Open just about any publication related to engineering – or read a blog, or attend a conference – and it will likely contain case studies. Engineers have an abiding passion for helping their colleagues learn from their own experiences – and like many people, they enjoy showing how smart they are. The case study does that.
What is a Case Study?
First of all, what’s a case study? Essentially, a case study is a story – a story about a project. It describes the original situation and why a change was needed, relates the steps taken to resolve the issue and the problems encountered along the way, and then it describes the end result.
It’s best if there is quantifiable data – “Throughput was 5,000 units per hour at the start of the project; the steps we took brought that to 10,000 per hour.” Charts, diagrams, tables, photographs and video also help bring the story to life, and help people who need more than words.
Traditional forms involve mostly ink on paper:
- Published in a professional or academic journal
- Presented verbally at a conference, possibly with a text version included the binder, CD or website that contains conference proceedings
- As a poster at a conference, including diagrams and pictures
- As part of a proposal to a client, to support a proposal bidding on a project
However, increasingly case studies are created in electronic form:
- As a blog post, perhaps a guest post or published through a specialty publication’s website
- Published on the engineer’s LinkedIn profile, including through the Publisher channel
- Through a podcast (“The Engineering Entrepreneur Podcast,” as an example)
- In video form – including videos shot using a standard smartphone or consumer-level camera
Preparing case studies, in whatever form, has many benefits for you as the author. This article describes the five ways that I’ve found case studies can help your career as an engineer.
1. Thinking Through Your Ideas and Methods
The first benefit case studies have is strictly for you, the author. The process of thinking through the steps in the project, and writing them down, helps you think through your ideas and methods. Preparing the case study provides an opportunity for you to consider what went right, so you can do more of that next time. You can also consider what you could do differently, such as thinking of improvements you can make, and new ideas to try on the next project.
It’s particularly important that you consider the real-world factors that can intrude. Something might look great on paper, or in the lab. But take it to pilot or actual application, and suddenly all kinds of realities come into play. Make note of those, so you’ll know how to deal with them next time.
Taking a step back from your work, and thinking through how to do it better, is a huge benefit from producing case studies – even if you’re the only person who reads them.
2. Furthering the Cause of Human Knowledge
Many of the engineers I work with, particularly those at the senior levels, take their responsibility to their profession very seriously. They want to be helpful to their colleagues – and they may not care whether those “colleagues” work for competing organizations. This is one of the things I love most about working with engineers; they enjoy preparing case studies, simply to help their colleagues.
This second benefit, furthering the cause of human knowledge, also helps the author in three ways:
- You look at yourself differently – as a professional with knowledge and experience that is worth something, who has a lot to give. You walk taller as a result, and this aura of excellence shows up in your interactions with others. When problems intrude on your work, you can remember how you succeeded before, and this gives you the encouragement to deal with the problems you’re encountering on your current project.
- The people you work with are similarly impressed –this can include your colleagues and your boss (who may see you in a new light – as someone capable of meeting new challenges, and worthy of greater rewards)
- Your insights can help your colleagues – if included in your organization’s knowledge management system, to support future proposals, as well as help your colleagues through your insights.
3. Case Studies Boost Your Professional Career
The third benefit that comes from authoring case studies is the boost they can give your professional career when you make your case study public.
Previously, this might have meant submitting your abstract to a professional journal, or to a conference organizer, in hopes that they would find it worthwhile for their audience.
One of the more unpleasant trends in publishing is that some journals will charge hefty fees to publish in their pages, and may even charge for the author to access their own work in that journal. There have also been many reports of “journals” that are not really worthy of that name, which earn their money just from authors’ fees and will publish the work of virtually anyone who can come up with the money.
One response to this is the growth of peer-reviewed blogs that offer a short-cut towards getting published and having your ideas critiqued by others, with the benefit being that your ideas are available to anyone conducting an online search.
There are many options for publishing your case study, including posting a text version on your LinkedIn profile. This is particularly important if you want to stand out and get noticed by your fellow engineers, in three situations:
- You’re actively job-hunting, and the hiring manager or company owner is an engineer who will possibly be impressed with a case study you’ve written
- You’re an independent professional or part of a firm, and your potential clients are also engineers
- You’re looking for a promotion within your existing employer organization, and getting published externally can help you demonstrate credibility
4. Higher Credibility with Potential Clients and Customers
Benefit number four also comes from publishing your case study – with the critical difference being that it appears in places that your current or prospective clients or customers are looking.
