Stephen R. Gelman: Lessons Learned in My 40-year Engineering Career (Part 2)

April 18, 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.


People, the doers and the ultimate customer

No matter what you do in engineering, people and teams do the work with the aid of tools and processes. When you start your career, you need to be led and mentored by good, competent people, and as you grow and begin to assemble teams and potentially hire people, you will likely need to build teams and businesses. Getting the right people is essential. So what constitutes the “right people”? We often used the concept of AES – Attributes, Experience, and Skills. You begin to build skills in college (and, of course, in school K-12 to get to college). You begin building experience with each work assignment; it does not have to be via a paid job. High school activities, volunteer work, sports, internships and other means can begin to build experience before your first engineering job. But the main things I learned and will focus on here are the key attributes to success in engineering and most other careers.

I think those key attributes can be boiled down to integrity, teamwork, humility, self-awareness, listening skills, and decisiveness.

First and foremost is to have and operate with the highest integrity. Integrity is often defined as adherence to a set of moral and ethical principles. Specific to engineering, those principles are what a client or the public expects of us. Engineering projects usually affect public health, safety, and the environment. The public does not want or need to doubt the safety of their water, bridges, industries, and buildings. So, behaving at the highest ethical standard is paramount.

Integrity requires us to be honest—with ourselves, our bosses, co-workers, and clients. Honesty is a requirement of integrity and is best defined as not being deceptive or fraudulent. Honesty is, however, more than telling the truth. Here is an example where a truthful answer can be misleading. Say a project manager asks you to consult the senior guru on the correct approach for a difficult issue. You know he intends you to have a detailed sit-down on means and methods and probably have the guru check your work. Later, he asks you. ‘Did you consult the guru?’ All you did was ask the guru one question, so you say yes. Technically you did not lie, but you were not being honest.

As you gain experience and advance to a more senior engineer or project manager, you need to believe that when you deal with people, they are beyond reproach and are giving you the whole story when you ask a business or technical question. A PM cannot check everything themselves, and we all rely on others. We rely on the client to give us accurate data and not hide information from us. We need task managers to report problems and issues. To succeed, you must have people skills to deal with co-workers, bosses, clients and other key stakeholders in your projects.

One lesson we learn over and over is that problems arise, and they do not just go away by themselves. Engineers need to be able to confront and resolve problems in a constructive way. So another attribute (and one that probably has to be learned) is conflict resolution.

Another aspect of integrity is simply meeting commitments. Being on time for meetings and appointments is an easy one. Meeting project deadlines is critical. Do not agree to a schedule you cannot meet. It is far better to work out schedule issues on the front end, whether it is with your boss or the client than to agree to a schedule that you know you cannot meet and hope to talk your way through it later.

Another attribute is valuing teamwork and personal interactions with others. An industrial psychologist once told our group that in every interaction with people, we either help or hurt our relationship with them. This may be a minor help or hurt, or it may be a larger one. So even if you need to have a difficult discussion, you need to figure out how to leave with something positive or help minimize the damage that the discussion may cause. There is no value in demeaning people or running them down. Stephen Covey called this the emotional bank account. You need to make more deposits in this than withdrawals.

Your effectiveness can be thought of as the product of how good your idea is, times how well it is received. You may have the greatest ideas and approaches in the world. But if you are a jerk and no one receives or buys in, you are not going to make much of an impact. On the other hand, if you work with the team, present your ideas, and listen to theirs, you can come to a collaborative solution that the team endorses. The ability to communicate, make concessions, and get a workable (even if perhaps not perfect in your mind) solution is important.

Humility is an important attribute. One mentor used to say, “It’s not what you know that counts; it’s what you don’t know and knowing you don’t know it.” This person was deeply committed to high quality and integrity in the work we produced. Integrity here means completeness of the work — have you considered all the appropriate factors to draw whatever conclusions you have reached? Humility involves the ability to take advice, admit mistakes, and, most importantly, ask for help when needed. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness and is good advice not just for a junior engineer. Senior people even (or especially) need to have associates or mentors to consult on difficult issues. I often consulted people who worked for me and who were closer to the action for input and advice.

Listening skills may be the hardest to recognize and develop. We tend to talk over others or assume what they are going to say. Stephen Covey once said that before you disagree with a point someone made, repeat back to them what you thought they said and meant. He said the majority of the, time you misinterpreted their remarks, or they were not clearly stating what they meant. Many times, this step helps resolve issues because people were closer to agreement than they believed. It takes great discipline to actively listen, and it involves repeating back or asking for clarification before responding. But it is a critical skill.

Decision-making skills are important in almost anything you choose to do — career or otherwise. I originally called this “decisiveness,” and, upon reflection, I decided that decision-making is a broader and more accurate description of what I wanted to stress. I think of decisiveness as “quick to decide.” You can be decisive and still make a bad decision. Making good decisions is not just a human attribute but can and should involve techniques and processes to assess critical factors, minimize biases, and involvement of the right people. Emotion can play a huge role in decisions. While you may not eliminate emotion, you need to be aware of it and use decision processes designed to minimize biases that can lead you in the right direction. Key decisions, including technical approaches in projects, should be outlined and well-planned. How much data do you need? What studies or tests may be required? What are the key factors that should go into the decision? Is there a time limit on making final decisions? These and other questions are usually answered in the project scope.

Although there are sophisticated tools to assist in decision-making, most revolve around what are the key factors and a ranking of their importance. You then rate various options and compare them. Whether or not you let the apparent answer be your final choice, what is important is the rigor of thinking about the issues that should go into your decision.

