How to Get the Most out of Your Experience as a New Employee
Interviewer: Karim Thompson
Welcome to a new episode of Collaboration, Partnerships and Social Media in the Knowledge-Driven Enterprise. In this episode, Leah Balkin, Systems Engineer, discusses her efforts to promote mentorship at MITRE.
As early career professionals enter an organization, they will have to be acquainted with the people, processes and tools that enable the business to function. This can be daunting if the employee must get up to speed on his or her own. However, mentorship can significantly ease and accelerate learning when senior employees can share their knowledge and experience with mentees. Furthermore, such mentorship allows these young professionals to extend their network beyond their peers to include their leaders.
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Hello everyone, my name is Karim Thompson and welcome to MITRE’s Knowledge-Driven Enterprise podcast. Today I’m joined by Leah Balkin. Our topic will be on her efforts to promote mentorship at MITRE. Leah, the first question we have is, who are you? What is your background?
Sure. Yeah, I have been at MITRE for about two and a half years now, and I’m a systems engineer in the Systems Engineering Innovation Center and my background’s in Environmental and Systems Engineering. I do a lot of different types of projects, from enterprise data systems to mission engineering systems of systems work and also climate resiliency work. And so when I came to MITRE, it was in the beginning of the pandemic and so it was hard to meet people obviously so, that’s how I started getting involved in different initiatives around MITRE.
And something that really helped me meet new people was through different mentoring initiatives and social initiatives in my department and also with NextUp and so it just made the community feel a little bit smaller.
Understood. You said you joined MITRE during the pandemic. Is MITRE your first job out of college?
It is, yep.
Okay. And you also mentioned something called NextUp. Could you tell me more about that? What is that?
Yeah. NextUp is an early career program. And so we have a lot of different initiatives that are run with different events for early career professionals to meet each other, to also meet people that are higher up in the company that can offer mentorship. So, it’s just basically networking and events, and anyone that’s seven years into their career, I feel like could really benefit from it.
Okay. It’s great that you found that resource here as a new MITRE employee. So, what is your background with mentorship?
I started getting involved in mentorship, actually kind of in high school. I led a lot of tour groups around the school, and I’ve always been interested in making sure people feel comfortable in a new environment, because that’s something that is really important to me: when you have someone else showing interest in you when you’re new to a new place. So, that’s where it started. And in college I also was involved in some different clubs around mentorship and that’s why when I came to MITRE, it was just something that felt really natural to get involved in.
And so I started in my Division. We had a social committee that expanded to forming a mentor program. So, that was a really neat way to meet people within my Department. I don’t know if I said that was at the Division level, but that was at the Department level at first, and then we expanded to our Division level. So, yeah, that’s been a really nice program and it’s still continuing today.
Okay. So, you’ve mentioned that you took some of your experience from college as far as mentorship to MITRE. Which college did you attend?
Yeah, [I] went to Cornell University and I did Environmental Engineering for undergrad and then Systems Engineering for my Masters of Engineering.
Okay. And then you also talked about you starting mentorship at the Department level and then expanding it to the Division level. Was that a smooth transition?
Yeah, so our idea with that was we already felt our Department was small enough that everyone kind of knew each other and the whole point of this mentorship program was to try to expand people’s networks throughout the company so you could learn about new projects, learn new people, new skills. So, I think it was a really great opportunity to leverage all of the different expertise in the Systems Engineering Innovation Center. It’s been a little bit of work, but we’re learning as we go and we’ve gotten really positive feedback so far.
Wonderful. Now, you mentioned Systems Engineering, so for the layperson, what is that?
Yeah. Systems Engineering is very broad by nature, but it’s basically when you have a large complex system, making sure you understand what your customer needs are or your sponsor needs. So, whatever the mission statement is–and their objectives and goals—and then translating that into requirements for a system that you’re going to build out for them. And then that’s kind of all the upfront work and then the actual modeling out [of] the system is where you take the requirements and you build out, “Okay, now what’s your system going to actually look like and what’s it going to do?” And then, after that, people will run analyses to figure out: does it run how you expected it to run? Are all the parameters meeting what you expect? Different things like that.
Have you found that you’ve used any of those skill sets with System Engineering to help you establish some of these mentorship programs or to evaluate how well they’re working?
Yeah, that’s a good question. Systems Engineering is all about organization. So, in a way, yes: in setting up what the requirements are for the program, making sure people get access to technical skill information as well as what we call “MITRE IQ” information. So, learning more about people at MITRE and networking and then also building on any soft skills that you want to work on. And so those are the foundations of the program that we’ve tried to establish, and I think are very important to building a career at MITRE.
So, those soft skills, what are some of those soft skills that you identify as important?
So, something that I’ve had to do every now and then is brief sponsors, so those communication skills and being able to present is critical to explaining the work you’re doing because you want it to come across clear and for everyone to be on the same page. So, yeah, I think that’s a huge one: presenting, people want to know about. But also just in the day to day, sometimes new career professionals more specifically won’t be sure how to handle a situation, so it’s also nice to have someone to talk to about who should I email about this? Who should I reach out to? Should I set up an email or should I set up a meeting? Types of stuff like that.
Outside of the Department and Division mentorship programs, are there other mentorship programs you’re involved in throughout MITRE?
Yes. So, part of NextUp is the Mentoring Committee and so, I’m co-leading that Committee right now and we put on different types of events where we try to bring more experienced professionals in to talk about their experiences in MITRE and their career and try to give people guidance when they can, and form new relationships.
You’ve mentioned, say, soft skills that are very important throughout your career journey. If you could provide other pieces of advice that you’d want to share with the audience, what would it be?
Yeah, so one of the biggest things that I’ve learned in my journey and that I try to stay true to is kind of doing things that scare me and get myself outside my comfort zone and I think that’s really important. I look back now because (now that I’m two and a half years in), a year ago, there were some things that terrified me to do–like presenting on the work I had done and all different things, but it gets so much easier once you just get out of your comfort zone and keep pushing the boundaries.
So, that must be challenging to face something that scares you. How do you handle that fear?
Yeah, so that’s something I think about a lot is: if I am getting anxiety about something. And then I’m realizing, “Why am I getting anxiety?” It’s because I haven’t necessarily done this thing before and it’s new to me, but it’s something that I want to do. And so kind of having that internal conversation to realize where you need to push yourself to grow, to be where you want to be.
Okay. Would you say that the fear goes away or you just manage it?
I think it goes away for some things, not everything. Obviously, I think everyone–if you’re speaking in front of large groups—most people get nervous, but it definitely gets less and some things, actually, I’ve found they go away at different points.
And I would say that you’d have to have that fear in order to be courageous, wouldn’t you?
Yeah. You’re totally right. Yeah.
Okay. And you sound like you’ve showed a lot of courage at various points, especially coming new into an organization and being bold enough to want to establish mentorship programs or be involved with them. So, definitely kudos to you there. That was Leah Balkin, someone who’s definitely making an impact on MITRE with their efforts to promote mentorship. Thanks again for joining us, Leah.
Karim Thompson is trained in geography to analyze locations to uncover hidden patterns and improve predictive modeling. However, his other interests led him to become a scrum master and group facilitator. Now he helps teams work together to deliver novel solutions to difficult problems.
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