Monday, September 17, 2012

Getting out of the Studio

Many universities do a great job in teaching the technical fundamentals related to engineering.  But at some point you need to get out in the real world and play for a real audience. 

Unfortunately, the real world doesn't always look like the place they told you about in school.

Here are 12 of the things I wish they would have taught me in engineering school.  I'm sure there are more, and I would welcome any additions that you may have.  So without any further delay lets dive in...

1. People skills will typically beat math or science skills in the real world.

Let’s face it – "people" are the ones that are responsible for your positions, promotions and salary.  Not equations.  Not laws of physics.  You are typically going to be judged on how much you “appear to do” and how others perceive the value of what you do - not necessarily your ability to Fourier transforms and partial differential equations.  This isn’t about being the brown-noser.  It’s about building relationships and developing your “brand” or identity.

2. Learn to be a teacher, but don’t condescend.
A little secret here:  the people around you have probably forgotten most of the stuff that’s fresh in your mind right now.  But they really don’t want to admit it.  When presenting or interacting with others start basic and stay tuned in to see if they are tracking with you.  Don’t ask the audience-humiliating kinds of questions like “if you don’t know ____  let me know.”   Instead ask “would you like me to explain ____?”   If you can help someone learn, they will value you more.  If you speak over their heads, they will avoid you or worse yet - consider you to be a jerk.

3. That old guy just might be able to kick your butt… intellectually speaking.
Experience is a great educator.  You might be on your way out of a great school with a nice shiny degree and it may even have are some impressive, Latin words on it.  You probably do have some great theoretical knowledge.  Even though you may already carry a higher job title than he does, the person that has actually lived in it for 30+ years may still be able to teach you a thing or two (or maybe 100 things for that matter).  Take every opportunity you can to learn from him or her. 

4. Look for chances to learn essential, non-technical things.
Sure you can calculate the static load on a beam or determine the number of moles of oxygen needed in a particular reaction.  Learn what actions get rewarded in your organization.  Learn where to go or whom to go to in order to get things.  Learn the language that your supervisors speak.  Learn something about the people you work with so there is always something to talk about.  This kind of knowledge pays off greatly. 

5. Be brief.
How’s that for a short title?  When speaking get to the point.  When you lead a meeting, make sure it finishes early.  Let people know you are available if they are interested in more.  It’s far better to have someone ask you for more conversation than it is to have someone dread seeing you coming for fear that you won’t shut up.  There used to be a guy that would linger in my office so long that I would sometimes fake a pager buzz (back in the “engineers wear pagers” days) just to get him to leave.  Don’t be that guy.

6. Be an entertaining or at least an engaging communicator.
Your job as an engineer will require that you speak to others.  There are no compromises in this area.   If you have an accent – be intentional about pointing it out to your audience and giving them every opportunity to ask for clarification.  One great icebreaker that I’ve used in different parts of the US and all over the world is to poke fun at my own accent.   If you see that you are losing an audience, bring them back at all costs.  If you’re uncomfortable in front of a group; join Toastmasters or find some other forums or community groups where you can hone this craft.  Your career trajectory will thank you.

7. Learn some basics about business thinking – not just accounting.
Most big companies or at least most successful companies are led by business people.  Sure, engineers like to make fun of business people (that bunch of silly “bean counters”), but realize this:  business is the “wrapper” in which engineering is packaged and made profitable.  If your engineering isn’t sold, you usually don’t have a job.  Dig into a business topic like marketing if you really want to know something about where you fit in. 

8. Some people will not like you.
This is a tough one for many young people to come to grips with.  But, let’s face it – the world has lots of messed up people and there’s a good chance that you will encounter one or more of them in your job.  You may try and try to make things feel better, but they just may not want it.  In those cases, it’s best to just “keep it professional” and keep the interactions as minimal and as “work-centric” as possible.   Sometimes these things improve with time (so give it a chance without burning any bridges), but don’t expect a birthday card or a hug. 

9. Things take time (more time than you can imagine) in the real world.
In school, you had very, very, very short projects.  Sure, a 4-week long project seemed like an eternity in college; but many real-world projects take months or even years.  There will be times when you feel like nothing is getting done and the project will never get finished.  Use these times to get ahead of the game or to learn more about what’s coming in the next steps of the project.   Don’t just sit there! Have a plan for your downtime..

