I just wrapped up a business trip that could best be labeled a ‘boondoggle’ with one exception: I experienced the brainpower that exists in this very large corporation that is my employer. Being exposed to the research that is being conducted and the designs implemented for other military and commercial platforms really brings home the best of what the company has to offer.
It’s easy to become calloused to every day work and creativity is slowed to a crawl. We get used to coming in and doing our eight hours and going home without rattling the brain cage for new ideas and solutions. There are the daily fires to extinguish and the best way to get those fires extinguished is to pull out our cadre of solutions, thought to work best and in the shortest amount of time. Of course there is never time, or rather we never TAKE the time to really analyze the situations to once and for all put out the fires.
Sometimes it’s good to see how the other half lives. But how do you accomplish this if you happen to work on a small program that only requires mundane support?
Technical conferences are great ways to meet the movers and shakers who are fortunate enough to engage in their work to make things better, smarter, faster. Luck does have a lot to do with it. For the development programs I’ve been a part of, the assignments happened by chance. I have a friend who is a senior technical specialist/fellow. When I asked her about how she was able to emerge in such a great position, it hinged on an assignment she took for an Army research project. I have never been exposed to such opportunities. Partly geographic, the larger sites typically have more money for research and attract the thinkers and doers.
Outside the company, creativity conferences are abundant now. We had our first one last year in Oklahoma City. These conferences bring together people from the arts and technology to discuss stimulating creativity and innovation. Here’s the website for OKC: http://stateofcreativity.com I’m sure other cities have similar activities. Google ‘creativity forum’ and see what pops up.
(I did voice a gripe about last year’s conference when I noticed there were no women on the speakers’ panel. The answer? Their schedules are booked up and are unavailable. I don’t believe it.)
TED talks are also a great resource of creative minds sharing their knowledge on a plethora of subjects. The website is full of free videos and information; pick a topic, I bet it’s on there. http://www.ted.com
Check out internal communication tools that a larger company has to enable connection to technical experts. I’ve done this before with positive results. Most of the company experts are more than willing to share their knowledge. And no one knows everything about everything, no matter how they might try to convince you. It takes a minute to drop an email to one of these experts asking a question related to your problem.
Expand your horizons. I received an assignment to provide human factors engineering support to a bomber program, and I really don’t know how that came about. I had always worked in user interfaces in my project engineering positions, so I guess I was the most likely candidate compared to my co-workers. I realized immediately I needed human factors-specific education. I located a listing of HF specialists and emailed most of them for recommendations. I wouldn’t be able to go through a college course curriculum, potentially earning a master’s degree; there just wasn’t enough time. Not everyone responded, but the few that did had a common solution. The University of Michigan conducts a two-week intensive course in the subject. Surprisingly, my program paid for my attendance at this course. I learned what I needed to know and more for the new position that carried me onto more adventures than I ever thought possible.
It is easy to become complacent, beaten down in a career that seems to stagnate. Pull yourself up and engage with your management, who may also be beaten down, by the way. Look for opportunities to spark your knowledge; find mentors in people whose work you admire. Use social media to trade ideas and follow companies and individuals that are in the fast track to discovering new technologies. Google for information on what interests you.
Opportunities for learning abound. Educate and apply this education to your current assignments. It may be that a transfer to a different site or company is in your future. Take the risk and never stop learning.