The Happy Engineer Podcast

112: Your Biggest Industry Opportunity Today is Manufacturing with John Real | Project Engineering Leader

In this episode, you’ll hear how a decade of hard work in engineering left John Real successful on paper, but unhappy and unsatisfied with his life.

And in 90 days he turned all of that around, without changing anything but himself.

John is a Project Engineering Leader at GLM Hydro, where he manages process engineering, system installation and commissioning support, documentation control, purchasing, and equipment quality control for his organization.

If you have ever wondered if manufacturing is a career path worth considering, or one worth staying in, then you don’t want to miss this conversation.

If you have ever been unhappy with your career, or feeling stuck on where to take your career moving forward, then you don’t want to miss this conversation.

So press play and let’s chat… it’s time to go from slow decay to fast impact!

Join us in a live webinar for deeper training, career Q&A, and FREE stuff!  HAPPY HOUR! Live with Zach

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The Happy Engineer Podcast



[00:02:41] Decay over time, obligations, fear, reluctance.

[00:07:18] “Transformed through questioning, mindset, and challenges.”

[00:10:12] Asking for money, facing fears and change.

[00:14:40] Lack of fulfillment in engineering careers.

[00:18:21] Follow the prescribed path until we hit bottom.

[00:21:54] Drive to make impact comes from mentor.

[00:25:05] Distinction between career and life for impact.

[00:29:46] Inner change is key, not external factors.

[00:32:57] Youngest person, big age gap, opportunity in manufacturing, travel experiences.

[00:36:01] Fun engineering story of fixing oven glides.

[00:40:39] Connect on LinkedIn for insights from John.





Previous Episode 111: Morning Victory – 5 Habits of Mediocrity Engineering Leaders Must Avoid




It’s crucial for all of us to pause and reflect on who we were at an earlier stage. Before delving into the topic, let’s address the notion of manufacturing engineering as an opportunity. While software, machine learning, and AI may currently dominate discussions on lucrative prospects, there’s something unique happening in the world of manufacturing engineering.

The realm of physical product creation and design for manufacturing is here to stay. People still desire tangible objects that enhance their lives, and investments are flowing back into countries like the US, reversing historical trends. So, if you’re considering a career in engineering, whether you’re in high school or pursuing an engineering degree, don’t overlook the immense opportunities in manufacturing and traditional engineering jobs.

Although the allure of high-paying roles in software and the Bay Area may seem enticing, it’s essential to consider the counterpoint. John brings forth a different perspective, highlighting the unique opportunities emerging due to retiring talent and increased investment. By becoming an expert in the field, one can advance to senior leadership or even ownership positions, unburdened by the global competition that accompanies internet-based and software-focused roles.

Certainly, manufacturing and old-school engineering jobs face their challenges. Assembly lines can shut down, just as technology platforms can falter. Support in the software industry means being on call 24/7 when apps malfunction, disrupting users’ lives. Manufacturing has been unfairly criticized for some time, but in many ways, the challenges mirror those faced by the technology sector. So, let’s not underestimate the vast opportunities available in manufacturing and traditional engineering roles.

Now, let’s revisit a fundamental question: reconnecting with who you were at a younger age.

Think back to when you were 18 or 22, filled with passion and excitement as you embarked on your engineering journey. Set aside five or ten minutes of uninterrupted time and reflect on those years. However, don’t settle for cliché explanations such as enjoying math, science, problem-solving, or computers. John’s point goes beyond that.

Instead, delve deeper into your memories. For instance, recall the moment when studying thermodynamics, struggling with tables and cycles until everything suddenly clicked. The euphoria of understanding the auto cycle for the first time changed your perspective. Think of those nights when you stayed up late writing MATLAB scripts that baffled your friends. Relive the peak experiences—the joy of building your first personal computer, troubleshooting motherboard issues, and the satisfaction when it finally booted up. Customizing your Linux operating system and realizing the immense computing power at your disposal. These moments remind us of the incredible privilege we have as engineers.

Engineers face tough challenges in the corporate world, including pressure, stress, and navigating corporate politics. The work is not solely rewarded based on results. Frustration is a common topic of discussion, but amidst all this, we must not forget that engineering allows us to undertake some of the most fascinating work on the planet. It’s crucial to reconnect with our initial motivations and remember why we embarked on this journey in the first place.

We extend our gratitude to John for sharing his story and taking us on this introspective journey. You may be wondering about the program that made a powerful transformation in John’s career and life. It’s called the Lifestyle Engineering Blueprint program, which offers the same results, reigniting passion, providing clarity, and breaking free from feeling stuck. If you’re interested in experiencing this transformation and joining a community of engineering leaders pursuing a fulfilling career and life, let’s talk.

Set up a quick 15-minute call with us where we’ll get a few questions answered to understand where you’re at and where you’re stuck. And then we’ll do a free coaching session to really dig deep and help you break loose and move forward. And if it’s a fit to join our community and our program.

And if it’s a fit to join our community and our program, we’ll help you join John in massive transformation that you will never forget. And never regret.

Keep getting after it!



John is a Project Engineering Leader at GLM Hydro, where he manages process engineering, system installation and commissioning support, documentation control, purchasing, and equipment quality control for his organization.