10. It’s a marathon not a sprint.
Yeah, I now that's an overused cliché, but it is some of the best career advice you will ever get.  Longevity is one of the best tools for advancement.  Longevity will bring you deeper experiences, a chance to develop wisdom (not just knowledge) and more chances for promotion.
11. Find opportunities to develop yourself outside your company.
I know that budgets are tight in many companies, but to make yourself a better engineer you’ve got to be connected to the world outside your company.  Join professional societies or standardization groups.  Publish papers.   Attend conferences or expos.  Subscribe to journals in your field.  Your knowledge of the “outside world” and your relationships with people in the “outside world” make you a better employee at your current job and a more marketable candidate should you seek a future job.

12. Smile.
People will pass their initial judgment on you based on what they see.  It doesn’t take much effort to make a positive first impression.  I do a lot of video conferencing and seeing that picture of myself on a computer screen has really caused me to take note of these visual things. Look in the mirror with your “at work” face on.  Would you perceive your appearance as someone welcoming or someone that people would rather not be around? 

Rock on.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Finding Your Muse

From Greek mythology - a goddesses of inspiration.

Almost every writer has, at some point, suffered from “writer’s block”.  But what engineers?  We often get “stuck” ...and how come we don’t get a clever name for it?  In fact, our stuck-ed-ness is often pretty significant (dare I say more significant than writer’s block?)

When an engineer gets stuck, many external forces can be at play:  things like the constraints of tight schedules, constraints of other connected systems and even the constraints of the laws of physics.

So how do you break through the block?  Let me offer you a couple of quick ideas for finding your muse...

1. Take a break.  Yeah, I know... you’ve got a schedule. 
If you’ve ever gotten a car stuck, you probably know that spinning your wheels only gets you more stuck.  The same applies to your creative processes.  The time you spend backing up and re-approaching the problem can often result in a faster arrival at the solution. 

Hint: How to take a break with purpose.
What you do on a break is really up to you.   For some people it's exercise.  For others it may be a trip to the coffee machine/shop.  For many people (even famous ones) it's a "power nap".  Regardless of what you do, I'd encourage you with this one principle: if you are going to tune out; tune out with purpose.  Try setting an alarm on your phone or on your watch for a 15 minute break.  This plays a neat trick on your mind.   Typically, when people take a break, all they think about is “how much work that have to get back to” and they worry about not getting back to it in time to finish.  Thus they never really give their mind a break. Knowing that an alarm will bring you back allows you to fully leave.

2. Do a DBR.  Something “different but related”
I always wanted to come up with my own acronym so why not now?  Different-but-related activities can keep you thinking in the right direction, but from a slightly different angle.  A DBR should be something that you look forward to doing – but at the same time stimulates your thinking.

Finding your DBRs:
First you need to identify those things that are related to what you do and then find interesting outlets for those things.  An important note: your DBRs should almost feel like a hobby or a “guilty pleasure” - they should be enjoyable activities with some kind of connection to your work.  Reading a technical journal is not necessarily a DBR (unless you’re a hopeless geek).  On the other hand, playing golf or basketball is probably a stretch in the context of DBR.

Let me use myself as an example: 
I write a lot of software for measurement systems. In addition I’m regularly in front of an audience consulting and teaching.  My DBRs aren’t going to be the same as yours, but for the sake of example, my DBRs are:
  •  As I’m involved in the development of new technologies, I find that learning about other, cool, new technologies can be very inspiring.  99% of the time these technologies aren’t related to what I’m working on but seeing cool, finished products is inspiring.  PG-13 warning: The writing style is edgy and sometimes contains profanity.
  •  I think every rockstar engineer should spend some time listening to TED talks.  These are 15 minute talks on almost every imaginable topic.  Rockstar engineers don’t just learn about the subject matter, but they also can pick up on some great presentation skills.  I’m often more captivated by the latter (i.e. the presentation styles) than the content.
  •  I write software primarily in the C# programming language.  CodeProject provides a constant diet of other clever things that other people are doing in C#.  Their projects aren’t even close to mine, but just seeing their work often gives me a re-charge.
  • Various leadership/effectiveness/communication blogs.  Email me if you’d like to know some of them.

