Engineering 101

9+ Traits of a Skilled Electrical Engineer

By Ruth Seeley


As the people most intimately involved with a product’s life cycle, from planning its design, circuitry and wiring, through the build, test, and prototype phases, electrical engineers (EEs) need to be able to test existing products to determine design flaws that can be corrected, identify problems, and figure out how to alter design to improve the product and ensure it has required functionality.

Proficient with the use of both engineering and design software, lab and manufacturing equipment and processes, EEs have to provide detailed instructions for manufacture, final use, and product installation. Problem solvers who need to be able to effectively present and discuss their research and testing procedures, the most skilled electrical engineers have the following traits.

Analytical skills and attention to detail

Constantly examining products and processes to make them work better—faster, cheaper, more efficiently, EEs need to be naturally curious. Once the big picture “what if we could make a thing that does this?” question has been answered, they need to get down to the nitty-gritty of applied research to figure out how the product is actually going to work and what needs to be done to make it work. Attention to detail and the ability to look at all the moving parts are crucial skills for EEs.

Communications and problem-solving skills

At both the product development and implementation phases, EEs need to be able to translate complex technical jargon into plain English, especially when communicating with clients, stakeholders, and other engineers working on the project. Engineers solve problems, so they need to be able to figure out their root causes and develop solutions to eliminate them.  Then they need to be able to communicate the solutions to team members and stakeholders and address residual concerns.

Bill Leatherbury, Senior Associate at Thornton Tomasetti, with more than 40 years’ experience as an electrical engineer, says, “. . . the real world requires someone who can paint a problem on the canvas of a project in terms of its benefits to the owner and its safety for those who will use and operate it. This is where the electrical engineer often fails to combine his talents for communications with his vision of the project and convey them to his benefactors.”

Technical knowledge and mathematical inclination

The complex calculations of varying difficulty involved in designing and implementing solutions mean electronics engineers need great math skills and knowledge of computer programs and other systems commonly used during engineering projects. “Math to an engineer is like a wrench to a mechanic. The mechanic doesn’t need to know all of the intricacies of how a wrench works, but he does need to know how to use it to fix things. The engineer doesn’t need to know mathematics on the same level as a mathematician, but he does need to know how to use it to solve problems,” says Paul Hummel, a professor of electrical engineering at Louisiana Tech University.

Creativity and logical thinking

Tasked with coming up with new and innovative ways to develop new systems and make existing things work more efficiently, electronics engineers need to be both creative and logical. They can make sense of complex systems, understand how things work and see how problems arise. Figuring out how to make smartphones smaller, laptops faster, and cars more fuel efficient requires critical thinking skills.

Curiosity about how and why things work and how to make them work better drive EEs’ creativity. “When you stagnate, you die,” says Rory Briski of Briski Consulting. “The best engineers I’ve hired have been inquisitive both on and off the job. Encourage and support that curiosity and your engineering team will be unstoppable.”

Continuous learning and teamwork

With the rapid pace of technological change, all engineers need to keep up with new research and industry developments. A solution that works for one problem could be adapted to another issue. As part of a larger group working to make a project successful, EEs need to be team players who can—and are eager to—communicate with both other engineers and non-engineers.

Over a career that may span five decades, electrical engineers have to adapt to dramatically changing business and technology landscapes. They need to stay current and ramp up their competency levels. Foundational knowledge gets you started; it’s not enough to sustain an entire career. Adaptability is the biggest predictor for electrical engineering success, according to Eric Miller, Principal, and Co-Founder of Phoenix Analysis & Design Technologies. One in six engineers now uses simulation, up from one in 22 in 2005. By 2020, all engineers will probably be using simulation. Why is that so important?

“Simulation allows problem-solving to happen on a computer, where ideas and methods can be rigorously reviewed and rapidly iterated. The flexibility to embrace emerging tools to systematize simulation in the workflow defines engineers who are on top of this trend,” says Miller.

What an expert panel says…

Here’s what industry leaders consider top traits of electrical engineers:

Leadership skills, including soft communications skills like public speaking, knowledge transfer, and team spirit. They need to be able to promote their solutions successfully and respect their deadlines.

To-the-point filtering, described as the ability to see beyond presented information and get to the best possible solution, is what makes electrical engineers great. “An engineer doesn’t see the glass as half empty or half full, but rather as an inefficient glass.” Because engineering involves multidisciplinary technologies, long-term commitment to staying up to date with developments and technology is crucial.

Attention to detail at both the design and prototyping stages. Getting the design right the first time around may involve timing analysis, power calculations, noise suppression calculations, trace routing, FCC, UL and CE approval, etc. Trouble-shooting skills are critical at the prototyping phase.

Big-picture vision, passion, hands-on execution, ambition

A global view of what’s been built and how it interacts with users, business clients, other technology and the market, the passion to sell their vision and make it a reality, the hands-on ability to create and execute innovative solutions, and the ambition to be the one to create and implement the solution are crucial skills. The distinction between a truly remarkable and a run-of-the-mill electrical engineer is vision. Electrical engineers who can foresee long-term dominant trends and acquire the skills they’ll need to implement solutions are the ones who’ll succeed time and time again

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