Years ago when I started working for my current employer, my boss put together an immersion plan for me to get to know the company. In addition to a fair amount of meet-and-greet activity, he made sure I got some hands-on experience.
Hands-on, in this case, bore little resemblance to what you might expect for someone who was supposed to learn the ins and outs of marketing in a polished office space. It didn’t just consist of customer visits or research projects or deep dives into spreadsheets. Hands-on also meant that shortly after my arrival, I found myself headed to our lab to get to know the product. Intimately.
Dressed in my professional best, I donned a lab apron and gloves and settled in for a day and a half at a workbench. Our lab techs and engineers introduced me to motors from the outside in. I learned what each part did, piece by piece, as I disassembled different variations of our products. My colleagues quizzed me along the way until I reached the defining moment: I had to put the motors back together and they had to work.
Always up for a challenge and knowing all eyes were upon me because I was a young, ahem, girl, I quickly mastered the task–as much out of spite as skill.
In the years that have followed, I have never again had cause to tear down or reassemble a motor. I’m also pretty sure that without that experience, I could have done just fine as a marketer. However, I’m just as sure that my apron-clad day in the lab made me a much better employee. That experience quickly demystified our products for me and made them approachable to my non-technical self. It allowed me to speak intelligently to engineers and product managers, calling parts by their specific names and knowing where to find them and what they do. It gave me credibility with my coworkers. It gave me a chance to work with and get to know people with whom my paths would not normally cross regularly. It helped me understand what we do.
I value that lab experience to this day. Most of all, it taught me that the only way to be really good at something is to learn about it from all angles. Just because something is “not my job”–and maybe never will be–doesn’t mean that knowing the whats and hows and whys won’t help me do the job I have been assigned that much better.