When John Wall earned his degree from Carleton University in 1993, he started at a base level for a newly minted electrical engineer, taking a role as a tech support staffer at QNX Software Systems. He was always ready to learn more and to show his skills, constantly earning promotions while building a knowledge base that helped him analyze issues from different viewpoints.
Wall worked his way up to vice president of engineering, then kept going. He is now the general manager of BlackBerry QNX, setting the direction for software that runs on over 120 million cars, as well as in nuclear power plants, surgical robots and life-critical medical devices. He feels that understanding the operation from the ground up is invaluable.
“I believe there are many benefits. For me personally, I started in tech support which gave me an ‘in the trenches’ view of customer issues. It also allowed me to form deep customer connections and grow my product knowledge,” he said. “Finally, starting at a lower level within the organization gave me a much better understanding of most jobs as I either did the role myself or worked alongside the role.”
Rising through the ranks is a time-honored tradition, but it’s one that’s often shunned by those who move straight into white collar roles instead of entry-level jobs. However, technical managers and recruiting specialists say it can be the basis of a valid career strategy.
“If the company is an engineering driven company with a past track record of promoting from within, then starting at the lower rungs of the engineering ladder makes sense,” said Scott Sargis, president of Strategic Search Corp., a human resources company. “However, if a company does not have such a track record, it may be a futile effort. Therefore, it puts a premium on the job candidate doing his research.”
Zane Michael went to welding school straight out of high school. He worked his way up to what he calls “my ideal position, helping customers learn how to weld parts.” He’s now the director of thermal business development Yaskawa America, Inc.’s Motoman Robotics Division, focusing on welding robots. He’s bullish on trade schools, apprenticeships and base level jobs for high school graduates.
“If I’d gone straight to college, I wouldn’t have made it. Having worked with engineers, I’d seen what engineers do, and it intrigued me. I worked full time during college, so I could apply what I learned.”
Michael welded by day and earned his Bachelors in Electrical Engineering at night. He continued that regimen, earning two Masters degrees. Though higher education helped him advance his career, he feels the foundation built with his welding background is a huge help when he’s supporting the sales team.
“I understand the welding processes, I can put on a helmet and make welds. That gives me a lot of credibility with the customer,” Michael said. “Understanding the dos and don’ts of welding is critical for establishing a system that will work well in each given factory.”
Wall also remembers many lessons from his humble start at QNX.
“Companies are complex and having an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the company you’re in is absolutely essential to making good decisions,” Wall said. “I firmly believe that one of the toughest aspects of increasing responsibility is decision making. If you understand the inner workings, good decisions become easier. Lastly, seek out experience in any way you can and sharpen your skills in as many ways as possible. It may sound cliched but practice makes perfect and the only way to get better at something is to put the time in.”
While working your way up is still a viable career path, it’s not always the best path. Many young engineers don’t have the staying power to travel that route. It also takes the proper mindset to focus on doing the best job regardless of what that job is.
“I believe that you do the role and then you get promoted. I never focused on getting promoted,” Wall said. “Today I notice that some younger people are looking for career progression to be defined by time spent in a role rather than ability, drive or accomplishment. I think it may be difficult to follow a similar path to what I’ve taken because much of the younger generation lacks the patience to follow this path to progression. A lot of individuals would rather switch companies the first chance they get as opposed to working their way up internally as the way to career advancement.”
Sargis also noted that the corporate culture plays an important role for those considering a job at the lower rungs of the pay scale. He helped some recent graduates find engineering jobs at an engineering-driven company, and many are already in line for promotions. But that’s not always the case.
“I would make sure that the company is an engineering driven company and not one that does not value engineering. Part of a candidate’s research should include reviewing sites like Glassdoor to see what current and past employees say about the company,” Sargis said.
Terry Costlow has written about technology since the days of the 6 Mbyte hard drive. He’s contributed regularly to EE Times, Automation World, Automotive Engineering International, and IEEE Spectrum, as well as consumer publications including The Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Magazine and the Portland Oregonian.