Mentors Teach Skills, Hard And Soft

Technology Staff Editor
Posted by in Technology

When it's your first full-time engineering job out of college and you have questions, it helps to have someone like Lonne Mays in your corner--more specifically, in the cube across from yours. Mays, a systems and applications engineer with Austin, Texas-based Freescale Semiconductor Inc., has been working in the industry for 35 years. New hire Baher Ahmad sat across from him when he started out at Freescale's Tempe, Ariz., facility three years ago. Their mentoring arrangement began informally, then became "official" and is now informal again. With a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Arizona State University in Tempe, the Jordanian-born Ahmad started as a product engineer. His education hadn't completely prepared him for workplace realities. "You come out of school and you think you know things," Ahmad said. "And then you join the real world, and it's completely different." The proximity of their cubicles--and Mays' willingness to help--meant Ahmad could go to him for advice whenever he needed it.That was often. "I §was popping in 10 times a day saying, 'Do you have a minute?' " Ahmad said. "It was not always about the technical aspect of things, although that was a lot of it." But Ahmad also sought pointers on soft skills, including how to get along with managers, customers and co-workers. Mays' enthusiasm for the job rubbed off, and his support made a big difference to the younger employee. "It's done a whole lot for me," Ahmad, now a systems and architecture engineer, said. "It's increased my confidence." Freescale is one of many companies in the electronics industry to have set up mentoring programs for new hires. Mentor arrangements exist as well at the college level, including through a nationwide program called MentorNet, which has matched some 15,000 pairs of students and professionals since its founding in 1997. "Engineers and scientists must actively outreach to young minds to encourage them to pursue careers in these fields," said Michele Lezama, who directs the National GEM Consortium, a science-and-engineering education nonprofit that targets underrepresented groups. The practice benefits not only the mentor and the person learning the ropes, but also their employer. "One of the important aspects of mentoring is [that] it preserves the continuum of expertise in a corporation," Mays said. Mays' informal arrangement with Ahmad lasted two years. It was then formalized through Freescale's Open Mentoring program, which pairs mentors and newbies with explicit goals and tracks the results. Last year, when Mays moved to Freescale's Portland, Ore., site, his formal mentoring relationship with Ahmad continued for six more months. The distance wasn't an obstacle, he said. For Mays, who keeps in touch with Ahmad and still offers advice when asked, being a mentor is a natural evolutionary step. He started out with Freescale in 1976 when it was part of Moto- rola Inc. "During that time, one picks up a lot of know-how and sees a lot of new engineers coming on board," Mays said. He has informally and formally mentored many fledgling engineers, and has enjoyed the process. "I get a great deal of joy in seeing someone learn and progress and 'get it' when I'm explaining something," Mays said. Programs such as Freescale's are designed without gender in mind. Some companies, concerned about the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles in the industry, have tailored mentoring efforts specifically toward them. EDA vendor Cadence Design Systems Inc. (San Jose, Calif.) this month will begin a nine-month pilot program to develop leadership skills in 10 women employees, mostly engineers, said Eileen Sullivan, IT client services group director. The women and their Cadence mentors will meet for at least an hour every month. The program also includes half-day sessions in leadership training. Successful mentoring sometimes is just a matter of encouraging someone to go outside their professional comfort zone, Sullivan said. "The one-on-one mentoring enables people to take risks they might not have otherwise," she said. But it's important that those being mentored drive the experience and manage their careers, Sullivan said. One benefit to the mentor is being seen as a person willing and able to develop others. "It's a bit of a status symbol to be seen as a person knowledgeable enough to mentor someone else," she said. "It gives a philanthropic aspect to a career that is often only seen as technically driven."

It can make mentoring easier and more natural if a mentor also is a role model--someone of the same gender, or racial or ethnic background, as the person being mentored--but that isn't always necessary, said Lezama of the National GEM Consortium. "Mentoring can happen regardless of similarity of back- ground," she said. And it's a necessity, however it happens, because of the shortfall of science and engineering talent in comparison to other countries, she added. "Mentoring is required, particularly in developing talent in the U.S. in the fields of engineering and science," Lezama said. When a public company invests in a tech startup, mentoring often happens naturally, according to Rajeev Madhavan, CEO of Magma Design Automation Inc. (Santa Clara, Calif.). Magma, which makes EDA software, had informal and formal mentoring arrangements with five startups in 2005. The company had invested in four of them. Mentoring at a startup usually means working with a few smart young people--in some cases possessing technically sound ideas but in need of practical business advice to succeed, Madhavan said. But it extends to the corporate side. Madhavan sometimes attends board meetings, offers ideas, suggests possible customers and coordinates with Magma on the startups' behalf. Mentors should be honest, Madhavan said. "To me, a mentor is not just a person who can tell me the good stuff I'm doing," he said. "It's someone who can take very drastic positions and tell me when I'm doing something poorly." He does just that with the startups. "I make it very clear to the companies I mentor," he said. "I may tell them where they are doing a pathetic job and give them suggestions to improve." Naturally, there's a business motive: The startups' success benefits Magma customers and shareholders. But Madhavan says he also feels he has to give back to a profession that has done a lot for him--and he finds the process gratifying. "I love being in that startup environment," he said. "The mentoring is an opportunity to make the industry grow." Mentoring students New engineers and tech entrepreneurs aren't the only candidates for mentoring. Students can benefit from it, too, said Carol Muller, former associate dean at Dartmouth College's engineering school. In 1995, after seeing firsthand the difficulty of arranging industrial-site visits for students, Muller started an "e-mentoring" pilot program at Dartmouth. That led to the founding two years later of MentorNet, a San Jose-based nonprofit that matches students with professionals in industry and academia. Mentor- Net began as a resource for women but expanded last year to include other underrepresented minorities in engineering. Although the focus is on underrepresented groups, all engineering students are welcome, Muller said. In 2005, males numbered 13 percent of those mentored, females 87 percent. The gender breakdown of the mentors usually is 35 percent male, 65 percent female, she said. Mentors often provide a needed perspective on the college experience. "It really makes a difference in the lives of the mentors and protégés involved," Muller said. "I've heard countless stories from students that having a mentor is what enabled them to keep going." Some 130 organizations, professional societies, universities, companies and government labs take part in MentorNet. Muller said that she'd like to see two or three times that number involved. What makes a good mentor? Someone who enjoys passing on knowledge, said Freescale's Mays. It can't be a person who jealously guards his or her expertise with the attitude that they learned it the hard way--and so can everyone else. Mentors can find that their calling leads to unexpected victories. Mays recalled that he had once mentored a young colleague who was a fellow vegetarian. They found common ground in complaining about the carnivore-centric offerings at what was then the Motorola cafeteria, then decided to make their objections heard. "I knew which administrative buttons and levers had to be pushed and flipped" to do that, Mays noted. The result? A revamped menu with more veggies--and a lesson learned. Sheila Riley is a San Francisco-based freelance writer for local and national publications.


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