Say 'I Don't Know' and Other Lessons that Have Stuck with Me
Manager, Engineering Services
The year was 1982; I was in Evanston, Wyoming, on a yearlong assignment for my second Engineering CDP rotation. We were building, what was at the time, the largest air separation unit we had ever designed. My main job was to ensure the compressors (well over 60 MW of machinery) were installed correctly, on time and on budget.
Russ Stompler was my boss. He had come from Operations and had been trained to get to the scene of an incident fast; fix the issue; reflect later. Safety first, followed close behind by getting the plant up and running.
One day, Russ called to ask a question about a compressor alignment issue. I was anxious to appear knowledgeable, but I really didn't know the details. When Russ later visited the plant site, he took me aside: "It's OK to say 'I don't know; I'll get back to you," he told me. He then shared examples of when he had made the same mistake. At the time, I was 23 years old and found his advice hard to take.
We finished the project in early 1983, and I experienced my first plant startup. I was on the main air compressor platform during surge testing; the platform shook so violently, I was truly concerned for my health and well-being. Later, I was standing adjacent to the switch valves (yes, old technology!). When the valves first started, I jumped about 10 feet as they opened and closed. I asked the startup engineer what the heck was happening (remembering to start the conversation with an 'I don't know'). That day, I learned another lesson--the value of understanding the technology so well that you could explain it to others in very simple terms.
I've always been grateful for Russ's advice. Later, I realized the key is not only to acknowledge ignorance but to then also fill that gap. Learning on the job is what's made my career fun and never dull. Today, I still sometimes respond with, "I don't know; let me find out." And I still work with urgency to find the answers.
We all stand on the success of those that came before us – thank you Russ!