My Biggest Mistake, and How I Fixed it

April 10, 2008
James Henderson was just starting his career when he was tasked to design a stepper motor to drive a rotating stand for testing a missile system.

Victoria Burt
Contributing Editor

The equipment was for realtime simulated testing, and the performance of the stepper motor had to be exceptional. So he used an unenclosed stepper motor and designed the housing. “It was a good design that looked great,” he says. “However, when I went to assemble it, I realized I could only install the screws that held the assembly together from the inside. Big stupid mistake.”

Henderson’s boss was sympathetic and told him to find an off-the-shelf stepper with a housing and good performance. He did and the test system worked fine. “I asked my boss what to do with the $25,000 stepper motor I designed,” he recalls. “He told me to go to the test lab, put it in the bottom drawer, and mark the drawer ‘Extremely important parts. Do not open.’ Every few years after that, I would get a call asking for permission to open the drawer. I always told them no. Ten years later, I left the company and the drawer with the stepper motor was still there.”

“My biggest career mistake was jumping ship too early. When times are tough and things look dreary, don’t jump too quickly.” That advice is from Jim Sines, principal engineer, who says he quit his job for a lower-paying job at a different company. “It took five years to get back to where I was. And if I had stayed with the original company, I would have been included in a buyout four months later. The buyout included relocation or a nice severance package,” he adds.

Mark Walters says his biggest mistake was letting other people tell him what he could or couldn’t do in his career. After getting out of the Navy, Walters took a draftsman position for just over minimum wage at a local toilet factory. “I didn’t have a college degree and just expected that this was probably the best I could do,” he says. “I stayed over 11 years, partly because I believed I wasn’t good and also because the personnel manager made sure I understood I was not an engineer or a designer but only a draftsman.”

Walters finally took a chance and tried for a position with a metallurgical- furnace fabricator, and was accepted. “After a short time there I found out I had more knowledge than most of the designers and some of the engineers. I learned the CAD program in less than a week and after a few months made it up through the ranks of designer to engineering technician.” He stayed with the company until a downturn in the economy forced layoffs.

“By this point I had enough confidence in my abilities to try for a position in the engineering department at a semiconductor test-equipment company. This is where I am today and have been for over eight years,” Walters says. “For too long I listened to people who didn’t understand my potential. Now I am a CAD resource and help many individuals, and I could have done more for others if I had moved on before.”

Wendell Reeves considers himself a hands-on guy who enjoys rolling up his sleeves and getting involved with equipment and processes. “At one point in my career, an engineering manager asked me to be an engineering supervisor, where I had six technical personnel reporting to me,” he says. “I was in this position for three years, then transferred to another location as a process engineer without any subordinates reporting to me. Once again I was approached about applying for the engineering- supervisor position with 10 reports. I took the position and worked in this role for two years before once again transferring to my current location with only technical responsibilities.”

Reeves says after these two stints, he realized he did not particularly enjoy the role of supervisor and made a decision to return to a purely technical role with no supervisory responsibilities. “I feel much more fulfilled in taking on everyday technical issues than I do dealing with personnel problems and formal development of other engineers. My biggest career mistake was allowing myself to be enticed into a role (twice) that I did not actively seek and probably took for the wrong reasons (prestige and promotion).”

Jim Warrens had a comfortable job as plant engineer of a company that made plastic ear tags for farm animals when a recruiter called. “The job was maintenance superintendent and I was promised a promotion when the current plant engineer retired. It took me from a small company with less than 100 employees to a big company with over 500 employees. I took the job only to find myself out of work six months later,” he says.

Management decided to reduce overtime pay to 150% on Sundays instead of the 200% they were making, and it did not go over well. “I had no input into the decision, but I agreed to it,” Warrens says. “Then I got blamed for poor morale and was made the scapegoat. I was fortunate to receive three months severance pay. But I made the mistake of being greedy and believing the recruiter,” he says.

He ended up as a manufacturing engineer for a small company with nearly no benefits, making two-thirds of what he made at the big company. “The blessing of this mistake was I got back to doing machine design and realized that it gave me more job satisfaction than being a supervisor. But is has taken me over a dozen years to get back to the benefits and pay levels I lost from that bad decision,” he adds.

Read more stories There are more examples of reader mistakes on the Career Talk blog. Click on and look for the post called “My biggest mistake.”

James Henderson is a principal engineer at Rockwell Collins in Richardson, Tex.

Mark Walters is a CAD Systems/PDM Administrator for Xandex Inc., in Petaluma, Calif.

Wendell Reeves is a manufacturing engineer at the ESD Div. of 3M Co., Austin, Tex.

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