How to Create a Successful Career in Reliability Engineering
How to create a successful career in reliability engineering
Fred Schenkelberg, FMS Reliability
Key Words: Career, reliability engineering,traits
SUMMARY & CONCLUSIONS
How does one become a reliability engineer? How does
one create a career based on reliability engineering? In my
experience I have seen several paths and have observed a
number of key traits that make for a successful career. This
paper examines the traits of successful reliability professionals
from different industries. The combination of those profiles
and my experience with coaching dozens as they built their
careers has provided a unique insight into the key traits that
separate a rewarding from unfulfilling career in reliability
engineering. This paper explores the sevenkey traits—
talented, professional, networked, positive, valuable,
studiousness, and mentoring ability—that lead to a successful
At the end of a career of work, it may be satisfactory to
look back at a record of accomplishment, of milestones, and of
friends. We are information workers.When we work in a
professional way that conveys our talents in reliability
engineering with our peers,the entire organization benefits.
We can look back and view camaraderie with colleagues from
many fields and across many industries. With a bit or common
sense, honest work, and consistent drive we can build a career
from our very first encounter with reliability engineering.
On one occasion I conducted reliability program
assessments of two organizations located in the same building.
Both designed and manufactured telecommunication
equipment with similar complexity and volume. The interview
schedule had me going up and down stairs almost every hour
for two days. By midday of the first day I enjoyed going
upstairs and dreaded heading down. Despite all the
organizational and product similarities the two reliability
programs were dramatically different—as different as their
Downstairs the interviews started late and often got
interrupted by urgent phone calls or in-person requests. This
was firefighting at its best. The team employed a wide range
of tools, all of which were listed on a checklist. The tasks, if
accomplished, rarely influenced any decision. The reliability
goals were not known. A few knew of goals and knew they
would not be measured nor would they impede getting the
product to market. The people I talked to said that product
reliability was very important and that was why they were
busy fixing issues discovered late in a program or from field
returns. Reliability used to be done by the guy who quit last
Upstairs the interviews started on time, without
interruptions. No one remembered the last time there was an
urgent need to resolve a field issue. The team employed
reliability tools as needed that would benefit the project. The
specific testing was tailored to the risks identified during the
design phase. The goals were widely known and current status
was also known, both during development and after product
launch. The people I talked to stated that reliability was very
important and that they knew what to do to meet their
reliability objectives. They told me thatthe reliability engineer
who left last year taught reliability thinking and skills.
This paper explores the key traits that separated these two
reliability professionals. The impact these two individuals had
on their organizations lasted well after they left. The
downstairs reliability engineer left the organization in
frustration, while the upstairs engineer continued with another
organization in need of an effective reliability program.The
traits of the reliability engineers led to the reliability outcomes
of the organization and to their career paths.
Whether by design or by accident some of us become
reliability engineers. Making a career in reliability engineering
relies on your ability to make a difference and to add value.
Being successful as a reliability engineer, while creating
reliable products, permits continuation and growth as a
Your career motivation may be intrinsic or extrinsic . If
you define success at work as
attaining amilestone or accomplishment,
working at the best of your abilities, and
satisfying a sense of curiosity,
then you are intrinsically motivated, whereas if you define
success at work as
receiving a bonus or reward,
achieving honors and accolades, and
getting a promotion,
then you are extrinsically motivated. Of course, you may
define success with some combination.
It is what you do and how you perform as a reliability
engineer that leads to success however defined. Reliability
engineers may work as part of a team on a small portion of a
project, or support an entire product development program, or
be engaged across an entire organization. In each case, your
success relies on your ability to make a difference and add
Much of the work of reliability engineering
entailsenabling design engineers and managers the ability to
make informed decisions. Is the product meeting the stated
reliable goals? What are the barriers and risks that would
prevent the creation of a reliable product? What is the best
(cost-effective and informative) reliability tool to use?
Whether you are providing an estimate or performing a
detailed failure analysis, if the results influence the decisions
that alter the products design, then we have made a difference.
The results of reliability engineering are obvious when in
the hands of customers. The product either works (is reliable)
or does not. Unfortunately, many of the tasks we perform with
the development team are investments to discover design
weaknesses or to estimate product life. During the
development phase these costs are large. Being able to identify
and articulate the value of these investments followed by
reliable products builds our credibility. It is the combination of
providing useful information, recommending solutions or best
practices, and achieving reliable products that together means
you have added value.
