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10 Tips for Starting a Contract Engineering Assignment on the Right Foot

By: Leslie Stevens-Huffman

Acclimating to a new environment can be stressful, even for veteran engineering contractors. Soothe your frazzled nerves and get off on the right foot by following these tips.

No.1: Understand your manager’s expectations

Avoid false starts and hasty exits by clarifying your duties and responsibilities from the outset. Hint: Your manager’s priorities may have changed since you interviewed. Also, solidify his or her expectations and how your performance will be measured throughout the project.

No. 2: Request a coach

Ask if you can partner with a tenured engineer, at least for the first few weeks. That way, you have a go-to resource for everything from navigating the documentation control system to ordering office supplies. According to a report by Bersin & Associates, organizations with “excellent” cultural support for coaching had 13 percent stronger business results and 39 percent stronger employee results. After all, it’s hard to get lost when you follow an expert’s footsteps.

No. 3: Get to know the technicians, manufacturing folks and customers

Before you suggest a new design or solution, seek input from the people who are most familiar with the product, its problems and its history.

No. 4: Immerse yourself

Make an immediate impact by learning as much as you can as fast as you can. The sooner you understand the firm, the project specifics and the problems you need to solve, the sooner you’ll become indispensible.

No.5: Be observant

Frequently, there’s a gap between a firm’s advertised culture and the way work actually gets done. Pick up on subtle nuances, unwritten protocols and communication preferences by observing the way your fellow engineers approach problems, interact during team meetings and relate to the boss. Certainly you want to be yourself, but successful contractors are not only talented engineering professionals, they’re chameleons who modify their style to fit various environments.

No. 6: Respect your co-workers

While it’s important to share your professional opinions and expertise – especially if you were hired to rescue a troubled project – criticizing a design, project management technique or testing policy right off the bat may offend the sponsor. Keep your comments to yourself until you know who’s behind a particular practice and why it exists. Or, as Chris Gammell notes in his engineering blog,Assume that everyone is a genius.”

No. 7: Be a team player

People who help their co-workers have the most on-the-job success, according to psychologist Adam Grant. So saying “yes” to early requests from your engineering colleagues will yield dividends, as long as they don’t bombard you with requests.

No 8: Don’t linger around the water cooler

You may convey the wrong impression, or commit a faux pas, if you share gossip or jump into office politics. Certainly you should socialize with your peers over lunch or coffee, but take the high road, at least until you build trustworthy relationships.

No 9: Ask for feedback

Don’t assume that no news is good news, especially during the first few weeks of an assignment. Check in frequently with your engineering manager and recruiter and be open to new ways of doing things.

No 10: Track your accomplishments and build your network

Update your resume and your network as your assignment progresses. Finally, review these tips and record your own observations to ensure a smooth start to your next assignment.

What’s your secret to getting off on the right foot when starting a new contract engineering assignment?

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