This means having your ideas appear in industrial publications read by people in your market, and presenting your case study at their conferences.
To do this, you need to include not so much the engineering-related details of your project, but the learning points that can be applied by the people in your market. This shows you to be a helpful, generous professional who can make your ideas work within their reality.
5. A Chance to Make Your Client or Customer Look Good
The final benefit of case studies comes if you’re able to bring your client or customer into the story. Tell the story with them, not just about them. This shows your client to be an active participant in the project, and this makes them look good. And that’s something you want.
Involving your client in the story, particularly if you’re presenting it in one of their industrial publications or at one of their conferences, is also an excellent way for you to showcase your abilities to potential clients who are reading the publication or are in the conference audience.
So, there you have it – five benefits to case studies that will help build your career as an engineer.
About the Author
Carl Friesen has a background in Journalism, an MBA in Marketing, and experience in sales and business development. He is founder of Thought Leadership Resources, which provides educational materials to help professionals such as engineers, consultants and architects learn how to get noticed and stand out.
Engineers interested in building their professional profile through publishing articles in the niche media your potential clients rely on may benefit from Though Leadership Resources’ newly-developed online course, “Get That Article Published!”
This is the first of our series on entering consulting from “non-business” backgrounds – future posts include entering from liberal arts/humanities degrees and non-MBA grad schools
It’s very common for engineers to be interested in consulting – a professionally demanding, well-compensated job which opens many doors in business and beyond.
Another popular field is finance. Read more on the differences between consulting and financehere
As an engineer – whether that’s electrical engineering, computer science, civil engineering, or any of the other quantitative and analytical fields – you may have the following concerns:
- You don’t have enough business experienceon your resume
- You don’t understand the consulting industry sufficiently
- Recruiters won’t give you a fair shot since they assume you have no people-skills – preferring numbers and analytics
- You don’t have any recruiting preparation – in particular, how to tackle consulting interviews and case studies
In this post, we’ll address each of the above concerns, discuss what strengths you should market and develop, and share tips that will serve you well during the management consulting recruiting process.
What options are available as an engineer?
- Global management consulting firms – increasingly quantitative, increasingly analytical, and some of them (eg, McKinsey) have a reputation for hiring engineers, particularly in regions that serve high-tech clients
- Boutique consulting firms – especially those with technology-focused industry specializations (eg, semiconductors, telecom)
- Technology consulting firms – firms such as Accenture and IBM Business Consulting provide technology-heavy support and solutions to clients
What are your strengths as an engineer?
- Quantitative/analytical skills – applicants that have strong analytical capabilities are at an advantage. These skills are helpful with modeling (financial, operational), statistical analysis, and just basic analytical reasoning
- Success in a “tough” undergraduate major – generally speaking, engineering majors are tougher to complete – there’s more work involved and the academic content is more complex. Having a strong GPA in an engineering major shows recruiters that you work hard to accomplish your goals
How do you mitigate perceived weaknesses as an engineer?
In the order listed above:
- Business experience – if you’re still in college, find business-related summer internships and part-time jobs during the school year (provided you can manage the workload). If you’re not, tailor your resume to focus on skills and experiences that consultants look for, such as people-leadership, quantitative impact, and entrepreneurial initiative
- Insufficient understanding of management consulting – it’s your responsibility to learn as much as you can. Check out Management Consulted; email us with questions; read the Vault Guide to Management Consulting; network with contacts in the industry
- Recruiting biases against engineers – you can counter this by focusing on the following: presentation skills (practice interviews as much as you can); have a strong story about why you want to enter the industry; show a clear understanding of business news and current events; highlight your people-skills and teamwork/leadership experiences in resume and interviews
- Insufficient recruiting preparation – like the second point, it’s dependent on the time and effort you invest; we offer a coaching service that you can look into; read this article and follow its advice
Think you have what it takes? Ready to break into consulting? Our Consulting Interview Bible is packed with strategies and tips to help you prepare for one of the hardest interviews of your life. Learn about the fit questions that you might face or frameworks for cracking the case interview.