Job Advice for New College Grads

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Posts Tagged ‘college job’

Career Profile – Systems Engineer

Posted by James M on December 2, 2008

Systems Engineering is a fairly new field that developed out of modern large-scale integration projects like those at Boeing and other system integrators.  System Engineers generally work across multiple teams on projects involving integration of two or more systems and often perform so-called trade studies to evaluate several possible solutions to a technical problem.

One piece of advice I would give those interested in this field is not to focus too intently on the term ‘Systems Engineer”.  For example, in my old position I was part of a software group and held the job title of Real Time Software Engineer.  Even so, I didn’t written a lick of code in 3 and a half years and my work was best described as Systems Engineering.  Instead, you should focus more on the type of work you want to do and then find job descriptions that meet that criteria.

So for example if you look online at the staffing system of a particular company you may see a lot of openings for “Systems Engineer”.  In addition to those positions try looking at more traditional engineering job titles as well and delving more into what your day-to-day activities would be as you move through the hiring process.  This will probably involve asking the employer at the interview about how much multi-disciplinary work you’ll have the opportunity to take part in.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Systems Engineers are often facilitators.  Because you work across multiple large and complex systems and teams of people, you can’t know everything about every system.  Therefore, a Systems Engineer often relies heavily on members of other teams and often acts as an intermediary to bring people from different teams together to find a solution.  Systems Engineers often end up specializing in a particular area (i.e. real-tme software) and over the course of a career eventually get to the point where they have medium depth knowledge of a wide range of technical areas.

The best Systems Engineers I know can balance not only the technical aspects of a problem but also the business aspects and the long term life-cycle impacts.  This is because the best technical solution doesn’t always imply the best solution from a cost, schedule, and risk point of view.

There are a few skills I notice good System Engineers having and they all revolve around the multi-disciplinary aspects of large-scale integration.  First, good System Engineers have a lot of experience with suppliers, subcontractors, and customers.  Knowing how to deal with a subcontractor when they are late developing a key item or negotiate with a customer when an important component doesn’t meet specifications is a very important skill.

Second, they know something about evaluation and testing and by association “selling off” a requirement to the customer.  When a contract is signed the goods or services provider signs a contract with the customer detailing the requirements of the good or service (these requirements are just one part of a larger contract structure).  At some point in time, these requirements must be tested to satisfy the customer that you are delivering what you promised (whether a requirement is well written is often defined by its testability).  Because System Engineers often work with requirements and requirements relate directly to testing, a good System Engineer is always evaluating how a particular technical solution will be tested.

Third, Systems Engineers know something about the life-cycle of a program.  When you deliver an aircraft to a customer, for example, that is not the end of the story.  The aircraft must be maintained and the parts, labor, and knowledge-base to repair an aircraft have to come from somewhere.  In addition, aircraft are often modified years after delivery as technology continues to improve.  Good System Engineers have the long term life of a product in mind as they search for the best technical solution.

Of course on top of these business oriented skills, a broad technical knowledge of a particular system is always required.  Usually this just comes with time and experience.  The best Systems Engineers I know probably have an average experience level of 15-25 years.  Of course, you have to start somewhere, so don’t feel overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge required to be successful.

As far as the type of tasks a Systems Engineer might work on, I can try to give a fictional example that demonstrates a typical situation and the issues you might deal with.  Say, for example, a supplier is suppose to deliver a hydraulic spring for use in a landing gear, however you recently discovered the spring isn’t rated to the appropriate tonnage and you get tasked with figuring out a solution.  (These sorts of disconnects happen all the time–why would you choose a supplier in the first place if their product doesn’t meet your requirements?  A variety of factors lead to these surprising sorts of problems.)  One answer might be to work with the supplier to modify the spring.  But because the spring has to be re-egineered there is a cost and schedule delay to completing the landing gear module.  Maybe the supplier offers instead to sell you a higher weight-rated spring that it already produces, but that is a slightly larger size and therefore doesn’t connect properly with the landing gear wheel housing.

So what do you do?  There are a variety of possibilities.  Perhaps you work with the current supplier and help provide resources to re-engineer the spring to meet specifications.  Perhaps there is an adapter you can buy that will help the more robust spring fit with the already fabricated wheel housing.  Perhaps your company is frustrated with the supplier’s schedule delays and you decide to risk trying to find a new supplier that already has a spring that meets your specifications.  Perhaps you conduct a study to show that, although the original spring doesn’t meet spec, it nonetheless provides a safe landing gear for the customer.  In that case you may have to rewrite the prime contract specification with the customer and try to sell them on the idea.

