Learning Engineering Practice

It is available now on Amazon. If you’re a member of Engineers Australia you can order with a 30% discount here (if that does not work, try this alternate link here). Write to me for a discount voucher if you’re not an EA member. Download online appendices here.

This book will help novice engineers, graduates, students and interns learn to practice engineering, acquire capabilities that companies value highly, and advance their career progression in much less time than learning by experience alone.

Success in engineering depends on working with technical, business and social factors which are all intertwined with each other. This book explains how novice engineers can master this ability, overcoming many of the misunderstandings that impede engineering careers today. Novices can begin to acquire knowledge that today is mastered by just a few expert engineers.

The book also provides supervisors and mentors with a curriculum and language to describe the realities of engineering practice so they can provide effective guidance. Firms will benefit from engineers who become productive engineers sooner.

Is there a particular personality or set of abilities that is perfectly aligned with engineering?  No! The ideas in this book demonstrate that there is a place in engineering for everyone with appropriate persistence and qualifications. Everyone needs help from others to succeed: this book will help novices find the support they need and make the most of their abilities as an engineer. The world needs their enthusiasm, ideas and contributions!

Chapters in this book provide specific guidance for working in less developed countries. One of the most exciting discoveries from the research was that the social, cultural and economic environment strongly influences engineers’ performances. This insight can help novices in less developed countries to navigate the socio-cultural complexities that frame daily practice. This guidance has the potential to greatly improve enterprise productivity, creating enormous social and economic improvements in less developed countries.

Unlike earlier books based on personal experience alone, this one is based on systematic research. The insights came from interviews with hundreds of practicing engineers, and field observations in many engineering firms and projects in several countries.  The research has been a joint effort with many my students and valued colleagues over 20 years.

Anyone who wants to boost their career prospects should also read my earlier book “The Making of an Expert Engineer”. It can help experienced engineers to take their practice to more advanced levels.

To assess how well your own notions on engineering practice line up with research results in a minute or so, try this quiz. You may be surprised with the results, in which case these explanations may help. Check the average score at the bottom of this page to compare your result with others.


The book includes a professional engineering capability framework which provides a curriculum for novice engineers, under guidance from supervisors and mentors. It can be used as a checklist to help guide workplace learning.

Stage 1: Preparation for an engineering career

  1. Engineering – more with less

What is engineering? Engineering enables people to be more productive, to do more with less effort, time, materials, energy, uncertainty, health risk and environmental disturbances. Engineers organize their work as projects with a planning and feasibility assessment phase first, and on deciding to proceed, an execution phase and eventually a removal and remediation phase. The main challenge for engineers today is to transform our world to reduce resource usage and emissions to sustainable levels within planetary limits. Even with about 260 different disciplines, engineering work follows similar patterns and builds on similar principles.

  1. Learning engineering practice

Unlike its products, engineering practice is invisible. It is performances by people using specialized technical knowledge to create and sustain the products, processes and systems that enable our human civilization. Engineers need technical foresight to plan, and then organize a complex series of collaborations, relying on perception skills and tacit knowledge. Engineering practice can be learned by reading a few pages of this book at a time and writing weekly reflections in a work diary, notes explaining how the ideas in the book play out in the workplace.

  1. Seeking work in 10 steps

Seeking paid work is the first step in an engineering career, and is often challenging for graduates. Building a professional engineering network by researching and visiting engineering product suppliers is an effective way to find engineering opportunities in the hidden job market where there are far more jobs than the few that are advertised. Simultaneously practicing perception skills, learning to use standards and researching the costs of everyday engineering components and materials will quickly improve employability.

  1. Neglected perception skills

All engineering relies far more on perception skills than the traditionally taught communication skills: writing reports and oral presentations. Yet these are hardly ever mentioned. Prior knowledge is essential, yet can easily deceive.

  1. Foundation skill 1 – Listening

Engineers spend more time listening than any other activity. Learning listen, and to observe when other people are not listening take effort and practice. Learning to take accurate notes is also important. Contextual listening helps understand how people see themselves. Practice exercises allow you to measure your listening abilities and improve with practice.

  1. Foundation skill 2 – Reading documents

Reading complex documents to acquire vital information is also a skill that takes practice. When two people read the same document, they both notice different aspects. A simple scoring method enables you to measure your reading abilities and improve with further practice.

  1. Foundation skill 3 – Reading people

Influencing other people is an essential ability in engineering. Reading people, discovering their emotional state, can be learned and is really helpful for gaining influence. Communicating with text makes it much harder to discover a person’s emotional state which is why text-based communication often makes conflict worse, not better.

  1. Foundation skill 4 – Seeing and creativity

Accurate visual perception is almost as important for engineers as accurate listening and note taking. Simple exercises enable you to assess your abilities and improve with practice.

Stage 2: The first weeks

  1. Learning the ropes

Beyond meeting your supervisor, you extend your network with contacts in the firm, and gain access to the information sources you will need. You start to appreciate that your network is the way you access most of the technical information you need.