Please note the full transcript is 90-95% accuracy. Reference the podcast audio to confirm exact quotations.

[00:00:00] Zach White: John, I’m pumped that you’re here. Welcome to the Happy Engineer Podcast, brother.

[00:00:05] John Real: Amen. It’s really good to be here. Thank you for having me. 

Expand to Read Full Transcript

[00:00:08] Zach White: we’ve known each other for a while here, and I thought to set the stage, it would be fun to go back to when we first connected I.

[00:00:17] If I go back to that opening conversation when you and I first met, there’s a couple words that stood out to me then that still anchor kind of the energy, if you will, of how things were going in your world at that time. And they’re not great words, but they were the truth for you. It was the word lost and unhappy.

[00:00:39] And I just remember the, the weight of that for you, having been in your career for a while, had a lot of success by different measures, but just sitting in that place of feeling lost and unhappy as an engineering leader. I was wondering if you could just take us back to that point in time, what was going on for you?

[00:00:57] That led you to that experience? 

[00:01:01] John Real: I’ve been in my current, job for, Going on 10 years now with the current company, current career for 12, you know, right out of school. And the entire time I’ve been spending it in, uh, in manufacturing facilities, building ’em, helping design them, commissioning them, that kind of stuff.

[00:01:16] But by the time you and I met, I was expecting our first child, and I was really thinking about the future, where the company was, when I joined and. 24 years old where I thought it was gonna be and where it was, and where I was in my life and all of that.

[00:01:32] I was just lost and I was kind of, you know, do I wanna continue with this? Do I even want to continue to be an engineer? but that was a question on my mind is, is this the career path that I want to continue down, with a kid on the way, you know, I, I feel unhappy and I guess unsatisfied, I guess with my life to that point.

[00:01:51] So, and it wasn’t for lack of, like you say, success, you know, I. I’ve done fairly well for myself. You know, I’ve got the education, I’ve got a stable job. I’ve gotten to travel. I, uh, around the country and in Europe, I’ve done some really cool stuff, but it just, there was no meaning for me, for it.

[00:02:09] I, yeah, there was no why, and I, I, I didn’t even, I, I didn’t know it at the time, but I didn’t even know how to frame the question of why. Mm-hmm. So 

[00:02:19] Zach White: for you, if you take that, you know, 10, 12 years, I. Before that moment, as an engineer, how would you describe the, the arc of getting to that place? Was it, you know, everything was awesome for 10 years and then all of a sudden it kind of dropped off and suddenly I feel this way.

[00:02:36] Did it feel like a kind of a slow decay over time? Like, how, how would you describe the trajectory from point A to point B for you? 

[00:02:44] John Real: if I’m honest, I think it was a slow decay over time, If anybody wakes up some morning and like things aren’t the way they are, if we’re honest with ourselves, they haven’t been the way we wanted them to be for a while.

[00:02:54] Yeah, and I think that’s probably the case for me too. when I first joined, you know, I was fresh outta school, no obligations. I could travel a lot, so I did, I spent a lot of time on the road and that was awesome. um, you know, eventually I found my wife Elizabeth, we got married. 

[00:03:12] you get into a relationship all of a sudden, you know, we buy a house, we do the things, but then the obligations of that kind of stuff start weighing on top of. The work obligations, especially if you have to travel for work, man. I mean, like, yeah. you want to be home more.

[00:03:25] Your partner wants you to be home more. There’s, maintenance and stuff around the house. If you’re traveling every week, you know, you’re trying to live your life on the weekends, you know, you kind of take for granted how much you do in the evenings, in the mornings, right.

[00:03:37] Just living your life that aren’t there when you’re on the road. I think over time it just started wearing on me. And then that coupled with this here, life-changing, event, like I’m gonna have a new life that I’m responsible for. you know, I wanna provide wealth for ’em, but I also want them to be, in a loving home with their parents around.

[00:03:56] And I wanna be in a good mood for them because I don’t wanna be miserable raising a child. Yeah. Like, that’s awful. Yeah. That’s awful, man. So I think it was just a lot of, a lot of that, ruminating in my own head about obligations and that kind of stuff. and to be honest, as I learned in the program, like 

[00:04:13] I know there was a lot of fear, reluctance to take steps that I thought I needed to take for fear of what would happen if I did. Yeah. Right. So 

[00:04:24] Zach White: I think this experience you’re describing of a slow fade is the majority of people’s experience, to your point. And I know for me, If I go back to my pre-divorce engineering career, it was not like four years of awesome, and then suddenly everything tanked.

[00:04:41] Looking back, it’s easy to see how I compromised and made mistakes and got one dimensional in only focusing on my career and not my marriage well before. She asked for that divorce. And it’s, it’s kinda like you described this, you know, new things kind of stack on, you’re bolting on different aspects of your life.

[00:05:02] I mean, shoot, when we get outta college, we really don’t even know what we’re doing anyway. And you just kind of wake up at some point and everything is different than that dream that you left college with. And that drive that got us into engineering in the first place. And so what, what was the wake up call?

