It was during the last few days before the Canadian Engineering Leadership Conference that my initial excitement took on an undertone of fear. As I blanketed my bedroom floor in business casual, I fretted. Alongside the shirt with a stain I didn’t initially notice and the gala dress I realized would wrinkle, I unpacked my excuses not to go. “You didn’t check off half your break to-do list, Amanda,” I thought, “you’d be so much better off staying home.” I plotted how to hide the small part of me that was terrified to talk to these incredible people who completed internships at Tesla and rubbed elbows with CEOs in their spare time. I didn’t have a clear career direction. What’s more, I didn’t know how to find that direction, and CELC was going to be a giant reminder — I was sure of it. I wanted to feel inspired, but I was afraid to feel insecure. It was a classic case of imposter syndrome.
The fear slowly dissolved on day one, as I met my roommates and sat in on a session directly targeting how to boost engineering society engagement through communication (a.k.a., my job). I didn’t care whether I belonged at CELC or not. Our events were going to be jam-packed with students from now on, and I was already bidding an enthusiastic farewell to volunteer shortages and lack of engagement.
Next, my insecurity blew away with the Newfoundland wind (that is, at a tip-you-over-and-blow-your-hat-off speed). In a session on engineering teams, I learned that many companies recognize that engineers —including my future self— sometimes don’t make the best managers. Companies have developed equivalent, non-management career tracks for engineers to eliminate the double loss when a great engineer becomes a bad manager. We were told that moving up requires showing initiative: sharing ideas and offering to mentor or be mentored, though not necessarily extra hours, something I feared was the norm. “You have so much potential as an engineering graduate, so there’s no reason to do something you hate,” the speaker, Greg Browne of Repair OnDemand, continued. He highlighted the importance of team dynamics and told us that one group at his company bonded by playing PS4 together daily on break. A variety of workplace cultures exist, and he assured us that one existed for us.
Uncertainties I held about the engineering profession were resolved too. We attended sessions on everything from community-based design showcased in truly admirable student projects to EDI in engineering where panelists were high-up representatives of Engineers Canada and the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies (ACEC). The president of ACEC, John Gamble, had attended a record number of CELCs and told us that we would fix the mistakes his generation made in a light-hearted but genuine statement. “Gosh, I hope I won’t be admitting the same thing in 40 years”, I thought, but his confidence in us replaced worry with resolution.
The Retool the Ring presentation stood out to me especially. The campaign’s goal is to modernize the Iron Ring ceremony by including inclusive language and wording that is relevant to and reflective of a twenty-first century engineer (and not written by an ardent believer in colonialism). For the first time, I found myself excited to — with any luck — take part in a refreshed ceremony next year on the 100th anniversary of the time-honoured tradition.
In addition to learning that our ideal jobs existed, we discussed how to score them. We were reassured to hear that when it comes to recruitment, marks are rarely the deciding factor. A team mindset and dependability sets candidates apart. Resumes were ripped apart (in a kind way), LinkedIn no-nos were drilled into us, and by the end of the conference, we were ready to apply for anything.
The conference was no place for insecurity, and the sessions also covered why. We discussed imposter syndrome at a speed-dating-type session with industry professionals. The treatment consisted of three parts: seeking out feedback, discussing your feelings with others, and familiarizing yourself with new environments. CELC checked all the boxes.
First, feedback: Jared, being the wonderful VPX he is, told us that we were an ideal delegation. The speakers reinstated that being at the conference was a sign we were going to change the world (a little overkill, but it worked).
As for discussing feelings, as we got to know the other attendees, it became clear that we all had our insecurities. We could all relate to each other in one way or another. Sure, some brilliant students there were bound to be CEOs or solve billion dollar problems. I became convinced one of my roommates was a genius one night when she had a passionate phone argument with her boyfriend about the second law of thermodynamics that had me questioning everything I knew. Delegates’ generosity blew me away too: an incredible $600 bid for a cowboy-hat-shaped hard hat added to the $8300 raised at the annual charity auction. In the end, though, we all had to take a break from sessions every once in a while. We all could bond over struggling with assignments. We identified our commonalities and even met a Lakehead alumnus working in Newfoundland. We found we fit in.
Thirdly, the novelty ended (as it should, by definition). We became comfortable with each other and the conference environment by the end of the six days. We had traded our patches away. Rasmus Højlund, the Danish footballer whose headshot graced the scarves accidentally sent in lieu of the ordered CFES ones, had become a familiar face. We felt like leaders.
So, what are the takeaways? You should know how to deal with imposter syndrome. You’re now in on some conference fun facts (go, Højlund!). You’ve learned about Retool the Ring, the diversity that exists in engineering workplaces, and some hopeful advancements in engineering culture that will help us tackle the momentous challenges we face. Finally, if I did my job right, you’re planning to apply for the next ESS conference.