One of the most successful reliability engineers I know
led an organization through a decade-long warranty expense
reduction program, authored papers and books on reliability
engineering, volunteered in professional organizations, and
mentored hundreds of engineers and managers. Talking to him
about a year after retirement, I found him to be happy and
proud of the accomplishments of those he helped train or
motivate. He set an example for me of a talented professional
that selflessly gave his knowledge to those who asked (or
needed) his advice. Moreover, he was happy with his career,
he had made a difference.
3. KEY TRAITS
My dictionary says that talented is ―having a natural
aptitude or skill for something.‖ 
We learn reliability engineering and those whounderstand
the range of tools and techniques useful for a given situation
would be considered talented. Everything is not solved by
running a highly accelerated life test (HALT) or only
conducting detailed failure analysis. Knowing when and why
to apply a particular tool and using the tool effectively (i.e.,
when to use a Weibull distribution to model lifetime data and
how to use the information to make decisions) are critical.
There are many ways to achieve the knowledge required:
enrolling in university programs,reading papers andbooks, or
attending seminars and conferences. The talent shows up in
one’s ability to makean astute selection of tools to assist in
solving problems, identifying risks, or estimating life.
A key element of reliability engineering is reliability
statistics, given the emphasis in the American Society for
Quality Certified Reliability Engineer body of knowledge. 
Some have a knack for tackling this information and others
struggle. Mastering the statistics is crucial for those considered
talented in reliability engineering.
Over one’scareer, a reliability engineer hasthe opportunity
to work on many projects. The materials, designs, and
assembly processes all continue to evolve and change. The
basic tools for reliability engineering havenot changed as fast
as most engineering disciplines, yet the breadth of knowledge
and skill required does call for mastery and talent.
Talented reliability engineers apply the right tool to solve
the problem in a cost-effective and timely manner. This takes
knowledge of the variety of tools at our disposal along with
the foresight to minimize risk and maximize useful
information. This talent is acquired with experience and
enhanced with intelligence.
The dictionary defines professional as ―a person engaged
or qualified in a profession.‖ 
Our profession is reliability engineering. Our career is in
the pursuit of identifying what will fail and determining when
will it fail. We work to meet or improve product reliability.
Within the profession, there are specialists focused on product
testing, risk or life modeling, or on specific industries or types
of products. We can work on projects ranging from
biocompatible polymers in a medical device to redundant
modeling of aircraft flight control systems.
I also believe that professional means acting in a
professional manner. Professional engineering societies often
have a code of conduct or ethics standards to guide
professionals in their field. [4,5] It also means not working
beyond your area of knowledge or expertise nor working in a
deceitful or self-serving manner.
Being professional also means behaving with decorum.
Listening to others, understanding the situation beyond the
immediate reliability engineering task, and working well with
others are all professional requirements. Professionals
represent the reliability engineering discipline and need to
present their discipline well.
Whereas being talented implies a mastery of a body of
knowledge, beingprofessional suggests that we bring to the
team our knowledge and skills in a forthright manner. This is
what we do as we apply our skills to solve problems related to
Let us say you are reporting initial results of an
experiment to your boss, and he disagrees with the results. He
wants a different result to support a proposal and the data do
not support that desired outcome. You did the experiment well
and trust your findings. Do you alter the results and support
your boss, or do you publish the results as found?
In any field there are many agendas and desired
outcomes. In reliability engineering the final outcome may not
become apparent for months or years. It is our professional
standards that guide us to work honestly and report our
Part of building a career relies on who you know and how
you approach your work and peers. Knowing a lot of people,
staying in touch, and working to help them solve problems is
For professionals knowing enough of the right people,
helping them solve issues, and asking them for assistance
when needed is essential. This is what I mean by networking.
More formally, networking can be explained as follows:
Social capital constitutes a valuable resource. Relationships
possessed by an individual can provide one with access to new
information, resources, and opportunities. This information,
resources, and opportunities, both within and outside one's
current firm, can result in direct enhancements of one's
career, including promotions and compensation. 
Networking is not the casual and informal chatter of some
social media venues;rather.it is the sharing of knowledge. You
can help those seeking employment with notices of openings
you find. You can assist with referenceswhen someone is
asking about a particular type of failure. You can join
discussions online with your peers for the benefit of any
Having knowledge of your peers’ aspirations and
strengths permit you to provide career support or ask for
assistance as needed. Personally, I like to keep a ration of at
least 5 to 10 'good deeds' per request I make. By doing so, I
feel that I have contributed to my network and hopefully have
generated sufficient good will to garner guidance when
As you meet fellow reliability professionals, stay in touch.
Learn about their particular constraints related to reliability
engineering. Learn about which tools work or donot work in
their situation. Learn about better ways to accomplish specific
reliability tasks. Most importantly, share what you know with
The network if just a list of names in an address book is
not as useful as a vibrant and constant exchange of ideas,
questions, and advice. Yes, it takes work and time. In many
situations someone has already solved the issue you are
facing. Learn from them while being efficient is your best
approach to problem solving.
