Tag Archives: career

Episode 41 — Going Solo

SophiKravitzGuest Sophi Kravitz helps us understand some of the issues involved with starting a one-person consulting firm.

  • Jeff started out on his own in 1994, but had a rocky beginning before landing on his feet.
  • Carmen fears that, left to his own devices, he would spend his days watching Seinfeld reruns.
  • Our guest, Sophi Kravitz, runs her own business at MIX-E, LLC, where she consults in electrical engineering and product market analysis.
  • One of Sophi’s projects was recently featured on Hack A Day.
  • Both Carmen and Sophi contributed articles to the Engineer Blogs website a few years back.
  • Sophi’s has a blog at SuperGreenDot.com, where she interviews people who have successfully left the corporate life to head out on their own.
  • She also has a work site blog, where she talks about projects she is working on and conferences she has attended.
  • Our guest became frustrated working on projects she wasn’t passionate about, so she struck out on her own in 2012.
  • Before jumping out on her own, Sophi spent two years in a sales engineering job that allowed her to earn some decent money while working three days a week.
  • A freelancer is someone who is not committed to a particular employer on a long-term basis.
  • While scoping out the consulting business, Sophi looked for short-term engineering gigs on craigslist. She found few opportunities that were worth her while.
  • Sophi shows a great deal of compassion in listening to the ideas of others, despite having been pitched on a few “perpetual motion” machines.
  • Because she lost money each time she entered a “fixed cost” bid, our guest now charges on an hourly basis.
  • Jeff suggests breaking projects into smaller phases when possible; Sophi notes that she is now asking for money to perform an initial “research” phase on larger projects.
  • Sophi splits her time between working at clients’ sites, and working out of her own “lab.”
  • When she’s looking for technical support, Sophi often relies on the Toymakers IRC.
  • It’s important to keep current on tools and techniques, and to maintain industry contacts, even while engaged in a long-term consulting job.
  • Although she prefers designing electronic circuits, Sophi is often hired to power up industrial machinery or write PLC (programmable logic controller) programs.
  • While Sophi and Jeff wonder if there is any money to be made bidding on jobs through websites like Elance and Guru, other engineers have found ways to earn a living through online contracts.
  • Our guest notes a website, FlexJobs, that seeks to match job-seekers with part-time and freelance gigs.
  • When trying to determine how much to charge for her consulting services, Sophi turned to advice from Dave Young (prior guest on this podcast) and electronics hobbyist Ben Heckendorn.
  • Jeff suggests that most consultants can bill for only about 1,000 hour annually. So if you want $80K in income, charge $80 per hour. Remember, however, you need to cover expenses out of that amount. So you may need to charge $100 per hour if you wish to maintain an income that is equivalent to a full-time job paying $80K in salary.
  • From the interviews she conducted on her Super Green Dot blog, Sophi was surprised to learn how many people struck out on their own without an emergency fund in place.
  • Jeff notes that employer-paid healthcare in the US results largely because of IRS tax rulings in the 1940s allowing companies to offer increased healthcare benefits even though wages were frozen due to the economic hardships of World War II.
  • Sophi see engineering work moving slowly towards the freelance model, although she believes companies will always need to retain a certain number of engineers who understand the firm’s underlying technology.
  • Electrical engineers Brian, Carmen, and Sophi start musing about electronics design software… and your humble scribe, a mechanical engineer, started to zone out. Something about products from Cadence, Mentor, and Altium were mentioned… I think. If you’re interested, you’ll just have to listen for yourself!
  • It’s our guest’s opinion that gaining experience is more important than making money early in one’s career.
  • Jeff reports participating in a recent Big Beacon twitter chat, and leading a discussion about “why engineers should adopt an artistic mindset.” Since Sophi started as a sculptor, she is able to make an accurate comparison between the work of an engineer, and that of an artist.
  • Sophi’s largest sculpture was a 10 foot diameter fake birthday cake she created in 1998. It was displayed in the gusty winds of Fire Island the following year.
  • Attending a conference in California, Jeff is urged by his roommate to wrap up the podcast so that they can go fetch an In-N-Out burger. (It was quite good!) Carmen started rattling off items from the not-so-secret In-N-Out “secret menu.”
  • You can reach Sophi through her website, or follow her on Twitter.

Thanks to Sophi Kravitz for allowing us to use the photo of her and her HeartBeat Boombox as the image for this episode. Podcast theme music provided by Paul Stevenson

Episode 14 — Superstars

Chris and Jeff talk about how one might go about becoming an engineering “superstar.”

