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Networking — It’s About People

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There are some skills you just can’t pick up in a university classroom or lab. An engineer’s success depends not only on academic excellence, but also on a commitment to forming and maintaining relationships.

Many people think engineers are men with poor social skills who interact with machines all day and have no life outside work. In reality, engineers are a diverse group of professionals who interact with others every day to solve real-world problems.” This message is displayed on the National Academy of Engineering website.

Christian Coronado is doing an industrial engineering doctorate at the École Polytechnique, with a focus on innovation and knowledge management. If people think engineers are socially inept, he says, they are clearly mistaken. “I think that social and managerial skills are vital for any successful engineer.”

“Most engineers I know are not antisocial at all!” agrees Michael Kamel, who received his master’s in industrial engineering from the École Polytechnique in 2003 and this year completes his doctorate specializing in engineering management. Kamel explains that engineers draw on emotional intelligence, experience in social work, and even the social sciences to shed light on the human side of reasoning and decision-making.

Today’s successful engineers don’t simply innovate new products. They lead companies and organizations, which means they need leadership, management and all-around “people” skills. Like all professionals, they need to network. Engineers must be willing to attend conferences and events, must be able to approach the people who may one day become advantageous contacts and mentors in their career, and must be committed to nurturing those crucial relationships.

Rubbing shoulders to move forward
“There is no point in your career that networking isn’t important,” Kamel says, before adding with a laugh, “Except maybe when you’re retiring.” He began developing his professional network while still working on his bachelor’s at McGill University. “I was looking at knowing people in the industry,” he says. “One way was through summer jobs and training [in his case, at Jones Lang LaSalle and Paprican], as well as networking through various activities on campus.” While at university, he was VP Academic of McGill’s Engineering Undergraduate Society. Today, Kamel works in project management consulting as Director of Enterprise Risk Services at Samson Bélaire/Deloitte & Touche. He notes that social networks outside of school or work can turn out to be valuable as well. For example, he got his first job through a contact at his church.

Even if rubbing shoulders with industry professionals doesn’t immediately land you a job, it can help you pick up subtle skills that you might not learn in school. “Being around professionals, knowing the language to speak and how to conduct oneself… this is the softer side to how networking helped me find a job,” says Kamel. “It helped me a lot… even just overcoming the fear of an interview.”

Koushika Patel completed her bachelor’s in mechanical engineering at Concordia University, and then a master’s in aerospace engineering at McGill. She has close to 10 years of experience in the aerospace industry, both at CAE and Bombardier, her present employer. She is currently on maternity leave, but continues to maintain her network of professional contacts, keeping her finger on the pulse of the industry so that she’ll be up to speed when it’s time to go back to work. “Keep in touch!” Patel stresses. “Even if you don’t need [your network’s] help today, tomorrow may be different.”

When your father and two brothers are also engineers, as is the case for Mexican-born Coronado, you already have a bit of a built-in network — but he takes nothing for granted, and works hard at developing a strong contact base. Coronado, who has studied previously in Mexico, North Dakota and Sweden, says that his research work, thesis and dissertations have helped make him known to employers and other industry professionals.

“When I graduated [with my bachelor’s], I had no idea of what professional path to take. I started working for an automotive OEM [original equipment manufacturer] and realized that cars are my passion.” Coronado went on to Sweden to complete his master’s degree, and did his thesis in collaboration with Volvo and Saab. Now an automotive CAD specialist, he says networking while still in school gave him a great advantage. “It helped me skip some human resources procedures and jump directly to the interviews. All this because the ‘bosses’ already knew me.”

“Think globally and develop relationships. Get known and get to know people. It pays off in the long term.”
– Michael Kamel

It’s never too early to start
Patel’s husband, John Kamper, is an EIT himself. He advises students to take part in engineering games. “Usually companies send some representatives there for scouting fresh grads,” he says. Coronado and Kamel also suggest participating in the student chapters of engineering associations such as the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Institute of Industrial Engineers (IIE) or Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). “They always offer opportunities for networking,” says Coronado.

The Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec (the association of Quebec engineers, known as the “Order”) provides another great opportunity for engineering students to start honing their networking skills. Its various activities allow students to meet professionals within the Order, as well as students from other institutions. The Order is involved in professional orientation days, engineering competitions and games, science camps, and a range of workshops and conferences. Undergraduates with 60 or more engineering credits and all engineering graduate students can join the Order’s Student Section. In Quebec, engineering graduate students must become members of the Order before they can practice and use the title.

