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College of Engineering and Computing


USC alum, John Barnhill, discusses qualities of a great engineer

Words of wisdom from an engineering alumnus...

 Over the last 35 years since I left the engineering halls at USC, I have spent much of that time in supervising or management positions where I have coached, evaluated and managed many young engineering employees from all over the United States as well as from other parts of the world where Exxon Mobil has affiliates.  While many of these folks have performed well, there are those who clearly distinguished themselves, rapidly propelling their careers, while there are others who didn’t fare well at all, and ultimately went on to pursue a different line of work. What I offer here are my thoughts on how the individuals in that first group distinguished themselves, as well as the attributes that Exxon Mobil and likely most other companies value in their engineering employees.

Every sizable company needs a way to identify talent early and to develop its future leaders. Whereas some companies may target other degreed candidates (e.g., MBA, Law, CPA) to manage the corporate business, Exxon Mobil is managed predominately by very effective leaders with technical degrees who have a solid fundamental understanding of the business and appreciation for the associated technical complexities and risks. Many of these leaders are perfect examples of engineers who distinguished themselves from their peers early in their career.

One phenomenon that takes place early in an engineer’s career is the realization that the working world isn’t perfect, and clearly isn’t exciting on a 24/7 basis. Problems also greatly outnumber solutions, and the problems may not be “technical” in nature but still need solving. Having achieved an engineering degree, a new engineer will soon realize upon entering the work environment that there are many others, just like him or her, who are just as smart if not smarter and who are all competing for the “cool projects”, the next job move, promotions, etc.  The degree proves you can think logically and apply yourself to achieve a difficult goal.  However, it doesn’t earn you automatic respect in the work place. You have to earn that.  I’ve seen many an engineer who was always at the top of his/her class experience the shock and disillusionment of finding out they are now in the bottom third of their peers based on their job performance. Welcome to life in the corporate world! Here’s how to avoid ending up in that kind of discussion.

Quality and quantity matter. One of the biggest challenges I’ve seen engineers wrestle with is how hard, and in how much detail to work a problem. Experience helps to develop that judgment. The key is to work it hard enough to get the right answer, without overworking it. A suggestion here is to develop an early relationship with a respected mentor and seek their advice. Quality of work is important, as it is a direct reflection of your initiative.  When I was young in my career, I always erred in favor of quality. I might not get as much done as some other folks in a given day, but what I did was of high quality. If you get a reputation early for doing things well, knowing & justifying the basis of your assumptions (“that’s what the last guy used” doesn’t cut it!) and completing your work – including any final follow-ups, it will serve you well and you’ll gain better judgment over time for the level of effort that is appropriate for a task. You may need to work longer, put in more hours, etc. to compensate for the quantity aspect of your performance, particularly early in the job, but I’ll assure you that those folks who distinguished themselves early did not beat the crowd to the door at 4:30pm every day. Be as flexible and as accommodating as you can be early in your career, as your personal schedule will only get more demanding (family, kids, etc) as life goes on.

Invest extra time & effort early to learn the business. Just as early investing can reap financial rewards later, the same is true for your career. Make an effort to build a network of people you can go to for help and advice. Don’t expect people to come to you. Get out there & meet them face to face. Get to know them on a personal level, and show interest in understanding their jobs and perspectives.

Don’t bring your boss problems without solutions. It’s a natural tendency for people to go to their boss asking “what do you want me to do about this?”  While you may ultimately end up with that question, bring your boss some possible solutions along with the problem. Show him/her that you’ve given it some thought and done some research, which may include talking to other departments or groups who might be affected. While it may be the boss’s decision to make, you can make their job easier and help influence the outcome by providing some possible solutions including pro’s & con’s for each. It also shows your initiative in recognizing a problem and taking responsibility to help solve it. 

Communication skills are important, both written and oral.  In this texting, tweeting and email age, it’s easy to forget that good business letters are still needed on occasion, as are project reports. Writing a clear, concise business letter or report is a subject all its own, and knowing how to diplomatically deliver a clear message is a skill. Oral presentations need preparation. Never try to “wing it” – ALWAYS spend time preparing, thinking about your audience, their interests and what message you want them to take away. Practice the presentation before you give it. Engineers are notorious for cramming too much onto a page and going into too much detail. If you are well prepared, it will be evident to the audience, which may include people who could influence your career later. First impressions are lasting impressions. Here again, making a good presentation requires effort and skill.   

Interpersonal skills will make or break your career success. While I mention this last, one of the most important things for a young engineer to possess and display is a positive, can-do attitude. You may not be able to control the things that come your way, but you can control how you react to them, and how you interface with people. The majority of projects and problems that you will face in your career will require interfacing with people to achieve success. A positive, pleasant and collaborative attitude will work wonders, and with that reputation people will want you on their team. Remember, much of an engineer’s job is not performing technical calculations, but working with other people to develop understanding, share information, inform, negotiate and convince.

While not an all-inclusive list, if you can focus on the things I’ve mentioned here, you’ll be well on your way to distinguishing yourself in the eyes of management. This is not meant to suggest that it’s all work & no play. We can address the significant issue of work-life balance on another day!

 John Barnhill graduated from USC in 1978 with a BS in Mechanical Engineering. Originally from St. Matthews SC, he has worked for Exxon Mobil for 32 of those 35 years in New Orleans, Pensacola, Andrews (TX), Midland (TX), London, Melbourne (Australia) and Houston. For the last 23 years he has focused on international drilling operations before moving to Drilling Operations Manager for the Asia Pacific region. Most recently he was given the assignment of dealing with corporate acquisitions. While the Barnhill family resides in Houston, there are strong Garnet and Black ties back to the College of Engineering and Computing. Gamecock sons Jeff (’09 Chem Engr), Matt (’12 Mech Engr) and Tim (’14 Chem Engr) all work or have worked for Exxon Mobil in some fashion. Jeff works in production operations in the Gulf of Mexico, Matt is with XTO Energy, an Exxon Mobil subsidiary, and Tim co-oped in California production operations before accepting a position with Conoco Phillips. John and his wife, Nancy, have built a retirement home on Lake Murray, and look forward to returning to the Palmetto State in a few months.