Ten tips for developing your engineering career

From Baby Boomers to Gen Alpha, the generation names and characteristics come and go – but despite the changing working styles and preferences of older and younger engineers, some things stay the same. Developing good engineers still calls for many elements that have shaped countless careers over time: people who were willing to share their knowledge and experience, opportunities to develop and refine the engineering craft, and mentors to support us, believe in us and help us make the next step.

I’ve been reflecting on these dynamics at this senior point in my 34-year career – and I’d like to share some tips to help set younger engineers on a path towards achieving a satisfying, successful career.

Tip #1 – Never stop learning

Graduating with a formal engineering qualification is only the first milestone in your learning. Explore whether there are postgraduate courses that can help you grow and open up opportunities that interest you. It isn’t easy to balance postgrad studies with work – let alone with the family responsibilities that many people experience in their early/mid adulthood. You’ll need to think carefully about how much time you can devote – and how to maintain a healthy work/study/life balance.

Also look at what your workplace can offer in terms of internal programs, such as broad-based leadership programs. An industry body will often offer short courses and will also provide networking opportunities where you can learn from other people – so join a professional association. Beyond formal courses, you can use your development plan to your advantage by identifying areas that interest you and seeking variety in the kinds of tasks and projects you are assigned.

Whatever career stage you’ve reached, stay interested, interact, and keep asking questions. It’s a great antidote to becoming a ‘know it all’ or getting stuck in a rut! At the end of each year, ask yourself, ‘What have I learnt that’s new?’ If you can’t think of anything, then maybe you’re playing it too safe and it’s time to change things up a bit.

Tip #2 – Seek mentors

Mentors – whether formal or informal – can give you technical insights and can also help guide your broader professional journey. Use mentors to extend your learning beyond your allocated tasks, such as how to be a good consultant, or just broaden your understanding. Think broadly about who you could seek out as mentors along your career journey. For example, some of the members of independent review panels have become de facto mentors to me. Value your mentors, and try to give something back or pay it forward to the next young engineer.

Tip #3 – Pursue breadth as well as depth

Breadth is as important as depth. Try to achieve more breadth before you specialise, because breadth will make you a better expert (where you have depth) and extend your value as a consultant. For me, experience in designing and constructing dams and hydropower as well as stints in hydrology and modelling gave me a more holistic understanding of dam projects. Try to get some experience in other related disciplines, so you are better placed to manage multi-disciplined projects; and get some construction experience so you can see how your designs translate on the ground.

The value of broad experience is evident in the 16 competencies set out by Engineers Australia for ‘Chartered Engineer’ status. Use them to work towards becoming chartered – a target that every engineer should strive for.

Tip #4 – Seize opportunities

Only you can act to take the opportunities that emerge in your career, to make the most of them, and to learn from them. If you think too long, the opportunity may disappear or someone else may seize it. This will sometimes require sacrifices – such as periods away from home, which can be hard – but sometimes a little adversity can really spur your professional and personal development. Opportunities could be a particular project, an opportunity to work with someone you want to learn from, or an interesting career episode in a different place or a different role.

Tip #5 – Take some risks

If someone you respect believes you can do a role on a project, maybe you should too. Stretching yourself will help you develop. Jumping – or being thrown– into the deep end can be a great way to learn, as long as you’re supported so you don’t sink. Talk to your mentors and managers about how they can support you to thrive rather than flail. Remember that mistakes and failures are not the end – they are excellent stimulus for learning, and you certainly won’t be the first to experience them.

Tip #6 – Be strategic

Your employer’s responsibility is to create an environment in which you are able to develop, but ultimately your career is your responsibility. What do you need to learn or achieve in order to get where you want to end up? How can you position yourself so that you’re ready when opportunities emerge? For me, this was the need to have a Masters degree to take on team leader roles on bank-funded international projects – which spurred me to return to study. You could use the competencies for Engineering Chartered status as a benchmark to identify gaps and then work to fill them.

Tip #7 – See things through from start to finish

Look for opportunities to be involved in a project from inception through to commissioning. You will learn a great deal from seeing how the investigations and decisions taken in the design play out in the actual conditions on site as well as the constructability and the performance of the structure. These experiences will shape your expertise, how you operate in the future as an engineer, and the advice you give your future clients. This is equally relevant for other programs of work, seeing the program from a conceptual stage to an operational stage.

Tip #8 – Build your consulting skills

If you want to work in consulting, you need to become more than a technical expert. An ideal consultant needs technical expertise, but also needs to be able to engage effectively with clients, to communicate well (both in writing and orally), to be creative and solve problems, and to manage and deliver projects. These skills are valuable for everyone, regardless of your role. Taking up different roles through your career can also help you see things from different perspectives and become a better consultant. Every experience helps to build the consultant you become.

Tip #9 – Listen to feedback

Even if it’s uncomfortable to receive, seek out feedback and use it constructively to learn more about yourself, your skills and how you interact with others. Everyone has facets in their knowledge, performance and personality that can be enhanced. The more you can see yourself through the eyes of your colleagues, the better you’ll be able to play to your strengths and work on your weaknesses. In the end, many engineering projects require a team to deliver, so if you know your strengths and weaknesses, you can create a balanced team that capitalises on the synergies.

Tip #10 – Remember the circle of life

What goes around comes around. In the early stages of your career, it’s natural to expect support and development. Eventually, as you progress, your expectation should shift to helping develop others. I believe that this cycle should be faster than most people would expect. You don’t need to wait decades. Once you have been doing something for a few years, you can help others, and by doing so you will reinforce your learnings and improve your ability to explain complex technical elements. Developing others will also develop you.

I hope that other Baby Boomers and Generation Xs are inspired by these tips to reflect on your own experiences, share your recipes for success, and look out for where you can help others grow. It’s in all of our interests for the engineering profession to thrive.

Head to our careers page for current opportunities at Entura.

About the author

Richard Herweynen is Entura’s Technical Director, Water. He has more than three decades of experience in dam and hydropower engineering, and has worked throughout the Indo-Pacific region on both dam and hydropower projects, covering all aspects including investigations, feasibility studies, detailed design, construction liaison, operation and maintenance and risk assessment for both new and existing projects. Richard has been part of a number of recent expert review panels for major water projects. He participated in the ANCOLD working group for concrete gravity dams and was the Chairman of the ICOLD technical committee on engineering activities in the planning process for water resources projects. Richard has won many engineering excellence and innovation awards (including Engineers Australia’s Professional Engineer of the Year 2012 – Tasmanian Division), and has published more than 30 technical papers on dam engineering.


March 19, 2024