3. Talk it out
Now this one may not apply to everybody.  I’m a very verbal thinker so the process of talking to someone is a huge help for me.  This may not apply to everybody.  But for those of you that aren’t verbal thinkers, I’d encourage you to give it a try.

Guidelines for conversation as inspiration:
  • Remember that conversation is a gift:
    If another person is willing to give you his or her time – treat it with respect.  They are giving you a part of their lives.  Be thankful, act thankful and tell them that you are thankful.
  • Respect the other person’s time and mental state:
    There is a chance that they are in the middle of doing something amazing.  Even if nothing is scheduled on their calendar they may still be “tied up”.  Respect that.
  • Respect the other person’s expertise and interests:
    I don’t talk mathematics with some of my friends.  I don’t talk business strategy with other friends. 
  • Respect their difference of opinion:
    If you are asking a person for help, DO NOT SHOOT DOWN THEIR IDEAS.  There is no place for defensiveness or negativity when you are the one asking for help.

Every one of us will have times where we are stuck and a muse would come in handy.  (Although I’m not sure I’d recognize an “engineer muse” if one walked by.)  So until that happens; take a break, do a DBR or just go find someone to hash it out with. 

Postscript: In case you haven’t guessed, I was stuck this afternoon while writing software and it got me thinking about the whole being stuck thing.  Writing is also a DBR for me.  Instead of writing computer programs in computer language, writing human words in human language is a good break.  So thanks for helping me out today! 

Rock on!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Teacher, teacher...

Teacher, teacher
can you teach me?
- 38 Special (1985)

Let’s take a trip down memory lane shall we?  Think back to when you first got interested in engineering.  Was it when you first took something apart just to see what was inside?  Perhaps when you first got interested in the way bubbles formed in milk carton when you blew in the straw?  Maybe when you first realized that the teeter totter exhibited a mechanical advantage depending on where you and your friend/enemy sat?

Now think about what got you going academically in the direction of engineering.  For me it was a particular high school science teacher followed by a couple of rockstar professors in college.  Those people made things interesting and brought a new view or a new explanation of the physical world that had me in awe.  Some the best were the ones that made science into a “story”.  As the story unfolded, both my knowledge and my interest would grow.

Wake Up!

You’re an engineer!  Snap out of it!  We don’t have time for this stuff… dreaming about milk bubbles and teeter totters. Come on.  We’ve got real work to do… or we?

Unfortunately, the principles of learning and wonderment are lost in the day-to-day tasks of most engineers.  However, true rockstar engineers are able to hold on to this – and more importantly, they are able to communicate it.  Being a teacher is a hallmark of being a rockstar engineer.
Now I’m not saying that you need to become a professor or worse yet force people to listen to you ramble on and on about something that only you are interested in.  I’m saying that being a teacher makes you a valuable team member and can pay huge benefits to your effectiveness.

The highly regarded financial advisor, Dave Ramsey, says that when you hire a consultant – always hire someone that’s a teacher at heart.  Here’s a hint for you… if you are an engineer, you are in many ways a consultant.  A consultant gets paid for sharing and applying knowledge.  An engineer gets paid to apply his or her knowledge.

So here are some quick tips to make you a better teacher.

When in front of the room:

1. Most importantly, get in tune with your audience.  Learn to pick up on their body language.  Some people don’t want to be taught.  So, when in front of them, quickly present the answers and move on.  Other people want to be taught but are afraid to ask for fear of looking stupid.  It’s up to you to take the lead with these people and offer more information.  They are the ones that I love to work with and they will give you a chance to shine as a teacher. 

2. When presenting, seek out the chance to share the “why”, not just the “what”.   People are more willing to buy into something that you present if they understand a bit of what went into it.  By understanding the “why” behind a particular engineering solution, they are already closer to accepting the “what”.  When sharing the why – don’t use big “show off” words.  The smartest guys in the world don’t need to act smart with big words.