While at Hewlett-Packard I heard that inside the company
we were only three phone calls from finding an answer to an
engineering question. To test this idea I called a random
number in the Hewlett-Packard directory. I asked about a topic
knowing that the expert worked across the aisle from me. The
first call was to a sales engineer who couldnot help yet thought
a colleague in Ft. Collins would know. The Ft. Collins call led
me directly to the expert across the aisle. With an established
network that first call wouldnot be random and finding the
right person with the answer would not take three calls.
By positive I mean a ―can do‖or passionate attitude
toward accomplishing goals, adding value, and helping others.
The song, ―When You're Smiling,‖ continues with ―the whole
world smiles with you.‖  Starting a conversation with a
smile often goes a long way toward being productive,
effective, and enjoyable to work with. As reliability engineers
we often work to find faults in design, resolve field failures,
and identify barriers to achieving reliability objectives. This
type of information may create defensiveness that does not
encourage further discussion. Yet our approach, with a smile,
with a focus on the positive elements of our work, can help the
entire team understand the issues, and working together we
can solve them.
Being positive is one reason I like to use reliability
(probability of success) as part of the reliability goal phrase
rather than failure rate or percentage failed. While 98%
reliable and a 2% failure rate (both over one year)
giveessentially the same message, the former focuses on the
success whereas the latter on failure.
We work with a wide range of talented professionals in
the process ofbringing products to market. We work with
people from around the world. We work with a team.
People want to be around others who are passionate
about what they do—it’s infectious. 
Reliability engineering is not a solitary endeavor. By
working with the combined knowledge of your network and
finding the enjoyable elements of your work (thus smiling)
you may find additional opportunities for career advancement.
Of course, talent and professionalism count, too.
Value is ―the regard that something is held to deserve; the
importance, worth, or usefulness of something.‖ 
As a reliability engineer we work across the organization
to bring a reliable product to market. The value of meeting the
customer’s reliability expectations results in customer
satisfactions, increased sales, and in some cases premium
pricing. We want a reliable product. Being a pivotal element
in the process means you have provided value to the
organization and to its customers.
Adding value increases your opportunities for career
success. Even if the product doesnot succeed in the market, by
adding value to the program you still increase your chance of
In the business world, value is money. If the return on
investment (ROI) is adequate, then it is acceptable to make the
investment. For example, if the cost of an accelerated life test
(ALT) is $50,000, will the information from the ALT result in
a decision related to 10 times $50,000 or half a million? If so,
the investment to obtain the knowledge enables the team to
make a decision affecting the launch of a product or to the
establishment of a warranty policy.
If the early prototype highly accelerated life testing
reveals three critical design faults, thispermits the design team
time to resolve the issues without delaying the product launch.
The delay may cost lost sales and depends on your market. In
each case, the reliability engineer's task is to recommend and
execute tasks that affect decisions, reduce risk, save time, or
This extends to every encounter with your fellow
engineers and managers working to bring a product to market.
You can provide insight, information, and knowledge that
enhance the entire team's ability to create a reliable product.
Adding value should be a habit.
For the larger tasks that require significant resources to
accomplish, you may have to estimate the ROI before being
provided with the prototypes and equipment to accomplish the
task. In other cases, before starting a task, you may need to
determine how and where the resulting information will be
used. It is crucial to meet key deadlines since evenperfect
information for a key decision a day late is not useful.
My former boss and mentor drafted a list of questions that
may be useful when you are seeking how a particular
reliability activity provides value. The list explores reduced
failure rate along with saved engineering time, increased sales,
reduced risk to the launch date, and a few more ways to
calculate value. My updated version of the value questionnaire
can be accessed on my site under the Introduction to
Reliability Management presentation. 
For each activity you start or recommend,you need to
understand the cost and return to calculate the ROI; if the
activity doesnot havevalue it is time to focus on something
that does. A habit of adding value and being able to
articulatethe value you have contributed lets you clearly focus
on activities that provide the greatest benefit to you and your
Formal education will make you a living; self-education
will make you a fortune.
Learning never stops. As reliability engineers we
constantly have something to learn. For those unfamiliar with
reliability engineering, they have a lot to learn from new
materials, failure analysis tools, customer expectations, and
the latest modeling software packages. We also constantly
learn from our peers about their disciplines, tradeoffs,
considerations, and inventions. We learn about business
systems, customer interactions, and financial systems. We can
and should learn as much as we can.