Other things you’ll need to consider when searching for a solution:  spares–what happens when the spring breaks, how will the spares be supplied, how easy is the spring to repair when it breaks, is the supplier in danger of going out of business soon (this happens to many small companies), if so who will supply the spring?  Testing: if you choose the more robust spring and adapter, how will you test it?  Requirements–do any requirements need to be rewritten or can they naturally be interpreted to be independent of the spring selection.  Other technical teams–if you choose the new spring does it add extra weight to the aircraft that might affect handling?  What about aerodynamic affects during take off and landing?  Will the sensor and/or software that monitors the spring’s hydraulic pressure need to be modified?

You can see that these sorts of situations get very complicated very fast and for that reason can be exciting, challenging, and frustrating all simultaneously.  And I think the complicated nature of these problems lend themselves well to people who have both a broad technical and business background.

If you like those kind of problems, you will probably like Systems Engineering.  The caveat of course is to make sure you can get on a good program with good people around you. I know some Systems Engineers who do the type of work I’ve mentioned above and others who sit at a desk working with requirements all day compiling comments other engineers made into a spreadsheet (obviously much less glamorous).  Again, I think this goes back to trying to find a job doing good work and worrying less about having the title of “Systems Engineer.”

Let me know which career profile you’d like to see next by leaving a comment below or e-mailing me at: collegegraduatejobs@gmail.com.

Posted in Career Fairs, Cover Letters, and More | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Interview Questions – “Do you have any questions for me?”

Posted by James M on November 18, 2008

At the end of every interview the tables are turned and the interviewer will ask, “Do you have any questions for me?”  Let me give you a hint—you do.

I do?  Yes you do.  And let me tell you why.  First, asking questions is a terrific way to find out information about the company.  An interview is your chance, a one-on-one opportunity, to find out for yourself everything you wanted to know about the company of your dreams or at least the company of your daydreams.  The other research you do—the career fairs, the company website browsing, the inside info you get from friends—should synthesize the questions you ask at the interview not take their place.  Companies are like people in that respect—there is always more information to discover and more questions to ask.

The second reason you want to ask questions is a more strategic one.  Imagine you are on a date at your favorite Italian restaurant with the cute guy or girl you just met at the hip-hop club downtown while you were dancing over Whiskey Sours and the thumping base of Ne-Yo’s “Closer”, my current favorite song.  You just spent 45 minutes asking about your date’s background, their goals, their dreams, found it all very interesting and were yearning to share your life.  And then all of the sudden they raised their hand for the check, threw down a 20 spot, said “Nice talking to you” and walked out.  How would you feel?  Probably horrible—off balance, like you wasted your time and there would definitely be a sense that they weren’t that into you.   The same holds true during interviews.  Not asking a question will signal to the interviewer that you aren’t really that interested in the company they represent.  So you’ll want to ask thoughtful questions to convince them otherwise.

So without further adieu let’s talk about some common categories of questions you might want to ask and give a few examples of each.

Get them to talk about themselves
One of the best kinds of questions to ask are those about the experiences of the recruiter in the context of the company you are interviewing with.  Research has shown that when the interviewer talks about themselves they will perceive a better overall experience about the interview and are more likely to remember you.  I highly recommend asking at least one question about the interviewer not least because it is a very effective way to gain some real insight into what an insider sees as the opportunities and challenges of working at a particular firm.

Here is a short list of questions to get you started:

  • What do you love about this company?
  • What career path did you take at this company to get to your current position?
  • Why did you choose to work for this firm over other options you had?
  • What are the biggest challenges a new employee would face when working for your organization?

Ask about the position
Depending on the amount of information available on a company’s website and what you are able to acquire at a career fair, there is a wide range of information you may (or may not) know about the position you are applying for.  For that reason it may be worth your while to ask some questions about your target position.

Some possible examples might be:

  • What is the typical career path of this position?
  • What do employees in your company like about this position?
  • What challenges do employees in this position face?
  • What skills make a successful candidate?
  • What sorts of projects might I expect to work on in this position?
  • What sort of travel opportunities does this position entail?

Ask about something you learned about at the career fair or from another employee

Another great set of questions to ask are those that delve into information you discovered at a career fair or from another employee at the company.  You can get can get massive bonus points if you take the initiative to use your school’s alumni network, career services office, Linked In (a website dedicated to networking), or some other means to contact a current employee.  When framing this question at an interview you may want to mention that you talked to a past employee who said XYZ and you wanted to compare and contrast that view with that of the interviewer.

Ask about something you researched
One way to demonstrate the research you have done while at the same time gaining insight into a company is by asking a question that builds on information you have already acquired.  Perhaps you read a news article about a new product a company is coming out with, a new office that opened abroad, or a new environmental initiative the company started.  But be careful, don’t ask a question that might be taken as being obscure or irrelevant, as this might be seen as you simply showing off how much you read the Wall Street Journal.

