Our daughter, Colleen, is the executive director of an AmeriCorps program called the Massachusetts Promise Fellowship. They work out of Northeastern University in Boston.

Last year, The Lovely Marianne and I attended a fundraiser they were having at the school. While there, I picked up a small deck of cards that was lying on a table in the lounge area. The stack was the size of a business card, 18 cards in all and on thick stock. There’s a metal grommet in the upper-left-hand corner so I could flip through each one. The first card read, “Alumni Words of Wisdom to the Class of 2016.” Nice, and very suitable for saving.

I thumbed through all the cards that evening and though the advice was meant for the Class of 2016, I thought it also was good for anyone involved in this business. Here, listen:

Ally Kross, Class of 2013, has the opening card. She advises, “Always follow up, look for new ways to contribute and stay engaged in your work.”

I was talking to a contractor about following up with customers after he did work for them. “Do you ever call to ask them if everything is OK?” I asked.

“Not really,” he said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Well, there might be a problem. I think it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie.”

Sleeping dogs? Nice way to think of your customers, especially when you consider how much it cost you to get that customer in the first place.

The next card is from Elizabeth Kevilus, Class of 1972, who writes, “Be compassionate and remember your degree doesn’t make you better than anyone else.”

You ever been intimidated by a person who has letters after his or her name? I have. I once tried to explain to a young professional engineer that he just couldn’t do what he was planning to do to that old steam system in that fancy New York City building that has been around much longer than either of us. He told me he was a professional engineer and asked if I was. I told him that my degree was in sociology.

“Well, then let’s leave the engineering to the professional engineers, OK?” he said.

I felt bad, but did as he suggested.

The job didn’t work.

David Crosby, Northeastern Class of 2013, is up next. He says, “Say yes to opportunities. Too many people say no.”

Amen to that David! A distributor friend once commented that the difference between a groove and a rut is about a dozen revolutions of doing the same tired old thing again and again. He’s a smart fella, that distributor.

Melinda Kramer, Class of 1983, has a card that reads, “Surround yourself with smart people so you can learn; they will push you out of your comfort zone.”

And that is so true. When I was young, I sought out the old-timers because they knew how the heating systems in the old buildings worked. I shut up and listened. They were happy to talk to me because most young people couldn’t be bothered with them. I was OK with that because it meant there were more of them for me.

Mia Merrel, Class of 2007, writes on her card, “Be patient. You will start at the bottom and have to work your way up.”

I love this one because I have met so many young people who think they should start at the top because they went to college. My father, who went no further than the eighth grade because his parents were dead, his sister was raising him and the country was in the Great Depression, used to say, “You gotta eat a lotta spaghetti before you get to be the boss, kid.” He was my boss at the time. He had a way with words.

Nat Stevens, Class of 2008, says the graduates should “Definitely check out career services for resume help and job openings.”

Practical advice, Nat. Thanks.


And more practical advice

Lindsay Purcell, Class of 2008, is up. Listen to this one: “Put down the phone. Be present. Give people your full attention, always!”

Yes! Stop with the texting and talk to people, for Pete’s sake. And please stop posting photos of your food on Facebook. Spend that time reading a book or listening to someone who is smarter than you are.

Michael Melendez, Class of 2012, realizes, “Sometimes in the short run we must do what’s necessary. But in the long run I would pursue passion.”

That’s right up there with wanting to start at the top. I have a friend whose son studied computer animation in college. When the lad graduated, he thought he should have a big job at Pixar because he had gotten good grades in college. Pixar never called and he spent nearly two years staring at screens in his parent’s basement before he finally agreed to take a starter job. He’s doing OK now that he has a few years of experience. In fact, he likes the company so much he’s staying put. He found his passion, but not where he expected it to be. Life’s funny that way.

Joviane Bellegarde, Class of 2014, mentions, “The world is actually much smaller than it seems, so make sure to treat everyone with dignity and respect.”

That’s especially true of this business where you never know where you’ll wind up next or where that other person will wind up next. Hardly anyone leaves this business, but they sure do move around. So make friends, not enemies.

Colette Brown, Class of 2013, says, “Speak up! Young professionals offer a set of fresh eyes to every idea, business opportunity and process.”

Yes, Colette, but it’s also good to know when to shut up and listen. Find that delicate balance and you’ll do well.

Frank Hover, Class of 1974, says the graduates should, “Look before you leap. Bounce your ideas and concerns off trusted advisers.”

I like this one. I have a circle of people I trust. Whenever I thought about writing a book, I would talk to those people first and get their thoughts. And then, if I went ahead and wrote the book, I would show it to them when I thought I was done. Often, I would learn I wasn’t done because they would give me more ideas now that they had something to push against. I treasure those people.

Jen Garcin, Class of 2013, writes, “Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Allow criticism to be your very best friend.”

Absolutely, Jen. We all spend too much time watching only the TV news or reading the newspapers we agree with. How much better it is to sit down with people who see the world in a different way. That gives you a chance to explore how they arrived at those thoughts. You’re not there to change their minds; you’re there to learn from them. So go be uncomfortable.

Savannah Alden, Class of 2010, says, “Be honest about your experiences; don’t be afraid to ask questions and advocate for yourself.”

Yes, be honest. I once had to travel with the son of the boss when he was first coming into the business. He was about 20 years old at the time. When we’d meet contractors, they’d ask him how old he was. He’d lie to each of them, adding at least a decade to his age. He couldn’t even keep his lies straight. Some days he was 30 years old. Other days he was 32 and so on.

“Why are you doing this?” I asked.

“If they know I’m only 20, they’ll think I don’t know anything,” he said.

“Well, you don’t know anything,” I said.

“But I don’t want them to think that.”

“So you tell them you’re 32?”


“You know,” I said. “In this business, when you’re 20 you’re supposed to be stupid, which you are. If you tell them you’re 20, they’ll understand and they’ll help you to grow. But with the way you’re talking, if you tell them you’re 32, they just think you’re stupid.”

He didn’t stop doing it, though. He figured he could keep it up because his father was the boss.

Nikki Arya, Class of 2011, adds this: “The relationships that you form now will be the basis for your network and progress in the future.”

Yes, so be as nice as you can stand to be, and to everyone.

And then, Jared Shechtman, Class of 2003, gets the final say in the card pack. “Make an effort to keep in touch with as many of the Northeastern professors and advisors that helped you get where you are today.”

That’s nice. Those good people helped you grow. Let them know what you’ve done with what they gave you. They’ll appreciate that.

And I appreciate you, dear reader. You helped me grow. Thanks.


This article was originally titled “Alumni advice” in the April 2017 print edition of PM Engineer.