Stephen R. Gelman: Lessons Learned in My 40-year Engineering Career (Part 1)

April 17, 2023

Over the next few days, the Bagley College of Engineering will be publishing Stephen R. Gelman's "Lessons Learned in My 40-year Engineering Career" in multiple parts.

Join us as Gelman imparts wise advice and lessons from his many years in engineering.

Gelman is a two-time graduate from the BCoE, graduating with his B.S. in civil engineering in 1973 followed by an M.S. in civil engineering with a concentration in environmental engineering.


Who am I to write this?

As a retired civil engineer with over forty years of experience, I’ve learned a lot. Looking back and reflecting on what I knew when I left college with my bachelor’s degree, I now realize that I was technically well prepared but knew little about the “business” of engineering. So, I decided to write down some of the lessons I have learned.

I have included technical learnings, but this document is not intended to be a reference guide on any specific engineering discipline or design. Rather I have included items that can apply broadly across many types of projects and many potential roles engineers may have throughout their careers. In addition to technical issues, I included things I learned and valued about safety, people, project delivery, customer relations, risk management and other business issues, and human behavior in general.

I grew up on the banks of the Yazoo River in Mississippi and was always fascinated with the river. When I was nine or 10 years old, there was a spill or dump of pesticides upstream from our house and, for several days, dead fish floated down the river. This made a strong impression on me, and eventually, I figured out that water and the environment were two of my interests, and engineering may be a way to do something in that area. I also loved airplanes and enrolled in Mississippi State in aerospace engineering, but after one semester, I realized that I wanted to focus more on water, pollution control and the environment in general.

In 1973, I got my bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Mississippi State University. After a short stint working for the engineering branch of a power consortium, I returned to Mississippi State to get my master’s degree in environmental engineering. At the time, the United States Environmental Protection Agency offered fellowships toward a master’s degree in environmental engineering. This was part of the passing of the Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972 and the realization by congress that the United States would need an influx of engineers to deal with the technical demands of the CWA. After getting my master’s degree, I ran a small environmental laboratory for a few years. My last and longest job was with a large consulting engineering firm, where I worked for 36 years.

Throughout my career, I served as a project engineer, project manager and several other roles, eventually leading an industrial water and compliance business internationally. I transitioned over my career into more management roles as I wanted more say in the kinds of projects and clients we pursued, and I enjoyed leading people and building teams. I always retained my interest and love of the technical aspects of engineering and always tried to have some projects to work on. While doing all this, I received a lot of mentoring and specific training, along with learning from mistakes and watching sister businesses operate; so I bring a wide perspective to my list of lessons learned.

Start with the assumptions.

An important part of problem solving is stating and understanding assumptions made, so let me start with my assumptions about this document. I am assuming the following:

  • It would be good for new and young engineers to see a broad view of different aspects of engineering.
  • What I’ve learned and can convey has some value and has relevance beyond my own career path.
  • Engineering and construction work gets done via projects. Projects define scope, schedule, budget, and other factors we will cover later. My perspective is from a project basis, having worked extensively in that world.
  • While some of my examples do come from civil and water projects, many of the issues apply broadly with a clear tilt toward consulting experiences.

I will cover issues around “assumptions” later.

Let’s get to it.

** A Few Words About Words. I will use the words “design” and “business” throughout this paper. I intend the reference to design projects to be broader than the classic “plans and specs” of detailed design. I will use the word “design” to designate a range of projects including field studies, paper studies, testing, research, as well as classic design engineering producing plans and specifications.

Business does not just include working for a private company that operates for profit. I use business to mean the business of most any enterprise — local, state or Federal agency, consultant, contractor, industrial department. Almost every job has a budget, personnel, and goals. This constitutes a “business” for purposes of this document.

I use the word “client” throughout this essay. This is a broad use that can be interpreted as user of your project. For a consultant, the client is who hires you and pays your invoices. If you work for a private industry or public utility, the “client” may be your boss, another department, and ultimately your customers and other stakeholders. So, the use of “client” is broader than the typical consultant-client relationship.

My process of putting this together

How this paper is organized

Right after I retired in 2014, I developed a list of things I learned, 10 to 12 items that formed the basis of this paper. I started developing each item with some detail that formed an early draft. As I got more words down, I was struggling with how to organize this and how deep to go with it. So, I started looking at some common themes that override the list that I originally started with. I started thinking about the one or two things I learned in my career and wanted to be sure to put those first, and then see how the rest flowed from that. What I have boiled it down to is that there are several broad categories that I can divide these lessons into. What I learned somewhat late in my career is that safety comes first. So, I started there. Next, there are people, including me. What did I learn about myself, and what did I have to learn about people in general to do my job more effectively? Third, there are projects. Engineers typically get things done through projects. We do projects for someone or some entity that is the client, so I covered client relationship management. Our projects include implementation of some technology(s) and deal with technical issues. Though I had a solid education, I found there was much to learn as I got into detailed technical work. Lastly, all I did was part of some business entity. Having had no business classes in my education, I had a lot to learn about business processes and strategies.

