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Lessons from the Picket Line

Guest Column
Mike Garrison

MIT has a way of shortening your horizons in both space and time. It’s hard to give much relevance to anything that will take place after Friday morning when you know you will be pulling an all-nighter Thursday night. But this is the time of year when some of you are wondering where you might be a year from now. Still here? At grad school? Running your own business? Maybe working for someone else. But because you will be MIT grads, at least you know you won’t be standing out on the street corner in the rain, holding a union picket sign.

Well, that’s what I thought too. I’m a Course XVI grad from 1988, and I was on strike from Boeing between February 9th and March 20th.

One of my friends recently referred to this as “a professional wake-up call.” Perhaps you have to get the call yourself in order to really understand it, but maybe I can translate for you. When you walk out of MIT, you tend to think the rest of the world will be something like it is here. Sure there will be hard work, but there will also be fun challenges and plenty of growth. And most of all, the people around you will respect what you can do. The bonus comes when people actually pay you to do what you have been paying MIT to do. Why? Because you are a valuable asset. And your MIT degree makes you even more valuable.

Well... sometimes. As Dilbert learns every day, you and your skills are not always as valued as they are valuable. The pointy-haired bosses of the world will tend to see you as a cost, not an asset. Once you get away from MIT, the respect you have come to expect can be won or lost, but is never simply automatic. So it is up to you to remember who really gets to define your worth: you. If life gives you everything you ever wanted, great. But if not, you have to work for it. Make sure that you define the terms in which you and your value is discussed.

And, just maybe, do your part for MIT as well. The great value of your degree comes because people respect you and what you can do. When you let yourself be sold short, it doesn’t help any of the rest of us either. Which brings me to the second great lesson of this strike -- working with other people encompasses a lot more than just teamwork. Whether you start a little three-person partnership or join a multi-national, you will find that your career does not depend on you alone. Others can give you a boost or pull you down, sometimes without knowing or caring.

Even if you work for yourself, your success rides on your customers, suppliers, competitors, and employees. But these people are generally out of your control. You can’t make all their choices for them. You can only make your own decisions and see what happens. So how do you influence others into making the decisions that favor you? The traditional method of engineers has been to be so useful that other people want to keep you around. The ultimate weapon for an engineer is simply to walk away.

Unfortunately, that means giving up all the good relationships along with the bad. If you have a great team assembled, it’s costly to tear it apart just because someone else doesn’t want to use it effectively.

Boeing has been bleeding good people for years. The luckiest have jumped into Seattle’s high-tech market and joined the ranks of the fabulously wealthy. Others have gone back to school, or decided that being a rock-climbing bum is a heck of a lot more fun than coding. But a lot of great engineers have stayed anyway, either because they like the job or because they don’t want to have to uproot themselves.

Those of us who are left finally decided to make a last stab at saving our team (and perhaps our company). We forced our union to take us out on strike, and now that it is over we hope to force our company to respect our value and use our team wisely. And even though I never took a class on labor negotiations while I was at MIT, it was my experience here that gave me the strength to make this fight. The respect I learned for myself, my talents, and the bright people all around me is the core issue of this struggle.

In many ways, I now think of my fellow employees more like I thought of my classmates at MIT. We’ve been through something together now -- we’ve shown we can trust each other. We have earned the respect of our peers, and I realize that it no longer matters what management thinks of us.

Wherever you end up going, your self-respect is the basic strength you will have too. Don’t give up on it and don’t trade it away. Remember who you are and where you came from, and you can prosper.

Mike Garrison, a noise control engineer for Boeing, is a member of the Class of 1988.