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ReEngineering the Engineer: Do You Have a ‘Plan B’ for the Totally Unexpected?

Douglas Fitzpatrick on January 27, 2020 - in Articles, Column

I try to take some time over the holidays to reflect on the previous year. What good things happened? Were there any things we could have done better? Do our employees have the proper skill sets for their current positions? Is there any software we’re missing to help our people be more productive? Is there a decent backlog of work coming in for 2020 to keep my staff busy? Yeah … there’s a lot to think about as a business owner, but I try to catch my breath and then prepare for the next year.

Growing Pains

There were several things that occurred in 2019 that really tested our (my) resilience. The obvious first one was becoming extremely busy. One of my long-term goals is to get new work that grows us corporately but also challenges our engineers to think differently and grow their experience. That can mean all types of things to different people but generally means larger and more-complicated projects to me.

That came true for us this year, but it all happened at once. We started three large projects about the same time near the end of the summer. I have great engineers who are always up to a challenge, but when there are six engineers and two engineer interns (EIs) in your office, and you peel off three engineers to head up three large projects, that puts a major burden on the rest of the office to get all the other work done.

About mid-summer, we upgraded our accounting and project-management software to a web-based version from the same company. Although nothing particularly “earth shattering” changed functionally about how we use the program, some elements had moved around in the interface, making things a little choppy.

We upgraded our cloud office from Windows 7 to Windows 10. Installing software and configuring desktops consumed a full week for me over the holidays, so it would all be ready to roll out with the new year.

We also had to deal with major upgrades to BIM. We had been relying on old(er) versions that were well established, bulletproof and comfortable for everyone. However, it became obvious in 2019 we needed to move on. That’s never easy. Finding the chunk of time to commit to revamping our systems was particularly difficult this last year.

Fortunately, however, we could plan for all these things.

Be Prepared for the Totally Unexpected

I spent many years in scouting as a kid. One of the things we were required to learn was the Scout motto: “Be Prepared.” That motto has become an integral part of my adult life and has served me well through the years.

On top of the eight engineers, we also have an office manager and a CAD person. Our CAD person does very little of the BIM work, but most of the drafting and drawing management. During the summer, he was having some vision issues that his eye doctor tried correcting with his glasses prescription, with limited success. Then, while I was in Singapore the last week in October as a juror for the Bentley Systems Year In Infrastructure conference, my CAD guy sent me a text that he was heading into surgery in two days for a detached retina and would be out for a couple weeks. That “couple of weeks” turned into 10 weeks. Ouch … I didn’t see that one coming.

So on top of all the engineering we had to do, we now had to do all of our own drafting. Our guys knew enough about drafting that we could pick up the slack, but it was pretty stressful for everyone. I was glad when January 6th arrived, and our CAD expert returned.

As business owners, engineers and humans, we should always be thinking about the “other things” that can happen. It doesn’t mean we need to be crippled by the unknown; but we need to recognize that surprises happen, and we need to have some type of plan in place to deal with them. Having at least thought about the what-ifs in life can make us better prepared for them.

Could I have been better prepared for this one? I don’t know; that’s a tough question. It isn’t like we went from 10 CAD employees to nine; we went from one to none. He’s good enough to keep up with all the engineers, so hiring a second CAD person and having two people not terribly busy “just in case” doesn’t seem like the correct answer.

For this one, I think our Plan B was having decent processes in place that didn’t rely on one person knowing everything about drafting, so the transition to our engineers was possible, and we could get through it instead of being caught off guard totally helpless.

What’s in your Plan B?


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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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