  1. What every engineer needs to know

Specialised technical knowledge, the main attribute that distinguishes engineers from others, is quite different from information. It is constructed in the mind of an engineer from perceptions influenced by prior knowledge. Much of the knowledge is implicit or tacit: engineers are unaware of much of the knowledge in their minds until they need it. Much of it is acquired and transformed by practice, experience and social interactions with other people. Transferring knowledge from one person to another is difficult, slow and prone to misunderstandings.

  1. Engineering knowledge is a social network

Once exposed in this chapter, it is possible to see just how extensive, complex and specialized engineering knowledge has become. Mapping makes it possible to identify different areas of product, process and organizational knowledge: the map is replicated layer by layer for each product, component and process. By locating people who have relevant expertise, an engineer can gain access to the entire body of knowledge by navigating social networks linking the participants, many of whom are non-engineers.

  1. Making things happen: technical coordination

Introduces technical coordination, gaining willing and conscientious collaboration by people contributing their specialized knowledge, skills and resources. This takes 25-35% of nearly all engineers’ time. Engineers rely on trusting personal relationships for this along with knowledge of the local social culture.

  1. Learning to work safely

Engineers are responsible for workplace safety. Government legislation and ethical standards require that engineers foresee safety issues and take prompt action to eliminate hazards if possible, at least to reduce the likelihood and severity of consequences.

Stage 3: The first three years

  1. Engineering projects – making big things happen

Engineers need a conceptual framework to apply formally documented project management techniques in an engineering context. Most projects are organized in similar stages leading to reviews to decide future actions. Critical processes include effective progress monitoring and processes to ensure countless minor issues are dealt with.

  1. Generating value in the enterprise

Firms employ engineers to create commercial value, and communities expect engineers to create social value. Engineers generate value for their enterprise in three ways. They devise solutions and implementation plans that create sufficient confidence for investors to provide finance. They deliver value by transforming these plans from concepts into reality sufficiently in line with expectations. They protect accumulated value by operating and maintaining productive systems, protecting natural resources and providing defensive measures. Engineers who understand this are more likely to gain support for their initiatives and be highly rewarded.

16. Estimating Cost

Engineers need to prepare accurate cost estimates to ensure they can deliver work within an allocated budget: the budget must be soundly based at the start. An engineering firm only make profits with accurate cost estimates that convince clients to award contracts for engineering work. Clients need to be confident that the firm is providing the most cost-effective solution that meets their needs. All engineers need to understand that cost estimation can be difficult, has to be done fast, with as little uncertainty as possible in the time available. Also, engineers need to understand the influence of indirect costs, particularly for labour and the cost of their own contributions.

17. Less developed countries

Engineers working in less developed countries find it much harder to achieve collaboration and knowledge sharing at the levels of effectiveness in advanced countries. The prevailing social culture make it much more difficult for engineers’ influence to be effective without physical presence so less is done without direct supervision. The necessity of translating directions into local languages, even dialects, and reluctance to ask questions makes much more difficult to establish similar levels of understanding. Misunderstandings on labour costs often drive inappropriate decision making, and technical support from component and service suppliers may be impossible. Identifying technologies that bypass these difficulties can be a way to succeed.

18. Influencing other people

Engineers need strategies to help other people understand and adopt their ideas and suggestions more easily. Writing concise and logical explanations is challenging, and insufficient by itself. Engineers need to understand others’ values and motivations and present compelling reasons for other people to read and understand new ideas.  Several common misconceptions among engineers about language,  logic and objective facts can impede their ability to influence others.

19. Sustainability

Engineers need to think of solutions in terms of a closed system that includes the earth’s ecosystem. Air and water need to be returned cleaner than before. Products have to be designed so they are used sustainably and returned, recycled or reused eventually. Waste has to be a product to be sold to other enterprises. Given past practices and habitual ways of thinking, engineers need to know how to make explain and demonstrate that sustainable practices make sense commercially, especially because government regulations that have traditionally shaped commercial behaviour can delay appropriate responses.

Chapter 20: Avoiding workplace frustrations

Misplaced expectations and influences from education can lead engineers into difficulties. This chapter shows how to work around several common frustrations in workplaces. These include the apparent lack of technically challenging activities, insufficient time, insufficient data and the insistence of clients that engineers choose known solutions rather than more cost effective innovations. Many engineers feel constrained by standards, and frustrated by clients who only to the minimum necessary to comply with safety and environmental standards. Many engineers also feel that accountants dominate decision-making, and force them to choose the least expensive options over more expensive but better long term options.


Professional Engineering Capability Framework for Novice Engineers

Listing Skills Worksheet

Learning to See by Sketching

Life Cycle Costing Guide

Download all appendices here

Learning and Assessment Supplement

Consists of specific exercises and quizzes to supplement learning in each chapter of the book.

Quiz Scores

Average engineering practice quiz score: 60% – range is 20% – 90%. Remember, the quiz is based on research which you may not have had a chance to read yet. My earlier book “The Making of an Expert Engineer” will tell you more.

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