3. Finally… don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t ask questions in front of a room that cause people to put themselves down.  Asking the question “is anybody not understanding this?” in front of an audience is the equivalent of asking “who would like to be singled out and called stupid in front of the room?”  Instead, try “should I cover this in a bit more detail?” or “would it help if I explained this a bit more?”  These questions put the ownership on the presenter not the student.  We don’t want to be condescending to an audience, but worse yet we never want to make them feel stupid.

When one-on-one or in a small group:

1. Learn to listen. (This is hard – especially when you get excited about what you are talking about.)  Here’s a trick I use when I sense I’m having trouble listening: repeat the question back. 

2. Learn to draw. (this applies to a large group as well) I know we are engineers not artists, but the ability to make simple sketches to illustrate a point can increase your teacher rating enormously.  In my world of measurement there are several sketches that seem to be useful in many different settings.  I’ve actually spent time practicing the drawing of certain sketches in order to make me better at presenting concepts “on the fly”.  Now these things don’t have to be beautiful – they need to convey a point.  The cool thing is that as the picture develops so does a story; revealing a bit more with each stroke of the pencil or pen – and stories are a great way to teach.

3. Don’t be afraid to have fun.  Make fun of yourself, make fun of the topic.  Smile – it knocks down barriers to learning.  Remember: teaching is about investing in a person other than yourself; so create an environment or conversation that helps them feel comfortable.  In fact, it makes it more fun for both of you.

Dave Ramsey recommends looking for a teacher-minded-person when hiring someone to help you.  A teacher is a person that helps others learn and thus adds value to them.  If you want to amp up your effectiveness as an engineer, be a teacher for those around you.  It will raise them up and in the process it will further elevate you to rockstar engineer status.

Rock on!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Growing the fan base

Cranky Cal:  “I already solved that problem, but nobody listened to me.”

As I work with engineers that have been at it for a few years, I often hear that kind of statement.  Sometimes it’s of the uglier form:

Angry Al:  “I solved that problem X years ago, but those _____  ______  _____’s wouldn’t listen to me then, so I’m not going to help them now.  That bunch of ______  _______  ______’s can just figure it out for themselves this time!”

Here’s the deal, simply having the answer is no longer good enough in many work environments.  We need to be able to sell our solutions; which ultimately means that we need to sell ourselves.  Let’s take this out of the realm of engineering for a minute and talk about software.  “Apps” are everywhere so let’s ease into this topic by talking about them – instead of ourselves.

Ever since the first cave engineers started writing FORTRAN, software was evaluated based on its ability to function.  This makes sense; we use software to perform some function that we don’t want to take on humanly.  For example, we can use software to compute the first 1,000 prime numbers – a task that we really don’t want to have to perform ourselves.  The software package that can pull this off calculation and provide the results is deemed to be functional

However, in today’s world, a new evaluation criterion is emerging - not just for software but for all products.  It’s called “user experience” and it’s becoming a very important factor.  Check out this Fast Company article.  The catch: the greatness of a software package isn’t just based on its ability to function – it’s also based on “how the user feels”.  

We now face evaluation questions such as: Is the software easy to understand?  Is it “friendly”?  Do I feel good using it or do I get frustrated?  Do I feel like I can master it by just looking at it, or do I need to ask for help?  Or, heaven forbid, do I need to look at a manual or book?

As an engineer, you are being evaluated just like that software package.  People don’t really care if you have all of the answers if you are a pain in the butt to deal with.  This great quote has been credited to several authors, politicians and speakers ranging from Theodore Roosevelt to Zig Ziglar to John Maxwell:

People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.

So think about this: what kind of experience are you creating for those people that you are supposed to be working with and/or helping? 

Ultimate effectiveness, comes from not only being able to create great things and solve tough problems… it comes from actually having those great things and great solutions put into practice by others.  With that in mind, we need to focus a bit more on how we are selling ourselves.  Yeah that’s right… we engineers need a lesson in sales.

