Mentoring Protégés into Super Users
Much has been written on general management techniques but very little of it directly applies to CAD administration and even less applies to mentoring young enthusiasts.
CAD Admin is Different from Other Management Jobs
Part of the problem is that CAD administration is often not seen as a discipline unto itself. It is not given a name, a title, an official set of responsibilities or seen as a desirable career path. In smaller organizations, you wind up with someone in charge of software but there is no formal authority, no budget, no plan, no recognition from management and no formal place in the company structure. It is just extra work that someone gets to do.
In larger organizations, hopefully the CAD Admin is a full-time position that has shared responsibilities with information technology, product design (and possibly manufacturing) and documentation. They are in control of the change process, documentation and possibly are the gate keepers for the product development process as well.
CAD administration is a technology management position, and would rarely have any direct reports. A CAD Admin is not usually directly managing people; the main thrust is to manage the software that governs the PLM processes.
But to really execute this position within the company to its greatest potential, the CAD Admin must affect the people around the processes. To do this, the CAD Admin should be involved in mentoring CAD users or other documentation professionals along the path to mastering the ideas and processes that come together to enable product development.
What Is Mentoring?
Mentoring accomplishes things other than training your replacement. It is a method of specialized and individualized training in a less-than-formal setting, often with just casual contact throughout the workday. Although it can be casual, however, it still requires planning, or at least a conscious set of priorities.
There is no training program for CAD Admins, and there are few books on the topic. Many people who do the work have learned on the job and by making their own mistakes. A company with enough resources to plan into the future will help develop this type of expertise internally using internal people who appreciate the company.
How to Select a Mentee?
The first question to confront has to do with who you select as this “mentee.” Generally, and depending on the size and requirements of your organization, you might have a couple of CAD learners at any given time, each at a different stage. In any group of CAD learners, you will have one or more who are more interested than the rest.
CAD Admin is something you do because you find it interesting and even compelling. I’m trying hard not to use the word “passionate” because passion is an emotional state and technology managers do well to avoid a lot of strong emotions connected to work-related issues. Emotional reactions often interfere with orderly business operations or add unnecessary stress to others’ workdays. Becoming overly involved in a topic or pursuit can lead to burnout. This could be a separate article, but you may want to let your mentee know—possibly with a personal anecdote—about not getting overly emotional about a project lest it lead to their burnout.
You can train protégés both in person and at a distance. In fact, I’m doing that now by writing articles for users I’ll never meet, which is one method of mentoring people who are eager to learn. Both mentors and mentees are self-selecting groups. People who want to learn become people who want to teach.
Finding our way back to the core topic, what do you teach a protégé you are mentoring to turn them into a super user? In the course of discharging your CAD Admin responsibilities, there are various decisions that must be made and to make those decisions, you must have certain priorities in mind. For example, do you upgrade to the latest version of the software? When do you start that process?
Lead By Example
The best learning is not done by lectures and reading, it is done by example. Create situations where your mentee can watch over your shoulder as you navigate various tasks or decisions. Being good at a particular task mainly requires experience, but making good decisions requires the ability to prioritize and knowing when to shuffle those priorities.
Part of the problem many companies find with management roles is that new management hires are expected to know how to manage from some book or college class but they often never get to actually do it until they are thrust into a job—and then they find themselves in over their heads. Bringing in a manager from outside the company also means that internal employees have been passed over. This way, the company loses an opportunity to reward internal employees and the person you bring in is going to have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to company and product knowledge. Advancement from within is valuable from many different angles and companies benefit from it in many ways.
You may even want to take the mentee into a meeting with your manager to see how actual company decisions get made. You will hear that you should have passion for your job, but as stated earlier, passion is an emotion and strong emotions often lead to bad decisions. Emotion needs to be balanced by rational considerations. Decision making cannot be totally devoid of emotion. Compassion may be needed for us as humans, but allowing technical company decisions to be ruled by emotion is not advisable. Think about the worst decisions you have ever made. How many of them were centered around emotional situations? If you think of good decisions you have seen leaders at your company make, how many required stepping back from the emotion of the situation and rationally looking at a wider scope?
So Much More Than Just CAD
It’s easy to see CAD Admin as a sexy job when you think of it as being a CAD boss all day long, but there is so much more than just CAD involved. Think of all the software that touches your company’s products all day. Many companies with a CAD Admin position call it something else, like a Product Development Technology Manager or PLM Manager. Interest in the position may wane upon realizing you have to become a database admin as much as network and computer hardware issues. You are not just answering CAD questions all day. You have to answer questions about software you are not familiar with. You are suddenly responsible for helping the FEA people as well as the rendering people. This requires a deep dedication to helping people, whether you have to research the issue yourself or take it to the reseller or manufacturer. This kind of dedication is impossible to teach and must be inherent in the candidate.
How To Prepare
If you have a protégé who really wants to build the skills to become a CAD admin, sometimes the best path is to go somewhere else. There are not that many companies where you can gain experience in such a wide range of product development technology. Sometimes you may have to guide your mentee out of your organization.
One option is to guide them toward employment with a software reseller. Resellers represent the gamut of technology from computers, 3D printers, scanners, CAD, CAM, FEA, services, training, tech support and more. Even with this type of position, you have to be careful that you do not get pigeon-holed into one particular aspect. Software resellers are the one place where you can easily get experience in a wide range of product development tools. Resellers do tend to have a certain rate of employee churn, so you can expect most of their employees to be younger, or junior level and moving between disciplines within the organization should be easy enough.
Learning and being exposed to a wide range of technologies for an early career professional can also be a way to help decide which direction to steer a career. It is great on-the-job learning to be able to work in a range of disciplines before selecting one to stick with or specialize in.
If you are a CAD Admin and you need to train a replacement or an assistant, use opportunities from your daily work to introduce them to the job and evaluate their temperament for the work. The kind of person interested in CAD administration will usually present themselves. You will find them hanging out in the CAD office more often than others. Make sure they are in a position to see what you do on a daily basis and get exposed to the wide range of situations that CAD Admins have to deal with—because it’s not just about CAD.