I recently got a comment from a reader who asked me to share some tips on what to wear for a first interview with some engineering companies. Having a little experience in that department, let me try and offer some advice.
1. Be prepared
Possibly the most important thing you can do before an interview is your homework. The interviewer wants to see that you know enough about the company, and that you really want to work for them above all other companies. Research the core business of the company and have a good idea of what they produce or manufacture. Know in which regions the company operates and where their head office is situated. All of these facts can be easily found on their website or company profile.
Also be ready to answer technically specific questions to the field you are applying to. An operational or manufacturing company is vastly different from an engineering consultancy and the possible career-paths in each of these environments are worlds apart. For an operational position, depending on your level of experience, you may be asked to answer technical questions, whereas in a consulting environment, they may quiz you on codes and standards related to design. In project management, you may be questioned on schedule management and quality assurance.
Make sure you are prepared to tackle a question of a technical nature or a small, problem-solving exercise.
Write down a few questions that are likely to come up in the interview such as:
- Tell us a little about yourself.
- Why do you want to work for this company?
- Why should we hire you for this job?
Practice your answers, out loud, several times until you are comfortable with them. Your answers should be short and to-the-point and should not drift from the topic. Each answer should be no longer that about a minute long and should cover a few important things about you that you want them to know.
You can find more common interview questions on the web.
3. What to Wear
I think that engineers get confused as to how formally to dress for an interview. Although in most cases, an interview always calls for neat, business-formal attire, there are some engineering companies where the dress code is more relaxed.
A good rule to follow is to rather be overdressed than underdressed.
For a female engineer, you should apply the same logic as a woman applying for a job in sales or banking. In exceptional cases, you may be called for an interview on a site where a safety dress-code is required, but this is not the norm and they will inform you of this beforehand. Wear neat and well-fitted clothing that is not too small or large for you. Rather buy something new that fits well than swim in something of your mother’s. Stick to neutral, professional colours and neat lines without distracting flourishes and detailing. A pants or skirt suit with a crisp, white shirt is always a winner.
Wear heels! Just don’t wear crazy stilettos or anything that you think belongs in a club. Make sure you can walk comfortably in them. I like a wedge heel which is far more stable for me since I don’t wear heels on a daily basis.
Try and look attractive, but don’t break the cardinal rules of showing too much skin, cleavage or being to fashionable. The people doing the interview may not appreciate your efforts! Check out this earlier post for more tips.
4. Accessories, Make-up and Hair
I would encourage the use of accessories and make-up, but in moderation. Wear small, silver earrings or a dainty pendant and stay away from anything that dangles or distracts. I have a habit of continuously removing and replacing any watch I wear so get rid of anything that could cause a similar distraction. Carry a small handbag with only what you need for the interview. Fumbling for documents in a large, oversized handbag may give the impression that you’re disorganised.
Make up should be light and tasteful. Think of a classy business women going into a meeting. Use foundation and blush sparingly, stay away from coloured eye-shadows and dark or bright lipstick. A little bit of eye-liner and a tasteful lipstick which you can rely on to last the interview is almost all you need. Go all-out on the mascara (I love mascara!). Don’t ever apply make-up in front of anyone, unless it’s a clear chapstick or labello if you absolutely need to.
Make sure your nails are neat and clean although you should steer clear from flashy French manicures and bright, trendy colours. I once interviewed a girl with half chipped-off, red nail polish that she chipped away at during the interview. This did not give a god impression and was very distracting.
Your hair should be neat and swept or pinned back. It should be professional and you shouldn’t constantly have to sweep it away from your face. Grown-out highlights may be really hot right now in Hollywood, but simply looks trashy in a professional setting.
When you walk into the room, greet everyone with a smile and a firm handshake. Especially if you are a woman, offer your own hand and make sure its firm. I repeat, make sure you offer a firm handshake while looking the person in the eye. As you know, this is something that is foreign to most women and certain cultures in particular. (In my industry, everyone greets everyone with a handshake every day. This is still difficult for me, but I’m getting used to it).
Introduce yourself with your first and last name and try your best to remember theirs. Don’t beat yourself up too much if you don’t get them right the first time.
Sit up straight and be as relaxed and natural as possible. Sitting in interviews can make you really nervous, but try not to be. Try not to fidget or wobble your leg or anything like that.
Look people in the eye when you talk to them and maintain good eye-contact. This may be difficult if it’s something you don’t naturally do, but try practicing with your friends to get over the fear. Acknowledge what they say and keep your answers and comments short and to the point.
