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Can a Technical Career be Rewarding?

By IEST President-Elect Nick Clinkinbeard

In a few weeks, I will celebrate my 19th anniversary as a Collins Aerospace (formerly Rockwell Collins) engineer. But the key milestone in my career came 13 years ago when I landed in my current position as “vibration guru.”

After having previously lost out on this position to a better-qualified individual, that engineer later reached out to let me know he was leaving, and that the team was interested in discussing the job again with me. When I last interviewed for the position (and lost) I was gung-ho on accepting an offer, but alas, it was not time. I should have been elated at a second chance, but I had started down another path: I was now a lead design engineer leaning toward a career in project engineering that I hoped would eventually steer me into management. In short, I planned to respectfully decline the position because I wanted to be a “leader” rather than a, presumably, career-limited “tech geek.”

But something remarkable happened. I discussed the offer with my then-manager and mentor, sharing that I was leaning heavily toward saying “no.” To my surprise, he encouraged me to take the job as a way to learn and diversify my skillset. His advice was to give it a couple of years and that I could always come back to the design/project engineering world. I took his guidance and have never regretted it.

Did I miss leadership opportunities by “staying technical?” Not at all—the leadership opportunities just look different. Since entering the structural world, I have had the honor of helping to shape how my organization conducts vibration and shock testing, as well as analysis.  And with the recent acquisition of Rockwell Collins by United Technologies, my network has grown exponentially and presented me with leadership opportunities that I never realized existed. Not only are there plenty of product-related technical challenges, but there are a lot of opportunities to lead by way of teaching, participating in working groups, mentoring, and management advisement. My organization even has a track for technical career advancement.

Growth and leadership opportunities aren’t limited to where we work. There are industry organizations such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and Society of Automotive Engineers that present both technical and leadership challenges. Being in the environmental testing discipline, I have found the Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technology (IEST) to be particularly helpful in shaping my career.

I learned of IEST through inheriting some literature left on my predecessor’s bookshelf. The depth of knowledge the authors exhibited piqued my interest. I investigated further and ultimately decided to become a member. Once I started attending IEST’s annual conference, ESTECH, I began to learn about industry trends and even got to have discussions with some industry pioneers and domain wizards like David Smallwood and Dr. Ron Merritt, among others. Not only has participation expanded my network and technical skills, but I’ve been honored to serve in a board leadership position for the past four years and will do so for the next three. In addition, I’ve had opportunities to teach, present papers, and chair conference sessions. All this has been both personally and professionally rewarding in my career.

So, if you have an interest in hardcore engineering, don’t be afraid to stay technical. If you are motivated to continually learn and like to solve complex problems, there is a very rewarding career waiting for you—full of fun challenges and, yes, leadership opportunities. If I can find my way there, so can you. And let IEST help you on your journey.

Nick Clinkinbeard is principal mechanical engineer at Collins Aerospace in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.


Have a technical career story to share? Tell us about your career journey—tough decisions and/or milestones—and what has helped you achieve success. Add your comments below.

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