[00:05:19] You know, everybody has the moment where they suddenly realize, I’m not where I want to be. What was the point for you where you actually became aware? Wait a second, I am unhappy. Was it when you knew you were gonna have your son Teddy and you started asking new questions? Was it something else? Like where did you first realize this is not the right trajectory for my life?

[00:05:41] John Real: I really don’t think it was just a single thing, like we found out Elizabeth was pregnant with Teddy and I was on the road when I found out. And that was exciting. It was a lot of fun, but it was like, okay, well I’m on the road when I find out my wife’s pregnant.

[00:05:54] And then, so she and I talked about like reducing the amount of travel and then eventually like getting close to the pregnancy that, you know, I would have to Stop travel altogether, and I have to give credit to the, the owners of the company, Jan and Matias. Like they, they took it in stride.

[00:06:08] they were open to it. You know, Jan really stepped up and started taking some of the travel as I weaned off and down from that. So I have to really, them for, for their openness. That’s awesome. On that, I think it was this conflict in me, where I felt obligated, this is what I’ve been doing for my whole career, and what’s gonna happen if I stop, but I don’t want to keep traveling like this.

[00:06:28] there was this like conflict in me and the only way out I could see was potentially getting out completely. Yeah. Just walk 

[00:06:37] Zach White: away from this. Right. So, You mentioned the program, and for those who don’t know, you know, we have the Lifestyle Engineering Blueprint, a program designed to help engineering leaders, you know, finding themselves in situations like what you are in, were in at that time, uh, or many other different kinds of situations.

[00:06:58] Engineering leaders get stuck around as they’re pursuing career success. But if you were gonna. Take that whole experience and just boil it down and say, you know, what changed? What shifted in you you know, starting the program to today? What are the biggest things that you would say have transformed?

[00:07:18] Okay. 

[00:07:19] John Real: I think there would be three things that I would say were the biggest things for me that transformed one was how to ask the question why. Because something that we go through is the, you know, you have this whole exercise about meaning and purpose. What is your purpose, right? And like, I’d never done anything like that before.

[00:07:38] you think vaguely in terms about, at least for me, it and vaguely in terms about what do I wanna achieve and who do I want to be, But a formal process of sitting down and drawing a box around that. Was very powerful, right? Yeah. suddenly it’s, I’m putting it on paper.

[00:07:55] who do I want to be? What do I want to be? How, how does this fit? What is my purpose here for doing this? How does that look in my future? that was very big for me. two was, Everything around shifting your mindset, like challenging yourself around are you fixed mindset and are you growth mindset?

[00:08:14] And at this point, I must sound like I belong to a freaking cult or something, but like, but like the ability to like look at the way things are for you and how you’re approaching them like asking yourself honestly, like, am I approaching this from the point Either I do this or I don’t and that defines who I am.

[00:08:32] Yeah. I have the opportunity to give it my all. I might fail, but that doesn’t mean I’m a failure, like I just failed or I didn’t figure out how to do it right this time, or something there that if I wanted hard enough, I can get it. But I have to be open to the fact that like, I might not be good enough yet to get it right.

[00:08:51] Mm-hmm. So that, that growth, that growth mindset was really, really big for me. And the, uh, I know everybody hates ’em in the program, but the challenges, man, the C4 challenges, like, challenging me to get out of my skin. I spent an entire afternoon with $35 in my pocket, Walking up to random people, asking them for $5, and then when they said no, offering them $5 and not a single one would take my money.

[00:09:22] And they were all just like, some of the folks I would walk up to or I would like think about walking up to them for like 10 minutes before I like finally got enough like courage to like walk up to this random person on the boardwalk at North Beach, like, can I five bucks? I think it was just that, forcing myself into a situation that I would never, ever like, Have conceived of doing like five bucks, like, it’s so weird.

[00:09:48] Why would you do that? Yeah. And you know all the stories you tell yourself in your mind about like, they’re gonna call the cops or they’re gonna cuss you out. Or like some, like, I think more than anything that is just like this unformalized anxiety about what could happen, right? But you don’t know what that is.

[00:10:02] this like nebulous uncertainty and like how terrifying the unknown is but forcing myself through that, it’s just like, oh, it didn’t destroy me. Which sounds ridiculous, but honestly, like I. He’s asking somebody for five bucks. 

[00:10:14] Zach White: yeah, no, I get it man. Yeah. So it’s funny cuz we talk about getting out of the comfort zone on the podcast all the time, but you’ve actually done the work.

[00:10:21] you’ve been in the program and, let me challenge you on these different, you know, to your point totally unrelated to our career exercises, they put you though into this state and the experience of. Out of the comfort zone. The mind is doing all the crazy stuff that the mind does when it’s afraid, and we start to become familiar with the enemy.

[00:10:46] We’ve become familiar with what fear and resistance and uncertainty really feels like, how it shows up in our mind and in our body. And when you act anyway, I love the, you know, you said, Hey, I sat there for 10 minutes and thought about walking up to this person. Well, You extrapolate that into your life and your career, how often do we wait?

[00:11:06] Not just 10 minutes, but you know, 10 days or 10 months or even 10 years before we take an action that ultimately would be in our best. Interest to do it, but we’re so afraid and, or subconsciously the fear is there, but we have some fancy word for it, successful person terms for fear. Well, I’m too stressed right now.

