#6 Find A Mentor

by Steven Cerri on September 27, 2006

Find Your Mentor and Coach

Find Your Sam or Samantha

Good morning!

In this blog I want to tell you about Sam. Sam Garcia. I don’t even know if Sam is still alive and so this might be a way for me to thank him and to acknowledge his existence in some small way.

I graduated from college in 1969 with a B.S. in aeronautical engineering. After starting out in the ground support equipment department of the Apollo manned space program at Rockwell International in Downey, California I was moved to the advanced space systems department in Seal Beach, California. I didn’t like ground support equipment work much but I really enjoyed the advanced systems work. I met some very good engineers (in both groups) who took this young kid under their wings and guided me along.

I was always a little more aggressive than my years or knowledge would probably support and soon I was picked to work on a new project that was part of the then, theoretical work leading to the development of what is now the space shuttle. The project I was placed on was called the Space Tug. The Space Tug was an on-orbit propulsion vehicle that was to go up in the shuttle cargo bay, with the satellite payload, and was to be used to place the payload into its final orbit.

My job was to perform flight performance analysis of the tug, which means that it was my job to calculate what sizes of payload the tug could place in various orbits. The program manager, the person in charge of all the analysis, design, and development of the Space Tug program was Sam Garcia.

Now when I first met Sam he didn’t strike me as anything other than an older guy who had knowledge and some power and responsibility at Rockwell. He was short and stocky, bald, with a deep, raspy voice, a quick smile, and an attitude that made you think that he would always find the funny or ironic component to any situation. And he had a slight “Spaniard’s” accent.

At first whenever I heard Sam talk to the program team, I noticed that he sounded like he was just talking to us. That’s all, just talking to us. I was the youngest guy in the group. At the time I was about 22 years old and the average age of the team, other than me, was probably 45 to 50 years old with Sam at about 50 years old. It wasn’t long before Sam and I became good friends. He once said that he saw a lot of himself in me when he was my age.

In any case, Sam began to talk to me about management and leadership, and it wasn’t the typical stuff about project management, schedules, and budgets. Our talk was about people. Who had what strengths; who had what weaknesses. How to make decisions about who to have do what and who to take to customer briefings. I got to go to all the customer briefings, something that was unheard of for someone my age and with my limited experience, but Sam trusted me and gave me opportunities.

One of the aspects of Sam’s life that he thought was important to who he was had to do with what he did after graduating from high school and before going to college. I don’t now recall much about what he said about his childhood or his father or mother or family, but I remember that Sam said that upon graduation from high school he boarded a merchant ship and traveled the world for two years. A young man of 18 years old, traveling the world. That experience gave him a different perspective than those of us who had gone from high school to college to work.

After this two-year period, Sam decided to go to college and got a degree in engineering. He now had a family, a daughter, and a good career at Rockwell. And he was teaching me how to deal with people.

After three years at Rockwell, and two of those years working with Sam, I decided it was time to go back to school to get a M.S. in geophysics. My reasoning was that if I didn’t branch out I would end up like so many 50 year-old engineers I saw around me; 50 years old and doing the same work that a young kid out of college was doing (i.e., the young kid was me.) I didn’t want that and so I thought the best approach was to branch out.

I asked Sam for his advice. My question was, “Do you think that my move to branch out into geophysics is a good move?” Sam’s response was indicative of how I think a good manager deals with direct reports, whether about personal matters like college or about work matters like presentations or analysis. His answer was also a reflection of a man who traveled the world at eighteen not knowing what he wanted to do with his life. His answer was, “I can’t answer that for you. This is something you have to decide. If you don’t do it or you do it because of something I say then you will never know if it was the right decision or not.”

There was another time I recall when Sam’s approach to me was very different. I had been performing an analysis on the Space Tug’s performance. I had developed a series of charts indicating how the tug would perform with different payload weights in different orbits.

As I left work one day, half-way through the parking lot on the way to my car, in a flash, I had the realization that one of my equations could be wrong. I might have divided by a constant instead of multiplying by it.

I worried about it all night and the next morning ran into my office to verify the equation. Sure enough, it looked like I had made a mistake. I ran to Sam to tell him that the numbers on my chart were wrong. I told him I’d fix the numbers and get back to him. I felt proud that I had found the mistake this early in the program and that I could admit my mistake as well. He was supportive.

I spent the rest of that day pouring over the numbers only to determine that my original data were correct. No need to worry I thought. I’ll tell Sam I made a mistake about my mistake, my original numbers were correct.

When I told Sam of my error in thinking that there was an error, he looked at me like he could have handed me my head. With very little emotion in his voice or on his face as he spoke, which made his statement all the more stern, he only said these words, “Don’t ever do that again.” As I walked out of his office I knew I had screwed up.

One of the aspects I didn’t realize until years later about Sam’s management style was his ability to vary that style depending upon the circumstances. He could be calm and helpful; he could be playful and joking; he could be ruthless and demanding; and he could be a friend. As my own career advanced and as I began to develop my own way of moving through my technological business world I, unconsciously at first and then by choice, began to understand the usefulness of being able to adopt a wide variety of management styles. Sam was able to move smoothly through a wide variety of different situations with a wide variety of people. I ultimately saw that ability to be a key to management success.

Sam was my first coach and mentor. He talked to me about life and work and people, explaining to me what was important both at work and out, and how to know what was important and how to know what was not. What was important about Sam’s coaching was that he told me “what he was thinking”. He let me see into his mind, into his thought processes. That was so much more important to my learning than just “telling” me what to do. I got to see the “why” as well as the “what”.

I left Rockwell to go back to school and received a M.S. in geophysics. Several years later I ended up back at Rockwell at Seal Beach, and Sam wasn’t there. He had been transferred to another division of Rockwell, and I never saw him again. And yet what he taught me is still with me, so much so that I’m compelled to write a blog about his impact on my career and my life.

To all you technical professionals out there I urge you to find yourself a mentor, a coach. Someone who can teach you early (or late) in your careers what to focus on and what not to focus on, what is important and what isn’t. You don’t have to agree with your mentor or coach but they will help you by starting the process of asking the right questions and giving you their opinions from which you can begin. If they’re really good they won’t tell you, they’ll give you a view into their processes. Find your own Sam or Samantha. Seek out the wisdom in your technical profession. Look for the people who are not only successful but seem to have the respect of a wide variety of people in your organization. Not the people who just have their “like-minded” friends. But those people who receive the respect and support of a wide variety of personalities throughout the organization, throughout the community.

I don’t know where Sam is now, or even if he is on the planet. I’m sure there were others he gave guidance to throughout his career. For me, I still remember Sam as someone who had an important impact on my technical career and on my personal life. Thanks Sam.

Be well

Steven Cerri

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