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ReEngineering the Engineer: Curiosity: Engineers Do Better than the Cat

Douglas Fitzpatrick on March 30, 2020 - in Articles, Column

To date, my engineering firm has been a team member for two different Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) projects. Both included many regularly scheduled “Big Room” meetings. Almost all of those meetings start with an ice-breaker question to allow everyone to learn a little something about the other team members. 

The questions are usually pretty simple: your favorite movie, a favorite childhood memory, the most influential person in your life, your favorite food, a second career you didn’t choose, etc. One of the intents of the questions is to get folks talking openly and recognizing the meeting is a “safe” zone. No answers are judged; it’s simply a way to get to know people.

One question struck me: “Looking back on your life, would you do anything differently?” After some careful thought, I answered that I wished I had been more curious about structural engineering earlier in my career. I know that sounds odd coming from someone who now has their own firm, but I think it was an accurate observation. 

I took several programming classes during my undergraduate studies, and my Master’s degree was heavy into programming. Although that served me well in the early part of my career, it took a while for me to develop that same curiosity in structural engineering. However, when I did, it really made a difference in how quickly I started to learn.

Where’s the Curiosity?

I’m noticing a similar lack of curiosity in some of our younger engineers. They ask the proper questions, but it feels like it’s to simply get to the answer rather than to necessarily understand how they got there. I don’t think there’s anything particularly malicious going on; I think it’s more a sign of the times we live in. Everything is available to us instantaneously via our phones, iPads, laptops and desktops. For many young workers, instant gratification is the only thing they know. Ask a question, get an answer. For those of us who have been around a while, it can be a bit frustrating when they can’t explain the answer.

Our job as seasoned engineers is to help them understand the bigger picture and help them be more curious about the answer: the “why.” We need to explain how we got to an answer—in all the glorious boring detail—so the next time around they’re better equipped to figure it out for themselves, without the help of Google. Understanding the big picture is critical to making good decisions. If they don’t understand how all the variables work together, they will have no idea if the answer they get is correct or not. Teach them to fish—not just give them a fish—and encourage curiosity.

Many of our codes now are available online and searchable. You can type a specific phrase for what you’re looking for, and the search engine takes you directly to the answer. In the old days, you generally found yourself flipping through several pages before you got to the page you were looking for. I can’t count the number of times I learned or discovered something new while flipping through the pages before getting the answer to my original question. It didn’t solve the question at hand, but it was a little nugget of wisdom to be filed away for a later date. I’m finding I have to try extra hard to be curious in this electronic age.

Beyond First Impressions

I also find it’s easy to get trapped into thinking I know how to solve a particular problem at first glance. We’ve all done it—we get stuck in a rut. This project is just like that other one, so the solution we used there can be used here. I have found myself doing this for some of our “repeat” work. 

The challenge is that almost every one of our projects is unique. And even if they are very similar, there still may be a better way to design the building than what was previously used. We need to look to our curiosity and ask good “why” or “what-if” questions. Just because we used moment frames on the last project doesn’t mean that’s the right solution for this project. Push beyond the “we’ve always done it this way” and tap into your curiosity for finding a new way to approach each project.

It’s difficult to be curious these days, particularly when we have such crazy schedules for all of our projects. The market is so fast paced, we’re almost forced to go for the quick answer. But we have to learn to slow down enough to give us some time to be curious. I learn so much more when I have the opportunity to ask “why.” Learning a “why” for today’s problem often puts us further ahead when we come to tomorrow’s problem.

As the saying goes, curiosity might not be the best thing for a cat, but I think it’s critical for engineers. It makes us more knowledgeable, well rounded and better suited to thinking outside the box. Find ways to improve your learning habits to support your curiosity. It won’t kill you.


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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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