  • Neither Jeff or Chris have been particularly successful at figuring out how to advance their careers in large organizations, so they may not be the best at describing how one moves upward through the corporate structure.
  • A recent episode of This American Life talked about teaching networking skills to schoolkids, suggesting that engineers could also learn the relationship skills needed to move up the organizational ladder.
  • Engineers often find themselves having to take on managerial duties mid-career if they want to see their salary increase.
  • People want comfort and familiarity in their business dealings, so they are attracted to those who make them feel good about themselves and their situation.
  • Many organizations require advancing engineers to complete Six Sigma projects.
  • Organizations are rarely meritocracies, much to the chagrin of technically-oriented engineers.
  • A recent study at Harvard showed that bosses are less stressed out than their employees, mostly because they have more control over their activities.
  • Chris found an article titled “How to be a Star Engineer.” For those with access to the archives of IEEE Spectrum, the article is on pages 51–58 of volume 36, issue 10, from October, 1999. The text of this article is currently floating around online as a PDF file.
  • The book associated with this article is How to Be a Star at Work: 9 Breakthrough Strategies You Need to Succeed, by Robert E. Kelley.
  • Strategy 1: Blazing Trails — Demonstrate initiative, by seeking out new responsibilities, undertaking extra efforts for the benefit of others, and filling the gaps between job descriptions.
  • According to the Peter Principle, employees tend to rise to their highest level of incompetence.
  • Strategy 2: Knowing Who Knows — Build a professional network that provides access to needed support at crucial times.
  • Chris has found that having curiosity and providing value are useful in building relationships.
  • Strategy 3: Proactive Self-Management — Honestly assess your strengths and weaknesses, then work to improve your value to the organization.
  • Strategy 4: Getting the Big Picture — Seek an understanding of the perspectives and values of other groups and functions within the organization.
  • Strategy 5: The Right Kind of Followership — Be a follower that makes your manager successful, rather than one who simply follows orders.
  • Strategy 6: Teamwork as Joint Ownership of a Project — Look to improve the structures that support and enhance group dynamics, in addition to being a “team player.”
  • Seth Godin has written a book called The Dip, which proposes that superstars have the ability to quickly escape dead ends, while knowing when to stick with important projects.
  • Strategy 7: Small-L Leadership — Approach leadership as a strategy for influencing others to unite on a substantial task, rather than issuing commands from above.
  • Jeff likes the book Managing Leadership by Jim Stroup, which makes the argument that leadership emanates from the organization, rather than from senior management.
  • Strategy 8: Street Smarts — Having political and social savvy is quite beneficial in moving upward through an organization.
  • Strategy 9: Show and Tell — Getting noticed, for good reasons, is important for moving up in a company. Getting noticed in a manner that promotes a common theme about your talents is even better.
  • There are good reasons to stay at a company for a decade or more. Even hard-charging, well-respected CEOs have trouble transferring their skills to new organizations.

Thanks to Elisabeth Audrey for the photo titled “Don’t Worry.” Podcast theme music provided by Paul Stevenson

Episode 5 — Recruitment

In a discussion with Jim Heilman of Discovery Personnel, a mechanical engineer who left industry after two decades to recruit technical talent in the plastics industry, we examine how engineers can best work with recruiters to further their own careers, as well as to find engineering talent for their businesses.

  • Following up from the prior episode about design thinking, Jeff notes that a movie titled Designing & Thinking is being shown in selected theaters around the country. Anybody have a review for us?
  • Recruiters serve as an intermediary between job seekers and employers.
  • Some of the big job databases online include Monster, CareerBuilder, and Indeed.
  • Talented individuals who don’t really want to be contacted about job opportunities are known as passive candidates. These are the people that recruiters work the hardest to reach.
  • Jim notes that networking is still the best way to find a new position. Salespeople are good contacts, as they are in frequent communication with other businesses in your industry.
  • A good reference on networking, and the job search process, is the book What Color is My Parachute?
  • Jim reflects that he’s been able to stay competitive in recruiting because, in the words of Rick Springfield, We All Need A Human Touch.
  • If you’re searching for a job, you need to tailor your resume to the company and job for which you’re applying.
  • When talking with potential employers, try to imagine what they are looking for in an employee, rather than focusing on your own desires for salary and vacation.
  • It is far more common for new hires to be let go because they don’t fit with a company’s culture, rather than for technical incompetence.
  • Jim is of the opinion that listing yourself as a candidate on Monster.com can “cheapen” how potential employers view your services. It is better to respond to a job that has already been posted. However, many recruiters rely on Monster and CareerBuilder to find candidates.
  • In recent weeks, Jim was looking for an engineer who was familiar with Swiss turning machines, which produce features of very high accuracy.
  • While a project portfolio is important, the resume remains the best starting point for gaining entry into most companies.
  • Jim estimates that there are 150,000 recruiters in the United States, and they all have trouble finding candidates that can meet the increasingly specific requirements demanded by employers. Jim likens the process to finding a purple squirrel.
  • The cost of using a recruiter is steep, often 30% of a candidate’s first year salary. Thus, a company working through a recruiter is experiencing a lot of pain, and is anxious to find a qualified employee. This cost is normally paid by the employer, which means that recruiters are generally looking out for the best interests of the hiring firm, not the candidate.
  • Networking is important when trying to hire engineering talent, as well as in conducting a job search.
  • As a hiring manager, be aware that recruited employees are only guaranteed to stay with your firm for a short term, often only 30 days. However, Jim estimates the early departure rate for his placements as being fairly low, around 1 in 100.
  • Jim Heilman can be reached at Discovery Personnel, and you can follow him on Twitter.

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Thanks to Victor 1558 for the photograph.