I recently started a new job in the aerospace industry at Boom Supersonic as a Software Engineer. For those who don’t know, we’re trying to revive supersonic passenger travel (i.e., think: a modern Concorde). Before starting at Boom, I’d never worked in aerospace, never worked with mechanical or aerodynamic engineers, and pretty much knew next to nothing about what the company has to do in order to be successful. Given that, you’d have to think me a bit crazy, and the folks who hired me even more crazy. Except, everything has gone great; let me elaborate on why.
The first part has to do with the company I joined. Boom specifically looks for people who are excellent at their specialty, and are good at explaining it to other people. This means that a new person has a ton of people around who are very happy to answer questions at length, and don’t consider any question a stupid one. This has made making the jump a lot easier, but, of course, not everyone will be so lucky.
The second part is to deliberately study materials which provide an introduction to the field, and never gloss over anything. Since there’s so much I didn’t recognize even in the introductory material, the temptation to allow it to just wash over me was constant. However, allowing that to happen means that nearly everything I would learn afterward would be “floating”; that is, I wouldn’t be able to really explain it all the way back to something I could see and touch. The difficulty, is that avoiding that trap is a ton of work. As I progressed through that particular gauntlet, there were a number of techniques I used to help.
First, each time I ran across a term I didn’t understand, I paused in my reading to look it up. As I was reading the explanation, if I saw another team I didn’t recognize, I’d pause again, and look that one up. In getting into the aerospace industry, it would be common for me to get 3–4 layers deep before I’d get back to the original topic. The benefit here is that by the time I did get back to the original subject, I’d be in a position for the reading to actually register with real understanding, instead of a vague notion of having seen certain words before.
There were a lot of times when even that didn’t help, because the term as used in the aerospace world was buried by search results of how the term is used outside the aerospace world. In those cases, I needed to fall back to my second trick: write down questions as I go along. Then, when I’d finished a section of reading, I’d find someone (often multiple someones) who could answer my questions. And, as before, I didn’t let their answers swim past me. I’d challenge them to explain in terms I could deeply understand. Not surprisingly, some people were better at this than others, and I quickly picked out the people who I found I could learn most easily from. Then, as they were explaining, I’d try to echo their answers back my own words so that they could correct any misconceptions I had, or areas where I was fuzzy on certain ideas.
Finally, as I was going along, I’d write down the things I’d been learning in a document aimed at my fellow novices. This extra pass through the material is where all the hard work of learning really got cemented. First, it required me to go broad on what I’d learned in order to organize it into some coherent form. Then, it required me to go deep into each of the subjects I’d been learning about to explain it clearly. Since it’s a written document, I could take time to look things up again to refresh my memory on those things I’d forgotten, or never did completely understand. I then went back to the same people of whom I’d asked my questions in the first place, and asked them look over my document. This allowed them to clarify any points I’d gotten wrong and/or add extra details I had forgotten. In the end, I’d created a resource for all my fellow aviation newbs who will followed in my footsteps.
At Boom, I followed this advice and created a combined glossary of aerospace terms and FAQ about general aerospace topics. Not only did this help me rapidly get up to speed on this difficult and complex new industry, but I’ve gotten complimented—from both novices and veterans alike—that the document was very helpful in learning something new. Best of all, the document has since been added to by nearly every new person who’s joined the company from outside the aerospace industry.