The Lost Art of Mentoring

Opportunities for mentorship offer advantages to both the senior engineer sharing their experience, and the young engineer seeking knowledge.

When I started my first full time engineering job fresh out of graduate school, I was excited and eager to jump right in to show that I could be a valuable asset to my new company. 

Not only was I enthusiastic, but I had just finished up six years of engineering study – I was ready! 

I had also taken several courses in finite element theory and application, which was still a relatively new technique in the early 1980s, so I was confident that I could make a difference right away.

In this first job, my main task was performing structural analysis using finite element modeling.  Working on my first few analysis projects, I soon realized that while my engineering education provided me a solid general background, I was lacking in the ability to translate real world conditions into representations that I could use in my models. 

How should I model this bolted connection?  What condition should I apply for this boundary condition?  Is it appropriate to use a symmetry simplification here?  Is this mesh density adequate?  How should I interpret these results?  How can I get my nonlinear analysis to converge? 

There was a lot to learn, and I realized that even the best education cannot provide everything you will need once you’re out in the real world.

I quickly learned that my boss was a valuable resource in finding answers to all of these real-world, experience-based questions.  His patient explanations of how and why to model conditions in a particular way, his guidance on assumptions and simplifications that made analyses more efficient without sacrificing significant accuracy and his suggestions for running test cases to help with understanding how different features and settings affected the results became a cornerstone in my engineering development.

I also learned that technical issues are not the only things you need to know in order to be a successful engineer. 

I received mentoring on many aspects of professional engineering, including how to communicate effectively with both technical and non-technical people, how to improve my presentation skills and how to craft efficient and informative documents using aspects of technical writing. 

My boss also supported my efforts to continue my education, and he played the role of “unofficial advisor” as I obtained my Ph.D.  He demonstrated how to approach my work with enthusiasm; he even hung a sign outside his office that read, “We Can Do It!” 

Most importantly, his actions conveyed the idea that since we all spend a major portion of our life at work, we should have fun and enjoy it as much as possible.

His rules — some stated, others inferred from his actions — for a successful career and general life skills have stayed with me and continue to guide my career. 

A few of the gems he offered me include:

  • People like to work with people they like.
  • At the beginning of each meeting, state the goal of the meeting and what should be accomplished. (No one ever does this!)
  • A compliment goes a lot further than an insult.
  • Never buy your spouse an appliance for their birthday present.

If you are an experienced engineer and have the opportunity to mentor a less-experienced member of your staff, I highly recommend that you do so. 

Over the years, I have tried to pass on my mentor’s philosophies to the younger engineers at my company, and to the students in the classes I teach as an adjunct professor. I clearly see how it can change their outlook for the positive, and I cannot imagine how different my own career would be without my mentor’s guidance and knowledge.

If you are a young engineer and don’t currently have a mentor, there are still a few things you can do to learn the things that aren’t necessarily taught in college or typical training classes.

  • Read some engineering blogs.  There is a lot of great information available on the Internet that is experience-based and discusses topics not found elsewhere.  I often refer to my engineering colleagues’ entries in my own company’s blog. 
  • Join engineering user groups.  LinkedIn has various user groups related to engineering that can be a good source of information. 
  • Sign up for an engineering class.  It is always a good idea to keep learning new things, and many companies offer seminars and classes.  Most colleges offer engineering classes in the evenings.  This means you will have teachers and professors available to discuss your career path, and these people can become valuable mentors.
  • Mentoring services.  My company, for example, offers one-on-one mentoring services on topics related to structural and fluid simulation.  In our mentoring, we try to explain not only how, but why we are doing things a certain way.  And who knows, we might throw in a life lesson along the way!

Mentors play an invaluable role in helping develop and foster the future success of their younger colleagues.  Pass on your knowledge!

About the Author

Dr. Michael Bak is a Senior Engineering Manager at CAE Associates Inc., an engineering consulting firm in Middlebury, CT.  He has over 30 years of experience in finite element theory, linear and nonlinear structural analysis, heat transfer analysis, composite life prediction, fracture mechanics, computer programming and applied mathematics.