Recently I came across a really great TED talk by Simon Sinek.  If you have a few minutes, take a look at it.  These same principles of leading a great business can also apply to growing a great reputation as an engineer.  Here’s the link:  How Great Leaders Inspire Action.
Now Simon is not an engineer, nor was the talk even about being an engineer, but we can still learn a ton.  (Great engineers can learn from anything and anyone, right?)  Check out a few things about the presentation itself and think about his “user experience” or in this case the “audience experience”:

1. There was no PowerPoint.  Simon actually created the content with; get this… an old school marker and a flipchart.  Pretty retro, eh?  But it kept your attention, didn’t it?  Rockstar Engineers are able to present to an audience in a way that keeps their attention.  Often the act of actually “creating something live” rather than packaging it as slides is the best tool for keeping an audience glued to you.

2. The room, the stage and the acoustics were lousy.  He even dealt with a mic change partway through the talk.  But it didn’t matter.  Simon was passionate about his material.  He seemed glad to be able to share it with the audience and the environment took a back seat.  Rockstar Engineers aren’t afraid to show and share.  In fact, they consider a chance to present as a chance to shine.

3. The message was a simple solution.   There wasn’t a presentation of 12 other things that didn’t work.  The language was understandable - he didn't over use a bunch of big multi-syllable "show off" words.  Rockstar Engineers know their audience and know the importance of speaking in an understandable way... using the language of the audience.

Now let’s switch gears and talk about content of the talk…

The basic message of Simon’s talk is that people will more passionately buy the “why” – far more than they will buy the “what”.   He summarizes it in a great statement:

People don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it

I’m going to take some liberties here (hopefully honoring Simon) with this interpretation on a personal level:

Your effectiveness is being based on “who you are”, not just “what you do”.

If you were to draw just two of Simon’s concentric circles and put “Why” in the middle and put “What” on the outside, how would you fill in the details? 
The “why”:
         Why did you become an engineer? 
         Why are you still an engineer? 
The “what”:
         What do you actually do as an engineer? 
         What is your “product”? 
Note: I’m not talking about that widget that you are currently designing and may someday somehow actually end up going down the road in a car.  The real “what” question is based on this:                   
         What is it that people come to me for?

As you consider these questions, you should be formulating a kind of “user experience” in your mind.  Here’s how I answer these questions regarding my career:

First here’s a general summary:  I’m a surface metrologist – I develop surface measurement technologies in terms of hardware, mathematics and software.  (Pretty geeky, eh?)   I initially became an engineer because I enjoyed math and science.  (I was young and didn’t know any better – it sounded like the right thing to do.)  I got into the measurement field and it allowed me to develop as a teacher and a helper.  I get to be the one that goes in and helps people better understand the world that they are working in.  I get to see the “light bulb go on” in people’s minds.  I even get to create tools that keep on helping people even after I’m gone.

Now let’s put it in the “Why/What” context:  My “why” is: I love helping people and I love seeing them respond to my help.  My “what” is: measurement-related consulting and technology.   My “what” is the outward implementation of my “why.” 

Without my “why” it would be hard for me to get up in the morning and go to work.  Without my "why" I could ultimately turn into a cranky Cal or an angry Al.

Here’s the big question – do those around you really get your “why”?  Worse yet, have you ever even considered what your “why” even is?    Knowing and selling your “why” can be an essential part of providing an awesome “user experience” and growing your effectiveness through a great fan base.

Rock on!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Rockin’ to the Encore

Mary was a “mover” in her engineering department.  Though she had only been with the company for 2 years, she was currently in her third position and was working on her fourth product responsibility.  Mary thought that the best way to move up the ladder was to get a little bit of experience in everything – that way she could someday be the one that everybody turned to when things got exciting.  As part of moving to her second position, she was promoted to Senior Engineer.  She’s now hoping that her next promotion is right around the corner as she is looking at job postings in other groups.

Stephanie was more of a “stay put” kind of person in her engineering department.  Granted her first assignment wasn’t too exciting (as is the case in most entry level jobs), but she hung with it and in her second year, she found some interesting cost savings on a product that hadn’t changed for decades.  Although she was supposed to just “baby sit” this mature product – she presented her idea to her boss and it was actually implemented.  This cost savings earned the attention of her upper management and she too was promoted to Senior Engineer.

