Demonstrating that you are a Pretty Good Problem Solver

Posted by bob on August 27, 2019

Here is a typical exchange with an engineering student.

Student: “Okay Bob, so I understand that businesses exist to solve problems for their customers. If I want to get hired someplace, I need to show them that I can help them solve problems for their customer. But specifically, how do I do that?”

Me: “That’s actually a really good question. Of course, you will need to modify your version of this action to fit your specific target company and your skills, but generally I think the easiest way to show that you know how to solve problems is to be able to share some documentation of that problem-solving effort.”

As I have written elsewhere in this blog, you must first be sure that you don’t show people proprietary or confidential information about previous work. This is why it is sometimes a good idea to do all of the extra effort to clearly document a small home project.

My suggestion would be that you create a report that is a few written pages long: not a full-length book, but more than just a few paragraphs. Be sure to include some annotated photographs and diagrams. You could even include a very short video (maybe 1-to-3 minutes). The report should clearly describe what you knew about the problem at the beginning, the process you followed to figure out the stuff you did not know, the conclusions you reached, and how you finally solved that specific problem.

It is best to have examples that are at least vaguely in the realm of the job you are targeting. If you are an electrical engineer, choose something electronic. If you are a mechanical engineer, explaining an engine repair or something you designed and built would be fine. An agricultural engineer might explain how they remediated a bad soil condition. School capstone project reports can be used this same way.

At first glance, some of the problems you might document could feel a little small, but don’t worry. You are trying to demonstrate that you understand how to solve problems, but you don’t have to prove that you can eliminate poverty or raise the dead. Your boss won’t expect miracles…until your second week on the job.

Remember that the potential employer is evaluating your ability to solve problems and also your ability to clearly communicate those solutions. Clearly communicating problem conditions and possible solutions is one of the most important skills of a Pretty Good Problem Solver.

I once helped a highly skilled RF engineer review and edit his resume, since English was a second language for him. His resume included a link to a website he had created to demonstrate some of the projects, equipment, and experiments he had built at home. I was amazed. The work he was doing and documenting at home for fun exceeded my expectations for polished and professional reporting at work. (I think I helped by suggesting that the wording in one paragraph was slightly unclear—the tiniest improvement you can imagine.)

Within a few days of releasing his resume, he had two competing job offers.

What if you believe you have never fixed, built, or done much of anything in the way of solving problems? Ask your family or friends if they have ever seen you solve a problem. If they agree with your initial negative assessment, then it is time for you to get busy and solve some problems (for free) for other people. Volunteering and being of service to others are the way many folks get started. Here is a little secret: you might feel a lot better about yourself after helping somebody else first.

Document what you plan to do, document what you are doing, and then write up what you have done. That is exactly what a hiring manager wants to see to convince him that you are not just saying, but instead are showing, “I am a pretty good problem solver.”