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Asking the questions that will maximize mentored experience

By Andrew Mock posted 09-07-2021 05:52 PM


For the early-career civil engineer, one of the daily challenges can be managing a simple task: asking questions.

The civil engineer’s primary pathways of development include formal education, mentored experience, and self-development. Asking questions of our supervisors, organization leaders, and other industry mentors is fundamental to obtaining the mentored experience component.

There is an opportunity to maximize the value of those interactions, and I believe the key is finding the balance of what questions to ask, when to ask them, and how to ask them.

A recommended approach to asking questions

One of my early-career mentors recommended a simple process that I have utilized throughout my career:

  • When faced with a new problem or challenge – do not jump directly to asking someone else for help. 
  • Take time to consider the problem, gather relevant information, and formulate a few ideas (no more than three) of how you would approach or solve it.   
  • The process of researching and evaluating approaches should be limited to 20 or 30 minutes.  

The mentee can now go to their mentor prepared to effectively discuss the problem beyond a simple question-and-answer dialog.  

The short-term and long-term benefits

In the short term, the above approach helps establish problem context and possible solutions; however, in the long term, the mentee’s critical thinking and problem-solving skills are practiced, which is fundamental to the civil engineer’s body of knowledge.  

Other benefits of the approach include:

  1. Respecting others’ time and schedule: The individuals we seek mentorship from generally have a limited amount of time to devote to answering questions. I’ve found that many process-oriented or straightforward questions answer themselves after we take the time to dig deeper and consider the possible paths forward. The recommended approach filters out those questions and focuses the mentor’s time on the most critical needs.
  2. Probing with deeper questions: In many cases, the initial question identified may represent the surface of a bigger problem. Through this approach, the dialog between the mentor and mentee can dig deeper to determine the full scope of the problem by investing the time to consider and evaluate the context and solution.  
  3. Supporting responsible charge: Asking questions of and seeking input from the engineer in responsible charge is fundamental to ensuring their awareness and ability to give direction on design decisions. By gathering all the information, the engineer can be provided the necessary context to evaluate the possible solutions.

Engineering problems often have more than one possible solution or approach, but experience teaches us which approach may best suit the situation given all the information. By utilizing this approach to asking questions, the mentor and mentee can have a broader discussion about the merits and applications of different solutions to a given problem. I believe implementing this approach to asking questions has accelerated my development and the effectiveness of my mentored experience, and I hope it can do the same for you.

Andrew Mock, Ph.D., P.E., S.E., M.ASCE, is vice president and director of structural engineering for HP Engineering, Inc., an integrated mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and structural engineering consulting firm. Andrew leads all aspects of structural services for building projects, including new construction, additions, renovations, and assessments. His professional experience has included commercial, education, entertainment, healthcare, hospitality, industrial, infrastructure, mixed-use, and multifamily market sectors. Andrew currently serves on ASCE’s Committee on Preparing the Future Civil Engineer.

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