Robert Mote is a Civil/Structural engineering consultant to the global oil and gas market with over 20 years’ experience. He is the author of two recent books for engineers on how to prepare their calculations using MS Office. He is keen to get engineers up and running using VBA, demonstrating enthusasim for their work, blogging their ideas, handling Adobe packages and collaborating. He currently lives in Ottawa, Canada. You can follow his adventures on twitter (look for rtmote) or join Motagg Solutions on Facebook. For more information visit www.motagg.com. The author can be contacted at email@example.com.
A Structured Mess
Imagine a cartoon showing two engineers on a multi-billion dollar megaproject deciding how to do it. They have their backs to each other and the caption reads, “Are we on the same page?” They are hunched over sending each other email. Don’t you think there is something profoundly wrong with this picture?
Windows drives how we talk to each other. In twenty years, it has transformed the way we all work and communicate. The computer programmer is dedicated to his job but the programmer’s perception seems to be that the user is equally qualified and is as impatient as the programmer for the next new development. How many of you have even seen Office 2007? In fact, business corporations buy the operating systems and tools that are perceived as basic requirements for the workers whether they be the secretaries, the engineers, or the managers. We have no choice. Many of us will soon be engulfed in Office 2007, fighting having to learn a new system.
Sorry, I’ve got news for you programmers. With over 20 years’ experience in the Oil and Gas business as a structural engineer, I’d say we have a mess on our hands and yet we have another refinery to build. We are a profession in crisis now because we cannot find a way forward in executing our everyday roles when computer applications continually upgrade and Windows keeps changing. Windows management does not talk to engineers and understand what we do. Engineers do not talk to Windows and say, “This is what we need,” simply because engineers do not talk to each other about what they need. None of us is on the same page.
Clearly, what I say does not apply to all engineers. There will be exceptions and of course, there are wizards out there but I believe that generically, this situation is applicable. Eighty percent of structural engineers spend eighty percent of their career doing calculations and eighty percent will tell you they hate doing it! What’s more, engineers don’t even know how to use MS Word 2003 yet, so they don’t use it! It’s as simple as that. Engineers use MS Excel in their own fashion and don’t trust each other’s work in it. As for Powerpoint, isn’t that an energy drink? How, then, are we going to manage Office 2007?
For all the help and the reference books that are in circulation, the engineers don’t want to read them! We cannot treat engineers as a lost cause when eighty percent feel the same way. We can, however, examine the phenomenon when the profession is walking backwards into mediocrity because engineers cannot keep pace or understand how to use generic computer applications properly.
Let me remind you that before Bill Gates put desktop computers on every table, computers were the province of engineers, physicists and mathematicians. In decades of incremental change, the mainframe grew steadily and the structural engineers were involved and interacting. Nevertheless, the introduction of the desktop was a tsunami. The quiet revolution took a few years but wiped out one hundred years of tradition. In its wake, we saw computer languages multiply and 2D structural models become 3D complexities. The dawning age of deep analysis put us to sleep. Calculations have now become works of quantity rather than quality. The tidal wave transformed draughty engineering halls into windowless cubicles, the hustle and bustle of the stand-up boards into a silent sea of computers.
Let’s replay the scene at the dawn of the computer revolution. There is a new computer sitting on the corner of the table and two engineers and a draughtsman are standing nearby. We have always worked as a team. We look at each other and wonder, “What are we going to do about that thing then?” Puffing on a cigarette, Ed the excellent draughtsman, who trained me to be critical of drawings and understand commonsense engineering, stood up and said, “We’re stuffed, mate.” He got his coat and left, never to come back. He retired because he knew what was coming. The other engineer clapped his hands in excitement and couldn’t wait to get his hands on the latest MathCAD application. He was lost to the machine and eventually left to be a computer network guru until the dotcom crash. I was alone and remained alone for a very long time.
I stayed behind and looked at that machine, wondering what it would mean. Looking back, it has been an incredible career of opportunities, challenges, diversity and productivity but I still keep my eye on that “thing” on the corner of my desk. It is a tool. I am still an engineer first. Indeed, I am fortunate to be an engineer that has lived in two eras but now we are facing the third one: extinction or survival. We must adapt to the power of computers in our work processes and use it to communicate our ideas better. We have to regain the mantle of being able to lead projects, inspire teams and encourage new blood. If we cannot do that, critical decisions will be made for us by others. We will deserve only new lows of respect.
Remember the days when children left school and, even if they had no qualifications, they were expected to know the three Rs: reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic? Do we even have a benchmark for engineers today? We need to follow the three Cs: calculations, clarity, and credibility.
We have lost all the tools of the trade that were the backbone of the engineer’s design decisions in the days before computers. I remember the myriad piles of different engineer’s tables: Kleinlogel, bending moment formulae, reinforcement lap lengths and so on. Engineers were constantly drawing and drawing with clutch pencils, rule and erasers ready. You do not see these any more; they have become black boxes in a spreadsheet somewhere. You might think I am nostalgic for the old ways, but I am not. I hated the idea the idea of designing and redesigning the same pipe rack for nine months but the great masters of that age hammered into me the importance of good calculations: use clarity to draw the problems out, keep it simple and build on one’s credibility in the team. There is a timeless element to the engineering process and we must not lose that.
Many will agree that computers will take you only so far. Sometimes you have to put the computer down and look at the whole picture of the design, the team, the client, the quality of the communication and the satisfaction of working together as a team.
Despite my warnings, computers can take you far beyond your wildest dreams. I have always had bosses who did not believe that engineers could be progressive and productive in spreadsheet designs or prolific in electronic-style calculations. Once I earned the credibility and respect of the team, the bosses would relent and agree it was how they would do it! The visually driven calculations became the benchmark for the team and the project. I now see computers as an opportunity to add quality to traditional calculations.
The difference is between a conventional pipe rack calculation that is designed to death in five hundred pages, unsigned and overdue, as opposed to a punctual, signed, graphically illustrated, planned calculation that is only forty pages. Now imagine yourself as the checker in a hurry. Which would you pick?
Let’s go back to the opening cartoon. Imagine the two engineers realizing they need to be on the same page, so they put down their laptops, turn around and shake hands. One speaks English and the other speaks Japanese. They’re asking, “Are we on the same page?” Having had the benefit of a global experience, I know a calculation with clarity has credibility in any language. Engineers can transcend languages with clarity, and the strategic use of generic computer applications can help us.
I often hear senior engineers complain about the new generation. The new generation, in turn, complains about the lack of help from the senior engineers, the isolation and the culture shock of the modern design office for which they are unprepared. Our responsibilities as engineers are to the calculation, the needs of the client, and the strength of the team. We must seek to simplify, not mystify; be inclusive rather than exclusive; encourage questions and open a dialogue. Put computer literacy on your next hit list and ask your team a couple of simple questions:
Do you like doing calculation?
Have you ever had a calculation that made you sit up and say, “Wow?”
How well do you use MS Word?
How well do you use MS Excel?
Have you ever had any training in a generic computer product, other than MathCAD?
It’s not good, is it? We are sitting on a problem we don’t know we have. The structured mess is out there and we need to resolve this together. Are we on the same page?