As he was finding his footing in both America and his career, William “Bill” Knudsen, a young Danish-born immigrant in New York, took a low-paying job at a Buffalo bicycle manufacturer to learn more about the manufacturing process. The plant superintendent, William H. Smith, noticed Knudsen’s industriousness and took it upon himself to oversee the young man’s development as a manufacturing engineer.
At age 29, Knudsen himself was general superintendent, and he and Smith were making steel axle housings for a new startup called Ford Motor Company. Ford soon bought them out, and Knudsen and Smith found themselves optimizing the Ford Model T assembly line. Knudsen would eventually leave both Ford and Smith to work for auto rival General Motors, which would soon surpass Ford in sales under his leadership.
Knudsen’s next career move was in service of the country that he now called home. When it was clear that the conflict in Europe would require American intervention and an unprecedented supply of war materiel, President Franklin Roosevelt tapped Knudsen to lead the American wartime production effort during World War II. Knudsen and other men of industry worked day and night to defeat the German war machine, contributing directly to the Allied victory in WWII. As Knudsen later said, "We won because we smothered the enemy in an avalanche of production, the like of which he had never seen, nor dreamed possible."
Another notable figure from engineering history, Igor Sikorsky, found his way into aviation engineering through the mentorship of Michael Vladimirovich Shidlowsky, a former Russian naval officer and businessman who invested in Sikorsky’s ambitions to keep building bigger and better aircraft. Sikorsky went on to design the world's first production helicopter. Sikorsky helicopters have since flown every U.S. President since Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Your own career may or may not play such a pivotal role in the human history, but practically every major innovator or creative can look back and pinpoint a figure who offered them vital support and mentorship in their early years, just like William H. Smith did for Knudsen and Shidlowsky did for Sikorsky. Neither of these men were operating out of pure philanthropy. Like many mentors, they made an investment in their mentees that ultimately paid off.
We don't always choose our mentors, but one of the most important factors in developing a mentor-mentee relationship is an alignment of goals. You may work for different companies, or even in different time zones, but if you're both working towards a similar goal, your relationship is likely to be more productive and easier to maintain.
A great mentor-mentee relationship isn't likely to form overnight. Knudsen and Shidlowsky had to earn the respect of their respective mentors by demonstrating their strong work ethic, ambition and creative vision. If you can demonstrate the same, your mentor won't feel like they're doing you any favours. Mentorship is a two-way street; when the mentor and mentee are both putting in the work, everybody wins. If your goals are truly aligned your relationship may even evolve into a business partnership. But whether your relationship with your mentor remains informal or takes an official capacity, it's worth treasuring - it could set you on an engineering career track that will challenge, surprise and fulfill you for a lifetime.
Do you have an engineering mentor? Have you acted as a mentor for somebody else? Share your stories in the comments section below...