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ReEngineering the Engineer: Times Change: Don’t Be the Cranky Old Neighbor

Douglas Fitzpatrick on November 29, 2021 - in Articles, Column

My wife and I moved into our current home about two years after we were married and, coincidentally, just as we found out she was pregnant with our first of two daughters. It was located at the end of a street outside Charlotte in a neighborhood of 25 homes. We were the “new kids on the block” then. Almost all the families living here had already done their time; their kids were grown, and they were enjoying their “golden years.”

There was an active homeowners’ association. Although the community wasn’t particularly old—about seven years at the time—everyone who lived here was passionate about maintaining the vision of the original developer. The covenants were geared to keep the lots heavily wooded, maintain certain color ranges and styles of homes, limit building heights, protect views of the lake, etc. We were looking for that style of community, so we fit right in.

Of course, there was an architectural committee led by homeowner volunteers charged with keeping the spirit of the covenants. For the most part, everyone seemed content with keeping things the way they were.

Change at Home

Now fast-forward 27 years. My wife and I, and a few other homeowners, now are the “old guard.” It didn’t happen overnight, but somehow it feels that way. During the last five years or so, there has been an influx of young families with kids, and it seems as if all the newcomers already know each other (although that’s not the case).

However, all this new blood comes with unintended consequences. As these young families got settled into their new homes, eventually they wanted to make their house their home. We’ve all done it, and it starts small as soon as you move in: change the paint color in the living room, add wallpaper in the breakfast room, then renovate the basement, then build a family room, then start tackling the outside.

None of this is wrong; it’s all pretty natural and common. But you quickly find out everyone’s ideas for making their mark on their home starts to test the teeth of the covenants and the resolve of those on the architectural committee. It can turn ugly. At its ugliest, it pits neighbor against neighbor. For the old guard, it feels like no one cares the way you do. It’s unsettling. It seems shortsighted. And sometimes, it feels downright rude.

Find the Wisdom, Not Rigidity, in Experience

Watching from the sidelines, however, lets you see a different picture, particularly if you’re able to look at yourself and reflect on what’s happening. Getting older does have its advantages. You’ve seen more of life, so you feel a little smarter. All the tools of life seem to work in harmony. You know a lot of people in your industry. You even get a discount at the grocery store if you shop on Thursday mornings.

But you do become handcuffed by some things, and one of them is change. Life starts moving pretty quickly as you get older, and I think it’s harder to adapt to the world around you. The thought running through most folks’ minds who have been in the neighborhood the longest: why can’t you just do it the way it’s always been done and leave things alone?

Change at the Office

Unfortunately, change is ubiquitous, and it’s happening in every engineering office. As firms grow, there’s a constant influx of new blood. It isn’t obvious in younger firms, because everyone tends to be about the same age. But as a firm grows, the disparity in age between the old guard and the new blood widens, and so does the way we do things. There isn’t an architectural committee or covenants, but we need to acknowledge the differences in styles and respect each.

As senior engineers, recognize there’s a “new math” way of doing engineering now—and that’s OK. There’s more than one way to get from point A to point B. However, the basics of engineering will always be the same. There’s always a need to understand loading, load paths, deflections, capacities, conveyance of information, visualization, application of Codes, how a building goes together, etc.

Helping young engineers tackle the basics is the only way we can keep our profession alive and moving forward. Insisting on doing it “my way” isn’t productive and just makes you the old curmudgeon in the room. Help them mold their “new math” into efficient ways of accomplishing the basics and becoming good engineers in their own right. The goal is to keep them between the lines, not make them do it your way.

As young engineers, look for the hidden gems in the coaching from your more-seasoned engineers. Try not to get wrapped up in the “how to,” but pay closer attention to the “why.” There’s no hard and fast rule for getting from point A to point B, but we do have to make sure we have all the bases covered. Your senior mentors are the fastest way to getting that firm foundation to allow you to grow professionally.


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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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