Looking at recent news articles about some large companies I might ask these questions:

  • I was reading about Jacob Jinglehimmer Smith, the new CEO your company recently brought on, and I was wondering how his hiring might affect the key values and direction of your company?
  • Because of the economic crisis, I have been reading that many companies are shifting some key elements of their corporate strategies.  Is your company doing the same, and how might that affect the day-to-day work of employees.
  • I was reading an article recently that was detailing the aging work force in the aeronautical industry.  What kind of knowledge transfer best practices do you have in place to make sure that young employees have an opportunity to learn from the experience of the older work force before they retire?

Alternatively, you might have looked on a company website during your research effort.  Looking at the home page for a company, I might ask these questions:

  • While looking on your website I noticed there is a full time leadership development program available for new hires.  I was wondering what that program looked like on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis and how it interfaces with other entry-level positions?
  • I noticed on your website that there are mentors available to help advise some employees as their career progresses.  Do all new employees get a mentor and what sorts of issue does the mentor help address?
  • I read recently that your company was listed in Forbes Top 100 Diverse Companies in the US.  What opportunities are available for me to help get involved in promoting the diversity initiatives of your company?
  • I saw work-life balance mentioned briefly on your website, but I was unable to find details.  What sorts of mechanisms and best practices are in place to promote work-life balance?

Ask about something that came up during the interview
During the interview the employer often times mentions something that interests you.  It might be a company sponsored rotation program in the finance department or the fact that the analyst position you’re applying for usually leads to a consulting position within two years.  This is a great time to ask any follow-up questions you might have.

Other common questions
There are many other common questions that people are often curious about asking and here are just a couple:

  • Do you have any hesitations about my application?
  • What’s the next step?

In fact you should always ask what the next step is if it is not explained by the recruiter.  Otherwise you risk days or week of nervousness wondering who is suppose to contact you in what amount of time for what kind of next application step.

What shouldn’t I ask?

Most of this falls into the common sense category, but the main concern I hear students inquiring about during career panels is whether it is OK to ask about salary or benefits during an interview.  Opinions between recruiters vary on this topic, but I recommend  that you don’t ask about salary or benefits during a first interview, although this may be appropriate during later interview rounds.

How many questions should I ask

I would recommend asking 3-5 questions.  It is good to keep track of how much time is left in the interview and read the interviewer’s body language to get a sense if they are getting antsy.  Also, keep in mind the time of day.  Before lunch the interviewer may be hungry and at the end of the day they will probably be tired, but again watch for specific body language.

Questions strategy

Now that we’ve talked about some typical types of questions and given some examples, it is worth taking a few moments to discuss some strategy behind asking these questions.

-Open Ended Phrasing

First, you’ll want to frame questions using open ended phrasing.  For example, say you are curious about how much travel is required for the position.  You wouldn’t want to say, “Will I get to travel?”.  The reason is two-fold.  First, the question is phrased such that the response is a “yes” or “no” when in reality you want to give the interviewer some room for explanation.  Second, you don’t want to bias your questions such that the interviewer gets the impression that you are just trying to get hired so that you can travel.  A more open ended way to ask the question would be, “What kind of travel opportunities are available?  Another quick example: you wouldn’t want to say, “How long will it take me to get promoted” as that will signal that you aren’t really interested in the job you are being hired for but only moving upward.  Instead, you might phrase this question as, “What does the typical career path for this position look like?”

-Positive Phrasing

Being positive in an interview is extremely important, so try to avoid negative phrasing in your questions.  Instead of saying, “Are there any sucky parts to working here?”  a very brash phrasing indeed, try asking, “What are the biggest challenges a new employee might face in your organization.”  Interviewers really look for, and appreciate, a positive attitude during an interview as this is a sign that the same demeanor will carry over into the workplace.

– Never ask without researching first

You should never ask a question without first researching the information to see if it is available from a company’s website.  There is no better way to give a bad impression to a recruiter than wasting their time by not doing basic research to prove you have more than a passing interest in their firm.

-Ask relevant questions

Don’t show off, phrase all questions in a way that makes them relevant to your potential position.  Note that this could include company wide changes in strategy or company values and initiatives.

-Memorization of Questions

This is a helpful tip for most students because many people, myself included, can get pretty nervous during interviews.  Having to suddenly think up a question on the spot can lead to a variety of poorly chosen and poorly phrased questions.  For that reason, I would come into the interview with about 3 or so questions memorized, that way if you panic, you’ll have some questions to fall back on.  In practice, you’ll probably have some questions in mind anyway before stepping foot into the interview.   If you find yourself completely unprepared in the interview and have no questions memorized, remember you can always ask about the interviewer’s experience in the company and what their career path within the company has been.

OK, well that’s it for today.  I’d love to know what questions you’ve found to be successful in an interview.  So leave your response by posting a comment below.

Posted in Interview Tips | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »