Mentor Gets a “Blast” Out of Mentorships

Posted by Judy Anne Cavey on Jan 24, 2012 in , , | No Comments


We are happy to present the third in our series of guest bloggers…

The bloggers will be giving you a glimpse into their personal mentor/mentee experiences. Some spotlighted relationships may have grown into deep personal friendships, while others might be purely business in nature–mentees observing their mentor at work. No matter the depth, both mentors and mentees testify to the importance of their relationship. Guest blog posts will appear, sporadically, but always on a Tuesday.

Jean D. Walker, is a Subcontracts Principal at JPL, with 32 years of experience in the Acquisition Division, including fourteen years as a Group Supervisor overseeing procurements for everything from flight projects to construction. Currently she works for the Acquisition Division Manager on special projects connected with the Five Year Strategic Plan. Certified as an ISO Lead Assessor, she is also a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt.  Ms. Walker has been awarded the NASA Exceptional Service Medal and is a past recipient of the JPL Working Woman of Excellence award. She is on LinkedIn or can be reached at

Everyone needs mentors no matter what stage their career is at, or what field they’re in.  Talking about my job in the Acquisition Division at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, wow did I have great mentors as an Early Career Hire (ECH)! I knew I could walk in, close the door and ask anything I needed to know about the work itself or, more importantly, the informal rules of the workplace. I was also fortunate that these mentors appointed themselves to help me.  But it’s not a good idea to do what I did – don’t sit back and wait for the mentors to find you! They might never show up!

Nowadays JPL’s Human Resources department runs an excellent, very well structured mentor program, available to anyone who wants to be mentored or serve as a mentor. If your company has a formal mentor program, my advice is to sign up. But also keep your eyes peeled for senior individuals you’d like to enlist as informal mentors.

Different mentors can provide advice and feedback on varying aspects of your career. I tend to focus on  career planning strategies in the culture of our workplace and our Division. I’ve been assigned mentees through the formal JPL program and have had individuals seek me out to be an informal mentor. If we’re in the formal program, I work on whatever aspect of JPL the mentee has specifically requested help in understanding or learning more about. One of my formal mentees wanted to take steps now that would eventually better position her to work on the major contracts for a future Mars rover mission, as an example.

 If we’re in the informal mentoring situation, I figure someone else can and will teach them how to negotiate contracts or operate the IT systems. Where I can provide assistance is as a sounding board, perhaps to role play situations with, think about strategies for challenging assignments, etc.

If you’re going to be a success in your chosen field,  I believe it’s helpful to know the players, the workplace influences (we are employees of the California Institute of Technology, yet we work under a Prime Contract with NASA as a Federally Funded Research & Development Center) and the history behind things we do daily. An ECH can get so caught up in the mechanics of the job, he or she doesn’t take time to breathe, let alone ponder how to enhance their future career, where they want to be in five years, ten years… I call it “reading the tea leaves”. I know when I was an ECH, I missed valuable opportunities to build bridges to my peers and to other areas of JPL.

I try to get my mentees to think about their future goals and how to plan effective strategies for accomplishing those. I help them sift through activities or teams they want to participate in, or have not considered being involved with, to identify efforts that really will build skills or position them to pursue assignments they desire, versus the ones that are nice but don’t carry as much weight.  There are various advanced degrees and certifications in my field, so I challenge the mentee to think through which ones they want to pursue and why, and provide perspective on how that accomplishment might apply in the JPL workplace.

What do I get out of mentoring? I think it’s really important for senior employees like myself to stay in touch with the energy and new ideas of the people coming into the workplace today. I don’t want to become too settled in my own comfortable niche. I bounce ideas off my mentees and get totally different perspectives from them, things I might never hear from others with many years in the field. So mentoring is a two way street and in closing, I wish you well in finding the mentors you need to help you get where you want to go!