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Not my Job, Not my Responsibility
By: Jerry Oberholtzer, PE
June 6, 2019
I’m an engineer, father, husband, grandfather, ex-mayor, and even a heck of nice guy. I’m not really a blogger. However, I do have considerable experience managing civil engineers, so I wanted to share some advice that I have learned in my 38 years in engineering on the private development side, on the public/government side as a city and county engineer, and even as a client that has hired engineering firms.
The first thing that I tell everyone I manage, both technical and non-technical, is to be responsible for your actions and do not attempt to hide your mistakes. I once had a manager become so angry at a fellow design engineer for not taking responsibility for a mistake that he threatened his job. The manager was so bothered by this that he let it be known this engineer was going to be the first person out the door when things slowed down. In the manager’s eyes, the engineer’s sin was not simply the mistake, but more importantly not owning up to the mistake. If the engineer had just accepted responsibility and fixed the problem, it would have ended there. Instead, it damaged the relationship between the two beyond repair and not surprisingly, the design engineer left the firm within a matter of weeks.
Another point that I would like to stress about this industry is, you must take responsibility for things that you may not have direct control of for the overall good of the project. As an example, I was the civil engineer for a large data center for a high-profile client. The client made a statement in the kick-off meeting that this project was going to be an “architectural jewel.” To an architect, that means everything, including site features like sidewalks, curbs and gutters, and even types of drainage structures, will be a design feature. Just before the project was going to bid, the lead architect gave me a sketch of a proposed layout for the control joints for the concrete slab of the outdoor dining plaza. It fell to me to develop the necessary angles and dimensions so that the contractor could construct this award-winning feature. It took eight hours of my best civil cad technician to produce a standalone drawing of the joint pattern with the necessary information. My manager told me I should “just let the architect do it next time”. However, I replied that I was responsible for everything on the site and I was the one to field the questions from the contractor, so since it was on the site plan and my name was on the site drawing, I wanted to do it right the first time. I had to decide that day to take on a task to ensure the project was done to the best of my ability and highest standard.
Finally, I would like to discuss that all sites have issues during construction; however, it is the response to those issues that sets apart an average civil engineer from a great civil engineer. Sometimes responsibility to a client of project requires effort outside the normal business day. I once received a phone call early on a Saturday morning of a Holiday weekend regarding a site that was hit by a thunderstorm the previous night. I was needed at the site immediately to provide direction to the contractor in making repairs to the site. I was there within an hour and had the situation somewhat under control by noon. I documented the site conditions as well as the directions I gave to the contractor. I also produced a field report outlining the potential causes of the extensive damage, and a punch list of issues to address. The client was very appreciative of my quick response, and a change order for additional costs generated additional work for my group. Relationships, just like engineering, are not a 40 hour/week job. Flexibility, dependability and the ability to adapt are essential to a successful career.
I’ll leave you with these words of site wisdom that I’ve always found to be relevant: “Anybody can do civil/site engineering until it rains or a truck drives over it.”