Check out these relevant posts:
I once was at an interview where a senior manager answered a question about the work-life balance of the company. He answered simply, “Aren’t you living when you’re working?” This made no sense to me then and I put it off as just being his way of excusing the unreasonable time-demands of the job, but heading into my fourth week of sleep-deprived, torturous (and completely satisfying) commissioning of a new plant, I see things differently.
My hard-hat during commissioning
Work-life balance is a hot topic no matter what field you may be in, and engineering is no exception. There are very few engineers in industry who keep regular 9-5 office hours, and in an operational environment, shifts (and these may be night-shifts) may stretch well beyond 12-hours. In project management , being a deliverable-focused environment, our working times are fluid and unpredictable. Even during less-demanding phases in the project, you may suddenly have to pull an “all-nighter” to meet a specific deadline. Right now however, we are in the most time-demanding phase of the project.
I have been working on the design and construction of a chrome plant for the mining industry for the past 2 years and “commissioning” means that we are finally ready to start turning on all of the equipment: from conveyors to crushers to pumps; all the way from when the ore comes out of the ground to when our final products spit out onto the massive stockpiles at the very end of the process. Years of planning and hard work has culminated to bring us to this period and one just hopes like hell that everything will work properly. Ironically, nothing ever works properly the first time. Pipes will block (or explode), pumps will burn off their v-belts, the control system will bug out and water will shower (literally shower like a waterfall) from everything at random. So we start, run into problems, stop, fix and start again. On and on until you get the system to stabilise.
Although we worked long hours during construction, the engineers’ role comes to life during commissioning and it really is the most exciting part of the project. This was especially true for me who has been involved in the project from the very start. My in-depth and expansive knowledge of the process, design and plant equipment was pivotal to getting it started. So much so, that in the early days of the commissioning, if I were not on site, nothing could happen in one of the major sections of the plant. It’s an awesome feeling to be trusted and capable of such a feat, but the flip-side is that you cannot, under any circumstances, leave the plant for more than a few hours at a time.
I can honestly say that I have never before worked this hard. There were days when I was here in overalls running up and down huge steel buildings, climbing onto tanks, sticking my hands into cyclones and turning valves (or attempting to at least), until the early hours of the morning when I could finally drop into bed; only to get back here at 7am and start all over again. There were even some days (shock! horror!) that I didn’t even wear make-up!
These past few weeks have really put hair on my chest. Thick, curly hair. In the words of a colleague, I grew a pair.
Caked with mud and dust that settled in every crevice, I spent one evening scrubbing my fingernails with an old toothbrush until finally I gave up and just painted them a dark red to hide the metallic dust that crept into the corners. Many (women) would consider this a low point in one’s life. But for me, strangely enough, it wasn’t. I was in my element, taking charge of my building and all the equipment contained in it, calling the control room to start or stop things, open or close things, leading a team and making adjustments, mistakes, more adjustments until finally getting the system running. Or at least until something happened to mess everything up again. I loved the feeling of working hard for a real purpose. It was during those long hours on site, battling it out in the cold, dust and constant overflows and spillage pouring down on me that I saw for the first time my plant in action. All the design and installation of the equipment had taught me very little about how it actually operates and how the various components of the system influence each other, but now I could see it all come to life like magic. The disciplines which had until then worked in isolation – mechanical, chemical, electrical and control – all came together to bring this amazing machine to life – a machine that had the power to move in any direction I steered it; and I held the reins.
I never thought that being on site late into the night, dirty, hungry and exhausted would be something I would actually want to do. I enjoy my free time and like relaxing in the comfort of my home and spending time with family and friends. I go running in the afternoons, cook, fuss around my house, go shopping and have my hair done like everyone else. This past month however, I’ve had to steal time to eat, but I didn’t mind. This plant was my baby and it was learning to walk for the first time – I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Work-life balance simply didn’t make sense anymore. So much of my life had gone into this work, and now that the fruits of our efforts were about to ripen, we wanted to be here to witness it all.
My life will soon go back to some sort of normality and I will likely have to get used to having so much free time on my hands. The next project will be the same and there will be times when I will have to work like a dog again, but as long as I take ownership and pride in my work, that will be okay. It’s not the same for everyone (I don’t have a family at home), but whether you devote 18 hours a day or a fraction of that to something you are truly passionate about, that gets your engine revving, that gives you a purpose in life; as long as you love what you do it doesn’t matter about work-life balance. Loving what you do makes it not work at all.
