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Affirmations of a Project Engineer
We Need Goals
We need to know where we’ve come from and which way we’re going forward. We need to have goals. Getting in a car and just driving down random streets may never get you anywhere that you want to be, or it could but it might take longer than if you knew your destination before you started driving. We also need to sit back and celebrate the successes that we’ve had personally and professionally and reward ourselves accordingly rather than continuing to slave away at the same tasks with negative thoughts about work or some of the people around us.
This hub was never meant to be published originally, but I’ve changed it and added some commentary to make it more readable. It was supposed to be a way of improving my self confidence and feeling of self worth in my career (keep this in mind if you think it sounds like I’m blowing smoke up my own butt in places). I changed my mind and decided to publish it only because I thought it might make an interesting read and might help some people to change their mindset and strive for excellence in whatever it is they do.
Starting Out As A Graduate
When you start out, even after 3-5 years of university or college, you know nothing. When you start work, your confidence is low because you feel you should know something after all this time. The reality is, whatever tasks you are given at the start of your career, just do them to the best of your ability. Don’t be afraid of asking questions, managers expect you to know very little. Learn all the systems of how things work and how your role fits into the bigger picture. Don’t try to become an expert in a very short period of time. A lot of your knowledge will come from experience (good and bad). You can’t instantly have better knowledge than someone with 50 years experience.
“An expert is someone who has made all the mistakes there are in a very narrow field.”
You’re just starting out. On the flipside, you can have skills that outshine those of others. I designed a scoreboard for the design team on Excel that people have asked me about years after the job finished. It was considered an innovation on the project even though it was introduced too late to be used effectively (in my opinion).
I spent the first few months designing an underpass. I was left on my own and was reading the Bridge design codes and worried that the bloody thing was going to fall down. I wasn’t told how the system worked and didn’t feel that there was a “peer review” of my work (adding to my worries). Plus, my heart wasn’t in it and I knew that I don’t really want to be a designer. The guy I was reporting to knew it back to front and he’d developed some cool spreadsheets to make his work easier and could tell looking at a drawing whether a structure was going to fall down or not. I didn’t enjoy design much at all.
On the plus side, I got to see how they worked. Design seemed to be a copy of elements of previous similar jobs mashed together to make a new one. There didn’t seem to be any ground breaking developments, especially when it came to bridges. The best thing we did was engage an artist to incorporate some artwork into the abutments, like squares or wavey shapes indented into the structure, or curvy looking light poles on an offramp from the freeway.
Now I know, as a future manager extraordinaire, that it is important to manage your consultants – specifically those that bill you by the hour. You need to be the driving force behind design and if they can’t make a decision or keep coming up with too many options, hit the nail on the head and decide for them. Often, they want to design the best structure that will last forever and lose sight of the specifications that only call for “a bridge with a 50 year design life” and the fact that very few construction materials are supported by a warranty anything like that time span (a possible exaggeration but you get the point).
The Cost of Ignorance
Working as a costing engineer, later on the same project, I picked up the basics of forecast reporting and understanding checks that need to be carried out. Most managers even now still fail at this. Being able to look at a forecast report and pick holes in it is a skill that few people really have.
I learned about scopes of work and putting packages together to obtain quotations from contractors. I sat nearby the accounts people and heard the mutterings of the community relations person who was clearly not enjoying that role (mind you, we had some ex-employees living nearby who made sure they had their 2 cents worth). Some managers deserved to be in their position and were carrying the project. Others were just there. Somehow.
Project Engineer - Success!
The next project was a reservoir in a remote location. I developed as a site project engineer on that job and succeeded to the point where I was nominated as “Young Performer of the Year”. The supervisor I was working with was also nominated for a “Beyond the Call” award – I learned heaps about concrete and religion and developed an interest in homeopathy and natural therapies from him. I was praised for my attention to detail.
At the start of the project I was confident enough to know better than the contracts engineer and commercial manager (who were either aging or didn’t have much experience in the field). That worried me a bit actually. It was the first time at work that I witnessed that being older did not necessarily meant you knew better. Sometimes you also had to talk back to get the point across because they were blinded by arrogance and just weren’t listening to what was being said (I didn’t like this). It was also a worry when I asked for the budget for the area of construction I was meant to be looking after and have the costing engineer quiz me on why I even wanted to know that. Well, you tell me, how the hell am I supposed to manage and be responsible for my expenditure if I don’t even have a budget?!
I learned the importance of reading the specifications and the contracts and knowing more about the job than the subcontractor (for claims) and my boss (to win arguments). I also learned a lot about people, the way they behave under pressure and the different personalities at work. Being an absolute prick isn’t the only way to get things done. It might get things done but you will lose a lot of friends and respect among the team and become a less effective manager. I busted my butt on that job and at times that didn’t seem enough. We worked 13 day fortnights, 12 hour days on that job and at the end of it, the people back in the Perth office got the bonus for us finishing the project early, among other things.
Essentially, I Was The Man-ager
On the next project I took charge of a precast yard as a mini project, heading the safety, quality and construction management. It was a lean operation with little support from the corporate or project teams. It’s fine that they left us to our own devices, but we weren’t empowered or given any authority to be able to spend money or make our own decisions so it made life extremely difficult. I succeeded again and through attention to detail managed to defend most claims from our client (internally and externally) and successfully managed our subcontractors as well. I had an exchange student from Japan working with me who was learning English at the same time. He was excellent in taking charge of quality with a similar attention to detail as myself. I would rate him as 3 times better than most engineers I’ve worked with, he actually cared about doing a job well. By the end of the project, I knew that if given the opportunity I could tackle the role of manager (seeing as I’d effectively done it myself already). I wanted experience in planning and big picture management of a project while having others work below me at the daily detail tasks.
In the last few months things have been slow in the office due to the recession. I helped out someone from accounts with a simple macro in Excel. She must have spoken to the commercial manager on her project and they got me on board to design a macro spreadsheet to generate an invoice based on timesheet data such that it could be fed into the client’s payment software. Thrown in the deep end, I studied macros and wrote or manipulated all the coding myself. The managers said that it was the first time they were given praise from the client in a while! I impressed myself actually, it was an awesome tool that worked well.
Expert vs Project Manager
I used to think it would be great to be an expert at everything. Now I don’t necessarily want to do the work but rather know how to challenge someone else’s work and manage other people doing the work. That is what I am striving for at the moment but I foresee a whole bunch of “do it” tasks rather than “manage it” tasks. I’m definitely capable and have done heaps better than some people older than I am. But everyone has different abilities and some are content where they are. Others are very high achievers but don’t have the people skills to be really great at it. Ruling by fear is a sure fire way to make enemies.
Believe in yourself. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t achieve your dreams. Don’t let anyone hold you back. Learn to be assertive and communicate with authority but don’t be an arrogant prick!
I’ll see you when I’m looking at you.