Mentoring inexperienced engineers

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I find it genuinely fascinating to observe the progression and development of engineers fresh out of university at their first full-time assignment in the industry. A new, bright-eyed graduate engineer is mostly unmolded in the practical aspects of engineering but is well educated in theoretical knowledge. However, it is easy to start losing this theoretical knowledge when daily routine tasks become the priority; calculus becomes petrified, metallurgy gets rusty, force and load analysis skills crumble, and thermodynamics chills.

And though a rookie engineer can bring a fresh outlook to issues, additional theoretical knowledge and a new approach based on new methodologies, not every suggestion is a new concept. Sometimes it’s a challenge to communicate that what is new to a novice is old hat to an experienced engineer.

As far as I can tell, a graduate’s first job seems to set the tone for the rest of their career. Their initial supervisor thus has the responsibility and opportunity to mold the novice for the future. I believe this molding stays with the engineer for the rest of their professional career.

Take it from me. My first boss would conduct Friday afternoon sessions where we would chat about brake design and vehicle engineering. He would share his knowledge and offer tidbits of experience that have subsequently served me well throughout my career. For example, regarding products and testing, he taught me that nothing is ever identical or exactly the same. It is possible for two parts of a product or the execution of two tests to be similar but never identical. The indelible lesson learned here? Variation in engineering is always present, so recognize it, respect it and live with it. I later realized these sessions were molding me for the rest of my career.

Building on previous knowledge and experience is humbling, rewarding and efficient. Unfortunately we tend to learn better from our own mistakes and failures than from someone else’s. How many times do we end up repeating history in order to learn from it?

Reverse engineering and understanding the solutions and methodologies that were available to an engineer in the past provides an appreciation in the present for the knowledge and talents that led to those solutions. It’s amazing what those engineers knew (or didn’t!) and figured out.

During the golden age of sailing in the 1840s to 1860s, clipper ships were built at an amazing rate. The Boston and New York shipyards could go from a contract agreement, as defined by the half hull models you now see in museums, to a completed vessel in just three to four months, and build a dozen ships per year. And all this was accomplished during an era of broad illiteracy, before CAD, modern management, material controls and manufacturing methods came to the fore. Our current industrial society would have a more difficult time reproducing such accomplishments. There are lessons to learn and questions to ask, such as whether we really need all the organizational systems currently in place.

It is important to encourage a new engineer to investigate how something is done, why it has been done in a certain way and the history behind it. This leads to a comprehension of the limitations of historical methods and opens the mind up to inspiration and advances in technology and methodology. Immediately suggesting solutions usually results in proposing an idea that has been previously recognized.

Curiosity is a required trait in engineers; curiosity in history, and curiosity in how and why. Some engineers seem to narrow their vision as time goes on – becoming expert in one particular field. Others keep expanding their skills due to curiosity and develop broadening rings of knowledge. And some progress to program clerks, keeping track of tasks and assignments with minimal technical contribution other than judging how reasonable something is. Project management is a necessity, but don’t make it your professional life – you will inevitably make yourself obsolete. Engineers with broad knowledge bases are always in demand, even as technology advances.

So, to the experienced engineers out there, try to mentor a young counterpart, share your knowledge, expect doubt and skepticism, and push back. Encourage it. Try teaching a young engineer to question and search, and that there is a difference between offering opinion and conclusions based on intuition and those based on a solid understanding of engineering developed gradually from history, physical data, good assumptions and theoretical calculations.

Gene Lukianov spent 20 years at Chrysler, working in vehicle dynamics and analytical dynamics. Now a consulting engineer, he runs VRAD Engineering, providing vehicle and suspension design services to the OEM and aftermarket industries

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