Some Advice for Engineers

I was reading an interesting book titled The Monster Under the Bed (How Business Is Mastering the Opportunity for Knowledge for Profit) by Stan Davis and Jim Botkin (Simon & Schuster, 1994) when I came across something that made me sit up straight and stare out the window for a while.

The authors were citing a report titled “Work-Based Learning: Training America’s Workers” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, U.S. Dept of Labor Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training, Employment and Training Administration, 1989). This is what it said:

“The occupational half-life, that is, the span of time it takes for one-half of workers’ skills to become obsolete – has declined from seven-to-fourteen years to three-to-five years, according to the National Research Council. This is particularly true in engineering. In their first five years working, half of what engineering students learned in college becomes obsolete. Ten years out, less than a quarter of that material is still applicable. In fact, corporate educators have discovered that a real challenge is how to unlearn much of this useless information. One week of training per year is more than most engineers and professionals get. Yet this is not nearly enough just to keep up. This is why a common belief among education-oriented executives is that learning faster and better may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”

So how do you keep up? Here are some thoughts I’ve gathered from watching and listening to some of the brightest and most successful people I know.

Cultivate a library of “old stuff.” America is crowded with elderly buildings, and these buildings are filled with demanding clients. Take New York City, for instance. Here you’ll find thousands of steam-heating systems dating back to the 19th Century. Let’s say a client takes over two or three stories in one of these antique high-rises. They want to remove the old-fashioned radiators and put in something more modern. If you’re the engineer on this project, you really have to know what you’re looking at and that’s where the “old stuff” comes in. You also have to realize that any changes you make to this old system will affect not only your client, but every other tenant in the building.

I remember working with an engineer (unfortunately, after the fact) who had specified steam traps for some of the two-pipe radiators in an 80-year-old Manhattan office building. The radiators had 1-1/2″ supplies and 1-1/4″ returns, which was strange. None of the radiators had steam traps, which was even more strange. The engineer added the traps to his new radiators because he thought all two-pipe radiators needed them. What he didn’t realize was that he was dealing with a turn-of-the-century oddball called the Two-Pipe Air Vent System. This old beast was supposed to have steam in both the supply and the return lines. When the contractor installed the traps, every radiator in the vicinity stopped heating and started banging.

If you’re going to work in old buildings, start a library of “old stuff.”

Maintain your library of “new stuff” just as diligently. Assign someone to keep your current-catalog library up to date. In my mind, the technical librarian is one of the most important people in any engineer’s office. The librarian’s job is to hound manufacturers and to keep the catalogs and software current. Specifying an obsolete or out-of-date piece of equipment can be embarrassing, but it happens all too often.

And opt for one central library rather than individual libraries scattered throughout your office. Sure, you may have to get up and walk a bit more, but it’s so much easier to keep one “new stuff” library current than it is to keep track of what’s at a half-dozen (or a hundred!) desks.

Visit every project five years after it’s completed. There’s no better way to see what worked and what didn’t. Wander around and ask the tenants whether they’re comfortable. Speak to the maintenance people and find out if that equipment you specified has lived up to its promise. Ask the owners if they’re having any problems. (A lot of engineers will cringe at this suggestion. So will a lot of contractors.)

Pick the rep’s brain. There are probably several manufacturers’ reps sitting in your reception area right now waiting to get in to see you. They’re dying to tell you about their new products and the advances in system design their engineers have dreamed up. Go out there right now and invite them in. Those folks are inspired by some pretty vicious competition, and that keeps them moving forward on the technical front. Ask for their ideas and their advice. A fresh pair of eyes can be positively inspirational. And remember, reps have exposure to many engineers. The experience they’ve gathered from looking at all those different designs can be invaluable to you.

Develop contacts throughout the industry. Join ASHRAE, AEE and other education-minded groups and get on their technical-books mailing list. Surround yourself with friends and acquaintances who are expert in a wide variety of fields. Hang out only with people who are positive and passionate about what they’re doing. Try to meet and develop relationships with the “backroom engineers” who work for manufacturers. If you know where to find them (some are deeply buried!), the backroom engineer can be the source of much little-know information. These people are specialists. They know more than you do about pumps, boilers, chillers or whatnot. The marketers within their organizations often ignore them, and these engineers love to offer information when another engineer calls to asks questions. So call.

Read for a minimum of one hour a day. You have to schedule the time for this personal R&D project. Continuous reading not only improves your technical skills, it also makes you a better writer. If you’re in the car for part of the day, listen to recorded books. Here are a couple of great places to start: and

Keep a general-category files. Look around your office right now. How many unread magazines do you see? Wouldn’t the important information in those magazines be of more use if it were on file? Most of us don’t have time to read everything thoroughly, but we do have time to scan. So start scanning rather than reading. If the title of an article catches your interest, clip it and file it by general topics such as Pumping, Boilers, Indoor Air Quality, Radiators. When you need to delve deeply into a subject, you’ll be glad you started that file.

Seek out discomfort. As you move through buildings, look around at air registers, radiators, thermostat locations and anything else that has to do with human comfort. If it’s not doing what it’s supposed to do, ask yourself why and make a note of it for your file.

I can’t even count the times I’ve looked up at the filthy ceiling air registers during seminars I’ve conducted in hotel meeting rooms and noticed the cardboard backs of writing pads blocking or diverting the air flow. This may not be the work of the testing-and-balancing contractor, but it’s always good for a laugh.

Keep your eyes open as you wander through buildings. Ask the tenants if they’re uncomfortable. And if they are, give them your business card.

Attend seminars. Not just technical seminars, but also business seminars and human-relations seminars. When should you stop going to school? Never!

Get into the field. I once worked for a Cornell-educated P.E. who had on his desk a sign I’ll always remember. It read, simply, A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world. He was one of the most successful businessman/engineers I’ve ever met. You have to get away from the paperwork.

Take some time each day to “forget what you know.” From what I’ve seen, this is the essence of creativity. Put your long-held beliefs aside for a moment each day and turn things around in your mind. Try as hard as you can to look at the world with the eyes of a child. Why do we do it this way? Why not some other way? And while you’re doing this, remember Albert Einstein words, “Imagination is more important than education.”

He was pretty good at keeping up, wasn’t he?

Thanks for all that you do for us.

Dan Holohan

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