Flash forward several months to two everyday scenarios:
Scenario 1: A new team is being formed to work on designing the brand new WidgetMaster 9000.  (Doesn’t it bother you when I don’t get more specific?)  As the engineering managers look around; who do they choose to be on their team?  Mary-The-Mover?  Stay-Put-Stephanie?
Scenario 2: A million-dollar-a-day warranty problem hits in another department and additional engineers need to be deployed to help solve the problem.  Who do they choose to be on their team?  Mary-the-mover?  Stay-put-Stephanie?

Now some situations may be different, but the majority of the time, I’d put my money on Stay-Put-Stephanie.  She’s demonstrated the ability to “go deep” and depth is very a rare commodity in many of today’s engineering environments.  While Mary became a generalist; Stephanie became a specialist.  When you go to your doctor and he can’t figure things out where does he send you?  To the specialist.

Many companies have a two-path approach: managerial or technical – personally I think there should be some middle ground between them.  However as you think about your engineering career trajectory – where do you want to land?  That should ultimately guide your movement – or lack of movement within an organization or between organizations. 

I talk to lots of companies that struggle with retaining bright, young engineers.  That can be attributed to the companies themselves and their ability (or inability) to encourage, challenge, motivate and reward.  However, it can also be attributed to the “short sightedness” of many engineers.  The concept of “depth” is not necessarily valued as much as it should be.  So let me give you a few reasons to hang in there and “go deep”:

1.  Increased knowledge.  Spending time in an area means more time to learn about that particular technology.  Use that time!  Learn about what goes into making your product.  Learn about the areas that your product touches.  Learn about the history of your product.  Learn what others (or competitors) are doing with their versions of your product.  Learn what the biggest problems are with your product. Spend some time thinking about “what would the world be like without your product”.  Try designing your product if nothing ever existed.  Think about your product’s function and find 5 other things that have the same function but are totally unrelated (for example from nature or other industries).

2.  Increased reputation.  Staying in a department and “going deep” gives you more opportunity to deepen your “brand” as an engineer.  Not only do you have the chance to get smarter (see #1), you also have more opportunities to show off your abilities.  Reputation can be thought of as “that thing which you are known for” and reputation can be reinforced with repeated successes. 

3.  Layoff Prevention.  Let’s face it.  Economies change and sometime people lose their jobs. By becoming the resident expert in a specific area, you are perceived as more valuable.  In many cases it is preferred to keep the specialist as opposed to the generalist.  Generalists can be hired when needed; specialists take time and effort to develop.  Furthermore, the loss of the specialist’s knowledge can be much harder for the company to deal with.

4.  Peter-Principle Prevention.  I have a good friend who is a high-ranking executive in a Fortune 500 company.  He and I were talking about the topic of “when should someone make a career move?” and he offered some great advice.  (No wonder he’s where he is today!)  In his mind, you should move only when you feel that you’ve learned all you can and have mastered your current position.  In business school there is talk of the “Peter Principle”.  This is the principle that states: “people are promoted to their level of incompetency”.  In other words, people will always be promoted until they wind up in a job that they can no longer handle.  Then they are stuck there (often miserably) for the remainder of their career.  By staying put and going deep before a promotion, you guarantee that you hit the next promotion level with an added degree of knowledge – thereby holding Mr. Peter and his Principle at bay.

Keep on rockin.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Jamming with a Legend

If you want to get good at something… hang out with someone that is already good at it.

Recently, a friend of mine that plays guitar was talking about wanting to hang out with some great guitar players – just to see how they do what they do.  A few days later another friend was talking about improving at tennis by playing against better players.  This got me thinking about the importance of learning from or just plain hanging out with the “gurus” or “legends” that may be sitting in the very next cubicle.

Several years ago, (too many years to count) as I was just a few weeks out of college, I had a chance to work with “Tom”.  He was one of those “gurus” that helped shape my career trajectory in ways that were unimaginable at the time. 

