Rediscovering the joy of engineering
When the market turns against you and your firm, and you become dispirited, take time to take care of your self.
I was asked to write about rediscovering the joy of engineering as a way of coping with the fact that you're either looking for work or working extra hard because a lot of your coworkers got laid off. But how could I write about having fun with my job to folks who perhaps had lost their job, were on the verge of losing it, or had friends and coworkers who had lost their jobs?
In thinking about it, I realized I could identify with those feelings, having been through a few layoffs and industry downturns myself. So I asked myself how I had weathered the storms, which led to the insights below.
You know you're in the right place when…
One evening in 2006, after I had just started working with Jay Santos and Facility Dynamics Engineering (FDE), I was having a couple of drinks with my new coworkers in San Francisco during the annual commissioning conference. At one point, Larry Lister, another FDE engineer, was absorbed by something on his laptop. Jay looked over at him and said, “Hey, are you working or playing over there?” Larry, who was logged into a control system somewhere, replied, “I'm not sure.”
I remembered thinking, “Yeah, I know that feeling,” and realized how lucky I was to have joined a bunch of other folks with the same perspective on engineering.
Doors closing will open new ones
Like a lot of you, I didn't become a building engineer by design. Since I was a boy, I loved airplanes. When I went to college, I set out to be an airplane mechanic and an aircraft maintenance engineer. Having worked part-time as an airplane mechanic while in school, at Parks College of Engineering, Aviation & Technology in St. Louis, I was really looking forward to graduation and spending the rest of my life blissfully up to my elbows in aviation. Sadly, as graduation approached, the aerospace industry took a nosedive and my job prospects crashed.
Meanwhile, one of my professors, Al Black, had left teaching to work for a St. Louis consulting firm, McClure Engineering , that took a hands-on, practical approach to energy efficiency and preventive maintenance for building systems. It occurred to Al that an engineering graduate who had worked as an airplane mechanic might be a good fit for the firm, and he arranged an interview for me with Chuck McClure and Bill Coad. During my interview, Bill lectured me on what eventually became the basis of his award-winning ASHRAE Journal article, “Energy Conservation Is an Ethic. ”
That interview changed my career and my life, leading me to a profession as fascinating as aviation. The building industry has provided me with gainful employment, wonderful friendships, and fun-filled days for 30+ years. But it took a downturn in my original career path to make that happen.
Managers and mentors
Much of my success in this industry is due to the many wonderful mentors I have been blessed with; people who took the time to not only manage me but to help me grow personally and professionally. The process started in the hangar at Parks, followed me to McClure Engineering, and then moved with me to Portland, Ore., where I worked for Komatsu on the facilities team bringing a wafer fabrication plant online.
Like aerospace in the 1970s, the silicon wafer industry went through a big “adjustment” in the late 1990s and the plant was idled shortly after substantial completion. Virtually everyone in the plant was laid off. Dennis Carson, the director of facilities, in response to being told he needed to winnow his crew, laid himself off right there in the management meeting. This did not fly with management. They knew that they had to keep the facilities group intact if they were going to idle the plant in a way that would allow a restart when things improved. And they knew it would take Dennis's leadership and a skeleton crew for that to happen.
When Dennis tried to lay himself off, he won the political and financial leverage he needed to keep his entire crew for a couple of months. Dennis correctly believed that given time, by attrition, we would lose enough folks who had opportunities outside the semiconductor industry to preclude the need for layoffs.
Dennis's style was to empower people, not manage them, so you felt like you worked with him, not for him. When the ship began to sink, Dennis didn't jump; instead, he saved our jobs and then empowered us to look for work while we successfully idled the plant. Thanks to my career diversity, I was able to find a new job. But when I was hesitant to take it because I felt like I was abandoning my friends, making my life easier at the expense of theirs, he convinced me that I had to take the job because it was a great opportunity. Dennis was a great role model for anyone wanting to become a mentor and manager.
Balance is important
Engineers are notorious for putting in long hours. Deadlines are strict, accuracy is critical, and buildings are incredibly complex. But I have found that, even when in the hole on a project deadline, taking some time for myself helps me perform more creatively and productively. I've learned to leave work for the woodshop or the basement remodeling project; or to play guitar, garden, or read; or (my favorite) sit on the porch swing with my wife, Kathy, talking and watching the sunset. Trusting this is not easy for me, but it always works.
My bottom line
What all this amounts to is that some good things have been bound up in the bad times in my life. In the broader sense, I think the same might be true for the current state of affairs.
Economic issues in our nation have rippled around the world because economies have become more global than not. The same can be said about the way we impact the environment and use our natural resources. But that's not a recent development; it's always been that way. And, as Michael Ivanovich wrote to me recently, “Our time of forgetting them or being ignorant of their importance is gone.”
Downturns, whether personal or societal, lead to rebuilding. And therein lie the challenge and the opportunity in becoming “shovel ready.” Each of us will have an important role to play, and we will need to play it well. Playing a role well means playing it with passion and commitment and some measure of joy and fulfillment.
So, if you lost a job that wasn't bringing you that, maybe it was a blessing in disguise, and this is an opportunity to recreate yourself by grabbing a different “shovel” as things start to turn around. I've met a lot of students lately who are doing just that. When I look at them I see some uncertainty, but in many, I also see the joy of discovering something new or of rekindling something they had lost.
If you're in a job that brings you no joy, maybe it's time to rethink things. That may or may not mean changing careers; it may just mean doing things a little differently, such as taking care of yourself outside of work and then bringing your rekindled spirit to the job.
Finally, if you are lucky enough to have weathered the storm and love what you do, take a moment to say thanks and then share your joy and passion with those around you. Your energy will inspire and sustain them, and the result will likely be bigger than the sum of the parts. Given the challenges we are facing in the coming years, doing so can only be a good thing.
Sellers, PE, is a senior engineer for Facility Dynamics Engineering and often discusses his fascination with engineering and things technical in his blog, A Field Guide for Engineers, at www.csemag.com .