I had a couch-surfer spend a few days at my place recently. If you don’t by now know what couch-surfing is, I suggest you Google it with some haste. My experiences with couch-surfers have been on the whole positive, so when this American guy contacted me through the website saying that he was cycling from Cape Town to Botwana, I was quite interested to see how things would turn out.
So he pitches up on a bicycle – which looked more than slightly shabby. Slightly shabby is not the word I would use to describe the rider though. This rider had this big, shaggy beard and was wearing baggy, rooster-print pants which I dubbed “Africa-pants”. Bluntly, he looked ridiculous!
A few hours and a bottle of wine later, I’m wide-eyed staring at him as he tells me about his journey up to my little mining town and how the Lesotho mountain pass destroyed him. I’m thinking, ‘Of all the routes you could have taken to get here, why would you choose the most treacherous, high-altitude and ridiculously cold route in the middle of winter?’ He seems like a real challenge-seeker though, so I say nothing. Reading about it on his blog later, I was even more amazed that he honestly believed he could conquer Lesotho after already cycling through half the country.
The night wore on and more wine was poured and more was revealed about his life and adventures. The Peace Corps in Niger, waiting tables in the top London jazz bar, free-lancing for Human Rights’ Watch…and now cycling to the Tuli block in Botswana to find a job around the Zimbabwe elections and serve as a correspondent if anything not-so-legit was happening.
Talk about a lost soul! I couldn’t help myself thinking.
I showed him around our little piece of paradise for a few days and just before he was about to set off, he came down with this chest-cold. Great, the crazy person is staying on! Note the sarcasm, but I couldn’t in good conscious turn him out to the elements – this poor, lost boy. The week wore on and I would return each evening from my safe, secure job to find Africa-pants whipping up something interesting and delicious. In return for my hospitality, he did my dishes and shared his thoughts with me. So many times I found myself being fascinated by his world-view. He was really smart. I mean REALLY smart. He could have been anything – could have by now had a house, a car, a fiancé – stuff we all want, right? But his life was just so interesting, free and completely centred around his unapologetic sense of self-purpose.
During that week I started thinking about why Africa-pants decided to spend all his savings on a plane-ride to Cape Town, bought a bike and decided to ride north – leaving a girl and all his worldly possessions in London – especially when home and family are in the other direction! Surely you don’t do this on a whim or because you’ve lost your way. He was absolutely not lost. As I got to know him, I realised that he was surer of his purpose in this world than many of the secure, settled individuals I knew. He knew what he knew and that was that life would be hopelessly boring and vapid if he tried to fit himself into the same box as everybody else. He was awake to a secret that all of us know deep inside – the secret that there is a greater purpose out there for us – a path that we all must follow in order to reach that destiny. Most of us are just too scared or lazy to follow that path – making excuses for the things we wished we’d done in our youth. So few of us are truly brave enough to live our passions and chase our dreams, escaping the trap of the mundane, the secure and striving ever onwards towards that unmistakable pull.
I thought back to my no-so-distant days with Engineers without Borders and to a time where I truly knew my purpose in life. I thought on how unsure my life was back then in many ways, but how incredibly driven, self-motivated and most of all happy I was! I reflected on my life as an engineer – a rewarding and challenging one – and remembered something I had known before, and forgotten somewhere along these lonely African roads. The reason I became an engineer was to serve Society and the planet. My purpose in life was to use my knowledge and my talent to make the world a better, safer and more sustainable place to live in – and I needed to get back on that path, and soon!
Comparing my life right now to his, Africa-pants had no house, no car, no surety of where he was going to sleep that night, but it was undeniable that he was the richer one, the one who knew where he was going in this world. He was truly living a purpose-driven life.
Who would have thought? All this from a shaggy, bearded traveller…
I had the great HONOUR recently to be interviewed for the feature “My Engineer’s Notebook” for ASME News.
So exciting! I really could not believe that they even knew who I was. I hope this is an example that women do have a place in the engineering world, that we are being RECOGNIZED and CELEBRATED and that a career in engineering can be as GLAMOROUS as you want it to be.
If you are a young girl wondering whether you should go into a career in science and engineering, the door is wide open for women in the industry right now. I hope this MOTIVATES you to DO IT!
(Remember, that this what the EngineerChic blog is all about so if you agree with this message, continue to comment, share and spread it!)
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