Pay it forward.

It was not long ago when Shawn MacLean Wilson, P.E., was starting her engineering career and found a veteran she could trust. Now, she’s an associate principal at the San Francisco office of Interface Engineering and pme’s 2016 Mechanical Engineer of the Year (For the full profile on Wilson, please turn to page 20). Today, she is doing her part to set her team members on their correct success path in the industry.

Even though her role at Interface requires attention in many different areas, Wilson makes sure the young engineers on her team know they can pick her brain about anything.

“I make them force me to make time for them because I get pulled in a lot of directions,” she says. “It’s really important to me that they understand what they’re doing and if they ever feel they need my help, I need them to tell me.”

When Wilson and her team members do get together, she does not foster a do-as-I-say protocol. Wilson wants team members to carefully think out problems and create to a strong solution.

“What is important is to listen to them because I don’t want to overshadow them. I want to boost their confidence,” she says. “I come at it from the position of, ‘OK, what is your problem? What are your thoughts on solving this issue?’ I try to get them to do their own thinking because if they don’t, they’re always going to be coming back to me. The most important thing in being a mentor, in my opinion, is fostering self-independence as opposed to being a crutch for them all the time.”

Mentoring can take many forms, whether it is intense after-hours sessions or quick 30-minute coffee breaks to discuss issues. No matter how it shakes out, having a mentor is critical. I owe everything I have in my career to a couple people who took their time with me and showed me the ropes.

One in particular is the late Dennis Getto. He was the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s restaurant critic for nearly 25 years. He also taught classes at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where I met him my junior year in a writing class. He always was available after classes and we’d chat about my work and my life.

But I’ll always remember the note he made on a story I handed in one day that spring semester. Dennis had graded my story an A-, but at the end noted, “You’re better than this.” It was the motivation I needed at the time. Not soon after that semester, he was a great reference to have when I applied for a part-time job at his paper. Once I got that gig, I would see him most days as I walked to my tiny cubicle tucked away in the corner. We would exchange hellos every day and sometimes talk for an hour.

I don’t know if I can properly express how important he was to my career. He did not teach me everything, but he made me want to get better every day.

Take a look at your office and see if there is a young talent who would benefit from extra guidance. Give it to them. That person and your company will be stronger for it.


This article was originally titled “Show them the way” in the November 2016 print edition of PM Engineer.