Mentoring dates back to the dawn of our world. Sons were taught the tricks of their trade by their fathers, daughters by their mothers. In modern times it is a little bit different, but luckily we can communicate with the experts holding the knowledge we need, whereever they are located. This is especially true for our very specific profession. The SAWE Mentoring Program supports you to find a mentor to teach you the tricks of trade you need.
Read what mentees and mentors have to say on the subject.
Robert Zimmerman, October 25, 2023
Why Should You Become a Mentee?
I am an accomplished mass properties engineer. I retired from a major aerospace company as a member of the Senior Engineering Staff. I have certification as an Expert Mass Properties Engineer (EMPE), and having served the SAWE in multiple capacities, I have been awarded the Richard Boynton Lifetime Achievement Award. However, I wasn’t always the engineer I am today.
Once upon a time, I was a fresh-faced college graduate who started my first real engineering job at one of the aircraft companies in Wichita. I did not run across a fairy godmother who waved her magic wand and proclaimed, “You are now a mass properties guru.” Until I had my interview at the company, I had not even heard of mass properties engineering. Most of what I now know regarding mass properties came from learning from others – on the job and off the job training, reading, observing, and asking questions. Every one of these methods involves transfer of knowledge from one or more people to another.
Some of this knowledge transfer is eye opening, setting the stage for later use. As an example, while in college I went to one of my professors, Dr. Langer, with a question. I don’t even remember what the question was and what the answer he gave was, because what struck me was something I observed, and used extensively in my career. He was sitting cross-legged on his desk, a pad of paper on one knee and a textbook on the other. He was busy writing on the pad. After our “official” business was over, I asked him what he was doing, and he told me he was going through a textbook. He was considering using it and was verifying that he could reproduce the mathematical equations in the book step-by-step. In other words, he was both making sure the equations were correct, while also using his knowledge to work out the answer. He said something I can recall nearly 50 years later, “You might be able to find something in a book, but it is much better for understanding to work it out for yourself.” That was true mentoring, freely given with the cost of tuition.
At the aircraft company, I had a lot to learn. Yes, I could determine a volume and multiply by a density to get an object’s mass and calculate its center of gravity. But – I also knew there was lot I didn’t know. One day I was asked to determine a balance mass for a control surface. My brain went into neutral, and I just couldn’t see how to do it. Had I only remembered Dr. Langer’s advice, I could have come up with the answer. Instead, I headed back to the senior engineer who had given me the task and confessed I couldn’t see how to calculate the desired balance mass. Instead of admonishing me, he drew me a diagram and went over the mechanics without working out the answer. In other words, he mentored me on determining balancing objects. I was his mentee – and I learned several lessons in this simple session. First, I learned about balancing. Secondly, by examining how it was done, I could see how I could have derived the correct formulation of the equation. Thirdly, I found I could seek out guidance and not be thought a moron. And fourthly, I recalled Dr. Langer’s lesson and realized that even a non-obvious answer can be “discovered” by going back to basics and working from there.
From the aircraft company, I changed companies and found myself working for a major aerospace corporation. I was initially assigned as an associate engineer to a much older mass properties engineer. By this time, I had a solid understanding of basic mass properties. What I learned working for this man was how to thrive in a highly competitive environment, using office politics to your advantage, avoiding pitfalls, and how to ensure that you aren’t the “invisible engineer”. That isn’t to say that there were not technical challenges to work out, but this era of being a mentee enabled me to be a survivor when the coming downturns meant that 2/3 of the workforce disappeared either through self-induced attrition or layoffs. But before the downturn, I was given a series of increasingly responsible positions culminating in assignment to a major proposal. When we won the proposal, I was somewhat deflated to learn that a senior engineer was assigned in the lead mass properties position. Rather than complain, I decided that here was someone I could really learn from. He was an SAWE Honorary Fellow, and from him I benefited from his lifetime’s knowledge of technical and non-technical life in aerospace. I would not have become the engineer I am without having him as a mentor.
I had one more mentee experience having to do with getting a spinning spacecraft to naturally spin about a specific axis. I called my department head and he came over and tried to explain what that entailed. Finally, he said something that made me write out the equations and rearrange them until it was obvious what had to be done to get the desired answer. From that, I wrote a program so that as the design evolved, I could make adjustments to keep the axis aligned.
I took all this knowledge that had been passed to me and utilized it in the years ahead. As a mentee, I had evolved from a boneheaded neophyte who couldn’t balance a control surface, to the company expert in mass properties. I became a mentor to others. I wrote papers, technical articles, led teams to implement mass properties tasks, designed measurement apparatus that could encompass a wide CG range while determining Moments of Inertia. Along the way I was elected and appointed to leadership positions in the SAWE. And each step of the way was due to, in the words of Isaac Newton, “Standing on the shoulders of giants,” in other words “l leveraged other’s knowledge to my advantage by being their mentee.”
And this is why, at almost any stage of your career, you should become someone’s mentee.
Robert Zimmerman, July 9, 2023
Becoming a Mentee – “If You Don’t Ask, You Don’t Get”
What common characteristic does a successful Mass Properties Engineer share with a moderately successful 1970’s rock band? Both have benefited from a philosophy that can be summed up as “If You Don’t Ask, You Don’t Get.” This was a favorite phrase of my father’s, useful in many aspects of his life. He used it to get into college at an early age, he used it when he wanted a more desirable route while flying in the IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) system. He used it to expand his areas of expertise in his chosen field. And he used it when he acquired automobiles, when choosing a life partner, and even in his final days to go the way he wished.
To say that anyone can’t learn from this is to ignore sage advice. The SAWE has taken this philosophy and used it to create a means for transferring knowledge – The SAWE Mentoring Program is in essence a way for our membership to ask for aid in increasing their knowledge and skills. The program went live at the end of May, we have highly experienced members who volunteered their time and expertise as Mentors. Now we are actively seeking not only more Mentors, but members who are seeking to expand their own expertise as Mentees. Even experienced members can find benefit as a Mentee and request a Mentor. Don’t be shy – be Mentee!
I have been both a Mentee and a Mentor. One situation I had that pushed me to seek a Mentor I have already written about (A Mentoring Odyssey first published in issue 77-2 of Weight Engineering – article available at https://www.dropbox.com/scl/fi/3z1d5szp7724wk8nimdxi/A-Mentoring-Odyssey-extracted.pdf?rlkey=9iaj2qg06l1a8pfpxhj4wcf7j&dl=0). The mass properties problem I was trying to solve was definitely a case where “If You Don’t Ask, You Don’t Get” in action. I asked, became a Mentee seeking Mentor, and the rest is history.
What about that rock group mentioned above? In 1967, Berkeley dropout Jann Wenner founded a music and counter-culture magazine called Rolling Stone. It quickly became THE magazine for coverage of the music scene and cultural commentary by writers such as Hunter S. Thompson. To be featured on the cover of the magazine was a measure of an artist’s prestige. The very first cover, establishing the magnitude of the featured artist, was John Lennon, then the acknowledged leader of the Beatles. Thereafter, the cover was a tangible indication that an artist had “arrived”. By 1972, a group fronted by one-eyed singer Ray Sawyer had seen modest success, with a Shel Silverstein composed song, Sylvia’s Mother, which hit the Top 5. The group wanted more, and Sawyer and Silverstein hit gold with the next song, a classic case of If You Don’t Ask, You Don’t Get: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KuvfIePDbgY. The song parodied the life of a rock band, but it was basically a request to be featured on the cover of Jann Wenner’s magazine. Wenner took notice – it was certainly free advertising for him, and the band was featured on his magazine’s cover in March 1973.