Adela is a Systems Engineer with Carnegie Robotics, LLC in Pittsburgh who graduated as an E:Robo from Olin and also has a MS in RoboE from WPI. Since leaving the bubble, she’s been heavily involved in the job search process from both sides, and has some reflections to share.
Figuring out what you’re good at is challenging, and sometimes it’s equally difficult to understand what an employer is looking for. Before I ventured off into interviews I sat and reflected and read countless books on the topic of careers (from Howard’s Life to Designing Your Life, and many in between). The past year has taught me a lot about what it takes to be technical in a more traditional environment. The bottom line is it requires a lot of endurance, time, effort, and energy. If anything, most companies perceive outstanding candidates to be the ones who come in with a bunch of in-class experience combined with the desire to learn more (which is usually showcased in interesting projects they worked on their spare time). And personally as a candidate, there are 3 things you have to know: what you do/don’t like, what you are/aren’t good at, and what you are/aren’t willing to work on.
So let me frame a perspective on how to think about job hunting. When you’re trying to create a product/service, you generally want to figure out the specific user group and market that would find value from such a thing. Co-designing a product (UOCD) with that group is generally how you successfully bring something from an idea through iterative prototypes. In this case, you are that product.
How does something go from a prototype to a product? For those of you who have read Crossing the Chasm, you’ll recognize this chart. The important thing here is to realize that you are a prototype engineer, and that the previous graduating classes have been hired mostly by “early adopters.” Most of the world has never heard of Olin, which makes it easier to explore careers outside of engineering, but also harder to figure out what you want to do (if you want to remain as a technical individual). Not everyone believes that skill set is more important for mindset, especially in more technically rigorous companies/environments.
Remember that defining your target niche isn’t final-- it’s an iterative process. Think of internships as opportunities for refining your value proposition, meeting people in the field, and broadening your perspective. Internships also give you the chance to ask questions to understand if you want to be accepted by this group of people, too. Once you’ve figured out this value proposition, it makes job hunting a lot easier because you’ll have a target niche to go after.
Once you get a short list of companies together, put together a risk reduction strategy. The easiest way to reduce risk is to reach out to someone who works there and ask to have a conversation with them. Important things to know going in are what the expectations are for someone with your experience level, along with understanding what the company thinks they’re looking for. What is their interview process like? What are they looking for? If you get through to having an interview, the most important thing to think about is what are the key risks that you need to mitigate in their heads? These risks could involve not being local to the area, non-work commitments such as family/partners, etc.
There’s also a related risk-reduction strategy for you in interviews (it’s like Candidate’s Weekend-- all interviews are meant to be a two-way street). What are the core things you want to prioritize in this job? (Free time? Excitement? Environment? Mentorship?) It’s a conversation that you get to have in the interview and get a chance to understand what leadership style is present in the company, the role of teams, and any other elements of your Olin lifestyle that you might want to retain. Having alignment of your values with the company’s is always a good thing.
With all that being said, here’s what I think are key selling points for most Oliners:
Most Oliners will have more teaming experience than other undergrads.
Experience with conflict management
Knowledgeable about managing expectations and the importance of that in a project both to an external and an internal audience
Most Oliners will have experienced aspects of startup culture
Olin is (still) a startup (and will always be, to some extent, re-inventing itself)
Every Oliner is an employee that keeps the machine going
Every Oliner gets exposed to what it takes to be at a startup (long hours, self-taught, problem-solver, initiative)
Downside of teaching yourself something is that you might not know what the standard communication “interface” or “protocol” of terms or design patterns with other engineers in the field is. (But it’s up to you to make sure you know that-- and professors and other professionals from your network (aka. mentors) can help with understanding what the expectation sets are for a junior engineer.)
Be confident in what you have to say and offer, and remember that Olin provides a unique opportunity to network with others and expand your social network alongside general knowledge breadth and depth. Most importantly, remember that the journey is the priority here, so don’t freak out if the “first job” isn’t your last one-- you’re just one step closer to finding what works and what doesn’t.