15 years ago, as a new hire at a Silicon Valley high-tech company, I found myself feeling strangely inadequate, despite my bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. And while my fellow engineers were competing to move up in rank – I felt I needed to understand how things really worked – by going in the opposite direction – or down in so-called rank. I requested a transfer to the factory floor with the assemblers and testers.
My peers viewed this change to manufacturing engineering as a demotion – but I didn’t care – I wanted to understand what it was we were building.
So armed with an education, assembly drawings and schematics – I headed out to the front lines. There I was then able to compare theory to reality. I learned the tricks invented by the factory workers to compensate for design shortcomings and part variability. One day – while I was struggling to calibrate a certain assembly – I ran across a large part of the circuitry that I didn’t understand. I took my questions to the senior design engineer, with no regard for how stupid this might make me look.
You may say I had moxie – in actuality I was naive.
The engineer didn’t even look at the schematic. Instead, he assaulted me with a condescending barrage of high-tech speak – none of which I could comprehend. When I asked for further clarification – the engineer’s angry stare made me realize I had probably just committed career suicide. But I really wanted to know what this strange circuit did – so I stood my ground. He finally snatched the schematic from my hand and actually looked at it. His expression slowly transformed from anger to deep thought. He looked bewildered as he explained to me that this part of the circuit should have been removed years ago when the product was redesigned. He didn’t believe that it was still there but a trip out to the assembly line confirmed what I had reported.
In the following weeks, we removed the remnant circuitry which greatly improved system performance. By demoting myself I had inadvertently gained respect in the design lab as well as the factory floor, and…
By admitting my ignorance, I was somehow perceived as being intelligent.
This accidental lesson, originally driven by feelings of incompetence – has served me well ever since. Now, no matter what my job is…
I seek out a hefty demotion, in search of mastery at the bottom before ascending to the top.