Five things civil engineers won’t tell you

Every profession has those unspoken truths that often aren’t even discussed among peers. Civil engineers are no exception. Often we’re afraid that exposing our weaknesses make us look bad – especially in front of clients – but I believe that “knowing thyself” and being transparent about those truths is absolutely necessary to provide great service. If we know where our inclinations lie, we can then take steps to minimize any harmful affects and even turn them into strengths.

This might hurt a little, but here goes…

  1. We’re jacks of all trades, masters of none. Your typical civil engineer has to be knowledgeable in so many different areas – environmental, transportation, earthwork, stormwater, sanitary sewer, water – that it’s often tough for us to become really, really good at any one of those things. We hate to admit it, but we can get in over our heads if the job requires in-depth knowledge of an area that we’re not well-versed in.  To combat this, I like to be as transparent as possible and admit when I’m out of my comfort zone…I then partner with people that specialize in an area of my weakness and can do the work better than I ever could.
  2. We’re terrible at estimating engineering fees. This comes as no surprise to anyone who’s hired a civil engineer lately. Someone told me that they take the estimate that their engineer gives them and they just double it! The main reason for this is that most civil engineering projects are not cut and dry. Many times a site design is more art and opinion than it is science and calculations. Add in the fact that most civil engineering projects go through 3 or 4 approval processes and you can easily have a half dozen reviewers requiring changes based upon their opinions as well. Letting clients know all the options and risks for a project at the beginning of the job and maintaining good communication throughout the life of the project and is about the best way I know to compensate for this.
  3. We have trouble saying “no”. We like to please people. So when we tell you that we’re booked solid for the next two months and you ask if we can just squeeze your project in because you just have to get it built this summer…we’ll cave and say “yes” – even when we know we shouldn’t. This now means that we now have 12 weeks of work for 8 weeks, which isn’t good for anybody. I over-committed myself for a couple of months this year (hence the fewer number of postings from yours truly) and that’s meant many nights and weekends at my computer. But I made some promises that I’m determined to keep. I just have to get better at sticking to my scheduling forecast and saying “no”….
  4. We get evaluated based upon the number of hours we bill. It’s just the nature of the business. Whether you’re a sole proprietor or a 400 person firm, you stay in business by racking up the billable hours. This is why trust is so important in your relationships – not just with civil engineers, but for any profession. I’ve gone to the same auto mechanic for years because I know the technicians personally and trust that when they tell me my doohickey needs replaced that they’re not just trying to pad the bill. (And in case you couldn’t tell – I’m not a car guy.)
  5. We often never see the things we design get built. Many times our project budgets don’t include construction phase services, so unless we make a special point of it, quite often we don’t see the results of the plans we design – especially during construction. Sometimes if we’re a little unsure of a construction detail, we’ll just hope the contractor “works it out in the field.” I can fall prey to this too…but I’m very thankful for having been around construction my whole life (my dad was a homebuilder who now does heavy highway construction) and have seen many projects through to construction. I also try to get all my designs peer reviewed so that someone with even more experience can point out things that I’ve missed.

Well, I hope I haven’t let too many skeletons out of the closet. Obviously I’m generalizing here and speaking from my own experiences (and weaknesses) so I’m sure there would be many that would disagree – and I wouldn’t mind hearing from those that do! But I think these tendencies are present in many other occupations as well so hopefully we can take away some ideas on how to compensate for these things in our own professions.  If our goal is to provide the highest service possible to our customers and clients, we can’t let anything get in the way – especially ourselves!

3 thoughts on “Five things civil engineers won’t tell you

  1. Ben Craddock
    Ben Craddock on

    It sure is, Dave…one of the first words I learned in engineering school.

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