Keep all these concepts in mind when you hire people. You must find ways to look at them as more than a resume and look for signs of teamwork, humility, listening skills, etc. A good

question to ask is, “Have you ever had negative feedback, and how did you handle it?” We had a course called “Select the Best.” It recommended trying to assess “can do” (ability) versus “will do,” which is motivation, drive and follow through. You need both, but the “will do” is important to produce results. One important aspect of this is knowing when enough study or analysis is enough. You have to distinguish between needing more data and analysis versus wanting to refine results that have little to no impact on conclusions or plans of action.

A lot of the above attributes and skills boil down to having good communication skills, which include active listening, being able to question and clarify concerns in a positive way, and clearly understanding the other person’s perspective and expectations. Your goal is not necessarily to make the client happy, but it is to give the client what they need, which is usually a project that meets their organization’s expectations — safety, cost, schedule, and function.

Writing skills were important in my career as many projects ended in a report. Different jobs require different degrees of writing skills. My main advice is that written reports need to fit what suits a client’s needs. They do not all want all the background and a formal report. But if you are required to submit written reports, it is important to have a good editor and a reviewer to make sure there is clarity and accuracy in the presentation.

Ethics and personal responsibility

My comment above about making the client happy may raise a few eyebrows, but it is a good segue into ethics. As an example, a private client may tell you that they do not need to meet code or they do not need an air scrubber. You may not make them happy when you tell them that those are integral and often legally required parts of the project. This is one example of where ethics are important.

Along with safety ethics, business ethics and personal responsibility are crucial to succeeding in your career. Engineers need to be trusted by the public that their work produces safe, workable projects. In the zeal to win work, meet schedules, and please clients and bosses, engineers’ judgments may get clouded. Businesses reflect the ethics and values of their leaders. I have to quote one of the founders of my former firm, Jim Howland, from his Little Yellow Book. He wrote, “Integrity is the all-important prerequisite to employment. The person must be honest with himself and others, or we have no foundation on which to build.” Jim wrote this many decades ago, so today it would be gender neutral—but you get the idea. More on Jim’s Little Yellow Book later.

I like this quote from John C. Maxwell: “There’s no such thing as business (think engineering) ethics — there’s only ethics. People try to use one set of ethics for their professional life, another for their spiritual life, and still another at home with their family. That gets them into trouble. Ethics are ethics. If you desire to be ethical, you live by one standard across the board.”

Much of ethics is common sense, and a good place to start is the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) Code of Ethics for Engineers. It is good for our industry that we are all held to NSPE and local and state standards. There is no need to repeat the Code of Ethics here as it is self-explanatory and fairly complete, and it should be read in total. What it does not tell you is that you can face pressure, sometimes intense, from clients to “violate” some of these principles. For example, a client may ask you to leave out certain test data that would impact their compliance or performance. Or they may disagree that something is a health and safety issue or want to skimp on a code due to cost concerns. The best advice I can give you is to talk to your company attorney and your supervisor for guidance. I will turn to Jim Howland's Little Yellow Book again, where he says, “A good test to determine if a contemplated action is ethical is to ask, ‘Would I want to see it in the headlines tomorrow?’”

Another element of integrity is your work needs to be your work. What I mean by that is you cannot have a client dictate what the report has to say if you are making an independent assessment. Of course, clients will review our work, but they should not wholesale edit or change facts and conclusions. They are free to do with your work what they want to after it is complete and signed off by the engineer. (More later about the reuse of designs.) Conflicts in this area need to be kicked up the management chain if there are difficult issues with the client.

An area not mentioned in the NSPE Code is to accurately status your progress whether you are a project engineer or a project manager. There can be dire consequences for not properly stating your status that can make your company or your client overstate revenue or understate costs. You will not always be accurate, but you certainly must not deliberately overstate the project’s schedule and cost position.

There are also very specific ethical requirements for dealing with the US government. Short courses in the Procurement Integrity Act (PIA) and Truth in Negotiating Act (TINA) are essential if you deal with the government or entities that receive government funding. I will not explain these here, but the short story is that you have to be very careful of what you show as “cost” to the government, and, as with many regulations, it may not be intuitive. PIA deals more with how you deal with personnel who work in the government or who recently left.

Although private clients or local entities may not have such prescriptive regulations, you still should be guided by your integrity. Beware of gifts from or to officials. Do not put your client in a bind by giving them things of value (in most cases, $25 is a reasonable limit).

One issue that comes up often when engineers change jobs is taking (or receiving) company proprietary information from the old employer to the new one—or being on the receiving end agreeing to receive such information. This may include cost and pricing information, technical specifications, and other computer-based tools. This should simply be a no-no. Of course, you cannot forget things you learn, and you can take that knowledge with you. But that is not the same as copying company confidential information. On the receiving end, it is acceptable to discuss in general how some other company did things or viewed certain things. This is not the same as accepting written or electronic confidential information. In general, you should treat competitors with respect.

Here are some other thoughts on ethics:

I strongly recommend all engineers obtain their professional license. It is good practice, and the ethics standards are good overall guidance.

You should avoid taking or giving gifts of any significant value (say, over $25). In fact, you may have clients instructing you not to give their employees gifts.

I consider following your contract and accurately reporting your project status to the client and your company to be an ethical issue. Misrepresenting project progress is not good business and is often done to delay bad news. This is not ethical behavior.

Federal and other government requirements can be quite specific and not necessarily intuitive. If you get into this arena, get educated on the Procurement Integrity Act, Truth in Negotiations Act, and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The first two are specific to federal work or federally funded work, but their requirements reinforce ethical behavior.

If you deal internationally, you will find different ethics in different countries. For me, I still followed my own set of standards, which meant that I could not work in certain countries where corruption is part of the business.

I return to Jim Howland’s advice: If you do not want to read about it in tomorrow’s news, do not do it!

The best advice I can give on ethics is a quote from the Spike Lee movie, “Do the Right Thing”—and the quote is “Do the right thing!”.

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