/ Articles / Structural Solutions: Nuggets of Wisdom for Engineers Young and Old, Part 1

Structural Solutions: Nuggets of Wisdom for Engineers Young and Old, Part 1

Douglas Fitzpatrick on May 29, 2017 - in Articles, Column

If you haven’t been to the American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC) NASCC Steel Conference, you really need to go. It’s not just about the PDHs; there’s an awful lot to learn. The day-to-day “busy-ness” of running a company takes me out of the loop sometimes (well, most of the time), but it’s important to stay on top of what’s going on in the steel world, particularly because many of our projects are steel.

AISC and the steel conference have historically been advocates for educating young engineers by offering them reduced admission fees to help more students attend the conference. There’s always a contingent of local schools represented at each conference as well as some “regulars.”

Student Sessions and Sage Advice

One of the main draws for students is a program called Students Connecting with Industry Sessions (SCIS). The culmination of that day is a session called “Direct Connect,” an opportunity for students to interact with about 45 companies of all shapes and sizes. Students can talk with small firms (that’s where I come in), large firms, nonprofits, forensics firms and just about anyone else in the steel industry.

Historically, my firm hasn’t participated in the session for recruitment purposes. The timing would have to be impeccable for us to be looking to hire someone at the conference. However, it’s important for students to be able to talk with firms of all sizes. Rarely do students know exactly what they want to do when they graduate. Having a venue to feel out their options is helpful, so I participate to share “the life of a small firm” with those who are interested.

After the first year or two of participating, I felt like there was more I could do for students than simply explain how our office works and give them a brochure. It takes a lot of trial and error to develop a successful engineering career, whether you’re a designer, engineer, project manager or principal in a firm. So I decided to develop a list of sage advice for young engineers to help them start thinking in the right direction and hopefully shorten their learning curve.

Although these “nuggets of wisdom” are valuable to young engineers, they also remind the rest of us how we can “be the best we can” for our own companies. In this column and at least the next, I thought I’d share the list I share with students. Some of the topics I’ve alluded to in previous columns, and some (hopefully) are things we know are valuable but learned the hard way. There’s no particular order to the list.

Topic 1: Computer Software

My graduate studies included many nights in the university computer center writing my own program for my master’s thesis and dealing with punch cards—yes, punch cards (Google it if you’ve never heard of them). The entire deck of cards was read in each time you wanted to run the program. It was processed somewhere else (in the cloud before there was a cloud) and printed out on a gigantic printer (about the size of a side-by-side washer and dryer) in the same room.

Looking back, I remember most that I was in charge of the program. I knew the program’s exact limitations. I knew the exact meaning of all the input data. And I knew the exact calculations to get my results. Why? Because I wrote it all from scratch.

Today, we have more power in our smartphones then my university had on its entire campus. We have apps for everything from a flashlight to cloud-based optioneering for building designs. Although this has all been a tremendous boon for our industry, with great power comes great responsibility.

There’s now a significant reliance for software to do the “heavy lifting.” For one thing, you just can’t get your work done quickly enough (i.e., make a profit) without programs. This comes as a great benefit to engineers, but it’s not without risk. For those of us who grew up before computers, we still have “experience” to gut-check the results from analysis programs. We probably hand-designed many of the things we do today on the computer, so we know when an answer doesn’t “look right.”

Contrast that with young engineers who grew up with software. From as early as they can remember, just about everything they deal with is a program of some sort. Software has become almost invisible to them. But much like “everything on the Internet must be true,” blindly using software to design buildings (and safeguard the public) is a bad idea.

Know Your Software

When I talk with students at Direct Connect, I impress upon them how important it is to understand each particular piece of software they use—whatever its function. The point isn’t to “make it sing” because they can run through data input quickly and get a result. The phrase “garbage in = garbage out” comes to mind.

The point is to understand all the peculiarities of each program they use. They all have limitations. They all have idiosyncrasies. They all have assumptions. And that goes for both the analysis and design sides of the equation. The default settings for one design software probably are different from another (unbraced length is a classic example). It’s imperative they understand the meaning of all the variables for the software they’re using.

Similarly, it’s important for all of us—not just the students—to understand our software. Software constantly is being updated. There are always new features and new ways to make our work more efficient, and it’s imperative for us to keep up with the changes. Our reputation depends on it.

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About Douglas Fitzpatrick

Douglas G. Fitzpatrick, P.E., is the founder, president and practicing engineer of Fitzpatrick Engineering Group, a 14-year-old structural engineering firm specializing in commercial and healthcare building design.

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