This article first appeared in the January 2016 Flight Test News.

In the past six months, graduates from test pilot schools all over the world have joined the ranks of our esteemed profession. For a year, each student put their nose to the grindstone, and while they learned the academic foundations of flight test, the world changed. Aircraft certification requirements have evolved. Innovative technology has appeared. Electric aircraft have progressed in leaps and bounds. And a million other things have changed incrementally—things that many will overlook have advanced in important directions. For the graduates, this milestone is an important transition, and for the rest of us, their arrival, together with a fresh page on the calendar, gives us the chance to look at where we have been, and answer the question posed above: “where do we go from here?” In this edition of the Flight Test News, we welcome the graduates, shower them with advice, and ponder the way ahead for our Society and ourselves, regardless of where we are in our own careers. To begin, consider these words from July 1969, from the earliest issue of the technical journal Flight Test Engineer, the Society of Flight Test Engineers’ first publication.

Many of the things said at the genesis of our Society apply today, especially this: “The purpose of the SFTE is to provide a common ground for the exchange of information and ideas concerning flight test. We want to unite people from different geographical locations, technical fields, and educational backgrounds who are in the field of flight test today.”

Our first challenge is to exchange information and ideas, but which ideas do we exchange? And how do we exchange them? The Board of Directors and SFTE chapters use the Flight Test News to share three specific kinds of information and ideas. First, there is news. This appears in almost every issue of FTN and on our website and Facebook pages and groups. For example, this issue includes news about Flight Test graduates. The second kind of information is technical. I reiterate here my encouragement to members at every level to use our every-other-month technical FTN issue as a place to brainstorm and share incomplete concepts, as a way to get feedback on early stage ideas. As these ideas mature, you may consider preparing a symposium technical paper. But if you want to rapidly prototype knowledge and explore its application, then FTN is a laboratory where you can test ideas before presenting them on stage. Of course, we will also use FTN to highlight award winning technical papers after the fact, to encourage circulation.

The final flavor of information is harder to define. Some call it “soft skills” or “fuzzy topics.” It’s the kind of advice that appears monthly in our Spotlight interviews. Many notable leaders have suggested that wisdom is not just learning from one’s own mistakes and experience but learning from others and not repeating it. This includes topics that are clearly not technical but are still essential to our profession and our lives. One question posed recently by a veteran FTE applies to the new graduates and the veterans alike: “What do the next steps in my career progression look like?” As he asked that question, I imagined a million humorous ways to answer that. A quick internet search revealed even more images, like this classic, which depicts a straight line to success and contrasts it with what actually happens, a path that looks more like a pile of spaghetti. I think there is a lot of truth in these ideas (and it reminds me of an important technical principle called regression to the mean, an idea I hope to flesh out in the next technical issue of the FTN).

If I were to attempt to answer this FTE’s question, I would paint a mental picture using agricultural metaphors. Some people see plants known as annuals, like green peas, and observe the complete life cycle occurring in a short period of time. In one season, it goes from seed to harvest, and after yielding its crop ceases to exist. They often think that a career is like this linear life cycle, growing quickly and bringing forth “fruit,” the hallmarks of achievement at various levels and stages of their careers. Finally, when the career is over, one enjoys the retirement years living off the bounty of the crop.

On the other hand, some describe a career more like the life cycle of a tree, which grows during the spring and summer and during the autumn sheds its leaves and falls dormant for the cold winter months, only to begin its growth cycle again the following spring. This seems like a slightly more accurate picture of what happens in a professional career.

If I could extend the metaphor even more, I would add several steps. We prepare the soil, getting our hands dirty and working up a sweat. One might even grunt aloud or skin one’s knuckles during the exertion required to remove rocks and brush. Once prepared, we plant the seed and begin to nurture it. Although we cannot observe it, a transformation takes place beneath the soil. We continue to water, weed, and feed the young plant. In this stage, the thorns on its stem may even scratch our skin. Finally, as the sapling shoots upward, we continue to labor but only within a small sphere of influence, for we cannot control the wind, rain, sun or shade. Each growing season brings new challenges. Though the process remains unchanged and relatively simple, it does require hard work, and it’s important to emphasize that the level of exertion ebbs and flows.

In closing, I would say this: continual growth, without any pause, may not always be possible or desirable. The growth cycle of a tree described above illustrates that principle, but in addition to this general advice above, I wanted to include specific action steps anyone can take right now.

1. Always have a mentor, a friend, and a pupil. When you find yourself in a season of personal dormancy, you can invest more in the development of the friend and pupil.
2. Seek counsel and wisdom from a multitude of sources. The process of seeking counsel fills periods of plateau with useful activity, and it may contribute to the growth of additional relationships, with mentors, friends, and pupils.

You may find that others direct questions your way as they navigate their own career progression and growth, and this cross-pollination will ultimately benefit an entire workplace ecosystem.

How would you answer: What do the next steps in my career progression look like?”

This article first appeared in the January 2016 Flight Test News.

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