Did you know?
Since the Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec (the “Order”) is a necessary part of every Quebec engineering student’s career, it pays to know more about it. These and other interesting facts can be found at www.oiq.qc.ca.

The Order had 51,698 members as of March 2006.

It represents more than 25% of all Canadian engineers.

It is the second-largest of the 45 professional associations charged by the Government of Quebec with the duty of protecting the public. (The largest is the Ordre des infirmières et infirmiers du Québec [OIIQ], the professional association of Quebec’s nurses.)

The first professional Canadian organization for engineers was established in 1887. It was the Civil Engineers of Canada.

Paul Gely, Dean of Management of Academic Resources at the École de technologie supérieure (ETS), is a mechanical engineer and Order member. He says that the Order gives students a head start by providing a network for them (as does ETS’s alumni association). Gely offers four suggestions to engineering students:

1. Develop a relationship with other students from different areas of Quebec. Most engineers in Quebec work for small and mid-size companies that cooperate by exchanging products and services. Networks facilitate technology transfers and ease engineers’ movement between companies.

2. Join student associations in fields outside your engineering niche.

3. Join and participate in student clubs and inter-university competitions in North America and Europe.

4. Develop industry contacts during your three 4-month internships.

Gely also highlights the value of a professor’s advice to students who undertake projects and competitions. Experienced supervision can help students avoid significant mistakes, such as poor management or hasty conclusions based on incomplete analysis. Overall, he encourages students to seek out a rich campus life — both with professors and with other students — to stimulate their interests and naturally develop engineering networks.

“The best place to start networking is in school,” says Patel. “Professors usually have liaisons with industry. Students ahead of you — graduate and undergraduate — will most likely be working before you graduate.” Patel did two work terms as a research assistant during her undergraduate years, each time for a different professor. “Both provided me the opportunity to meet their graduate students. Some of these students were already working in the industry by the time I graduated, so they were very helpful.” Patel also became a member of the Canadian Aeronautical and Space Institute, which held year-round presentations that allowed her to meet people from different aerospace companies.

Kamel points out that it’s never too early to develop one’s network. He advises students to find out what professional associations and forums of communication and information exchange are available to them. “All information is now at our fingertips,” he says. “We’re tremendously facilitated by the web. Know what’s out there. Go there. Meet people there.” Kamel stresses that the aim isn’t to get a job — it’s to become globally aware.

“I try to attend as many conferences as I can in my field of expertise,” says Coronado. “As well, I try to continue updating myself with courses and certifications.” He explains that this not only keeps him current, but also allows him to get to know interesting and important people in the industry.

Don’t lose your contacts!
Kamel says that after he got his first job, his network narrowed somewhat to the industry sector he was in. “I did not really use all my previous contacts from school, but that network kept me in the loop and kept me abreast of new technologies. Being on mailing lists of professional associations and talking to leaders helps you stay at the forefront of the industry.” Although his network has matured into a more professional one, Kamel reports that he still needs the same people skills.

Networking is an investment that will not take care of itself. Coronado says that if he could do one thing differently in his career so far, “I would never again lose a contact.” He also cautions students against passing up networking opportunities such as conferences and congresses. Of course, introverts have an extra challenge: not everyone is comfortable speaking to strangers. “I used to shy away from meeting people at conferences and presentations,” says Patel. “Even when I did meet someone new, I shied away from keeping in touch with them. I would say to myself: ‘They don’t have time for me!’ Now, after almost 10 years of experience, I realize that most us are eager to help.” This is good news for students who worry about being taken seriously. Patel adds: “I’m not as shy anymore. I’m a lot more assertive, so I meet more people. And when I do, I make a point of keeping touch with them.”

Kamel boils it all down to this: “Think globally and develop relationships. Get known and get to know people. It pays off in the long term.”

Top five tips for effective networking
1. Be open-minded and well-rounded. Stepping outside your engineering world to network with the business community can help you appreciate other aspects of your work, such as management and finances. Don’t be too selective. A small circle of contacts may not give you what you need. If possible, get international experience.

2. Seek lesser-known opportunities for networking. Several professional organizations, such as the Project Management Institute and American Society of Mechanical Engineers, allow student participation. Try to find research work with a professor, or funding to attend a conference.

3. Introduce yourself to company executives. Ask industry leaders for transcripts of their speeches. Showing interest is a good way to initiate a potentially beneficial contact.

4. Don’t be pushy. Don’t make contacts just because you want something out of someone. Being too aggressive is more repellent than attractive.

5. Stay in touch with all of the people you meet. Don’t disappear from industry forums and groups.

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