A Most Critical Engineering Career Success Factor: Technical Credibility
by Ken Graziani
We all desire a very successful engineering career. Many factors combine to impact the success of one’s engineering career: Engineering and Technical Expertise, Interpersonal and Team Skills, Initiative, and Leadership, to name a few. In my opinion, the lack of one critical success factor has the power to trump and nullify these, Technical Credibility, aka Technical Integrity, Technical Honesty, or Technical Ethics, as you like.
Technical Credibility is your reputation with your management, peers, subordinates and business partners that you can be trusted to “Do the right thing professionally and personally, even if unsupervised.” It is the trust that you will present your activities and decisions accurately, completely, honestly and not over-hyped or misrepresented. It is the trust that you will accurately convey what you know and what you do not know, in your field or project area.
Your Technical Credibility is earned slowly as you progress through your career. The trust in your technical credibility grows incrementally, project by project, task by task, year by year. As a new engineer, you’re an unknown to those with whom you work and report. But slowly, they’ll begin to see the true nature of your character. If you perform credibly, their trust in you will grow. And with their trust, your responsibilities, opportunities and career success will grow. However, while it takes time to build your Technical Credibility, it can be lost instantly in one dishonest misstep, not to be confused with an honest mistake.
In general, engineers tend to be an upfront, honest group. But this is not always the case, as work stress and career pressures can lead to poor decisions. In my 40+year career, I can recall about 5 key instances where my Technical Credibility was put to the test. You may experience or have experienced similar challenges. These challenges to your Technical Credibility can be direct and overt. For example, you may get a request, from a supervisor or higher, to omit a key issue as to not overly alarm a business partner. Or, the challenge to your Technical Credibility could be subtler due to conformational bias with which most of us struggle. For example, “we know our hypothesis is so correct these data points that don’t fall along our curve must be in error, so let’s omit them”.
It can be hard to stand up to such challenges to your Technical Credibility, particularly if you are early in your career and if the challenge is coming from a supervisor. The short-term perceived benefit of “going along, to get along” can be strong. But the longer-term risks to a successful career can be even greater. Your coworkers and business partners will take note. A few years further into your career, you may end up reporting to one of them, or find yourself in a position to present your engineering concepts to one of these business partners now in a higher position. What do you think your chances for success are if they’re thinking, “I worked with this engineer before, and this engineer misrepresented a concept” versus thinking, “I worked with this engineer before, and this engineer can be trusted.”
It takes years to build your Technical Credibility and you can lose it in an instant. So, as I always advised my engineering staff, treat your Technical Credibility as if it was “Career Success” gold. Treasure it. If you do, you’ll maximize the success of your engineering career.
I’d be happy to hear what you think.
Dr. Ken Graziani has more than 40 years of experience in refining process technology development, implementation and consulting. He earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Penn State and his master’s and doctorate degrees in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Ken retired from ExxonMobil as Senior Engineering Advisor and Technology Program Leader. He is a member of the Penn State Engineering Alumni Society and leader of the Penn State Chemical Engineering Alumni Group. He and his wife, Cindy, reside in Fairfax, VA.