assume that hard work will be recognized, they’ll be promoted if they deserve it, and they’ll be considered for a position without stating their interest in that position, but sometimes you have to advocate for yourself. No one will ever be a “perfect match” for a job opening and you may be missing some of the skills listed in a job description. You need to make a case for why you have other attributes that make you a good candidate.
I started out doing small, regulatory projects and worked up to larger projects where I was coordinating design engineers & construction crews, going out in the field a couple times a month to see what I was actually building. That was a good fit for me. I liked to get out of the office occasionally but couldn’t see myself wearing a hard hat & steel toed boots 5 days a week. Like the other project managers at my company, I always had an inspector on the site who was watching what the contractor was doing and calling me when there was a problem. I loved managing projects and would still probably be doing that if I hadn’t decided to have children.
I grew up in a home with a stay-at-home mom, and when I was pregnant with my first child I felt tremendous pressure to do the same (in hindsight, I put this pressure on myself). Yet I also loved my job and knew that I needed some mental stimulation each day. I decided that the ideal situation would be to cut back on my work hours, and I approached my boss about working part time. I was incredibly fortunate to have an open minded (and female) boss, but my company had never had any of their engineering staff transition to part-time before. My boss helped me rework my initial proposal to highlight not just the benefits for me, but the benefits to the company as well.
LIFE LESSON #8 – when making a request for anything, don’t frame it as what you want. Frame it as a 2-way street – how it benefits you AND benefits the company.
Several pregnant employees had recently quit to be stay-at-home moms. I was able to highlight that making part-time work an option would allow the company to maintain talent in the workplace, and would give it a family friendly reputation among young engineers.
I presented my proposal and waited to hear back. I was ready to negotiate on the number of hours per week, rate of pay, benefits, etc. To my surprise, they said yes to everything I had suggested with the one caveat that they needed someone with experience to move into a risk analysis position. While it was different from what I had previously done, I was thrilled to be able to add something new to my work experience. I worked part time for several years, returning to work (again in a new position) once my youngest daughter was in a K-4 program