Lessons from a “Waste” of a Work-TermAlex Hogeveen Rutter - 3B Electrical
Posted on: January 19, 2011
At the University of Waterloo, there are good work terms and there are bad work terms. And then there are ugly work terms, with excruciatingly mind-numbing work, unresponsive bosses and lack of cohesive direction. My recent work term was one of the ugly ones, but perhaps that’s not entirely bad.
For example, the engineer I was supposed to work with quit, so I was working without the supervision of an engineer. At first glance, this seems like it would make for a very tedious work-term. However, I was forced to work under very non-technical and uneducated managers. While this was incredibly frustrating at times, I learned about how decisions are made by “normal” people in the real world and the fact is: it’s often not the way engineers think. I learned about how non-engineers think: the good and the bad. This will be invaluable for my future career where the higher up I rise, the less time I will spend interacting with engineers and the more time I will spend with others. Furthermore, this forced me to go out of my department to find engineers in another department for my work-term report. There will always be someone willing to offer guidance, support and encouragement, even if your boss is not prepared to take that role.
One professional engineer I did work with was an intelligent visionary, with lots of great ideas; however, he was a bully and created a hostile environment among his workers. This reminded me of the importance of maintaining humility, even as a professional engineer: no matter what position you are in, you have no right to belittle others. While a position of power, knowledge and authority may encourage you to be forceful and commanding with others, treating even the lowliest employees with the utmost respect is the best way to get things done.
Another tip I learned was the importance of making everyone around us feel valued. When the company decided to take certain office staff out to lunch at the company’s expense, but not the manufacturing employees, this fostered extreme resentment and discontent. What seemed like a nice gesture in fact created a hostile working environment: Ensure you’ve considered all possible angles, even when doing something “nice”.
There were often supply defects, outdated drawings, mislabeled or missing parts and other shortfalls and problems. In the past, employees had voiced these concerns to management, but management had apparently never listened. In consequence, the employees had simply given up and the management complains that no one ever shares information with them. The employees say “I’m not complaining” to avoid getting in trouble and management asks “why is no one complaining?” If you are in a subordinate position, don’t be afraid to voice your concerns and if you are in a position of power, listen to every last complaint and think about what can be done.
We often take for granted that software will just work. Sometimes, it simply does not. Whether it is too slow and inelegant, or perhaps the required data cannot be found or permissions prevent from doing the work, sometimes the software we’re given just does not do the task we need it to do. Often it was simply a matter of improper training or not being configured correctly in the first place. Software, or any technical product, may meet all technical specifications yet still fail to satisfy human needs.
Another major problem was an overwhelming amount of emails. Many people I know (including myself) have at times taken pride in the amount of email we receive and send. Why is this? We think it is a good indication of how important we are. While this is true to a certain extent, I was able to see first-hand how damaging it can be-this desire to be important. Several key staff were incapacitated as they insisted being cc’d on everything and felt the need to always put in their two cents. Constantly checking and responding to BlackBerrys was the norm. People who are truly effective at managing their time know how to prioritize their time and realize that the important work is not done when we are constantly bowing to our mobile devices. Being able to let go of input on certain decisions is an incredibly difficult skill, but necessary for success in the work place. Similarly, the word ‘ASAP’ was used in abundance. Predictably, the term lost all meaning as when everything is prioritized nothing is prioritized. The ability to focus on the important issues only comes with conceding the small.
Every work term, I maintain a document containing all the lessons I have learned during my time on co-op. While at first I considered this work term a waste of time, reflecting on this document, longer than any I’ve had for any other company, I’ve realized the term was not a waste at all. Now is the time to take risks and sometimes we will get burned. Rather than thinking of an unappealing job as a waste of time, reflect on what you have learned and use it in your future endeavours. We don’t learn and grow from the successes; we learn and grow from the failures.