Stephen R. Gelman: Lessons Learned in My 40-year Engineering Career (Part 3)

April 19, 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.

Career Paths - or is it career maze?

You always hear about “career paths.” The implication is that there are defined paths, and you choose which path to take. My experience says that is a little too simplistic. The concept of a path is that the route is laid out and well-marked. I think it is a little more obtuse and complicated, so I liken it to a maze. There are lots of opportunities, and unlike a path, you are never sure where these opportunities will take you. Here are my thoughts on the subject of careers.

It has always intrigued me how narrow and deep some engineers focus and how broad a span others take. This is not a criticism of either end of the spectrum. Those more narrowly focused can become subject matter experts and solve complex problems that need great understanding and depth of knowledge. They most likely will do a lot of projects with similar technical issues and of greater complexity as they gain experience. Others, who would tend to be broader, seek new opportunities, and once they have done something, they may want a different challenge the next time. They can either take on diverse technical roles, become project managers, or become more business oriented.

At some point in your career, you will make decisions (or it sometimes just happens) that will push you toward one or the other or into the middle. There is no right or wrong, and the most important thing here is to know yourself and what really turns you on and drives you. The depth can vary, as can the breadth. My company classified career paths as technical, business development, management, and project management (as well as some administrative career paths). Some engineers only did business development at some point in their careers. Some were only project managers. Others had technical roles while doing some business development and eventually managing departments while still maintaining technical roles on projects. I have found that larger companies like to put you in a box as one or the other, and smaller firms need you to be more flexible and broader.

Within the technical career, you can be an engineer in almost any discipline and work on problems across the breadth of that discipline. This could happen as a plant engineer or city engineer, where you deal with streets, water and sewer, buildings, etc. The technical “deep” can be as broad as biological wastewater treatment and all its permutations and applications to being an expert in dams or slurry walls or membrane processes. Mechanical engineers can deal only with air handling or work for a company that makes chillers or pumps. I once had a job offer from a company that only did sewer smoke studies and an offer from a company that designed clarifier mechanisms. I never wanted to be that confined in what I thought I would do with my career.

One piece of advice I have is that there is no really wrong first job out of college. A first job is a chance to continue learning, begin to sort out the engineering profession, and begin to understand where you fit. Interviewing a variety of employers is wise as you can begin to understand how a potential employer intends to engage your talents, and that will likely hasten some decisions on your part of where to take your career.

Changing jobs

I only willingly changed jobs twice in my career, so I am no expert in this, but I have some definite ideas. I wanted to give the rationale for my job changes to give an example of what I thought through at each change. I say “willingly” because I was terminated from my first job after my bachelor’s degree the day before I was set to start. Apparently, a project the company had counted on had failed to develop, and they did not have sufficient workload to justify any hiring. This experience helped show me the inside of the engineering business world quite soon after I graduated. Later as a manager, I recognized the commitment you make to new hires to make sure you have a clear role, adequate workload, and support and buy-in from individuals responsible for deploying new staff to their work.

After that unpleasant experience, I contacted a company I had turned down, and luckily, they still had openings. The role was as an entry engineer doing basic civil engineering grading and drainage for a new power plant. I left that job to pursue a master’s degree. My rationale was that I was not doing the kind of water work I wanted to and was somewhat bored. I mainly worked on one project for 15 months and had very little pressure or budget constraints. Even as a young engineer, I realized that part of the fun and challenge of engineering is to find solutions within cost constraints where you have to balance risk and cost. I did, however, learn a lot in my time at this job. I learned grading and drainage techniques and design and how to lay out railroad curves as well as the design, review, and check process. But as I thought the learning curve was leveling out, I was ready to move on.

After doing the coursework for my master’s degree, I stayed in Starkville and was given the opportunity to run a small startup environmental laboratory. Besides the convenience of staying close to MSU to finish my thesis, the opportunity intrigued me. This job may now seem like a small footnote in my long career of taking much larger roles, but it proved invaluable in my career. As I later came to find out, very few environmental engineers had the knowledge or feel for water chemistry that I developed doing treatability studies and a lot of analytical testing. I also learned more about money, scheduling, clients (I was trying to sell, too!), and industry and municipal public works.

I moved to my final job, which lasted thirty-six years, mainly because I was again slowing down on the learning curve, and I wanted to do more engineering. The laboratory was not an engineering outfit. I had done no design, so I moved on. And I stayed because I never quit learning, and I always had opportunities to advance. In a project firm, that does not always mean new titles. It can mean more interesting and challenging projects and the opportunity to concentrate on different career areas, as discussed above.

In the past, hiring managers looked at changing jobs too frequently as an indication of a problem that the employee was either not performing or not working well with other employees or managers. This may have changed as we see younger people more likely to change jobs quicker if they are dissatisfied. Of course, many personal factors enter into job changes, including location, change in family situation, health, and others. Sometimes you get an offer too intriguing or good to turn down. A caveat is that if a salary offer is significantly higher than you are currently making, then you are either underpaid or there are significantly higher expectations and demands in the new role. Once I hit a certain age, 45-50, I realized that I had plenty of opportunities where I was, and I really did not want to go to another job and learn new systems, integrate with new teams, and deal with an unknown work culture and environment, on the other hand, that can be the age range that you could expect new opportunities to use skills and talents that your current employer is not utilizing. Job changing is very personal. As I have said before, know yourself and what motivates and drives you. If you are considering a change, make sure you interview the prospective employer as intensely as they do you. It is a two-way activity!

