Power Up Your Professionalism

January/February 2017

Power Up Your Professionalism


Professionalism is encapsulated in the very term professional engineer. But defining exactly what it means can be difficult. In addition, although certain elements of professionalism may remain constant throughout a PE’s career, action steps may change depending on his or her stage.

As part of its mission to power professional advancement, NSPE offers tools such as the Professional Engineering Body of Knowledge, which includes a professional practice section. We asked a panel of PEs and experts about a few of the key capabilities listed in it, as well as other topics that commonly arise on the path to professionalism.

Young Engineers

Gus Boschert, P.E.
Gus Boschert, P.E.
31 years old
Senior military operations analyst
Systems Planning and Analysis Inc.
Alexandria, Virginia
President, Northern Virginia chapter,
Virginia Society of Professional Engineers
NSPE member

Ethical responsibility

If there’s any question about whether something is ethical or not, as a young engineer who might not have a finely tuned sense of right and wrong in the business world, the best thing you can do is ask a question. I always like the phrase, “Don’t ever be the junior person with the secret.” It’s always a good idea to ask for advice or get further guidance if something is unclear or uncomfortable.

Then if there are situations that you really don’t agree with, you have to cultivate that fortitude to stand up for what you believe in. It’s not on-the-job training but your personal character and being able to know right from wrong.

Public Policy and Engineering

I read NSPE’s Daily Designs, try to understand what’s going on, what factors go into different decisions from a public policy standpoint. My overall advice to young engineers is to pay attention and exercise your rights. Voting, understanding what things are on the ballots, what measures are going on, both in your state and nationally. It’s okay to know what those are and say that doesn’t interest me or I’m not concerned about what the outcome is, but it’s important to make an informed decision and not one out of apathy.

Christian Knutson, P.E.
Christian Knutson, P.E.
Retired, US Air Force
Blogger, The Engineering Career Coach
Co-host, The Engineering
Career Coach podcast
Stuttgart, Germany
NSPE member


I think the most important thing to know, especially if you’re transitioning from being a student to a member of a team in a corporation, is that the teaming arrangements are a little bit more flexible but also a little bit more permanent. Especially as a young engineer, you might be responsible for leading a project now, but six months or a year from now, or in two years, one of the people on the team might be responsible for leading another project and you’re supporting them. It makes a lot of sense to treat everyone equally so you’re not burning any bridges as you’re going along.

In school, in some cases you never have to see people again after you’re done with a course or your graduate program. At work, you’re working with the same people day in and day out, so it places a big importance on interpersonal skills.

The Business of Engineering

Look for opportunities to be exposed to different business process activities within the organization. Be the proverbial fly on the wall in a presentation for a client and sit in on discussions about business-related strategic planning, strategic processes.

As you’re sitting in and being exposed to these different kinds of experiences, you’re exposed to the types of issues, problems, and decisions that have to be made by senior leaders. That will pay dividends later on; you will be able to draw on that experience.


Focus on developing your listening skills. Communication is important, period; but if I had to pick one of the three different modes of communication—speaking, writing, and listening—I would say put the energy early in your career into the listening mode. Early in, you have the energy, motivation, and the capacity to learn and integrate data and information. Use that skill by listening and absorbing as much information as you can.

Professional Involvement

Being involved in a professional organization is going to give you the opportunity to be the total person. As a PE, being of sound technical mind is important, but there’s more that comes with that. It involves being, at some level, actively involved in developing others and continuously developing yourself—and the networking aspect is vitally important. It’s an opportunity to be social with other professionals that share your same areas of interest and desire to better themselves.

Also, it’s going to provide you with the opportunity to develop leadership skills. For younger engineers, you may not have the opportunity to be a manager early in your career, but depending on your organization, you could be in a mid-level to senior-level management position, maybe even president, of that organization early in your career. You have the opportunity to develop your leadership skills and do it in an area where you probably have more room to experiment and maybe even fail, without having it be detrimental to your career.

Mid-Career Engineers

Tricia Hatley, P.E., F.NSPE
Tricia Hatley, P.E., F.NSPE
46 years old
Vice president, Freese and Nichols Inc.
Oklahoma City
NSPE Educational Foundation president
NSPE member, fellow, and board member


At the mid-level, you’re communicating both up to senior management but also down to the ranks. You need to learn what’s important for senior management to know. The level of detail. They’re looking for bullet points, critical pieces of info. They don’t need all the details but enough to make the business decisions they need to make and understand what you’re doing.

For staff, there’s info they need to know from senior management but also things that are clutter and noise that would get in the way of getting projects done. But you’re still communicating with your team members day-to-day on how things are going and being that cheerleader for your organization to the staff, while you’re keeping the other things that are more behind the scenes to yourself.

At the mid-level, a lot of times you’re on your own leading these groups. So it can be a little bit lonely. You have to reach out to other peers and make sure that you have somebody to talk through ideas with.

Ethical Responsibility

Our junior staff, the young engineers, are looking to people my age, watching us make decisions day to day. They’re deciding for themselves if they think we are making ethical decisions. My goal is to be a role model for them and teach and lead by example—explain the decision I’m making so they understand it. Senior managers are not always real visible for those kinds of things. But between the mid- and lower-level, the young engineers are watching us every day and every move we make.


This is really where the rubber meets the road for most of our organizations, at the mid-level, where the accountability is. The decisions made daily at this level that impact the young people that work for us, and the info we feed up to senior management that is critical info for them to make decisions. It’s a really important stage in a career path.

For me in my role, being that face of the company and having a positive approach, communicating effectively what’s going on, is the biggest part of leadership.

