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Being Mentored

Posted by Wayne on December 2, 2011


Over the decades (yeah – decades) – I’ve had the opportunity to be mentored by many great people all through my career. 25+ years later I still seek out people who can guide and teach me new things and new ways to think. When I first started in the IT business I was a typical wet-behind the ears kid with an extremely curious side to me. I worked as a machinist for a company that made X-Ray equipment. I’d managed to get some college under my belt but wasn’t consistently going to school. I think one reason was I was making enough money to survive and part of it was I really didn’t find the domain I was studying (mechanical engineering) particularly interesting.

At the time the first “home” computers were coming out and I managed to acquire one and became completely infatuated with it. In no time I got pretty good at making it do stuff including things it wasn’t even really designed for (6502 assembly rocks!). One day my companies TRS80 that kept the warehouse inventory on it decided to eat a floppy disk with the inventory. Losing the inventory meant we all had to go home for the day while they tried to figure out what to do. Since I had time on my hands I decieded to go see what was up and offered to try to repair the disk. I ended up writing something that read all the blocks off the disk that were good – which was 99.9% of the inventory. Needless to say – things changed after that – I got offered a job as the system admin of our “mini-computer” almost immediately which was going to run a “real” MRP2 system. I didn’t know anything about mini-computers – but hey! I was now working in the field I really seemed to have a knack for and really was having a lot of fun too.

The manager of the IT department had a PhD and also did real-time microprocessor programming R&D for the companies X-ray systems. Once I got my sea-legs in the new job I started troubleshooting problems. I’d go to his office, ask for help, and he would ask what’s up? I’d explain the problem and he would always asked if I looked the error up in the manuals? and those first few times I’d always say no and he’d give me the look over his glasses that sent me on my way. I’d look the error up, chase the possible solutions through the manuals, narrow them down to the 1-2 most likely and go back to his office. He’d ask me what I learned and I’d tell him what I read and what I thought the problem was.

He’d ask how would I prove it was the right solution and he’d listen to me explain the approach and sometimes he would have to make a small adjustment or two so that I didn’t take the systems down or break something.  This went of for a good number of weeks until I realized that I might as well look stuff up, prioritize the solution, and then go tell him what I planned to do. Years later he confessed that he didn’t know any of the answers to my questions – what he did know was how he would go about seeking the answers. At the time I hadn’t realized all he did was mentor and teach me how to solve problems on my own.
My advise is if you are going to spend the time looking for a mentor – find someone who is not close to your skill and capabilit. Find someone who will stretch your abilities the most. Once you hit your stride with their help – you can achieve things beyond what you thought was possible.
I’ve had the benefit of a plethora of mentors I’ve also been able to shape my career from what I learned from them. I am, and always will be,  incredibly grateful and indebted to all of them. Just four years ago I started work on a PhD and decided I wanted to find a sponsor at work who would provide some guidance and oversight for my research. After knocking on more than twenty doors, and dozens of  meetings/calls, I found someone who was willing to shepherd my research and take on the added responsibility of being on my dissertation committee. He is one of the giants in the security industry, Dr.  Burton Kaliski, founding scientist at RSA. For over two years he mentored me as a budding researcher and scientist. Most recently I’ve been working on several patents in privacy and once again I reached out to someone who knows a lot the innovation process – Steve Todd EMC Distinquished Engineer. Steve has written two books on the topic and has over 15o patents filed, making him one of the most prolific inventors I’ve ever met. Both of these people are giants in the areas I wanted to learn more about.
In grad school I took a leadership course that taught us that to be a good leader you also had to be a good follower. In my next post I’ll share my thoughts on taking on the roll of mentoring and why I believe that if your are going to have a mentor find a way to give back and mentor someone yourself.


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