Engineers Know That Details Matter, but so Does the Big Picture

Drawing tools on top of engineering plan
Engineers see the world in a way that differs from most. Whether they’re mechanical, manufacturing, chemical or software engineers, they all share a deep fascination for the details. Almost every top 10 list of engineering skills includes “attention to details” in the top three, if not first. But what’s really behind this healthy obsession with details and how does it apply to their work? We turned to our recruiters and contractors to crack the code on “details matter.”

Estimation over perfection

At its heart, engineering is about making things work together. Details matter, a lot. But is a drive towards perfection a defining characteristic of top engineers? Aerotek recruiter Claire Krieger says “detail-passionate” engineers are not necessarily more successful. “Sometimes they can get bogged down by the details. A good engineer knows when the details are very important versus when they are less critical.”

As taught by MIT, approximations can often be more useful than an exact solution. The concept is that although science and engineering are about accuracy, a firm understanding of approximations and the ability to discard unimportant details allows your mind to focus on the most important aspects of a problem.

Big picture thinking  

The Aerotek recruiters and contract employees we spoke with agreed that great engineers are meticulous when it comes to the details and calculations involved in their work. Tenured engineers understand that another trait is just as important — seeing the big picture.

Daily engineering skills and responsibilities become more instinctual over time. Everyday decisions are increasingly informed by lessons learned on-the-job. There is no substitute for the education gained through real-life, firsthand experience. As the details become more innate, it is good to develop an understanding of the bigger picture. After all, the big picture is often made up of very little, but equally important, details.

Passion, precision and experience

Like many professionals, an engineer’s career can follow a typical arc. Right out of school they are energized and deeply passionate about the work. Soon, their skills begin to sharpen and develop into a specific area of expertise. Eventually they remain attentive to the details that matter, but seasoned to understand the broader context of the problems they’re solving.

Aerotek recruiter Sam Yeomans puts it like this, “First and foremost great engineers must start out and remain extremely passionate about the actual work. Even before earning a degree, there are extremely tough math requirements you will need to master. Often, when you land your first job you could end up putting several years in working in ‘production’ mode. Even if this isn’t the most strategic and exciting work, this is where you pick up the experiences that hone that trained eye of experience.”

Keeping it fresh, keeping it real

All engineering is about problem solving, and it’s clear a grasp for detail and the big picture are needed to become a great problem solver. But a nuanced view of the broader business context is critical, as is an understanding of the users, stakeholders, project timetable and budgets. Perspective is what enables genius engineers to understand what's important and what are the true priorities. Figuring out which details really matter.

We returned to Claire for her parting thoughts. “For engineers, keeping it fresh is critical, no matter where you are in your career. We see it every day, the ones who stay passionate and excited about their work are those who never stop learning. They’re spending hours learning on YouTube and online courses. They’re going to conferences and seminars and reading books. They’re aware of emerging technologies and all this translates into a passion for the job and enthusiasm for the work. These are the kinds of engineers who make it look easy, both managing the details and balancing priorities. Solving problems for a living. That’s what they do.” 

If you’re an engineer specializing in advanced problem solving, we invite you to create your career account. Visit our job board to explore our current engineering opportunities.