Letter to a Young Engineer

January 30, 2020

How time flies!

It seems like I just graduated from my undergrad, yet here I am being asked to give advice to versions of my younger self! And yet when I look back on all that I have accomplished in the past 25 years, I can see the paths that I have travelled. I blasted rock and built roads in the Northwest Territories for the Dene Cho Dogrib. I have done ice surveys on the Mackenzie River to determine when the ice roads were no longer safe and when the ferry could be put into the river, to ensure that northern communities could be continuously supplied. I have designed a nerve gas incinerator for the US Army to destroy chemical munitions left over from the Cold War. I have cleaned up derailments sites for CN Rail and trained as a locomotive engineer and conductor. I was the Assistant Director Professional Practice for APEGA, writing practice standards and giving ethics advice for 70,000 Professional Engineers and Geoscientists in Alberta. I got my PhD in Strategic Management and Organization so that I could better understand how to motivate companies to be more sustainable. And now, I examine methods of hazard identification and risk management, risk evaluation and social license to operate, and drivers of technology adoption in oil and gas, mining, pipelining, construction, agriculture, and railroading, among other industries. Given this all, what do I wish that I had known, when I graduated?

Engineers are the builders and changemakers of the world!

Politicians, critics, and protesters get all the media attention. Pffft… It is easy to throw stones. It is more difficult to gather those stones together and build a new foundation. As engineers, we design and build infrastructure, refineries, mines, cars, new algorithms. We have the capacity to ensure that our products are inherently safer and economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable. We work from within the system to reshape that system. We are much more effective changemakers than a protester will ever be.

Yet, while engineers are among the most trusted of professions, we are often not great at self-advocating.

We assume that if our work is great, it will speak for itself. We are taught to write reports in the third person, as if the data analyzed itself or the building built itself. We absent ourselves from our own work. Break out of this! Allow yourself to the be hero in your own story. Communicate your work in the first person. Communicate in a manner that resonates with your audiences: use graphs, use pictures, tell a story. Be an authentic and trustworthy translator; connect your knowledge and experience to your audiences. Let your communications, writing, and presentations be a scarlet begonia amongst a sea of grey.

Align your values, actions, influences, and energies.

Be the change you want to see in the world. The world is worth your sacrifices. Be bold. Be generative. Be a uniquely valuable contributor. Change your career direction if you need to; take extra courses, go back to school, move, shift employers. There will always be more opportunities that you could have ever imagined. Don’t be afraid of change. And don’t be afraid of being ambitious.

Be open to the possible. Think big and bigger still.

I have always exceeded my highest expectations. Opportunities will be greater than your wildest imagination. Know that you can do things out of the ordinary. Own your intelligence. Trust your voice. When you are told ‘no’, it rarely means no, it just means that you must find a different way of getting something done. If the front door is locked, try the side door, try the window, dig under the foundation if you need to. If your cause is worthwhile, you will find a way to enlist advocates and persist, until it you have achieved what you set out to do.

Choose partners who support you

Surround yourself with those who lift you up to be your best self. This includes who you choose as friends, mentors, collaborators, and your life partner. You deserve to be supported and championed in all that you do. Life is too short for negativity and satisficing.

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Dr. Lianne Lefsrud, Ph.D, P.Eng.

Engineering Safety and Risk Management, Faculty of Engineering
12-287 Donadeo Innovation Centre for Engineering 9211 116 Street, Edmonton, T6G 1H9

Phone: 780.492.8351 (office) | 780.951.3455 (mobile)
lefsrud@ualberta.ca  |  LinkedIn |  Twitter