At that time, Tom had been with the company almost as long as I had been alive and had worked his way into a technical advisor kind of role – dealing only with special (that is “crisis”) kinds of projects.  He was one of those slow, methodical and meticulous kinds of guys that would spend hours studying a problem and testing theories.  You’ve probably seen or at least heard stories about this kind of guy… the guy where a “cluttered” office means that he happened to have one extra piece of paper on his desk next to his notepad and computer keyboard and monitor.  (I, on the other hand, tend to migrate towards a natural habitat of not being able to even see my desktop surface.)
As a young engineer, I was able to work with Tom on special projects and I was able to take in some valuable lessons.  Here are just a few:

1. Every pixel counts.
We were working on a huge multi-million dollar problem and were dealing with the analysis and presentation of 1000’s of data sets.  Tom emphasized the importance of presenting data in a clean, concise and understandable way.  If you don’t pay attention to the way you present your results, what will cause your audience to trust your results?  He was the first person that encouraged me to work toward “elegance” in solutions and their presentation.  Later I discovered the work of Edward Tufte (of whom I'm now a big fan) and this totally reinforced those previously learned lessons. 

2. Build your brand
When you are in front of an audience – either “live” in a room or “remotely” via documents or email that you’ve created; you have a chance to build a reputation.  As you think about your audience (and, yes – that means you should be thinking about your audience) what do you want your work to say about who you are and what you bring to the table?

3. Take your time
I’m assuming I’m among friends here, so I can admit this… I’m a very “type A” kind of person.  Generally I work at two speeds: fast and faster.  When I shut down, I generally shut completely down and go totally “offline” only to re-engage at some later time right back at full speed.  In the classic Tortoise and Hare fable I’m definitely the hare.  This kind of duty cycle is tough on machinery and is pretty tough on people as well.  My time with various engineering gurus throughout my career has revealed on common trait in them: they are not afraid to roll up their sleeves and dig deep into a problem... and stay "in deep" for a long time if needed.  They are not generally inclined to go with the first, impulsive answer; they take their time to find the “right” answer.
Now for some of you, those three lessons may not be earth shattering.  Nonetheless, those lessons were exactly what I needed at that specific time in my career.  However, beyond those specifics, I think there is an even bigger general lesson to be learned:

You need to spend time with mentor or a guru.

No matter where you are in your career, there is always someone that can make you better.  World class athletes need coaches in order to perfect their physical abilities.  World class engineers also need coaches or “mentors” in order to perfect their effectiveness.  Sometimes you can get lucky like I did and be able to spend some serious time with a mentor.  Other times you may need to seek out a small window of opportunity with a “guru”.  Here are some ideas for making it happen:

1. Identify a person that you can learn something from. 
This is probably the most important step.  Some gurus can help you with something as general as “dealing with management” while other gurus might be able to help you with “partial differential equations”.  These may not necessarily person, nor will you necessarily need input from the same guru at the same time.

2. Let them know where you are coming from.
Telling a person that you want to learn from them can be a huge compliment for them.  It lets them know that they are valued and it may help open the door for their sharing this ability with you.  This is a great way of “building a bridge” to them in cases where you may not know each other very well to start with.

3. Establish a small (make that a “very small”) commitment and…
4. be the one to keep that commitment.
I love the story about how Christine Comaford met with Steve Jobs for just a few minutes in order to ask him a few key questions.  She sent (even FedEx'd) letter after letter indicating the desire to spend just 5 minutes with Jobs.  In the end Jobs finally conceded and they met.  After the predetermined 5 minutes, she stood up and thanked Jobs for his time.  Jobs told her to sit back down and they continued to talk for another 45 minutes.  This is a great lesson in showing respect for a guru and can even help establish a solid relationship whereby further interactions can take place.  My advice – try a lunch with a guru.  When the time ends, thank the person and pick up the check.

5. Find someone that you can mentor and build up.
The best way to really learn something is to teach it.  This is true in the mentoring dynamics.  As you grow as a rockstar engineer, find someone that you can build into and help them grow as well.  This helps you better understand the sage/student relationship and ultimately can make you a better student.  Furthermore, mentoring a young engineer is the absolute best way I know to stay “mentally young”.

Too many people become engineers because they are brilliant, independent-minded, can tackle tough problems and can create amazing products and solutions.  Unfortunately, this independence (the same attribute that can launch a great engineering career) can also completely squelch such a career when an engineer doesn’t choose to spend some time “rocking with the legends”.

Rock on.