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  • Writer's picturetony

Hear you me, my friends

I was fortunate to spend my early NSA years in assignments where mentoring and teaching were simply a given in the workplace. It was so ingrained that I am not sure we even used the term "mentoring" in those days. In the COMSEC Intern program, we each had a "senior advisor" - an experienced professional assigned to help you navigate your career. There was also a "big brother" program to help new Interns get acclimated (uh, yes, this was NSA, but no, it was not THAT kind of Big Brother program).

But for technical learning, mostly it was just people who would stop by my desk to see what I was working on and ask if they could help: Will H, Howard M, Al M, John K, Heidi H, Vernon R, and countless others. Will was an algebraist who could turn any cryptographic problem into equations on legal pad paper in his neat professorial handwriting - I still keep a treasured sample or 2 in my files. Howard always offered gentle advice and a unique way of viewing problems. He once spent a day helping me untangle a couple of challenging (to me) math problems, turning them into a creative series of "ball and urn" problems. Once a week or so, Will would walk down the hall late in the afternoon announcing "Tea Time." Most of the mathematicians would wander downstairs to the classroom, where someone would present an interesting analytic problem for group discussion. It took me a couple of trips to figure out that no tea would be served (the name came from our British counterparts' late afternoon traditions), only ideas and discussion.

When I switched my career focus from mathematics to computer science, I was swimming in new technology and terminology. And more technical mentoring. My supervisor Bob was the most influential over the long haul, but the most memorable was a fussy young engineer. I think Rich G got more joy from acting like a grouch than he was, but he was always unforgettable.

One of his favorites quips? "When they make a computer that any idiot can use, then only idiots will use them…". Computers should be hard to use; the knowledge is only for wizards and experts, darn it! And when I did something right, Rich's strongest praise was, "I am perfectly 'whelmed.' Not enough to be 'overwhelmed,' just 'whelmed'". Uh, thanks, Rich.

But Rich was very patient and helpful to me. The photo accompanying this article are his notes from about 1981, 1982 (mistakes and all), when he sat down to teach me the addressing modes of the 6502 microprocessor (found in many mainstream computers of the day, like the Apple II, Atari, Commodore, etc.).

Beyond technical learning, the most influential mentors in my life were not the people who reviewed my paperwork, pointed me to good assignments, or got me into training, but those who helped me think differently about work and life. Most of these lessons were not part of some formal mentoring meeting at all. They were observations, both offered and taken. And for whatever reason, I was ready to learn them.

An essential underpinning for these "mentoring moments" is self-awareness. A close professional friend once offered that self-awareness was *the* most valuable leadership skill. That is, the ability to stand outside one's self, see the impact of one's actions upon others, and objectively assess your strengths and weaknesses. And to be open for moments of learning. As the saying goes, “when the student is ready, the teacher will come”, so it pays always to be ready. I also believe you should couple self-awareness with a heaping dose of character. I have known (a very few) people in leadership jobs who seemed to be quite self-aware that they are obnoxious bullies but don't seem to care. So awareness by itself is not enough in my book.

There’s lots more to say about mentoring, but for now, I’ll offer that one of the kindest things you can do as a professional and as a human being is to reflect on your journey and say thanks to the people who have helped you along the way. And do so in a specific, personal way. Sorry, modern people - a few “likes” here and there is a nice gesture, but not much of a “thank you.” As folks like me approach the end of our careers, we usually reflect more on the people we worked with than the accomplishments we worked on, and a kind word goes a long way. (I am NOT fishing, or even phishing for a compliment – so many of you have already said very kind things to me). When Howard (mentioned previously) passed away, we performed this song at his memorial service. I am thankful that I did take the time to say “thank you” to Howard while I still had the chance.


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