During a stint in government, a long time ago, I was promoted from county hydraulic engineer to assistant county engineer—second-in-command in the county engineer’s office. It was a proud moment for me; however, I was thrust into a mainly administrative job, substantially untrained. Immediately, I became involved in the business aspects, rather than the technical ones, of the county engineer’s office, which comprised almost 100 technically trained employees in a county with a population of about 1 million.
As an ambitious and relatively young administrator, one of the first things that happened, once installed in a new, comfortable office, was that the county engineer wrote an internal letter to the chief administrator of the county which said, in part, "In my absence, I authorize the signature of the Assistant County Engineer, Alfred R. Pagan, on all vouchers and correspondence pertaining to the operation of the Office of the County Engineer." (Yes, I have kept a copy of this document since April 7, 1964!)
As I pondered my new situation and considered how to prepare for my new duties, I received a handwritten note from the personal aide to the county engineer. The aide was not an engineer, but was a savvy political animal who considered himself, and actually was, an excellent "time study" or efficiency expert. When I received his personal note, I did not feel particularly kindly toward him for his uninvited attempt at mentoring, but we later became friends, respectful of one another’s talents and training. The subject of his memo was "You," and included the following advice:
- Whenever a man is wondering whether his boss thinks he is doing a good job, or doing things to his satisfaction, the best way to find out is simply to confront the boss and ask, "How am I doing?"
- Take the initiative regarding getting yourself briefed on all aspects of this office.
- Read the current annual report carefully; put an asterisk in red alongside any and all activities that you should study. Dig into the background of current and future projects, then get a date with the county engineer and ask to be briefed by him in detail on each of those items.
- Become thoroughly familiar with the following projects:—(Then he listed the hot-button items of the moment. Most of them were non-hydraulic engineering in nature.)
- Start to study systematically, one part at a time, each functional group of the county engineer’s office and become conversant in the major projects of each, since in the county engineer’s absence you must run the show!
There was much more in the lengthy memo from the county engineer’s personal aide. His advice helped me through a period that defined my transition from a number-cruncher in the narrow fields of hydraulic engineering and hydrology to a more generalist engineer and administrator-in-training.
I don’t mean to imply that cooperating and complying with the suggestions outlined above, and with many others I received in a number of face-to-face encounters with my self-appointed mentor, resulted quickly in the transformation sought. Frankly, even at the beginning of my tenure of dealing with people instead of numbers, I didn’t want to be thought of exclusively as an administrator.
Much later in my career, I realized that it was probably more my nature to crunch numbers, primarily in my original waterrelated field. But, for a five-year period, which was relatively satisfying, I got caught up in the administrative end of our civil engineering profession. This included some involvement in the politics of public works, working on problems such as how to apportion public monies to the 70 towns in the county to build bridges, improve intersections, and install storm drains.
Eventually, I left county government for what I felt at the time, and still feel today, were good and ample reasons. It took a few years for me to realize that the technical end of civil engineering was right for me—more so than the administrative work, which I soon considered boring, given my personality and interests. Politics also was not for me. After a six-year stint running a trade organization, I went back to being a full-time practicing consulting engineer in my stormwater management specialty, while at the same time teaching civil engineers in the state how to design detention/retention basins.
(This was before software designers developed the excellent computer programs used today.) Most engineers (not just civils) have been, or will be, faced with having to make significant decisions that will affect the manner in which their professional lives progress. Dipping one’s toes into the administrative waters for at least a while can prove fruitful in determining some of the future decisions they will have to make.
Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., P.L.S., is a consulting engineer in Hackensack, N.J. He can be reached at 1-201-441-9719; or e-mail him at email@example.com