[00:11:27] I’m too busy right now. I’m, overwhelmed, or, know, whatever it may be. 

[00:11:32] John Real: It’s too much right 

[00:11:33] Zach White: now. Exactly. It’s too much. That’s too much. you know, and, and no judgment to anybody who feels that way. But John, I just appreciate your, your statement.

[00:11:39] So purpose, mindset, crushing comfort, getting outta the comfort zone, doing these challenges. Tell us then the now feeling around this idea of lost, disconnected from purpose, unhappy. How would you describe where you’re at today? What would be the, the way to articulate that shift? 

[00:12:03] John Real: excited man, excited potential the ability to frame a goal my future, can pick anything I want and the, the idea that I can, step out of my comfort zone, that I can do something that in the past would’ve caused me pause for uncertainty or anxiety or what would happen.

[00:12:20] Like, well, no, you know, I’ve done some really. Odd things to some random people, you know, asking for five bucks, asking for a, you know, to be honest, is reaching out to a contact that I want to get a better relationship with in the business world. Like that’s nothing now. Right. So, yeah, I think what, what it is now is, excited potential, and a direction yes.

[00:12:45] Yes. you’ve got this phrase where the focus goes, energy flows, without, without that direction, without that framing, the, my energy just like, diffuses into the universe. Right. It’s just like entropy, just stealing it all. you have to contain it so you can focus it somewhere, man.

[00:13:00] Yeah, a hundred percent. I’ve learned how to build that container. 

[00:13:05] Zach White: So what’s interesting to me, and part of your passion and why we wanted to have this conversation today is when you describe how you’re at right now, how you’re feeling right now in this place. Excited, purposeful. Driven with focused destination, a vision for where you want to head in the future, confidence that you can get there, and then you back it up to, 18 or 22, 24 year old John just starting your career.

[00:13:31] I bet we would use a lot of similar words. Excited about your future, you know, excited about the opportunity to have this job and be in manufacturing and engineering and do the things that you were doing and traveling and a sense of. Of potential this unlimited unknown. And rather than being afraid of that, it was like excited to step into it.

[00:13:52] And the same thing today, it’s like rather than feeling lost, which, you know, lost is a sense of unknown, but it’s on this negative side of the coin to one of unlimited potential. It’s like the future is still unknown, but I’ve chosen a point inside of that unknown to aim my energy at. And I’m,

[00:14:11] Confident that I can move towards it no matter what gets in my way. So we posed the question earlier like, what, what is it that. Causes people to get disconnected from that. And maybe first share with me, like, what’s your perspective about that? Do you see this happening around your company and your peer group or people in this dis, you know, engineering disciplines in general?

[00:14:33] Or how do you see this pandemic of disconnection from engineering show up? What’s, what is your thought on it? 

[00:14:41] John Real: seems to be endemic to me, man. Like something, there’s something about. I don’t know if it’s all industries. Granted I’m only in the engineering field, but it seems to be, more or less across, across disciplines, at least in the engineering colleagues that I’ve talked to here, other companies, different disciplines, there’s something happens and.

[00:15:03] I used to make a joke, and this is awful, but, my first company that I worked at, there were none of the older guys that were looking at retirement. not a single one And I was like, I wanna be that guy, . And so, what, you know, I, we talked about this a little bit before we started recording, but like, Here recently.

[00:15:22] I’m, I’m trying to, I’m trying to figure out what that is, like, why is that happening to, to us in the engineering field? I mean, you, yourself, you were an engineer and you left and we got colleagues in the U Eco program that they wanna leave, right? They’re in here, they’re in the program, but, They still think they want to get out and do something completely unrelated.

[00:15:44] which is a shame, because we all went to engineering for a certain reason. We got into it for a certain reason. I mean, like, I didn’t know it was gonna be engineer. Like a lot of people go and declared, I went undeclared. we had an interest meeting for the, uh, the program’s called Integrated Science and Technology at James Madison.

[00:16:02] When I went to, it’s kind of like a engineering degree, but you have to take other classes as well. Okay. Economics and policy and that kind of stuff to kind of like round out the hard science stuff. And there were a group of professors and it was free pizza, so I went to that cuz I’m a freshman, I don’t have any money.

[00:16:19] Right. But hey, free pizza, right? So like, So I’m, I’m listening to the professors talk about the program and everything, and then they do this round table where we’re supposed to like, in groups of six, like move between the different pro, you know, 10 minutes each or something like that. And I spent like, the entire 45 minutes we had available talking to one professor, his name’s, uh, Dr.

[00:16:43] Bachman, about the potential for growing algae to create biodiesel on the ocean as a way to displace fossil fuel oils, and this was back in 2006 or something. And, and it was just like, I was blown away. The idea of that, that like, the potential, it was just fascinating to me. Yeah. Yeah. And so I spent, that entire time talking with him and like, I was sold, I was in, sucked in completely.


[00:17:08] John Real: to your point about we get outta school and, and, you know, Probably a lot of the same words that I would describe use to describe what’s going on now. I would use to describe me then 24 years old, 22 years old, coming outta school. And I think the difference is having that, target, when we’re going to school, there’s a target.

