Hey, engineering student. Thanks for coming to talk to me at your school’s career fair.

Want to impress me, and work with me at my shiny big tech company? Of course you do!

But how?

Here’s how.

Being good at your discipline is the easiest way to get noticed.

That’s a lousy platitude to spit out first thing, but it’s true. The good ones have taken what they’ve learned, and internalized it. Typically, they go one step farther. They don’t stop at what they’re fed in class. They take the stuff they learn in class and apply it. As a result - they learn outside of class. That’s a bitchin’ signal to send to a prospective employer.

How do you show that? Project work.

Doing something engineering-wise that isn’t required of you is the fastest, most concise way to show us you care, you want to learn, and you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty1. It also makes you memorable. Why would I remember someone who’s “really into digital signal processing” over someone who “built their own digital reverb plug-in for Max/MSP”?

Do I want to see a video of the dancing hexapod robot you built? Hell yeah. Make that sucker twerk!

Do I want to hear the weird music your bizarre, homemade musical instrument makes? Sure do. Tell me how you made it.

Do I want to watch the bar robot you built for your fraternity dispense cocktails on demand? Absolutely. (And while you’re at it - I’ll have a scotch and soda. In a clean glass, please.)

Bring pictures. Bring videos. Bring war stories about developing it. Those are your A game.

Be confident.

If you don’t have a fat engineering portfolio to show, you can at least be confident. Maybe this is really what I’m asking for when I say “be good at what you do”. The thing is, the good ones tend to be pretty confident. They know that they know what they’re doing. They want to show it to someone who will appreciate it. That desire to share what they know is a hallmark of confidence.

How can you be confident? Review some basic engineering concepts and questions before you go. Review some of the projects and classes you’ve taken. Practice talking about them! Write a quick pitch of yourself. Say what you’re good at, and what you like to do. Say what you want to do for the company. Practice that too! Be able to deliver all of that in about 90 seconds, and then hobnob.

Pick some nice clothes to wear. Doesn’t have to be black tie, but it probably shouldn’t have holes in it. If dressing up makes you feel like a million bucks, and helps your confidence, go for it! It’s an easy thing to do that’s well within your sphere of control2.

But that’s not the trump card of being confident. Knowing and admitting that you have limits - and that you aren’t afraid of them - is.

OK - great. How do you do that?

Admit when you don’t know something.

Showing that you’re not afraid to learn is, by far, one of the easiest ways to exude confidence. The easiest way to show that, counterintuitively, is to admit that you don’t know something.

I want to keep this whole train of thought positive, but this is one of those pieces of advice that’s better illustrated by showing you the downside. So, I’ll do that in a dramatic way, and say:

You’re digging your own grave by refusing to admit you don’t know something.

You need to admit you don’t know to learn. Refusing to do so tells me you don’t want to learn. There’s two huge problems with sending that signal:

  1. In the best case scenario, you’re a current senior in college looking for a full time job. If we’re talking at a fall career fair, you’ve barely completed 3/4 of your degree. You’ve got a lot of learning to do - minimum nine months - before you even get to working with me. Do you mean to tell me that you’re not gonna bother using that time to learn more? At this fancy school, that you’re paying top dollar (or going into debt) to attend?! You gotta be fucking kidding me!
  2. Once we get to the point of being colleagues, you’re going to be learning a lot. Your early career is a time to start taking all that theory from school and putting it into practice. This is just learning of a different sort. If you won’t admit you don’t know, you’re not going to learn. Which means you’re not going to improve. Which means you’re going to be a junior employee for longer, have less autonomy, and get less work done.

Turns out - haha! We tricked you! College teaches you a few fundamental vocational skills, but on the whole, it’s really teaching you how to learn fast, and learn well. Trouble is, many prospects seem to think that it was training you to be a fully formed engineer upon exit. That admitting you don’t know something disqualifies you.

I don’t expect you to know everything about the field.3 I do expect you to take initiative and fill gaps in your knowledge quickly.4

Make it quick!

