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Final Thoughts: Which Costumes Have You Worn Throughout Your Engineering Career?

Robert Schickel on October 5, 2018 - in Articles, Column

It’s Halloween season: the time of year when we get to dress up and act like a different person or character for a day. We can take on another role, different from the role we play at home or at work. I asked my young neighbor what he was going to be for Halloween, and he said, “Harry Potter, just like the last two years.” He must like playing the role of that character; he can be magical!

How many characters have you played as an engineer? How many costumes have you worn? Do you like the character you play as much as my neighbor who wants to be the same each year? Or do you relish the idea of being able to change characters?

Early Characters

After graduation, my first character as an engineer was a trainee. My costume consisted of work boots, blue jeans and a hard hat. For six months back in 1971, I was assigned to an INDOT construction management team in southern Indiana during the construction of a segment of I-64. Most of the time, I was digging holes in the soil, performing compaction tests. But I also was learning about the roles and responsibilities of an inspection team compared to those of a contractor. I really liked wearing this costume—except for the week I was assigned to the night shift.

The second six months of my training period was at the Central Office of INDOT in Indianapolis. I was still learning, but my costume changed to what we now call “business casual.” I’m certain we didn’t call it that; we just didn’t wear ties as some of the older men did.

After the training program was complete, I again became a slightly different character: the young bridge engineer. Becoming a bridge engineer took a lot of study. From field inspection of bridges to drafting to design computations, I continued to refine my role. This was a time in my character development when I had a lot of input. I continued to try new things, wearing the different “masks” of a concrete or steel bridge engineer, designing new structures or rehabilitating old ones.

Trying New Roles

My next change was to become a registered professional engineer and a design team leader—this may have been one of my favorite costume choices. In this role, I was able to design bridges as well as manage a design team, teach, mentor and check other engineers’ work. It was a balance between doing and managing. Another part of this role required a different costume when we met with the public during hearings and project presentations. I really liked helping non-engineers understand what effects a project would have in their neighborhood or to their mode of travel. I never felt like I needed a mask during these times.

The next role was as a department manager, which meant I was moving further away from “technical” work to “people” work. And my costume changed a bit. I had to wear a jacket and tie, because I attended meetings with upper management at the department and occasionally with elected officials. Although this was a higher grade, this wasn’t one of my favorite character roles. I was further away from my coworkers, and sometimes I had to go along with decisions I felt were wrong. I had to put on a mask to disguise myself.

Maybe it’s time for a new mask, but there’s nothing wrong with your current costume if it’s still magical for you.

New Location, New Costumes

I moved to a different state and went to work for an engineering consulting firm. Talk about new costumes! Not only was this a different role, but there were many roles to play, often in the same day. Visit with the client, write a proposal, direct the team, argue with the accountants, and get home in time to get the kids to baseball and soccer.

Now I wear the costume of an experienced person in the office. I like when people ask how I would do something or how a certain process had developed. My tasks aren’t due tomorrow, but are longer-term program items, including writing this column. I no longer have to rush home and put on my coaching costume. But I do get to put on my soccer fan gear to watch the grandkids!

Talk with your colleagues about the costumes you have worn in your profession. Are you happy with your choices? Did your coworkers surprise you? What are you going to be this year? Something new or Harry Potter again? Maybe it’s time for a new mask, but there’s nothing wrong with your current costume if it’s still magical for you.

Robert Schickel

About Robert Schickel

Robert Schickel, P.E., has 40 years of experience in planning, design, plan preparation, and construction management of civil and transportation projects. He currently works for DB Sterlin Consultants Inc. as a consultant to Peoples Gas; e-mail: rschickel@dbsterlin.com.

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