[00:17:28] The target is graduating right with this degree, and then it’s getting a job. In our discipline. That’s the target. Then we get that, and then what? Yep, what? What’s next? none of that in school is focused on teaching you the skills about how to articulate where you’re going in life up until that point in your life.

[00:17:56] You gotta go to school. It’s elementary school, then it’s middle school, then it’s high school. You gotta do good. You gotta do good in school. You should take the AP classes. You should go to college. Pick a college. You went to college. Get a major graduate, get a job, have a nice life. What? What do I do for the next 40 years of my life?

[00:18:18] I don’t know. That’s for you to figure out now, 

[00:18:19] Zach White: like, yeah. Well, and John, what I’ve seen you tell me if this. Is your experience, but we basically just take cues from the people and the things in our environment to start filling in what that is supposed to be. So it’s pretty obvious. Oh, well, promotions, make more money, buy the house.

[00:18:39] You know, find a spouse, build a family, do these, you know, there’s, there’s this. Track that we’re all exposed to and we just start filling in those targets with the next logical thing that we’ve seen everyone around us doing. And to your point, nobody ever came alongside me until I hit rock bottom and went out asking for help from my first coach who I hired.

[00:19:02] Like that was the first conversation I ever had where someone said, well, hey, Would you like to discover what you actually want and what really matters to you? And it honestly struck me like, wait, what you’re saying I don’t like, I don’t know that, I don’t actually know the answer to that. It was very humbling.

[00:19:20] Like, oh, you’re right. I actually have no clue. I’ve just been sprinting in this direction that. Corporations slash the world around me, my parents, et cetera, kind of laid out and sprinting is the truth. I mean, I was going hard after whatever it was. I thought I was supposed to be going hard after and I’d never done that work.

[00:19:41] And, and it’s not something that comes naturally. It was something that had to really be sat down and walked through and shown a different way of thinking. To your point, a different way of framing the question, but is that something that resonates for you? It’s like we just kind of. Look around and say, it must be this, and then start 

[00:19:56] John Real: moving.

[00:19:57] Yeah, absolutely. I mean, without any ability to even frame the question, to start articulating the answer, all you can do is look for cues around you, right? I should get the house, I should get married if that’s what I’m in for. Or I should travel a lot. I see a lot of people traveling on, social media.

[00:20:14] I should do that. They look like they’re having a great time. you know, without the ability to like fill that purpose internally, we seek it externally, but it’s not ours, so it doesn’t feel right. And I think that’s where I got as I, I did the things, but I didn’t, I didn’t know how to, Articulate or even find that like intrinsic purpose that I had.

[00:20:38] Yeah, I’d never even considered that. That was an option. 

[00:20:42] Zach White: One thing related to this, and you mentioned you’re doing some, some self-study on these titans of industry from the past, and there’s big names we could point to. Rockefeller Ford, Edison, you have Pi pick one. Where for some reason, you know, maybe it was the time in history, maybe it’s the individual, but they had this incredible drive and passion and purpose to build and create and develop things in the world of engineering and, and inventors.

[00:21:11] And it’s like you don’t see very many people. Aspiring to that, or even thinking that’s possible today, it’s like we’re talking about most people actually a, a decade or two decades into their career, just want to get out of this. It’s like, how do I stop? So what’s your perspective? And there’s no right or wrong answer.

[00:21:28] I’m just curious, like what’s the difference between someone today who comes outta school with a four year degree in engineering, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, ambitious, and then a decade laters. Just completely burned out, lost and confused. Versus someone who, you know, has this dent in the universe kind of lifestyle, what do you think creates that shift?

[00:21:54] John Real: That’s a really good question. I think we all wanna make an impact somehow, I think if you look at those titans of industry, something led them to look at the world that they were living in and they weren’t satisfied with it and they wanted to make an impact. but it has to be more with that cuz we all wanna make a difference in the world, but like mm-hmm.

[00:22:15] where does that, unstoppable drive to? Do it no matter what come from, and the only thing that I can think of is somebody that helps you see that that’s possible for you and helps you like

[00:22:32] direct yourself in some sort of structured way like that, You know, I mentioned that I’m reading this biography of the oil industry. I’m only about halfway through, but it talks about Rockefeller in particular. And he was, saw the complete mismanagement wastefulness of the oil industry, and he drove it towards consolidation as a means to set that.

[00:22:59] Business, which he saw as just pure chaos into order, and that he saw that bringing order to that chaos was like his mission in life and that it would make the world a better place by doing that. And we look at standard oil in the past as like a monstrosity of, you know, corporate power and yeah.

[00:23:19] Standard oil being trust, busting and all that. But if you read about like the way Rockefeller like. Thought about himself and thought about how he was affecting the world in taking on the oil industry that, that way he thought he was setting it right and making it better for everybody. Yeah, yeah. By doing this.

[00:23:40] there has to be some skill or some ability for you to look at your life and like look at a problem and then it’s a problem that you wanna see fixed, and then the ability to drive yourself towards that problem. 

