Electronic Design

What's All This Mentoring Stuff, Anyhow?

Once upon a time, a new engineer came to work in our group. A woman. Now, in some areas, it's really not a surprise to have a new engineer or a woman engineer, but in our group, that did not happen very often. So when Jane arrived, we all tried to be polite and cheerful, for a change, and not just scream at her and give her a hard time, as newcomers are sometimes treated. Now, Jane was a bright young woman, but there were a lot of things that she had to ask questions about, so she would ask various people. Sometimes she would ask me, and sometimes she would ask Andy, another of the oldtime experienced engineers. We didn't just fall over ourselves to help this bright young engineer. But we did realize that the more questions we answered, and the faster we could bring her up the learning curve, the quicker we could get a lot of help out of her and turn her into a real engineer.

So we were reasonably cheerful at answering some of her dumb questions (like where do you find things that aren't filed or indexed rationally?), and some of her very thoughtful questions (why do we keep telling customers this or that when it's not true??). And we tried not to just throw answers at her, but to explain the reasons behind the answer.

One day, I wandered over to get some info out of a book, and Jane asked me a question. Andy had the answer quicker than I did, and I was standing around reading the book, while Andy explained the answer to Jane. When he was finished, I said, "Hey, Andy, you know, Jane is your protégée, right?" Andy agreed. I continued, "And Jane is my protégée, too, right?" Andy agreed. I then said, "And, Andy, do you know what that makes us?" Andy could not think of the correct word. I said, "That makes us dirty old men." And all three of us broke up into laughter. Around here, no-one and nothing is taken very seriously....

Actually, there is a word that applies, so if a person is my protégé (male) or protégée (female), then I am a Mentor. I attended a nifty conference on Bipolar Circuits and Technology in Minneapolis in September. I must say, although it doesn't get nearly as much publicity as ISSCC, it's getting to be nearly as good as ISSCC, so long as you are really interested in bipolar circuits (if you're a hard-core MOS enthusiast, there's no reason for you to come to Minneapolis in September). The after-lunch speaker this past year was Jim Williams of Linear Technology Corp., Milpitas, Calif. Jim talked about several topics, but his most serious pitch was that we must do a lot of mentoring. We can't just hire a bunch of kid engineers, ignore them, throw garbage at them, and then chew them out. We probably never could do that. But in the 1990s, it's reasonably easy to see that the nurturing of new or young engineers is a major part of our jobs.

When I was a kid engineer at Philbrick, I had a number of excellent teachers, engineers who taught me many different aspects of the profession. I must say, though, I was a rather green engineer, because I never had a hobby of ham radio, as many engineers did. In fact, I only transferred from the Physics department to become an EE in the fall of my senior year.

At Philbrick, Dr. Achard helped me appreciate technical writing. Bruce Seddon taught me a lot about worst-case design. Al Pearlman answered lots of my questions about transistors. Bob Malter did not have much time for dumb questions, but I studied his designs and asked a few questions that were not too dumb. I mean, learning how to ask questions that are not too dumb is a significant part of every student's education. After studying and learning from a whole bunch of people for over a year, I was just barely able to design my way out of a paper bag - with a little help. It took me a few more years before I understood the whole picture, well enough that I could design amplifiers without too many fatal flaws, or latch-up modes, or features that did more harm than good.

So if we also want to hire good engineers to work on linear or analog circuits, we can't just find them in thin air, and we can't just hire them from our competitors. And we certainly can't just find them coming out of colleges. I mean, when a student graduates from a good engineering school, the best I can hope for is that the student has learned some good study habits, some good attitudes toward work, and some ability to analyze several kinds of circuits. But not everything. Can I hope that the student really knows how to design an op amp? Well, I hope that an engineer I am interviewing knows a little bit about designing something. If he (or she) can design and analyze some things pretty well, there's good hope I can teach them enough to come up the learning curve quickly. That's only fair. If I can make them look good, then they can make me look good.

So I should try to avoid the "mushroom treatment," not heap manure on them and leave them in the dark. I should teach them sometimes, throw problems at them other times, challenge them, and try to set a good example. I should avoid letting them get stuck, or hung up, or discouraged. I may not be able to answer every question. I may demur, or duck certain questions, and tell them to go figure it out for themselves. It's a little bit like when you have kids. You can't teach your own kids everything, but you try to steer them in a course where they can learn what they need.

I remember when our sons were just learning to read. For a while, my wife and I agreed that each of us would read everything that Benjamin read. After about a month, we agreed, well, one or the other would try to read everything Benjamin read because he was just too omnivorous for each of us to fit in the time to read everything. A month after that, we sort of gave up, as we could not possibly keep up with his appetite for reading. We tried to read samples of what he was reading. But, we had gotten him turned on and he was off to the races, devouring every kind of book and magazine that was suitable for young people, and many grown-ups' topics as well. Now that both my sons are taller than I am, they throw me an occasional bone, some good things for me to read that they can recommend. Turnabout is fair play.

Now, when we assign projects to engineers at work, I can't keep up with all of the details, and I can't know all of the answers. But I have to keep in touch, to tell if there's trouble, to facilitate the search for answers, and to prevent the guy from getting discouraged. This is even necessary for an experienced engineer! Because there really aren't many easy projects that our customers want us to do, every engineer gets some very challenging projects. Challenges are great for young engineers, but mentoring would advise you against loading on an unfairly heavy load. Similarly, I have to keep an eye on the project, to make sure the engineer doesn't make a false assumption and go barrelling down a path that is dead-end. Everybody recognizes that after it has happened, but it's a little harder to see it in advance.

Wow, Pease, it sounds like you really are in charge of a big group. How many people does Mr. Super-manager Pease have working for him? Well, about 2 engineers, 2 technicians, and one guy who is half- way up from technician to engineer. But, I must say, by default, I have given some of my technicians a lot of liberty, and they have responded by coming, up with some brilliant moves, interspersed with a few occasional marvelous blunders. So, I have 2 boys at home, and 5 boys at work, and, oh boy, do we have fun.

Comments invited! / RAP
Robert A. Pease / Engineer

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