Category Archives: Work

My Wife Moves into Upper Management

upper-managementMy wife’s boss moved to another company last month. My wife was a natural to take over the now-vacant position, and after a bit of politics where an unqualified person with seniority also vied for the position, she got the job. Her new position is Analysis Group Lead of the Vibrations Division of the Space and Defense Group.

The good news is that she got a salary increase due to the new position, a year-end profit-sharing bonus, and a decent annual raise. The bad news is that the new position has more stress, requires more work, and more of her time. In just a couple weeks, she will fly to Dublin, Ireland to train our company’s workers at that site to perform coupled loads analysis. I won’t go into detail on what that means, other than it is a way to numerically model the acceleration and loads a spacecraft will see during launch before the spacecraft is even built.

After working with the analysis team in Dublin, she will be attending a meeting with European Space Agency representatives in Denmark.

For a little while, she was scheduled to fly out of Paris, France, and she was hoping to have at least a half day to sight see. Unfortunately, that plan got nixed, and she will just fly back home from Dublin. My wife will not be paid for her flight time, either, due to a budgeting error by the previous manager.

So, on the bright side, my wife got a substantial pay raise, and will not have an unqualified person telling her what to do. But she will be busier, work more hours, and probably have more stress. We are hoping, however, that as things settle down, she will be able to flourish in this new upper management position.

Happy 2015 to all.

How to Tell a Customer What They Need

In my line of engineering, it is common for the customer to not know what they need to solve a particular problem they are having. They know they have a problem because something has broken, or they are not getting the performance they require. They also realize they do not have the expertise to solve the problem. That is why they hire my firm.

There are typically three kinds of customers.

  1. The customer knows the kind of solution they need, but they do not know how to implement that solution.
  2. The customer knows they have a problem, and has no idea of the solution.
  3. The customer thinks they know the solution, but are incorrect.

Number 3 is often the most difficult, because you have to convince them that the solution you offer is what they really need.

As with most things, there is a right way and a wrong way to tell a customer what they need.

The wrong way is to tell them you are the expert and you know what is best for them. Even though this may be true, you won’t help anything if you do not show the customer that you respect their position and are grateful they came to you for help.

The right way is to educate your customer. Many times you do this up front in the proposal. Sometimes you might give an educational presentation on how you will solve their problem in the kickoff meeting. Other times you might have to educate them without letting them know you are educating them.

A current customer knows they have a problem, has tried some solutions, but has not obtained the performance they require. I have had a bit of trouble finding out exactly what their problem is. Part of this comes from the customer just showing what they did and saying they want us to make their solution better. After learning more about the problem, it turns out their solution may not be correct. At this point, I still need to obtain more information about the system before we can design a good solution.

After gaining some understanding of the problem, I am writing a plan of how we would ideally gather all necessary information, model the problem, and create a solution for their particular device. They may not want to pursue the entire list, since it may go out of scope of the current contract, but at least this will educate them and give them options of how they might want us to proceed. It also will tell them what they need.

Proving Your Worth

I worked as a consultant for nearly six years at a large aerospace firm. Upper middle management of the program I was working on was changed four times during those years. The top management also changed four times. The new management knew I had something to offer the program, or I wouldn’t have been there in the first place, but they did not know me or my capabilities. Because consultants typically cost more than in-house employees, I had to prove my worth every time management changed.

One way I did that was to schedule a meeting with the new manager at their earliest convenience. I came prepared and went over all aspects of the project in which I was involved. I made sure that they understood how well I understood the system. After I helped bring them up to speed on my part of the project, I also told them I would make sure there were no surprises.

I tried to not get involved in office politics (sometimes not possible) and always kept a cool, level head. I worked hard and tried to help the people I worked with feel good and look good to their management. I sometimes told the upper management when I thought someone had done an outstanding job.

Working well with my peers helped. Every time upper management got changed, they naturally looked to cut costs, and the consultants usually got the hardest look. It was then that the people I constantly worked with helped me, by telling management that the project would lose schedule and lose a large asset if I were let go.

