Mentor Traps

To the students among us.  May you use this knowledge to fare better than those that came before you.  Seriously though – an article written both to our next generation’s emerging workforce as well as the mentors that help to guide them.
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And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by…  John Masefield (1878-1967)

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I’ve often said that you can raise a kid to have great values, ethics, and habits only to watch as they ruin it all by marrying (or partnering with) the wrong person!  Funny, yes.  But there’s also an element of truth to it.  The simple fact is – incompatible companions have just as profound an influence on the thoughts and behaviors of their partners as that of compatible ones.  The difference is that the incompatible ones tend to draw out and/or amplify their partner’s negative rather than positive attributes.  The same could be said of impressionable college-aged graduates and their first working-world mentors.  In my experience, the fastest way to ruin those who may have otherwise become model engineers is to expose them to the wrong mentors.

This isn’t about problem solving.  Real-world engineering involves a great deal more than challenging technical problems.  There are deadlines that can’t be met without short cuts, tenuous relationships among team members and management because of divergent ideas on how or why something should or should not be done, etc. Perspectives and agendas abound.  Some want to do it right the first time regardless of time or resource expenditure.  Others just want to do their 8-5 and go home.  Still others politic and position for we know not what.  And there are even those that go so far as to claim responsibility for the work of others or try to sabotage reputations and advances.  Work long enough and you’ll see just about everything.  Beyond the world of knowledge and skill lay a minefield of egos, reputations and agendas, some of which are powered by mentoring.  It’s not hard to believe then that a graduate’s first mentors can have a profound and lasting influence on his or her perspectives and behaviors – not just because of how impressionable students tend to be as they make their first full-time transition to the professional workforce, but because of the fact that their mentors have a strong vested interest in perpetuating their own mindset, reputation and agendas.  Good or bad, it comes down to this: The more people that follow a certain code, the more those that own the code can justify it, as well as their own actions and behaviors.

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Right out of grad school (Age: 33) I snagged an electrical engineering position in a hardware design group under a 20-year veteran.  He was renowned not just for his vast breadth of knowledge and experience at the company, but that golden and much sought after ability to “git er dun” during crunch time.  At the point of my arrival he’d already been mentoring two college-aged (20-something) graduates for over a year.  And it was amazing to see how these protégés so obviously mirrored his attitudes, perspectives, and behaviors.  None of it appeared to be bad – just a little weird considering my natural resistance to said influence because of age and experience.  And I really had no problem with “The Three Bobs” (as I liked to call them) until the moment of our inevitable philosophical divergence.  Evidently The Bobs didn’t believe in writing anything “unnecessary” down – not for their own sake or for that of posterity.  I discovered this fact about a month into a project while trying to dig up some test plan information.

Soon enough I found that there were missing files for a lot of things – no functional specs, test plan documentation, historical performance data, nothing – except for maybe a design schematic and some build files that were required to construct production-ready circuit boards during fabrication.  Every single design they’d ever touched – every one was missing the bulk of what would normally be considered standard, useful, and even vital information. And they got away with it because of two reasons.  Mainly, they were always too busy.  Whenever management loaded on new work, The Bobs would neglect to mention anything pertaining to documentation and the need or required hours to complete it.  Beyond that, company culture reinforced the lack of necessity here by putting far more emphasis on activities like design and troubleshooting rather than the systematic pursuit of holistic engineering.  There was always enough time for action, but never enough for the monotonous burden of putting things down on paper so that someone else could deal with it.  They were literally positioning themselves to be indispensable – at least according to their perspective.  And I was reminded of this weekly as they’d laugh it up about job security and the fact that no one else knew what the hell was going on.

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As an outsider to all of this, you might find yourself wondering and then finally just asking a question like the following:

“How did everything come to this in the first place?”

And the answer is actually fairly simple – people like The Bobs propagating their mindset and agendas to the point where those ideas and agendas became integral to the culture.  That should give you a sense for the profound impact that bad mentoring can have on a system.  And it’s something to consider very seriously as you make that full-time transition into the professional workforce.  We’d all like to believe that we’re resistant to significant influence, and that our values and behaviors are autonomous and inflexible.  But the reality is vastly different.  People in transition tend to be impressionable. And when we’re transitioning into something big and important, we all have a propensity for bending over backwards and aiming to please.  It’s natural and simply reveals a measure of care for what’s being addressed.  But, as previously illustrated, it can be taken too far.  If you value your ideals – if you want to maintain some semblance of an idealistic and sovereign work ethic – these are the kinds of influences you’ll need to be aware of and maintain some vigilance over.

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On the whole all I can say is that these young engineers were somewhat, if not irreparably damaged.  Nothing you could say or do after that would likely convince them that they were doing anything wrong.  Furthermore, they had the reinforcement of everyone around them to prove it.  So even if the financial impact from this kind of behavior was obvious to people like me, it didn’t matter since no one was keeping track.

Personally I’ve always believed that a great engineer leaves a roadmap of which anyone can follow. And what makes you truly irreplaceable is not what you hide from others, but rather what you are capable of empowering them with. In this way you are quite literally easy to obsolete or replace, because everything you do can be understood and sustained by someone else. But it also makes you highly mobile. Management never has to worry about dragging you back onto your former projects simply because no one else has a clue.  You’re always onto the next thing, always a moving target, always hard to hit. And on top of that, your prior work has your signature all over it. No one can deny that you did it, which can obviously be good or bad depending on how sloppy or shortsighted you are. At any rate – this philosophy goes great distances to assure accountability at the source, which is something I wholeheartedly believe in.  Nuff said.

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