Maslow’s hammer:

If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Design engineering is a constantly evolving field. It is forming and shaping faster than a complex hexagonal honeycomb micromesh structure growing out of a Carbon3D printer; from new technologies with implementable applications to tools, software, and manufacturing processes. Keep up or learn to enjoy breathing dust from the cloud you are perpetually left behind in.

For designers, professional development can come in many forms. It can be specialized training, ongoing formal education, or training in software or physical tools.

The breadth of possible knowledge and skills to be gained should be simultaneously daunting and exciting. If working on things that are new, novel, and hi-tech is a goal, then understanding the relevant technology is a must and ideally, you will also be knowledgeable on a broad range of associated technologies.

Assuming you aren’t currently blowing out the candles on the grocery store sheet cake at your farewell retirement party then it’s time to get busy. But what to focus on? There are two basic paths here, the short-term and/or long-term. The battle or the war. The short con or the long con. Now & Later. I will guide you through both. Now, stop thinking about cake.

Short-Term: Professional Development with Immediate Application and Benefits

Completing a project successfully may necessitate gaining a new ability or knowledge base. Other times, new learning may not be required, but it could increase the speed and/or quality of your work. If you are unsure about what to focus on, a great hack is to ask your manager what one skill would have the biggest benefit to the organization. Talk about initiative! It takes the guesswork out of choosing what to work on and acts as an accountability system (now you have to do it).

Immediate wins are gratifying and valuable; particularly the kind that comes from supplemental hard work. Short-term successes can set you on a trajectory for foundational success — which is pretty sweet. Sweet like cake.

Cheesy but true idiom:

“There are no traffic jams on the extra mile.”

 

Long-Term: Develop Skills Preemptively

Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years? What capabilities does this future version of yourself need to possess?”

Think about where you want to be in the future and what you want out of your career. Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years? What capabilities does this future version of yourself need to possess? Plan out how to strategically grow into this design sensei of your destiny. You may not plan on utilizing what you learn until much farther down the road, but in reality, find an application sooner. When a project arises and you realize that you already possess the perfect tool, you will be shocked at your impressive level of preparedness, and get an instant ego boost as you rocket ahead of the competition. You may even start to get more responsibilities at work and cut down on your planned domination timeline.

I once had an office directly across the street from the splendiferous makerspace, TechShop. I took every single class that might in any way conceivable way be relatable to my work. This was a big investment of my time and money. The WaterJet course alone was $300 and a full evening of my time. Do you know how many times I have regretted the WaterJet power that I have unleashed and now resides deep within me? Exactly 0. I didn’t have any specific applications for it at the time. But what I realized is that sheet metal was difficult to functionally prototype, costly, and time-consuming. Sure enough, I later found myself on a project where my ability to WaterJet cut aircraft grade aluminum with a same day turnaround was instrumental to our success. Win.

Corollary to Maslow’s hammer. Dan’s Waterjet:

When the tool you have is a Waterjet, every object in the world looks like a ripe tomato.

 

Make a Chart

Whoa, Nerd alert. But seriously. First list all the abilities you might need on a chart with weighted parameters like immediate usefulness, future usefulness, level of effort, and so on. If it so happens that what you need in the short term will also benefit you in the long term, then that is an easy answer on what to work on. Maybe even add a “fun factor” because hey, this is extracurricular after all.

Finding the Time

I know what you are thinking. “But I am busy most nights! I have PBR and pizza to consume and Ukrainian Bachelor in Paradise to binge-watch.” Understood. Professional development requires a large degree of discipline.

Q: What is dice-a-plan?
A: Discipline is when you do what is best for your long-term well-being instead of focusing on immediate gratification.

Q: Can you do dice-a-plan for me?
A: Shhhhhh. I am watching Yaroslav give out a rose.

Q: Does Dozaplan have any side effects?
A: Potential success and goal achievement.

How much time to spend is a sliding scale and depends on where a person is in their career and where they want to be. For those earlier in their career should spend significantly more time on professional development, as they have more to learn and will get increased utility over the longer duration.

 

You want to make what you learn stick. Use batching as a way to build momentum and create a routine of lifelong learning.”

Batching

There is significant efficiency to batching learning into specific areas. Batching can allow for focusing on milestone goals like certifications. Courses are often designed with overlapping skillsets to reinforce and solidify concepts. You want to make what you learn stick. Use batching as a way to build momentum and create a routine of lifelong learning.

For a year, I spent an hour a day after work doing SolidWorks tutorials with the specific purpose of becoming a Certified SolidWorks Expert. This allowed time for traffic to clear, prolonged avoidance of human interaction, and allowed for development of mad skillz I have been using consistently ever since. Plus I now have an awesome SolidWorks cape (SolidWorks is not aware of nor would they likely sanction my cape). Frequently I realized what I was learning was immediately applicable to my workflow. Some of what I learned got filed away in the back of my mind for years and may have required a little dusting off to use.

Resources

The reality is that professional development often costs money. Like the word “wedding”, putting the word “professional” in front of something seems to be a cost multiplier. Utilize low-cost resources but also be willing to pay out of pocket when it makes sense. Unique access to machinery, software, or educational resources should be taken advantage of when opportunities present themselves even at what might feel like a substantial cost at the time. You are investing in yourself in ways that can have profound personal and professional long-term benefits. Having a strong breadth of core and unique design skills separates one designer from the pack and leads to a thriving career with longevity.

I enjoy my work and by proxy find most of the learning I do interesting and enjoyable, not a chore. Other people must feel the same way because I often find myself in classes filled with students there for personal pleasure reasons not related to their career. I continue to be amazed by how many times I learn entirely new skill sets that totally level up my design abilities. There is real power in knowledge, and better understanding continues to make me a better designer. Go bravely and curiously into the world and soak up knowledge like a sponge. Piece of cake.

Your theme song:

Author

Dan Slaski is the Lead Renegade for Renegade Prototyping and your new secret weapon/best friend for design domination. A Virginia Tech Mechanical Engineer with a long list of credentials to accompany his years of industry experience in fields including the medical, robotics, and military sectors. He has designed assemblies with hundreds of unique parts and moving components that have gone high into the earth's atmosphere, deep below the oceans and everything in between. All of this has contributed to his vast portfolio of knowledge dealing with difficult engineering problems, and a wide repertoire of skills in prototyping, manufacturing, and sourcing. Yet he still finds a way to remain humble. If you have a project that demands success you need to get on his client list ASAP.