Eventually, the budget axe fell and I was let go. Again, it was not because I was lacking, but mainly due to the fact that consultants are expensive. Even then, I was kept on for an extra month because my peers asked that I be given time to hand stuff off and finish several unfinished tasks.

I still keep in touch with some of the people I worked with and consider them friends. They may even be reading this blog.

Have you ever had to prove your worth to new management?

Work That Builds Character

prune-treeA long time ago when I was in high school, I worked on a prune farm during the summer breaks. I drove large flatbed trucks, tractors, tree shakers, and field forklifts. I was not above menial tasks. I set up and moved irrigation lines by hand, occasionally chopped weeds away from the tree trunks, and sometimes had to empty out the prune picker’s outhouses. I also helped run an automated harvester. Even though I came from an upper middle class family, I was happy to do the work on the prune farm. It was a great learning experience, and most of the time it was actually fun.

After high school, I spent some extra time on the prune farm, and then went on to attend junior college. I was not really happy in junior college, but didn’t have anything else to do. I liked rock hounding so I settled on Geology as my major. After a couple semesters I had decided that I didn’t want to be a geologist. Rather than change my major, I joined the U.S. Air Force. I figured I needed to shake things up.

This was in 1976, so I would be eligible for the “old” GI Bill when I got out. My training and work in the Air Force was different than what I had expected. I joined “open general,” which meant I would take whatever job they wanted me to take. At the end of basic training, I was told that they wanted me to be a voice processing specialist. One real nice benefit of that was that I spent a year in Monterey, CA, learning a foreign language. I gained the rank of sergeant by the time I got out.

Four years in the Air Force was certainly a growing experience. The military is serious. Things we were doing could impact a lot of people and resources if we messed up.

I went back to college after the military. Having the “old” GI Bill meant that the government would pay roughly $15,500 for me to go to college. I declared my major as Mechanical Engineering, buckled down, and got my BSME degree from UC Santa Barbara in 4 years. I think my military training helped me to realize that college was my job for those 4 years, not to mention that the government was paying me to go to school.

I think I’ve continued building character in my career job. I went on to earn my Master’s degree while working, and have been recognized as an expert in my field, which is the application of passive damping and numerical characterization of damping materials. Some people consider me somewhat of a Renaissance man at work. I create analytical designs of passive dampers and isolators using solid modeling and finite element analysis. I then create engineering drawings and send them off to the machine shop. I perform testing of materials and engineering development units. I also do some rudimentary machining, and welding when needed. I trained our IT person in Linux, and was the facility security officer for many years. I have cleaned stains off the carpets at work, have cleaned up other people’s messes, and have painted office walls. I always try to do whatever is needed, no matter how large or small.

I owe much of my current success to my work on the prune farm and time spent in the Air Force. The prune farm taught me to work hard and do whatever was needed. The Air Force taught me that life can be both serious and fun. It also taught me that I could be successful at anything that I was willing to work hard at. Finally, I think both of these jobs from the past taught me to have a “can do” attitude.

Have you had a job that helped build your character?



Taking Criticism with a Smile


There is a brilliant engineer/scientist at our company who seems to scare some of the other engineers. Most any time you take some work to show him, he will point out an error or two and send you on your way to fix the errors.

I have seen some engineers get all worked up before approaching this person on any subject. They seem to be scared of him, take his critique personally, or perhaps they just do not want to appear dumb.

I have known this person for a long time and am generally happy to have him critique my work. I think it is much better to use the knowledge people within the company have to check my work before mistakes can cause problems. This scientist appears to like me, because I try hard to learn from his critique and generally do not repeat my mistakes. I do not approach him with everything I do — that would get pretty annoying — but I have him check work that is within his purview.

Things I have learned about taking criticism:

  • Do not take criticism personally
  • Learn from criticism
  • If the person giving criticism tries to make it personal, say “OK, thanks,” and walk away

As long as you take criticism with grace, and actually learn from it, you can hopefully gain experience and respect.