Perhaps as preparation for my mentoring activity at UCF, I decided to accept the invitation to participate as a mentor in a “speed mentoring” activity at the AIAA Space 2018 Forum this week. I also had to learn a hard lesson in remembering to bring business cards. The adventure was nonstop!
As it sounds, speed mentoring is akin to speed dating, but is more career focused. The setup was 25 tables spread through a breakout room at the Hyatt Regency on International Drive in Orlando. Around each of these tables they placed 2-4 university students or young professionals and one experienced aerospace professional. After ten minutes of (hopefully productive) conversation, the mentors would advance one table and repeat the process.WE went through around 7-8 tables. I lost track of who-all I talked to, but I made certain to everyone at the tables I visited a business card and a useful piece of advice, which I kept consistent for each table:
“Your network is–or eventually will be–more important than your resume. You build your network through events like this, through the quality of work you do on your various jobs, and how well you get along with people. You don’t build a network just to get a job (nor should that be the only time you talk to them), but if you’ve done everything right, that network can lead to jobs down the road.”
That’s more or less the full version. Maybe I did some good, maybe not. Out of the 15 or so young people I talked, one so far has requested to be a LinkedIn connection. He was a senior and looking for a job, so he was motivated. I might hear from more, who knows?
The young people I spoke with were an interesting mix: mostly Americans with a few international students: Japanese, French, and one Peruvian. The gender mix was maybe 1:4 female:male, which is actually high compared to some space events I’ve attended. The questions I got were practical, as I’d expect:
- “I’ve got a degree in math, but I’m not sure what to do with it.”
- “I want to work for one of the New Space firms, but I’m a foreign national.”
- “How do I balance my work life with whatever dream or passion I’m serious about pursuing?”
- “How can engineers write better?”
That last question, which a couple of the guys asked, I could answer. My answer was: “Don’t just give people a bunch of facts or statistics about your widget and assume that your reader will know why they’re good or important. Take the time to add a sentence to explain what your numbers mean. Add the ‘So what?'” I’m not certain I could help the students asking the first two questions. On the work-life balance question, my first advice was, “Don’t quit your day job.” The young woman who asked the question was in the workforce already. My first and repeated advice was, “Don’t quit your day job.” And since she’s in a field where she’s got the luxury, I suggested that she keep pursuing types of work that would lead her closer to her “dream job,” which was astronaut.
The responses to my question, “What do you want to do with yourself?” were intriguing. Some students were gung-ho to do the science; some wanted to get their hands dirty “bending metal;” some were into human spaceflight, like me; others didn’t know what they wanted to do yet. There are a lot of very bright young people out there, which gives me he some hope for the future–of my country and my chosen industry.
Anyhow, for the only English major in the room and the only guy wearing a Star Wars-themed Hawaiian shirt, I think I did all right. I tried my best, anyway.
Also, much to my embarrassment, despite all the times I’ve advised people to bring business cards (as recently as last week!), I discovered on Monday that I’d left mine at home, so I missed an hour of the conference rushing home to retrieve them. That was an expensive lesson, as Hyatt charged $37 for valet parking, and there were no come-and-go privileges. In essence, I would have had to pay $37 again when I came back. I decided to take Uber for the rest of the conference, which was less than $37 round trip, even when tipping the drivers in both directions. Live and learn.
I’ll save my detailed thoughts about the space industry for my personal blog (after I get caught up on my sleep!). However, I would say that the environment felt different from the way it was ten years ago, when I was still a NASA contractor. Part of that difference, no doubt, was a factor of my age (late 40s now vs. mid-to-late 30s back then); part of it was the industry itself, which is undergoing some exciting changes.
I’m glad I attended. The price tag was not cheap ($850 for an AIAA member, which I am), but I avoided air, hotel, and rental car charges because the con was here in Orlando. I got to talk with an aerospace communicator I respect about my career plans; interact with past, present, and (potentially) future clients; and get smart on developments in this industry I love. I might wait another year before I attend another one, but all in all, the visit was worth the coin. I could teach, I could learn, and I could build my business, so that much was right with the world.