A good engineer is not just an engineer.
By Andy Sciarabba, P.E.
The youth of today have it tough: They must decide what they want to be when they grow up. Sounds easy, right? Wrong! They have so many choices, way more options than when I was young. My choices were a bit more limited — doctor, lawyer, garbage man, accountant, architect, engineer.
I thought the garbage man gig was the bomb but aimed a bit higher and chose to be an engineer. Or, should I say, engineering chose me.
When I started my engineering career I was certain there was a defined path. Start as a young Padawan and learn as much as I could (if you don’t know what a Padawan is, think Jedi Neophyte). From there I would work my way up the “rank.” I’d become a project engineer, project manager, and (hopefully and briskly) work my way up to management. Someday I’d be a partner, sole proprietor, or principal engineer.
So here I am — Ta -Da!! — a principal in a well-established consulting firm. I followed the plan. My role is solid, well defined, black and white. I am an engineer. I’m doing exactly what an engineer does, right? But what does an engineer do?
We think that an engineer just defines and solves problems, does calculations, and writes reports. An engineer builds stuff. An engineer makes stuff work. But if you are a good engineer, I mean a really good engineer, you most certainly are not just an engineer. You do many things.
You see, well-seasoned engineers have a problem and they don’t even know it — a problem they don’t teach you about in school. Engineers tend to have — no, must have — multiple personalities; alter egos if you will. Think Diana Prince to Wonder Woman or Clark Kent to Superman.
OK, we don’t necessarily need to be, or even act like, superheroes, but we do have to be:
Accountants — We need to set and track budgets. We are required to prepare and send invoices, review financial reports, P&L statements, WIP reports, and chase accounts receivable.
Firefighters and first responders — We must be the first at the scene to evaluate the severity of the situation (either self-imposed, client-imposed, or contractor-imposed) and skillfully douse the flames.
Cruise directors, maestros, and jugglers — We are expected to set a defined course with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. We must orchestrate a plan with grace and confidence. Most times we are expected to be conductors of multiple orchestras performing in parallel. The overlap can be quite maddening, but we must stay in tune. We can’t miss a beat while starting one song and ending another.
Historians and psychics — We are expected to evaluate the past to evaluate what went wrong and what went right. We are then tasked with looking into the future, as if we have a crystal ball. Sometimes we are even expected to read minds.
And unfortunately, sometimes we must be babysitters and mediators. We need to make sure everyone plays nice, and if not, we make them sit on the couch and hold hands. We divide up the daily chores and make sure everyone’s roles and allowances are fair and just.
So, on those all-too-frequent days when you feel like you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders, don’t fret — you are. But you…and you…and you…and you can handle it.
After all, y’all are engineers.
Andy Sciarabba, P.E., is a principal with T.G. Miller, P.C., Engineers and Surveyors in Ithaca, N.Y. T.G. Miller, P.C. (www.tgmillerpc.com) is a consulting civil engineering and surveying firm that serves municipal, commercial, institutional, and private clients throughout central New York. Contact him at email@example.com.