[00:23:54] we all have things that we wish were better in the world, right? And I think we all go through this Masonic period in our twenties where we’re gonna save the world, right? But like,

[00:24:02] unless you get really lucky, I think for most people, the skillset that you develop going through your education is not built for that. You’re built to be inserted into a manufacturing plant as, you know, an operator on the floor, right? I mean, that’s what the public education in United States was designed to produce as people on the line in manufacturing plants.

[00:24:25] Yeah, yeah. Or an engineer, you kind of given these tools and told to go out, but like engineers are kind of just like taken and like inserted into a spot, right? You do this thing. Right. And so there’s a mismatch in between like the skillset that we’re taught, but then like this, this drive that we have to want to make the world a better place.

[00:24:48] Mm-hmm. Which I think is a good for everybody, but there’s no skill, there’s no skills development in the normal course of life where you’re taught how to basically articulate a goal for yourself and drive 

[00:25:03] Zach White: for it. Yeah. This is. The distinction between. What it takes to work on your career or work on your life towards a vision versus work in your career, and to your point, the entire educational system is a stamp of approval, an accreditation that you have, the skills that it takes to be in inserted into a place.

[00:25:26] Within a system that’s been designed and built by someone else to solve the kinds of problems that a mechanical engineer or an electrical engineer or a software engineer is supposed to be able to solve. But it’s a completely different skillset to then do what you just described. And they don’t teach us that in school and, and nowhere do I expect them to.

[00:25:44] It’s really not what the degree is supposed to. It doesn’t represent that. But I think too often nobody ever tells us until we get to the 10 years later or the 15 years later and we’re unhappy, lost and burned out. Oops. There’s a whole nother skill set you’ve not been deploying for the last decade to keep your life on track and, and even growing and progressing.

[00:26:05] I wanna come back to the word impact really quick, John, because, I, I don’t know the exact number, but I think. At Oaco now, we’ve talked to close to 1500 engineering leaders in, uh, since Covid, uh, on the phone, direct conversation about why they’re feeling stuck or frustrated or burned out or unhappy in their career.

[00:26:25] And when we ask them like, well, what do you want? What’s the thing that’s missing, what’s the goal for you? Making an impact? Some version of that. And, and usually the literal word impact In the answer. And I think if I was just gonna do a Pareto of most common words used to describe what success really looks like, impact would be in the top three for sure.

[00:26:48] And I always ask people, okay, I love the word and I agree with you, John, everybody in intrinsically, once your basic needs are covered, wants to make that impact. But what that means to everybody is very different. So just bringing it back to your own journey. Now that you’ve done this work, you’ve come through this, you know, transformational rediscovery of yourself and picked up all these, new skills and new mindsets and a new awareness, what is the impact that’s meaningful to you?

[00:27:19] John Real: so the impact that’s meaningful to me that I discovered in the career, in the job that I have, cuz I’ve not, I’ve not changed careers. I’ve not changed jobs. I’m still doing the same, same thing. I’m. With the same company. And what I, what I’ve discovered is there’s parts of that that I really love, and what I love is problem solving for my clients.

[00:27:39] I love looking at an old system, an old legacy asset, and figuring out where it went wrong. And what can be done to make it better. And when I think about, when I think about my ability to, look at these, especially older process systems, we do some new greenfield stuff. But I really like working on the older ones because, of them are custom because the industry that are working is all custom.

[00:28:04] And has been for 50, 60 years. I mean, the oldest system I worked on was built in 1958. So wow. You have this connection with these engineers that built this like totally custom piece of equipment could be 70 years ago. And then looking at it and trying to figure out why they did it the way they did, who messed with it in the year since, what they were trying to accomplish and what can be done now to make it better and in the service to that.

[00:28:32] Making the lives of the operators better, it makes it easier to work on, their life gets easier. I’m improving American manufacturing, which I, I do have a soft spot for, and I think we should build things here. So I know I get to work in that, which is awesome. Awesome. Improving, you know, improving the profitability.

[00:28:51] Or sustainability for my clients, right? I can do water saving stuff. I do chemical saving stuff. I increase energy efficiencies. and then working with companies across the US that do fabrication. So like companies that do welding in Wisconsin and Minnesota and Texas, and getting to visit those facilities and watch, you know, watch these like artisans of their craft cuz they’re out there like, Do this work and build this thing in America for American manufacturing, man, I’m like, that really juices me to be honest.

[00:29:23] So like, and I, rekindled that love through the program, just by being able to kind of like, focus on what is my purpose, what do I want in life, and what do I really enjoy about, like what, yeah, what do I enjoy about what I do? Because we all have aspects of our job that we do like. So focusing on that.

[00:29:41] Really helped me kinda rekindle that, that love. 

[00:29:46] Zach White: Not everyone has your story, but what I wanna highlight that’s so important is that our, our typical mindset when we go through that decade of slow decay and we wake up. Lost and unhappy. The first thing we wanna do is point at our boss, the company culture, the lack of opportunities, the size of my paycheck versus what I think I’m worth this or that.

[00:30:14] You know, everything that we are focused on is external to ourselves and we wanna put the blame on those things, and we want somebody to come tell us, well, which one do I need to change? To then feel happy and fulfilled and like, I’m making an impact again. And, you know, do I need to work in a new industry?