From whatever angle I looked at the list of lessons I thought I should cover in this paper, they seemed to fit into the categories of safety, people, projects, clients, technical and business. This encompasses who does the work (engineers, scientist, technicians), how we do it (projects), who we do it for (clients), the work itself (technical), and the overall architecture of how all these things come together (business).

But one area became so important over the course of my career that we need to start there.

Safety First, always!

Maybe the biggest difference in how industry and engineers operate now and when I started in the 1970s is the emphasis on and commitment to safety. For reputable companies, safety begins in every meeting and permeates every project and corporate activity. I learned from those who understood safety programs that there are two elements to having safety taught in the business unit or operation. First is the company culture and programs. Second is the individual’s commitment to safety. It is hard to have one side of this without the other. Safety processes and procedures are part of the equation, but if safety is not emphasized and embodied in leadership, you will never reach the goals for safe operation.

One of my high school English teachers said, “Write so you must be understood, not so you may be understood.” This adage also applies to safety. Plan and behave, so you must stay safe, not take chances that may have worked in the past but are fraught with risk. The goal of any safety program is to strive for an absolute minimum of reportable events and absolutely no lost time or fatal accidents. I use the term “events” because many safety and loss programs will count damage or loss of equipment or damage to property above a minimum amount to be an “event.”

Safety is an issue in construction and manufacturing, and most organizations in these sectors have installed excellent safety programs. Many industrial companies will look at contractors’ safety statistics and not even consider hiring those with less-than-stellar safety records. Historically, design engineers and consultants did not have extensive safety programs because the perception was that only a few people got hurt, though office injuries are common. But to work in today’s safety culture, design engineers must consider and incorporate safety into all design elements. Even simple things need to be considered, such as how people will change light bulbs or take measurements to minimize the use of ladders and reduce fall potential. (Trips and falls are big causes of on-the-job injuries.) Engineers can be liable for safety incidents years after their design work is done. Codes set a minimum standard for many design elements (e.g. electrical and structural systems, chemical storage). Involving operators and maintenance staff in designs is an excellent way to ensure your designs do not induce inherent safety issues often not covered by codes.

Many think that a good safety program is primarily procedures and processes. It is critical to have solid safety processes. But experience and research have shown that for safety to become embedded in a company, a safety culture must be driven by managers and leadership at all levels, starting at—and driven by—those at the top. A strong corporate safety culture and systems, coupled with individual commitment and attention to safety, can lead to a truly safe workplace.

When accidents or near misses are analyzed, they are often classified as either “unsafe conditions” or “unsafe behavior.” Unsafe behavior makes up the majority of accidents. Think about driving on an icy road. It is clearly an unsafe condition. But if you speed, you have added unsafe behavior that can lead to an accident. Ultimately, individual behavior and decisions dictate how a company performs. It is incumbent on individuals to embrace a safety culture. To do that, there cannot be a “work” safety ethic and a “home” ethic. Wear your safety glasses and ear protection and be very careful with ladders, electricity, wet floors, etc., whether at work or at home.

Most say safety is short for “health and safety.” So recognizing health hazards and encouraging proper preventive care is important. We started all meetings with a safety or health moment, which expanded to health, safety, and environment. It was a way to reinforce their importance.

As you increase your safety awareness, a good way to build it into your persona is to look around and note the less-than-safe activities and behaviors you see in everyday life. You will see people with improper ladder use, mowing their yards in sandals or barefoot, tailgating and countless other dangerous driving behaviors. I list these because ladders and falls are major problem areas. One colleague of mine fell off a six-foot ladder hanging Christmas decorations because the ladder was at an improper angle, and no one was holding it. He splintered several vertebrae and was out of work for over a year. He can walk with canes but has been permanently impacted by this unfortunate fall. I also mention tailgating to point out that traffic accidents are one of the leading causes of employee injuries and equipment damage. Some of our commutes to work or to projects involve dangerous stretches. I also put in some pretty long days, and driving back at night after leaving home before dawn was probably not the best idea from a safety standpoint.

The journey to becoming safety-aware takes time. The key item is to begin immediately and work at it daily.

Join us tomorrow for the next installment of “Lessons Learned in My 40-year Engineering Career”!