July 31, 2006

 Real Life Isn't Like School, But That Can be a Good Thing

By Jeff Rubenstone

Jeff Rubenstone is a recent graduate of the College of William and Mary, where he majored in history. He is pursuing a career in journalism and is based in Sparkill, N.Y.

Jeff Rubenstone

Nearly two years ago, with his master's degree in hand and an exciting job lined up at a major engineering firm, there wasn’t anything in structural engineering Brent Vollenweider didn't think he could handle. "As an engineer out of school on your first job, the first day you expect to design tall skyscrapers or more elaborate structures," Mr Vollenweider observed. "You don't realize you're not fully familiar with the requirements for something like that." Now that may not sound particularly harsh, but for a young engineer who has taken his or her first step into the construction industry, it is a world-shattering epiphany. And it is only the first of many surprises that awaits young engineers.
Vollenweider himself got over that shock rather quickly, and found the silver lining. "What it’s really about realizing how much more there is to learn, and that your education prepared you to keep on learning."
When it comes to learning on the job, Brent Vollenweider should know what he’s talking about. His studies at the University of California Berkeley’s S.E.M.M. (Structural Engineering Mechanics and Materials) program considered earthquakes to be the greatest source of unpredictable dynamic loading in a structure. Today Vollenweider applies his training in that area to the growing field of blast-resistant design, in his work at Weidlinger Associates, Inc. “It’s a relatively new and developing field," he says. "In many ways it’s the East Coast equivalent of West Coast seismic design.” Being able to adapt to emerging challenges in the industry is sometimes the most important skill for an engineer getting into construction.
Yet there are some things that even the best education does not prepare young engineers to handle. “One thing that gets frequently overlooked [in education] is the construction and constructability of certain projects. Designing real buildings is different from an abstract building or beam.” says Vollenweider. It’s all too easy to gloss over these concepts in academic study, and construction is one place where it’s not enough for an idea to look good on paper. While many engineers come from purely scientific backgrounds, in the world of construction they will eventually have to deal with the dreaded business side of things.

“I’ve been spending a lot of time learning the realities of construction and standard business practices,” Vollenweider noted with a sigh. “During the first year out of school most engineers don’t have to concern themselves with that, but it’s good to develop as you move deeper into projects.” Even though the work itself is grounded in the sciences, young engineers sometimes forget that the construction industry is in fact, an industry, and they shouldn’t be afraid to tackle the business aspects of their jobs.

With all these challenges waiting for them, it would appear that graduates are stuck playing catch up. But it doesn’t look that bleak to Vollenweider. In fact, he believes they possess a distinct advantage. “Most young engineers, even those of us not deeply familiar with the specialized computer programs used in the industry, are used to working with computers every day of our education. We’re used to technology in our everyday lives and we adapt quickly to it in the workplace.” Indeed, while some engineers of an older generation may bristle at the introduction of computers into every stage of their work, younger engineers have been using computers and other technology nearly their entire lives, and tend to be pretty quick on the uptake.

With so much left to learn, and so many chances to impress others with what they already know, that first job could easily take over one’s life. But Brent Vollenweider has some words of caution for the eager young engineer. “It’s easy to fall into the trap of putting in long work hours. That’s okay, but young engineers need to remember that you have other transitions going on as well. You need to take time out to cultivate yourself too, not to kill yourself in the office.” So, as great as that feeling is when you’re working at your first engineering job, ask yourself, “is it really worth completely destroying myself over?”*

While it may have been fun back in school to endlessly cram for tests and put every possible waking minute into assignments, in the real world a job is only a job, and there is a difference between hard work and just plain overwork. Sure, there is still a lot left to learn about construction, and no matter how hard you work, your bosses won’t let you design and build a skyscraper all by yourself during your first year. But before you get all depressed, just remind yourself that you’re out of the classroom, and are doing now what students can only study.

*(If you answered yes, please email a description of said job using the link below, as I have an idea for another column. Those already destroyed need not reply.)

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July 17, 2006

 Where Does Competition End and Unethical Insults Begin?

By Jeff Rubenstone

It has been a rough year for Tampa-based PBS&J. Chief Financial Officer W. Scott DeLoach resigned last year after the discovery of accounting irregularities, into which deeper investigations revealed embezzlement of $36 million. For a highly visible company a little bad press is inevitable, but that may only be one source of damage. PBS&J staff have hinted at a whisper campaign among competitors, faint rumors of wagging tongues.

Competition is always fierce, and knowing when a line has been crossed is not so easy in today’s market. So would it be ethical for the firm's competitors to highlight this scandal to potential clients during a competition for work? It is public information that could give a competitor an edge, but is it wrong for an engineer to kick another when he or she is down?

Professional engineers are bound by their states’ ethical codes and by ethical guidelines outlined by the various engineering societies to which they may belong. The National Society of Professional Engineers and the American Society of Civil Engineers both feature such ethical codes. According to the tenets of this engineering bushido, members of the trade at all levels are expected to conduct themselves with a certain degree of honor in their professional life.

So, is it ethical for a competitor to snidely point to PBS&J’s recent misfortunes when marketing themselves to a potential client? According to the NSPE ethical guidelines: “Engineers shall not attempt to injure, maliciously or falsely, directly or indirectly, the professional reputation, prospects, practice, or employment of other engineers. Engineers who believe others are guilty of unethical or illegal practice shall present such information to the proper authority for action.”

Respect your fellow engineer, don’t try to be a vigilante. Pretty cut and dried.

But as in other legal codes, the accepted interpretations of the rule are often more important than the words themselves. Volumes of case studies and opinion have been written about the engineering ethical guidelines. As a result the true path for the ethical and virtuous engineer is sometimes more Zen than rote memorization.

In a relevant case study offered by the Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science at Case-Western University, an engineer sent out a promotional letter that focused on a competitor’s perceived flaws. In its decision, the Board of Ethical Review concluded that it was unethical for an engineer to call attention to another’s problems for his or her own gain, and found justification to “hold competition among engineers to a plane of dignity, respect and honor.”

An optimistic view of human nature, but it dodges the pesky question of where exactly to draw the line.

Then again, in the real world the correct balance between legitimate competition and civil decorum is always elusive; a slippery slope that goes in both directions (wouldn’t that make it a slippery peak?). Ignore civility, and competition will devolve into tedious muckraking and slander, harming everyone involved. Strictly enforce broad ethical standards, and the industry will face accusations of monopolistic practices, placing their own interests over those of their clients or the general public.

Yet perhaps there is a third option, where these samurai engineers can accept the spirit of the rules instead of getting lost in their language. They may even realize that it is in their best interest to actively balance their competitive lust with mutual respect.

Just because it’s fun to kick someone when they’re down doesn’t mean it’s okay.

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