Being a valuable member of any team means being able
to understand how reliability engineering fits in with all the
other elements of the company. To be effective we should
know the motivations, concerns, dilemmas, and obstacles for
any group in the organization. Moreover, when working to
improve reliability of a product, if we can make other groups’
life easier, we should do so.
Building a career relies on knowing what motivates the
other people in the room. Understanding them and their
contribution to the product allowsus to make
recommendations that help them and improve product
Self-education is important. You can take online
courses;EDX , Coursea , and others offer a wide range
of material for little or no cost. Taking a course in something
that interests you, even something not directly related to
reliability engineering such ashow to use Adobe Photoshop,
may lead to improvement of your presentations or website
Besides just being curious and learning from everyone
and anyone you meet, you should deliberately seek out new
material in reliability engineering. Attending webinars,
workshops, and conferences are also valuable. You should
subscribe to at least two professional journals and listen, read,
and study to master the material.
3.7 Mentoring ability
Explaining how to analyze field data implies mastery.
Explaining it clearly and completely is mastery. For each
concept in reliability engineering we generally have to teach
others how that concept fits within their realm and decisionmaking process. Teaching courses andseminars, leading
workshops, and providing one-on-one training are all part of
comprisesapproximately one third of my professional day.
Teaching has a number ofbenefits when you are good.
Others seek your guidance when considering reliability.
Others look to you for help understanding how reliability
plays a role in design and business decisions. Being patient,
clear, and concise all help to build your credibility as a
Reliability engineers are information workers. We may
run experiments and conduct tests, yet it is the information
that has value. We gather and share information. As students
of reliability engineering,we collect information and, over a
career, that should be across many disciplines and interests. As
teachers and mentor we disseminate information for the
benefit of others.
Near the end of my mentor’s career he spent a year
traveling around the world to many of his corporation’s
product development sites to provide a two-day classes on
basic reliability engineering tools. He had taught thousands
already and relished the idea of teaching so many again. He
brought his years of experience, patience, and mastery of the
topics to each class. He imparted knowledge that made a
difference as his students applied the ideas and concepts,
saving the corporation tens of millions of dollars annually.
From our talks after his retirement, I learned that it
wasnot the recognition or bonuses (which were nice) that
defined success, it was the act of making a difference.
Given the diversity of how we start as reliability
engineers, there are a few traits that help you create a
successful career. Reliability engineering encompasses a broad
field that may touch every element of an organization. We
work to improve product reliability or asset availability with
constraints that vary owing to market or technical reasons. To
be successful we share our knowledge and influence decisions.
A career is built one experience and one project at a time.
The actions and recommendations we make enable us to
advance our career. How we define a successful career is
personal, yet a consistent application of the seven traits will
aid you in achieving a successful one.
L. A. Broedling, ―The Uses of the Intrinsic–Extrinsic
Distinction in Explaining Motivation and Organizational
Behavior,‖ The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 2.
No. 2 (Apr) 1977, pp. 267–276.
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Body of Knowledge, Certified Reliability Engineer,
American Society for Quality, 17 October 2009,
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M. L. Forret and T. W. Daugherty, ―Networking
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No. 3 (May) 2004, pp. 419–437.
L. Armstrong, ―When You're Smiling (The Whole World
Smiles With You)‖ [1958 Single Version] lyrics, EMI
Music Publishing, The Songwriters Guild of America.
D. DiSalvo, ―10 Reasons Why Some People Love What
They Do,‖ Psychology Today blog Neuronarrative, (Dec)
accessed 14 July 2013.
G. Griffiths and F. Schenkelberg, ―Value Questionnaire,‖
http://www.fmsreliability.com/publishing/introduction-toreliability-management/, accessed 15 July 2013.
10. J. Rohn, ―John Rohn Quotes.‖ Famous Quotes and
j/jimrohn121282.html, accessed 17 July 2013.
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15466 Los Gatos Blvd #109-371
Los Gatos, CA 95032 USA
Fred is a reliability engineering and management consultant
with FMS Reliability, with areas of focus including reliability
engineering management, training, and accelerated life testing.
Fred is able to bring the experience of over 100 design and
maintenance programs to your team.He is spearheading the No
MTBF movement and encourages you participation.
Previously, he co-founded and built the HP corporate
reliability program documenting over $100 million in savings.
He is a lecturer with the University of Maryland teaching a
graduate level course on reliability engineering management.
He earned a Master of Science degree in statistics at Stanford
University in 1996. He earned his bachelors degrees in
Physics at the United State Military Academy in 1983. Fredis
an active volunteer with a few reliability focused professional
organization and most proud of the ASQ Reliability Division
Webinar program and the reliability calendar programs. He is
an ASQ CRE and CQE.