[00:30:33] You even mentioned, Hey, do I, should I walk away from engineering altogether? Which I forget the, the exact stat, I think it was 32% of engineers, this was years ago, said if they could get out of the industry and make the same money and it wouldn’t disrupt their lifestyle, they would quit in a heartbeat.

[00:30:48] Right. And I actually think that number’s probably higher now than it was then, but I don’t have a, statistically valid study to prove it, but, The truth is, none of those external things changed for you, and yet you’re telling us it’s completely different lifestyle and experience and, and what you’re waking up to every day because of what changed on the inside.

[00:31:08] And that’s what I just love to highlight, is like, it’s absolutely possible when you do the work. You know? Okay, what is that? Well, we’ll talk about it another day, but it’s like you can change from the inside out. And in fact, when you try to change from the outside in, You are usually gonna be disappointed cuz as soon as that honeymoon phase wears off.

[00:31:28] You are gonna bring the same problems to whatever situation you go inject yourself into and you’ll find yourself right back where you were. but before I get away from the manufacturing topic, I gotta go back real quick. And I know so many happy engineers out there will appreciate this because especially in recent months and even on this podcast, AI and big tech and software types of topics have consumed a lot of our mind share when it comes to engineering.

[00:31:56] you have a real passion for. Manufacturing and facilities, factories, right. Just getting in and doing the work where the products are made. And in many ways, I, I think you even said this to me one time, maybe not today, I can’t remember the idea of manufacturing, engineering, and this world that you are in almost feeling like a runner up or like second prize.

[00:32:18] It’s, it’s engineering for the folks who couldn’t cut their teeth in, you know, software, full stack architecture or AI and machine learning or whatever. And yet there’s so much amazing engineering happening. There’s so much opportunity. So what would you say to someone who’s maybe in college still or deciding, you know, what discipline to pursue or, or maybe they’re in mechanical engineering or industrial engineering and feeling like they should go to a coding bootcamp and jump on this AI bandwagon while they still have a chance.

[00:32:48] What’s your perspective about manufacturing, you know, American maybe as a bias, just cuz of your experience, but in general, what’s your thought there? 

[00:32:57] John Real: so I was the youngest person at my first company by like, I think there were three of us that were in her twenties. And then, you know, I was the youngest probably by like 25 years.

[00:33:08] And the age gap that I see is obscene in this industry. if we had to just talk purely about opportunity, You’ve got the vast majority of the guys that have the experience in this field actively retiring right now. Yep. And you can have AI and you can have software stack development, and you can have software coders, but you need something to code on.

[00:33:35] Right. We need food to eat, we need cars to drive, we need things. Right. you know, manufacturing moved away from the US for a while and, and we are seeing that it’s coming back. We’re seeing investment in the US and a build out in the US in the manufacturing space that’s actually at a faster clip since the end of World War ii.

[00:33:56] So the opportunity is there from the. Build out and capital point of view, the opportunity is there from the personnel point of view, because the experience is literally retiring and there’s not that many people that are there to, to fill those gaps. And who wants to sit in front of a computer all day? I mean, like, I complained about the travel when I first started, but like, I mean, if you’re coming outta college, you know, I spent six months in.

[00:34:29] Kansas. I spent six months in the Carolinas. I got to spend nine months in the Netherlands. I spent three months in Germany. I’ve been back to Europe a handful of times working on projects. I’ve worked in California, Texas, I mean all over the country. You know, my engineering manager at my first company used to make a joke, which was basically like, um, when I retire, I’m gonna write a book called Places You’ll Never Visit.

[00:34:54] And it’s been cuz it’s true. Like these plants are, yeah, they can be in the middle of nowhere. But I’ve seen parts of America that I would never, ever see otherwise. And it’s been fascinating. It’s been, I would read that book 

[00:35:05] Zach White: last read. Yeah, right. Read. I could write a couple chapters. I remember, you know, by Whirlpool, if we’ve got factories and Marion Ohio.

[00:35:12] And Clyde Ohio. And Greenville, Ohio. And Tulsa, Oklahoma and Right. It’s super 

[00:35:17] John Real: fun. You know, so I would say like, You get to be out in the world, you get to see things. You get to experience a part of the world that you probably wouldn’t experience otherwise. And you get to work with your hands. the hours are hard sometimes, but I mean, the feeling of watching a 40 million salt crystallizer come to life is just.

[00:35:39] Unbelievable. And also like accidentally dumping 12 tons of salt on the floor below because the literation leg got plugged and you opened the valve too far. Like that sucks, but you know, it was a blast. Or getting to work on a 5,000 horsepower compressor, like to get the plant back up and running at 26 years old, like that was awesome.

[00:35:59] Yeah, 

[00:36:00] Zach White: totally. I’ll tell one quick story. Uh, you know, my version of salt on the floor, John, we had a. An engineering build on ovens, uh, freestanding ranges down in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And I was one of the, technical leads on the program. Me and my buddy Matt Winkle, shout out Matt, if you listen to this.

[00:36:18] And we had a new design for the storage drawer glide system. So, you know, there’s that drawer under your, your oven that usually slides really terribly. They’re super. Cheaply mades, you know, it’s just, it’s not something that the customer cares that much about. So all the cost reduction possibles happen on those?

