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ReEngineering the Engineer: To Fail or Not to Fail?

Douglas Fitzpatrick on August 2, 2018 - in Articles, Column

True confession: I didn’t always want to be a structural engineer. I grew up in the 1960s when the space race with Russia was at its peak. In those days, all I could think about was being an astronaut, probably like most other kids my age on the planet. How exciting would it be to fly to the moon and then walk on it? Ah, the engineering of it all!

When my wife travels, the dog and I go to the basement and watch my favorite movies. Although I agree to watch the “chick-flicks” with my wife, she rarely agrees to watch “my movies” with me. I have a couple favorites—mostly science fiction but also some engineering films (I can’t help myself). “The Right Stuff” is usually an annual favorite. Sometimes I’ll get lucky and find it on TV, most times I end up renting it.

“The Right Stuff” chronicles the snake-bit Apollo 13 mission to the moon and the out-of-the-box thinking it took to get the three astronauts home safely. Of course, the all-time memorable line from that movie is Gene Kranz telling everyone in the Apollo 13 control room that “failure is not an option” as they try to return the crew safely back to Earth in a damaged command module. (FYI, according to some internet sources, that wasn’t Kranz’s exact line at the time; Hollywood enhanced it a bit … shocker.)

Whether Kranz said it or not, that statement resonates with us civil/structural engineers. Failure for us means many people get hurt—not just three. We don’t have the luxury of being mostly right or close; we have to get it all right, all the time.

My first boss taught me something when I started my first job right out of school. The real world and school are different. In school, it’s OK to get a 92 percent on a test. In the real world, you have to get a 100 percent every time. It was a rude awakening as a young engineer, but that thought has stuck with me my entire career: no mistakes.

Sometimes Failure Is the Best Option

Just a few months ago, I was sitting in the middle of a soaking-wet football field on the Villanova campus for our oldest daughter’s commencement exercise. It was cloudy, somewhat chilly, and the wind was blowing, but at least it wasn’t raining. Honestly, I don’t remember anything about my own commencement address: zero. I would guess most of us are in the same boat. Maybe this time I’ll remember something.

The speaker was Robert F. Moran, the current Chairman of the Board of GNC. In a previous life, he (and his team) saved PetSmart from bankruptcy and turned it into one of retail’s greatest success stories. Despite Moran being a very engaging speaker, I found my thoughts drifting back to work issues—a job hazard, I suppose. However, I snap back to reality when I hear him mention the word “failure.” When I finally got back to the present moment, I heard “I’m not going to share my secrets to success. I’m here today … sincerely hoping you fail.”

Wait, WHAT!!!??? You can’t say that at a commencement address, can you? And he continues, “But fantastic failures—the people who fail and fall down and keep getting back up—are curious and courageous.” Surely, he’s not talking about the same failure we engineers fear.

He then goes on to talk about Jack Andraka, who (at the age of 15) set out and discovered a pancreatic cancer test that was a 100 times more effective and cost 26,000 times less than big pharma and all its PhDs. And James Dyson, who created the world’s first bagless vacuum cleaner after 5,000-plus failed prototypes. And Elon Musk, who has failed extraordinarily multiple times yet created a status car in Tesla and a successful SpaceX company with billions in contracts. Moran could easily have mentioned Ben Franklin and Thomas Edison for that matter.

Changing the World

What do all these people have in common? They all had the crazy notion they could change the world for the better. In Moran’s words, they are the “relentlessly restless.” They are always asking why things are the way they are and how they can be better. And it usually comes with a healthy disrespect for the status quo.

They didn’t find their solution on the first attempt. It was a “try and try again” approach. That type of failure we all can relate to and is very different from the failure we fear as engineers. Our industry (design and construction) doesn’t get an “A” for being the most forward thinking and efficient. But the software we now all use can be put to good use. Many things can be improved in our workflows. Many barriers need to be broken down to make our projects more productive. They are there for the taking; we just need the courage to try, and fail, retool our approach, and try again.

So, to fail or not to fail? Yes! If you’re trying to change the way things work and make things better, fail in glorious fashion and keep trying. But when it comes to engineering, keep your feet on the ground and remember: the public is counting on us to get a “100” every time.

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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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