Sometimes college student Annie Chen feels nervous about her future. The environmental science and management major graduated in 2019 from University of California, Davis and for now is keeping her career options open as she searches for a job.
Talking to water industry professionals about their own career paths and first jobs was a big reason why Annie attended a flash mentoring session at the California-Nevada Section of the American Water Works Association’s spring conference.
“I wanted to hear what their journeys were like,” she said.
She was especially interested in hearing from younger professionals who remembered what it was like to be fresh out of college and not sure how best to make a positive impact in the right field using the knowledge gained in college, through internships and study abroad. Learning how others coped with the uncertainty and how it turned out for them might ease her own mind, she thought.
How It Works
Some people hear the word mentor and think of an intense, one-on-one relationship like a teacher and a student. Socrates and Plato might come to mind as an example, or Yoda and Luke Skywalker.
But for many working professionals, the reality of mentorship is that it happens at different times and with different people. Mentorship, as most of us experience it, is less about a single influence guiding our paths and more like a collection of smaller interactions and conversations throughout our careers.
Flash mentoring acknowledges that reality and creates opportunities for dialogue between those at their beginning of their careers and those further along. It works like this: The hour-long session begins by dividing the mentees into smaller groups of two to four. Each of these small groups meets with four or five different mentors, who rotate through the room at 15-minute intervals.
The short amount of time for interaction helps participants stay focused on what they really want to ask about and provides the opportunity to hear different perspectives. And according to David Clark, who has served as a mentor since the program’s beginning in 2017 and helped organize the sessions in 2018 and 2019, it also ensures the sessions are convenient and beneficial for both mentors and mentees.
Getting to Know Water
Not only was this Derek Chen’s first flash mentoring session, it was also his first Section meeting. He joined the water quality team at the City of Sacramento about a year and a half ago after several years working in pharmaceuticals.
The experience of the mentors convinced him to attend. “I really wanted to talk to people who have been in this industry 20 or 30 years,” Derek said. Their career paths, as well as opportunities available outside of the laboratory interested him the most.
At one point, he was matched with the manager of a water treatment plant in Southern California, who talked about how pharmaceutical industry pros who shifted to water were often able to leverage their experience and make significant contributions to quality control and quality assurance.
His words encouraged Derek and reaffirmed what he’d experienced over the past year working in water quality. Even though pharmaceuticals’ quality control and assurance criteria were quite different from water’s, there was much that could be applied.
“It helped me know my strengths,” Derek said.
Connections Beyond the Session
Annie said that while the flash mentoring session did help with her nervousness about her career path, it was what happened afterward that really stood out in her mind.
She remembers talking to Clark during the session about her interests in water quality and laboratory research. She and Clark, who manages Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s Design Section, exchanged business cards as the session ended.
Later that day, Clark called her. He’d found two women he knew at the conference — a chemist working in water quality and another with a biological sciences background who works in hydrology — and he wanted to introduce her to them. Annie met up with them and quickly found common ground with both, and not just with their educational backgrounds and career interests.
“We bonded over being among the few women of color in the industry,” Annie said. “It didn’t even cross my mind until we were talking about our experiences.”
For Clark, making connections after the session was natural. “This is just one example of how the flash mentoring is not limited to the one-hour session,” Clark said. “It can lead to other additional discussions and contacts.” He said that he and other mentors have had individuals reach out to them months after a conference for advice on job interviews and resumes.
The flash mentoring sessions are sponsored by the Section’s Leadership Development Committee in coordination with the Young Professionals Committee. The next one is scheduled for the Annual Fall Conference. Consultants and utility workers with experience in areas such as planning, design, project management, operations and organizational management are welcome to participate.