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ReEngineering the Engineer: What Was I Thinking?

Douglas Fitzpatrick on May 11, 2020 - in Articles, Column

A funny thought crossed my mind this week. I started my career at a slow time in the early 1980s and considered myself lucky to find work at a small engineering firm doing what I was educated to do. I managed through slow spots in the early 1990s, Y2K and even 9/11. And our office survived the six-plus years of the Great Recession relatively intact. The funny thought that popped into my head: I was subconsciously thinking I’d get to retire without having to deal with another crisis …

By the time you read this column, I’m guessing everyone in the country will be under some form of shelter-in-place (SIP) or work-from-home (WFH) order from either their local, state or federal authorities, or soon will be. The county where our office is located started its own stay-at-home order on March 26, and the state followed suit on March 30. It’s been less than two weeks, but it feels like a lifetime.

So, what was I thinking? After I quickly stepped through the seven stages of grief, coming to grips with my not-so-crisis-free-to-the-end-of-my-career plan, I was thinking it was time to put our engineering problem-solving skills to work to figure out how to deal with this bizarre new chapter in our lives.

Mostly Prepared

Our office has been working in the cloud for six years now. Our access simply requires an internet connection and a cloud login client. We can literally work from anywhere as long as we have a decent internet connection and a computer of some kind (laptop, tablet, spare computer, etc.). That made “moving” to working from home very easy.

Everyone in the office already had some type of setup at home. Most of our employees have young children. They often have to leave for “kid stuff,” but can then finish some loose ends—if needed—after the kids go to bed. If someone has to stay home with a sick child, there’s an opportunity to get some work done and not have to use all of his or her sick time.

For me, however, the “moving” part required a bit more effort. The office is very close to my home, which comes with advantages and disadvantages. The advantage: it’s a short ride to work; the disadvantage: it’s a short ride to work. It’s too easy to go into the office rather than work from home.

I have a simple laptop that I use (sadly) when I’m on vacation, but it definitely won’t cut it for at least four weeks of working at home. So I dismantled everything at the office—computer and monitors—and brought it all home.

As I was packing up my desktop, however, I remembered one of our software USB license locks was tied to my local desktop. It’s visible to everyone when that desktop is in the dedicated office environment, but it’s not visible when it’s on the public internet. A frantic installation of the licensing software on another desktop, and tragedy was averted.

We have a VoIP system through our cloud provider, which I had previously taken for granted. We simply unplugged our phones and brought them home with us. When we plugged them in at home, the magic of the internet took over, and we could use our phones just as if we were in the office. Office calls now ring at our administrator’s house, and she forwards them to us as she normally would.

So in a very short amount of time, we had everyone “moved” to their homes and up and running. They took all their project files and drawings home. They took their personal Codes home (steel, concrete, etc). During the last few years, we’ve been accumulating many PDF versions of building codes so they’re all accessible from our server without needing a hardcopy. It feels like everything’s in place to continue “business as usual.”

The True Test

What happens next, however, will be the true test: the “transition.” Can we shape this new reality to be something close to the office environment we just left? Should we? Can we capture that same efficiency? Can we adjust and change? Those skills aren’t always in the engineer’s wheelhouse.

I know there will be challenges that will cause us to rethink how we work. We’ll find things we really need and miss. But we also may replace some “tried and true” processes with something better. Who knows?

I do know one thing: we’ll all have to do our best to be mindful of our patience. Unfortunately, we still have deadlines and, so far, they aren’t budging much. I’m pretty sure we’re going to discover WFH has its challenges, but if we go at it with a positive attitude and keep our engineering wits about us, I’m confident we can work through it and come out the other side with just a few bruises.

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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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