[00:36:35] Well, we had a solution for a new glide system that didn’t require any grease because we used this oil, impregnated plastic for the glide itself. And we had, you know, all this cost savings and the factory was super happy cuz they wouldn’t have to apply grease to these glides anymore. Everybody’s winning.

[00:36:52] Right. Well we get down. Do this build and they start testing the drawers in the quality control area on the assembly line. And they’re squeaking like this horrific screeching squeal, like loud and high pitched. And the VP of the plant, Jim Gifford, amazing leader, uh, crazy, high energy, very intense guy. You know, the design team always kind of feared him, but the factory team loved Jim.

[00:37:20] And I remember him coming down and hearing this. It just. Chewing us out for how we’d wrecked this design. So we built like a a hundred, 150 ovens that day with these new glides on them. And guess what? Matt and I had the privilege of doing all night after those went to the warehouse. We were. Opening up every single box, pulling these ovens out of the box, replacing the glides with the original design and putting them back in the box.

[00:37:48] It was like a two night ordeal, cuz it’s super hard to do that. You know, the boxes are not meant for taking ’em in and out. you know, really painful. But guess what? That’s one of my fondest memories from my engineering career, right? I mean, like, we had so much fun, you know, just like. Being a team, the camaraderie, it was hard when it happened.

[00:38:06] It was a huge problem. But it also became like one of those interview stories of things that we overcame and what we learned and you know, those are the people that I would go back and do a project with anytime. I mean it just, so all that to say, I agree with you that the opportunity is, In many ways growing faster than any other sector, you know, why do I say that?

[00:38:30] It’s because the competition for those roles is not the same. Everybody’s paying attention to AI and machine learning and chasing that, and it’s a global marketplace competing for the roles because you can sit in front of a computer and write code from anywhere. Somebody has to be on site. To create these transformational changes and projects in manufacturing and in facilities, and it’s really fun work.

[00:38:54] So shout out for all the folks who wanna do that. And you know, if you wanna talk more, reach out to me and John and we’ll talk to you about those spaces. But I agree the. roles that are disappearing, the people that who need to step up and fill them, and frankly, John, the opportunity to own companies.

[00:39:09] You know, if you wanna step in and actually lead a a c-suite level or be a ceo, or an owner one day, those opportunities are incredible in your space versus AI and machine learning where, you know, it’s pretty unlikely you’re gonna be CEO of Google, right? that role is gonna be the most sought after.

[00:39:30] Competed for CEO Suite on the planet, and let’s just be real. When you’re competing with millions and millions of other developers, that’s a, that’s a tough call. You gotta be truly number one. There’s gonna be a lot of companies that need leadership in manufacturing. So I’ll get off the soap box, man, but I appreciate your perspective on this and I hope it encourages people who might feel like they’re in a second place career path that absolutely not.

[00:39:54] We need it. There’s a lot to do. So it’s a lot of fun too, 

[00:39:57] John Real: man. Like you can get outta your own way, of course, but it’s definitely a lot of fun. 

[00:40:03] Zach White: I agree. Amazing. Well, John, there’s so many more questions I’d love to ask you. And I just wanna say thank you for sharing your experience so openly and courageously today.

[00:40:12] But if a happy engineer listening wants to chat further about these topics, maybe they feel lost, you know, they’re in that place than themselves, or they’re considering this career path, would love to know more about how you’ve been successful, uh, in your own world. Where can people connect with you? 

[00:40:27] John Real: Uh, yeah, the best place is gonna be on LinkedIn, John Reel.

[00:40:31] J o h n r e a l. Doesn’t get a whole lot simpler than that. I guess I could drop the H from John, you know that baby either, but yeah. John reel on LinkedIn, man, that’s 

[00:40:41] Zach White: about as simple as it gets. So we’ll put a link to your LinkedIn profile on the show notes for anybody who wants to connect with you and, send John an invite.

[00:40:48] Let him know you heard him on the Happy Engineer Podcast and, I know he’ll be happy to share his wisdom and insights with you. Let’s wrap it up man, excited to hear what direction you’ll take this. But you know, you know, having worked with me and gone through the program and just being a fan of the podcast yourself, that questions lead, answers follow, you know, if we want better answers, you gotta start asking better questions.

[00:41:11] So what would be the question you would lead the happy engineer with today? 

[00:41:16] John Real: I would lead them, I. To look back when they were 18 or 22, getting into the engineering degree. Getting out of the engineering degree, Connect back to that drive, man. What, got you through those long nights? What got you through those tests, those exams, what got you, what kept you going through chemistry or calculus or physics three, what was it that kept you going?

[00:41:44] Think back to that. What was that drive? try to rekindle that drive. look at what you’re doing What is it that you do today, uh, that connects you back to that drive? There’s gotta be parts of your job today that you back to who, the, who that person was.

[00:41:59] Find those parts. 

[00:42:00] Zach White: Super good. What? Was the fuel for the fire back when you first started this dream of engineering and how does that show up or how can you create it today? It’s awesome. John, thanks again for being here. It’s amazing to chat with you and we’ll have to do it again some time.

[00:42:20] John Real: Yeah, man, it’s been a blast. Thank you so much for the invite.