If you're willing to do engineering, get your defenses squared away before you go crazy on anything else. It's not that hard and I do hull armor and shields first on all my ships, at the very least!
Not going to explain how to gather materials for engineers because that is it's own topic and there are nice videos out there for that. There are also nice video guides for almost all the engineers so watch them for the 4 below! It is best to have a ship that can carry 64 tons of cargo before you start this process and if you can, download the app EDEngineer to make your material shopping lists easier.
- Unlock Tod 'The Blaster" McQuinn just because he is a pre-requisite to Selene Jean who does hull armor and hull reinforcement packages. Minor bounty hunting effort will unlock him and I suggest bringing a multi-cannon with you to unlock to grade 3-4 to get Selene's invite. A good beginner choice is to engineer it over-charged with the incendiary experimental effect (EE) but you can do what you want. Just get that Selene Jean invite.
- Unlock Selene Jean by bringing her 10 units of Painite, which you are going to have to surface mine. Again, consult one of many guides for that. Once she is unlocked, pick your primary ship to being to her. If it is an explorer and anything else you want to keep light, leave it with the default light armor. If it is anything else I would probably recommend getting at least military grade composite if you can afford it because this will give you 250 extra hull points right off the bat. Have Selene engineer your hull (it shows up as "armour") all the way to grade 5 heavy duty with deep plating EE. Magically, light hull armour benefits from this and it doesn't even increase your mass, so engineer those explorers! If you are ambitious have her do a hull reinforcement package (HRP) for you in the biggest slot you are willing to give up. I would suggest heavy duty with the thermal protection EE. "Pin" the blueprint for armour because you can use it to do all your other ships at home.
- Next you need to unlock The Dweller to get to Lei Cheung, who you really want for shield engineering. Both of them require you to trade in a certain number of markets, 5 black markets for The Dweller and 50 regular markets for Lei. You can pound this out at once with the cargo vessel you have. Buy 50 cheap things to sell one at a time at 45 station markets for Lei. It really doesn't matter what. After this buy 5 imperial slaves in Kurughnaye, at Chilton Port (don't be carrying these around when you are doing Lei's 45!). For your last 5 things for Lei and the 5 black market items for The Dweller, jump to Scylla and head to the stations that are way far out. There are a bunch of them with black markets and you can unload your slaves and last 5 things for Lei in those stations, one at a time. You should get invites from The Dweller. If you don't re-log.
- Go to The Dweller with a ship you like and make sure you buy a grade A power distributor for it. Get The Dweller to engineer it at least grade 4 charge enhanced with the super conduits EE. This particular engineering combo is great for practically any ship, ("pin" this blueprint so you can do it on other ships later) The invite for Lei Cheung should roll in.
- Lei takes a bribe of 200 units of gold so buy this anywhere and just get it to him. I just bought it in his system and shuffled it over. Congrats you have unlocked him. Bring the ship you did the hull armor for and buy a nice grade A shield in the largest slot you can manage for it and engineer it grade 5 reinforced. The EE you want varies depending on what the ship is used for so I won't advise on this. If you are ambitious he also does shield boosters to level 3. I suggest heavy duty on those
Congrats! With hull armor (and maybe hull reinforcement packages) and shields (and maybe shield boosters) you have mastered basic engineered defenses. Do it for all your ships and you will be harder to kill, giving you more time to deal with those unsavory elements in the galaxy.