My main advice on jobs and careers: 1) Take responsibility for your career. Do not depend solely on a boss or mentor. 2) You should never stop learning on the job. If you are not learning, it may be time to look for other opportunities (which does not necessarily mean changing employers). 3) Before you change employers, make sure you understand why you are changing. Studies have shown that the direct supervisor plays a major role in retention and job satisfaction. If you work for a good company with a poor supervisor, there may be other options for changing employers. Sometimes people are offered a lot more money at a new place and find they are put in a position that they are not able or willing to be successful in. The deeper you are in your career, the harder it is to adapt to new cultures and processes.

Training is for dogs — think development

Engineers and technical people I worked with constantly felt they needed to have more training opportunities. The reality of many workplaces, especially in engineering and technical fields, is that you learn on the job. There are occasional specialty seminars that go into enough depth to provide meaningful technical development. Conferences are primarily networking opportunities, though trade shows at major conferences offer great opportunities to see various equipment and technologies.

Development is a more comprehensive description of what most young engineers will benefit from. I received a lot of development opportunities throughout my career, and they were instrumental to my becoming a better engineer and, ultimately, manager. Some were courses that I attended, both in-house and external. Others were self-taught but sponsored by the company, so there had been screening as to their value. Here are some broad examples:

  • Interpersonal skills. This training covered the basics of skills that we all need — listening, clarifying and confirming, decision-making, and conflict resolution. These are the basics, and we all need to be better at them.
  • Project management. This was where I got my first exposure to the concept of critical path scheduling. Good project management courses deal in depth with many of the issues I discuss below. Most industries and engineering companies will self-sponsor these courses since terminology and approaches can vary. I never certified with the Project Management Institute, but they have a worthwhile program if you go down a project management career path.
  • Oral presentations. - We do not all need to be great orators, but we need to be able to get points across and to be understood. I did a 3-day training program called “Speakeasy,” which was one of the more humbling experiences I have had. The focus was not on content but on platform skills. The training consisted of short presentations on non-technical topics, which were videotaped and critiqued. Most people are really poor at eye contact and talk too fast. I talked slowly enough (southern heritage) but was terrible at eye contact and other points, but I improved over the three days and found the experience worthwhile.
  • Technical writing. Most bosses and clients do not want to read a thesis. A technical writing course can provide good techniques for conciseness, clarity, and organization for most technical writing. I am trying to use these techniques in this document!
  • Finance for non-financial managers. My training here dealt primarily with how to evaluate acquisitions. Depending on career direction, training in how to assess a company’s financial reports can be useful. And if you are an investor, you should definitely know how to read and interpret financial data and reports.

How we process information

One fun test a group of us did several years ago was to identify how we best receive and process information. There are three ways we typically receive and process information — aurally (we hear), visually, and kinesthetically (touching material, hands-on). We found our group of engineers primarily used visual and kinesthetic and was very poor in aural. This helped explain why we struggled to get much done on conference calls (pre-Zoom, so all aural). This is an assessment worth taking or trying to figure out for yourself. Your boss may tell you how to do something, and you would be much better off if he wrote it out or showed you how to do it, such as giving you an example to work out. This is worth remembering if you are having trouble getting the point across or receiving data if you have a better idea of how you process information. It may also help in how you can get the best results for various modes of training and development.

Professional and Technical Societies

Joining and being active in professional societies is an expectation of many companies and jobs. Participation varies dramatically from one individual to the next, and my advice is to be yourself. Consider this part of career development. If you are headed in a highly technical career path, some organizations are useful and may be vital to staying on top of your field. Some jobs require or reward publishing in journals. Once you have joined a professional society, you still need to decide if you are a member or an active member or on an officer track. There are no right answers. You should do what fits your job and what interests you. Giving presentations is a good way to practice and get more comfortable speaking.

In my case, I wrote a few papers and gave a few presentations early in my career. These were good experiences in writing a technical paper and presenting to an audience. One interesting experience I had was with a paper I wrote for a state environmental meeting. About two days before the conference, I got severe laryngitis. I realized I would not be able to deliver the presentation. So, I got on my Apple 2 and wrote my presentation word for word so a co-worker, who had no idea of the subject matter, could give the paper. I never did get that detailed again, but I found that writing out my beginning and any tricky transition slides was valuable as most conferences have strict time limits, and I did not need to ramble.

As I got deeper into the business side, I was not very outside-oriented other than with customers. I joined a few groups where I could interact with customers. But I was never very active in professional societies, and much of the last 20 years of my career I spent very focused on running businesses and projects. I ended up without a great outside network compared to someone who may have ended up their career very engaged in professional groups. If I had wanted to consult in retirement, then that would not have been a good way to end up. Since I was ready to retire, I do not regret that I was not very active in this arena. So, a good way to end this section — be yourself but always learn.

Time versus energy

You hear a lot about time management. I always told my team that it is more important to manage your energy than your time. You can spend a short time on a trivial topic and get emotionally wrapped up in it and drain your energy. People are aware of time sinks, but my advice is to learn to monitor your energy sinks and sources. As most engineers know, it takes energy to get any work done. Time without energy accomplishes nothing.

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