Also the strategic side of it, visioning, looking to the future, and being able to set a plan. At the lower level, you’re looking for somebody to have that plan and say here’s what we’re doing next and why we’re doing it, and senior management has to buy into all of that. But really at the mid-level is the real transition from day-to-day getting projects done to now you have to figure out where you’re going in the big picture and what resources you need, and set the culture for staff.

Karen Purcell, P.E.
Karen Purcell, P.E.
Founder, owner, and president
PK Electrical
Reno, Nevada
Author, Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math
NSPE member

Lifelong Learning

As an engineer, you’re always learning. Take opportunities to learn and grow when they’re given or search them out.

Serving as a mentor or communicating with your mentor, or that person’s mentor, is important. There are things that the mentor might know about you that could lead you in a positive direction. In seeking out opportunities, mentoring is one of those opportunities.


So much of what we do involves project teams. It goes back to communicating and how to communicate well with the team members, knowing what the expectations are with each team member. Have clearly defined responsibilities and expectations so everyone is on the same page from the beginning and there’s no finger-pointing: “You said you were going to do that.” “No, I thought you were doing that.”


Really no matter what your level is, it’s important to get the word out. I’m very passionate about STEM and getting girls into STEM. Sally Ride said, “You cannot be what you cannot see.” It’s important to reach out to these younger people in school, high school and even younger, so they realize what opportunities are out there. Whether it’s participating in some of the organizations like NSPE or the Society of Women Engineers, they all have different programs where they do community outreach. Get involved and make a presence, and show people what engineering is all about.

Later Career Engineers

Sam Wilson, P.E., F.NSPE
Sam Wilson, P.E., F.NSPE
58 years old
Manager, estimating and scheduling for capital projects
Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority
Washington, DC
NSPE member and fellow

Lifelong Learning

The world looks so different today than 30 years ago. If you’re not learning, you might as well become a dinosaur. You will become extinct. Things change so fast. The way things are done is so much different today than a while ago. If you’re not ready to accept and embrace change, you won’t survive.

For example, the whole design process is different now than it used to be. A lot of that is driven technologically. When I started, my first job, there was a room full of people at drafting tables. The output of one person now is probably equal to that entire room of 30 years ago, using CAD.

Millennials of today think a lot different than baby boomers did, which is probably a good thing. They’re generally more comfortable with the pace of changes and in some aspects are not as patient for change to happen. But when we look at the aging of society today, I think there needs to be people comfortable with taking over pretty quickly.

Public Policy and Engineering

I think it’s important for everybody, especially at the later stages of careers, to understand the impact of the legal process, understand how rules and regulations are promulgated, and have the ability to understand the process and recognize the challenges to the profession.

Just because a politician thinks it sounds good and is probusiness doesn’t mean that it’s the best thing for the profession or the public.


Understand how to play nicely in the sandbox. Even if sand starts getting thrown around, just learn how to duck!

Everybody has different styles. Understanding how you interact with different leadership and followership styles is important. Understand how your interaction with others is perceived. What you think might be something entirely appropriate, someone else might consider entirely inappropriate.

Dan Ryan
Dan Ryan
Ryan Search and Consulting
Franklin, Tennessee

Ethical responsibility

People involved in the engineering profession at more senior levels, their ethical choices have an impact not only on themselves but also possibly on the segment, if not the entire organization. Case in point: In the manufacturing world a well-known automotive producer made an ethical choice that has gotten him in the news recently in a very bad way. Someone ethically made a mistake; that just doesn’t happen overnight. Leaders in the engineering profession, of every profession, at more senior levels need to realize the impact of their choices are much wider ranging than they would be earlier in their career.


We do a lot of work with clients looking for individuals who are technically competent but also who can lead others. A lot of people attracted to the engineering profession are attracted because they’re very good doers. But sometimes very good doers are not very good delegators.

People who are going to be good leaders need to learn how to get things done through others. They need to learn how to delegate, empower, inspire. Without developing those skills, they won’t be the most effective leader, especially at the more senior level. If you’re only comfortable doing things that are involved in your own space, you won’t be good at leading others.

Public Policy and Engineering

I’ve had the chance to work with associations both at a local and state level. Public policy is a huge issue for the engineering and architecture professions. What I hear on a very common basis is that legislators are trying to commoditize the work that engineers do. If the engineering work and the engineering profession become more of a commodity and less of a specialty, it degrades what the engineer brings to the table.

So the need for involvement in public policy—developing rapport and relationships with legislators who enact policy and legislation—is probably greater now than it ever has been. Most states are looking for ways to reduce expenses, and if the services engineers provide continue to be commoditized, then that impact is not only going to hurt fees but really degrade the service level provided by the profession.  

What do you think are the crucial traits of professionalism?

How did you learn them?

Share your thoughts with other NSPE members in the Open Forum at https://community.nspe.org.

Professional Practice Capabilities in the Professional Engineering Body of Knowledge

NSPE’s Professional Engineering Body of Knowledge highlights the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to practice as a professional engineer across engineering disciplines.

It incorporates 30 capabilities categorized in three areas: basic or foundational, technical, and professional practice. The full body of knowledge is intended to apply across the engineering profession, for each engineering discipline and employment situation.

The professional practice capabilities are:

  • Business aspects of engineering;
  • Communication;
  • Ethical responsibility;
  • Global knowledge and awareness;
  • Leadership;
  • Legal aspects of engineering;
  • Lifelong learning;
  • Professional attitudes;
  • Project management;
  • Public policy and engineering; and
  • Teamwork.