Looking back over my career in graduate school and at Bell Labs, I am surprised to realize that even though I set out to be a software designer, most of my jobs involved teaching people or leading teams. In the process I have learned quite a bit about leadership.
One very common mistake that managers make, I believe, is to underestimate their people. One of the reasons I have been successful is that I have hired very competent people and then trusted them to do their jobs, working with them more as a colleague than as a boss. However, my first lesson taught me that one also must not over-estimate people’s abilities.
I spent five years in graduate school, working half time as a teaching assistant while taking classes. In my third year I took a famous class in active circuit theory, taught by the legendary Professor S. J. Mason. It was one of the most difficult classes I took. I struggled through the semester, barely able to understand the difficult material. To my surprise, I got an A in the course.
The summer after I took Prof. Mason’s course he asked me to come to his office. He told me that he was going to stop teaching the active circuit theory course, which he had taught for many years, because he was tired of teaching it,. However, when students found out that the course was going to be discontinued they clamored for it to be taught one more time so they could take it. So the administration decided to offer it. Prof. Mason told me that he wanted me to teach it. I was astounded. Not only had I found the material very difficult, but also I had never been responsible for teaching an entire course.
“Why me?” I asked. “Because,” he replied, “you are the only student in the class who really understood the material.” (Really???) So I agreed to teach it.
I spent the last month of the summer preparing to teach Prof. Mason’s course. At that time I did not yet have my M.S. degree. When, at the start of the term, I looked over the enrollment for the class I discovered that the class was full and all of the students had at least a M.S. degree. Many were post-doc students who already had their Ph.D. degrees.
I was petrified. I was convinced that most of the students were much smarter than me. I was afraid that I would bore them. At the first meeting of the class, on Monday, I plunged right in to the material. I gave what I thought was a reasonably good lecture. The next meeting, on Wednesday, I continued my rapid progress through the material, hoping I would not bore these very bright and accomplished students.
On Friday, as I was about to start my third lecture, one student, obviously very nervous, came up to my desk and said “Professor Canaday, I’ve been delegated by the class to tell you that none of us understand a word you’ve been saying.”
After a moment to digest this, I turned to the class and said “I understand that you have not been understanding anything I’ve been teaching.” A chorus of affirmation met this statement. “Perhaps I have been going a bit too fast,” I said. Again affirmation. “OK,” I said, “let’s start over at a slower pace.”
So I started over from the beginning and spent almost two weeks covering the material I had covered in the first two days. From that point on the class went quite well.
– Rudd Canaday (ruddcanaday.com)
– Start of blog: My adventures in software