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.

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Abundant Opportunities for Students and Industry at the Learning Factory

by Mary Frecker

The Learning Factory offers students the opportunity to work on industry-driven hands-on design projects. Together with 13 different departments at Penn State and our industry partners, we coordinate about 200 capstone design projects each year.

Students benefit from the opportunity to apply their engineering skills to a real-world design project, to build and implement their design in our state-of-the-art prototyping facility, and to interact and communicate with engineering professionals.  We offer multidisciplinary projects which give engineering students the opportunity to work with students in other majors.

The multidisciplinary nature of the Learning Factory is cited by our industry sponsors as a major benefit to working with Penn State, as most real engineering projects involve engineers from several disciplines.

Project sponsors range from large companies to start-ups, and the project topics include product design, process design, and software design. There is truly something for everyone in terms of the types of projects available to students, from designing devices to aid people with disabilities to efficient manufacturing processes.

Companies appreciate the opportunity to interact with Penn State students and to improve their visibility on campus. They also appreciate having a leadership development opportunity for their own employees, where their engineers gain valuable experience by mentoring the student team.

Small companies and start-ups located in Pennsylvania are eligible to apply for matching funds to assist with the project sponsorship fee. More information is available in this news release.

This presentation provides an overview of the Learning Factory and the process of sponsoring a project.


Mary Frecker is director of the Bernard M. Gordon Learning Factory and a professor of mechanical engineering. She has been a Penn State faculty member since 1997. Mary is the recipient of the Penn State Engineering Alumni Society’s Outstanding Advising and Outstanding Research Awards. She is a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

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Stay Connected to Penn State … Now and For Life

by Roger Williams

On Penn State campuses across the commonwealth, students are immersed in their schedules, a fall chill is in the air, and alumni are returning to relive those magical college moments. The Penn State Alumni Association is focused on connecting passionate Penn Staters like you and reinforcing the value of your Penn State degree. I’m often asked by alumni, “How can I get involved?” While each person’s approach to staying connected is different, here are some great ways to get involved.

  • Foster your Penn State spirit, no matter how far you are from Dear Old State.

For many, the chance to watch a Penn State game with fellow alumni is the ultimate experience. Connect with a local Penn State chapter to learn about local football-watching parties. Others are interested in connecting with their college or campus via our established alumni societies. Still others prefer to be connected by a common Penn State interest—an alumni interest group. Whichever your preference, there’s a community that’s thrilled to welcome you.

  • Give back to your local community and the broader Penn State family.

Many groups organize events ranging from highway cleanups to golf tournaments that support scholarships for Penn State students from their area. If you’re dedicated to making a difference in your community, your Penn State family is here to help. Click here to find a chapter in your area and begin making a difference.

  • Contribute to projects that preserve Penn State history and the Penn State experience. 

March in the annual Homecoming parade, attend a THON–related fundraising gala, take part in a Penn State student sendoff picnic near you, or join the Volunteer Admissions Program. Live your pride in infinite ways.

With more than 300 affiliate groups—the backbone of your Alumni Association—there’s sure to be a community for you. Visit the Penn State Alumni Association’s website to learn more about ways to connect.

Always remember … WE ARE!!


Roger L. Williams ’73, ’75g, ’88g became the tenth executive director of the Penn State Alumni Association in June 2003. He came to the Alumni Association with more than 25 years of higher education experience in communications, public relations, and marketing, having served as the chief public relations officer at three major universities.

Williams started as a writer–editor in Penn State’s Department of Public Information in 1978 and rose through the ranks of manager of special projects, assistant director and director of Public Information, then served as the assistant vice president and executive director of University Relations (1986–1995). From 1995–2003, he was associate vice president for communications at Georgetown University and associate vice chancellor for university relations at the University of Arkansas.

Williams is also an affiliate associate professor in the Penn State College of Education and serves on the editorial board of the scholarly journal Perspectives on the History of Higher Education.

He holds three degrees from Penn State: a bachelor’s in history, master’s in journalism, and doctorate in higher education.

Williams lives in State College, Pa., with his wife, Karen Magnuson ’75.

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