Dan Slaski – The High School Years.

Are you a total n00b? Do you walk around proudly pronouncing fillet like in ballet instead skillet? You may be a n00b. It’s okay if you are. I once was myself. I thought k-factor was when someone had an undefinable special medium quality. I thought kerf was cheap imitation Nerf.  I thought we had the world’s hungriest machinist the way he was always talking about scallops and chips. But just like my freshman high school yearbook I can look back now and grimace slightly less. So, let’s have a dialogue on how we can come togeth…… LeeeeEEEEROY JENKINS!

Ask a Lot of Questions

Questions are your compass.  They give you your direction.  Keep going back to your “compass” to stay on course.  When a fresh employee starts, and they aren’t asking questions, I get very worried.  Worried that they can’t be going in the right direction with the experiential knowledge they have.  As a more experienced professional and employee even I may not be totally clear on the goal.  The misconception is that asking questions is an open admission of a shortcoming.  There is not an assumption that you, the new employee, are the all-knowing knower of all the things. Unless you put omniscience on your resume, it is assumed that you are at the level stated and have the technical and education credentials you claimed.  There is a learning curve involved with joining new organizations.  Learning the unique culture, software, processes, and skills.  Asking questions to accelerate through the learning curve is pro [k21] .  Stubbornly inefficient trial and error is total n00b.

Ask Good Questions

Being around people with encyclopedic knowledge in your chosen field of expertise can be both exciting and intimidating. You are an information sponge surrounded by knowledge fountains. Or, through a different lens, an alien parasitic brain leech.  Try to ask questions around what to do, not how to do it.  Avoid the temptation to let directional questions digress into direct technical questions.  The ease, certainty, and safety of overusing provided information can result in a complacency crutch that stunts your growth.  The difference is subtle, but think of your talented coworkers as mentors, not teachers.  As such, do learn all you can by listening and observation in the most unobtrusive ways.  Particularly about mistakes. But don’t just regurgitate. Your value is not as a lesser copy but through improved solutions and methodologies.  Do ask a Zen Koan on occasion to keep people on their toes.  What is the color of wind?

Combine Questions

Batch questions.  Take it upon yourself to create a system that works for both parties. For example, emailing a list of questions or using scheduled stand up times.  Politeness and cultural norms dictate that a coworker will stop what they are doing and answer your question.  Answering others’ questions with enough frequency can cross a threshold where it becomes a significant work impediment.  Understand that you are taking someone out of the flow of what they are doing and getting back in that same flow mindset isn’t as easy as turning a switch on.  If people have headsets on or their door is closed, take the hint. Also, first coffee then talkee.

Balancing Speed and Thoroughness

An excited and highly motivated employee starts.  The desire to impress and show their value is palpable.  Like a bolt of lightning looking for a path to ground. It takes patience to create infrastructure to channel that energy into a time traveling DeLorean.  But channeling/harnessing that raw energy is not easy. Perhaps a better analogy is an excited dog who I am training to hunt for truffles, but he just keeps bringing me back the same slobbery stick. Speed is not unimportant.  But thoroughness is paramount, and speed comes with time. As the saying goes, first crawl then walk then run.  Rote tasks like performing tests and assembling prototypes should be done thoroughly and expediently with the goal of getting back to the work that isn’t linear or process oriented and where the outcome is highly individualistic.

Most of us started with throughput incentivized work.  How many lawns mowed, how many sandwiches made. Risk was low.  A missed patch of grass or too much chipotle mayo was acceptable (to little chipotle mayo is never acceptable). Now we have graduated into a knowledge-based field where both the potential downsides and upsides are very high.  The risk of an incorrect design can result in tens of thousands of dollars of scrap material or recalls.  The reward of finding a unique part can mean significant savings or opportunity wins.  The time it can take to get to breakthrough is unpredictable, but it predictably doesn’t come from scratching the surface. A quick cursory google search for what you are looking for might reveal nothing.  Done.  Not so fast.  What you are looking for might be a yet unreleased product.  It may require contacting vendors, searching press releases, and thinking about similar products or applications that could be adapted. It requires going deep, Mariana Trench deep. I often remind myself that if it was easy, someone else would have done it already.

Stay Humble. Frag your ego.

When starting a new position, the common sentiment is “to pay your dues”. To quietly and selflessly do what is asked of you by your superiors as was done by your predecessors. What about the quiet practice, sacrifices, and schooling to get to this point.  Is this not the payoff I have worked towards? When are the dues paid?  Who is getting paid? Is this a Ponzi scheme?

I am, by all my accounts, one of the great designers of our era.  I should be fed grapes and fanned with a fern while I ideate and exclaim streams of groundbreaking designs for dictation.  Yet in reality I still mostly do all of the additional unglamorous work I always have. From IT and shipping to prototyping, building, and assembly. And I don’t see much of an end in sight. Doing the work, all of it, is what developed me into who I am and what I can do.  Being integrally involved with software tools, maintaining the 3D printers and chatting with others when helping them out. I notice things; ways to improve, subtle details otherwise missed that I leverage in big ways which leads to deeper and deeper learning and understanding. It’s not forced on me like some cosmic debt. It’s a part of my continuous training that prevents me from ever getting nerfed.

Ask good questions, focus on thoroughness, and build speed while humbly doing the work and one day you will find yourself respawned as a pro.


Dan Slaski is the Lead Renegade for Renegade Prototyping and your new secret weapon/best friend for design domination. A Virginia Tech Mechanical Engineer with a long list of credentials to accompany his years of industry experience in fields including the medical, robotics, and military sectors. He has designed assemblies with hundreds of unique parts and moving components that have gone high into the earth's atmosphere, deep below the oceans and everything in between. All of this has contributed to his vast portfolio of knowledge dealing with difficult engineering problems, and a wide repertoire of skills in prototyping, manufacturing, and sourcing. Yet he still finds a way to remain humble. If you have a project that demands success you need to get on his client list ASAP.