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Ask the Engineers: 'What is the best way to gain skills in an alternative discipline?' – Professional Engineering

Professional Engineering
Are you stuck in a career rut or planning your next move? Maybe you’re a student struggling to decide on an industry? We're putting your burning questions to our panel of seasoned engineers.
In Issue 6, 2021, Andrew asked: “What would be the best or most fun way to gain engineering skills in an alternative discipline (such as electrical or software) without going back to do another degree?”
“I’m a mechanical engineer. Never liked that elastictrickery, sorry electricity stuff, but my projects were starting to have a lot more of an electrical element to them. So I booked on an evening class course in house wiring and general electrical installation. It was a very practical course and not much theory and gave me an insight and some new skills. Since then I’ve thought about getting a formal qualification in electrical engineering as it gave me a different perspective. I enjoyed the practical element as it was a bit of a change. Go for the most basic course that has a lot of practical content.”
Dave Hughes
 
“Move into development engineering where engineering disciplines come together (often mechanical, electrical, systems, software, etc) then take a specific focus in disciplines that interest you. And/ or ideally find somebody who is interested in the opposite (your disciplines) and wants to learn more. There is some really good material on the internet (and unfortunately some bad) that would help you get going with the basics. And I still buy physical textbooks – hard to better!” 
Andrew Sharratt


“Get a Raspberry Pi and try controlling or monitoring something different with that. Or obtain data from lots of different sources and feed it into business intelligence software such as Microsoft BI. For example, data from a Hive or Nest home-heating control system with weather data to work out your home’s thermal efficiency coefficient.” 
Philip Runacres
 
“Look for a job that covers multidisciplinary work – project management, a wider maintenance management role or safety management, for instance. Most of these allow you to develop a broader skill base, as I have done throughout my career. A sales role across a broad-based portfolio can do the same – you learn from specialists writing bids for you.”
Richard Lindop
 
“First, make sure it’s something you really, really want to learn. If you aren’t sufficiently motivated you will not succeed. Second, find a mentor who will want you to succeed. Be imaginative – perhaps make a reciprocal arrangement with a software engineer? Third, begin. You will make a lot of mistakes to start with – learn from them. Start small.”
Ian Jenkins


“Get a hobby, then develop the interest along technical lines. For instance, philately could develop your knowledge of printing methods, chemistry of ink, paper and security markings, production, design, logistics, etc.”
Len Stanway
 
“For ‘serious’ fun, get your hands dirty in a heritage engineering project, possibly a steam railway or pumping station. All such projects use some electrical plant and, of course, IT. And their workers are usually only too glad to show a committed newcomer the ropes (and they may feed off a bit of your own specialist know-how).”
Bob Rainbow
 
“Treat it as a hobby in the first instance, and as you get into it and get more experience if possible join a club of like-minded people to get more experience and build up your knowledge. Who knows where you might get to.”
J Turner
 
“Engineers are problem solvers. There are problems and opportunities everywhere. I thoroughly enjoyed reprocessing a HR call centre as a little project once to reduce cost, improve effectiveness, and make it a nicer place to work.”
Mike Cameron-Davies
 
“Consider volunteering as a STEM ambassador and take part in organised activities in other areas/disciplines. Perhaps even engage with others to create and deliver such activities.”
Neil Coleman
“Gaining skills in software engineering should be relatively easy. Teach yourself to write code and create software to do some everyday tasks. The code could actually be macros for existing software for such things as spreadsheets and documents.”
Richard Bossom
 
“Take up a hobby that involves a new engineering skill. If you are a mechanical engineer, how about competitive computer overclocking? Often there are great communities of practice in hobby areas that will provide you with an alternative and fun way of learning.”
Keith Thomas
 
“I would suggest joining a project (within your business or outside, as a hobby) and working alongside those on the team who are dealing with those other aspects, taking on some of that other discipline.”
Dr Ian Weslake-Hill
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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
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