Remember how I said you should make your pitch about 90 seconds? There’s a selfish motive there.

I’ve gotta talk to, I dunno, 50 people at this career fair today. I’m gonna be here for four hours. Doing the math, that means I need to be doing something like the following throughput:

It’s great that you love the footnotes of Oppenheim and Willsky, or building backend services for cat pictures, or writing gradient descent algorithms for feng shui furniture arrangement. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to hash that through in deep detail with you right now. Tell me when I see you on site. We’ll have time for it then.

Don’t take it personally if it doesn’t work out.

There are plenty of reasons we might not have gotten back to you. Lots of them are valid, and not a personal attack on you:

  • Someone with more experience came along.
  • Someone with a better skillset came along.
  • We hired a former intern, who we know.

Them’s the breaks. It’s tough, and it sucks. But you can choose to react positively to it5. If you’re a sophomore or junior, you have tons of time to react positiviely to it. Start a side project. Join a club like FSAE or FIRST Robotics. Build some stuff. You have all kinds of time to improve your prospects!

I’ve heard from a reasonable number of college students (and experienced professionals, too) that they wish they’d gotten some feedback on why they weren’t selected. The unfair truth is: there is a snowball’s chance in hell of us ever telling you why we didn’t get back to you. It opens the company up to too much liability for us to give you honest, straightforward feedback. What if you interpret it as a violation of Equal Employment Opportunity, and sue us? (That’s a big deal, by the way. Not only does it cost a company a bunch of money in legal fees, it’s a very public stamp of “someone accused this company of bigotry”. And that looks just as bad in a newspaper as it does here.)

Don’t work on changing our minds. Work on making yourself the obvious choice.

Conclusion

Hey - you made it! Thanks for stopping by the booth - hope we get the chance to chat more soon. Here - have a company logo sticker. And one of these magnetic chip clip things! We need to give them away since the person in charge of swag decided they were a good buy.

And good luck out there.

Footnotez

  1. Really going the extra mile on a class project can work, too, but you generally have to know something about what the expectation of the class project is, and how you can greatly exceed it. That’s harder than it sounds. 

  2. Sometimes I think that’s the real reason that career fair people tell you to dress up. Unpopular opinion among college career fair organizers: clothes and grooming are not nearly as important as they’re played up to be. (Within limits, of course. Torn up clothes are no good. Body odor or halitosis are a no go. I don’t care how smart you are - I don’t want to enable future Stallmans. Though if you think you’re a future Stallman, not showering is the least of your problems.) It’s a lot less common that tech companies demand suits and ties. Or even business casual, for that matter. If you’re in a blazer and tie, but stuttering, and incapable of telling me about your skills - sorry. You’re not getting anywhere with me. If you’re in a t-shirt and jeans, but can tell me about selecting a transistor for a radio based on its noise figure performance - now we’re getting somewhere. 

  3. That’s an insane expectation, by the way. Any single discipline of engineering is so vast that no one person can be an expert in every part of it. There simply is not time. I’m an electrical engineer. That title can cover a huge range of territory and expertise. There are electrical engineers that are also experts in chemistry, optics, algorithm design, finance, biology, transportation, and manufacturing. It takes the better part of a lifetime to get good at one of those. Getting good at them all? Good luck! 

  4. Here’s the boss move for followup on admitting you know something: go out, learn about the thing you didn’t know, and then follow up with the career fair person you talked to. Write them a two sentence blurb describing what you learned about [thingamajig], say thanks again for talking with you, and split. Remembering this person’s name is crucial for this to work. You might need to get a little creative on getting in touch with them. You’re smart and motivated - methods for this abound. 

  5. Or, you can choose not to, which I guarantee won’t help you. I’ve had people from career fairs add me on LinkedIn, or guess my work email address, and send me messages demanding to know when they’ll be invited for on site interviews. Points for tenacity, kiddo, but you clearly missed that this is a “don’t call us - we’ll call you” situation. 

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