Conversation With A Civil Engineer

April 27, 2011 at 10:38 am 12 comments

Matt Barcus
President, Precision Executive Search, Inc
Managing Partner,
  View Matt’s profile & connect with him on LinkedIn

In a January 2011 article in CE News titled Change is Good, John P. Bachner, CEO of Bachner Communications, Inc and Executive Vice President of ASFE/The Geoprofessional Business Association stated that civil engineers right out of the gate have three strikes against them:

Strike One — Civil engineers are taught to be civil engineering professionals, not civil engineering businesspeople. The result: They know a lot about civil engineering and all too little about business in general and the professional service business in particular.

Strike Two — Many civil engineers are ineffective communicators. Some, it seems, sense these deficits at an early age and find comfort in math and science, where a lack of expository skills doesn’t matter all that much; numbers do the talking.

Strike Three — Many civil engineers have weak interpersonal skills, except when it comes to other civil engineers who want to talk about civil engineering. Regrettably, in the civil engineering business, most of the folks civil engineers deal with are businesspeople, administrators, “finance guys,” contractors (who may be graduate civil engineers but now live in a far different world), government officials, and so on. Those civil engineers who do not fit the stereotype — the gregarious extroverts — have a huge advantage over their less-outgoing brethren because the service business in general and the professional service business in particular are all about people.

Many of you have seen the wide array of satiric videos on YouTube published by xtranormal right? <blank stare>

In any event, I uncovered such a video that, though likely a little “over the top,” leaves no viewer scratching their head as to the point they are trying to get across:

I know, I know, those of you who are engineers and have taken part in these conversations yourself may be thinking,  ‘you’re right Matt, the message in this video is indeed quite clear, the homeowner is a knuckle head ! ‘ Often times it is the public that cannot see the forest through the trees, and that is exactly the point. As a consultant, you need to remove your engineering hat and put yourself in the shoes of the homeowner, the business owner, or the organization that is being impacted by the changes taking place. Like John mentions in Strike Three, civil engineering consultants do very well at speaking with the State Bridge Engineer regarding a cable-stay bridge that is being designed, or with the Director of Public Works regarding drainage issues on a major thoroughfare being built through the city, or with the home builder or developer in the design of a 3,000 acre master planned community. But what about homeowners whose property is being effected by a street widening? Or the citizens of a local community where a Wal-Mart Super Center is being proposed who are concerned about traffic congestion and drainage issues? The video very much makes light of this issue and for all intents and purposes is overly dramatic in order to make the point. Most civil engineers have a “knack” for what they do and the advanced math, physics, and engineering courses they study in school build upon that innate ability and passion they have for civil engineering.

So, what is the best way for a civil engineer to hone their communication skills when dealing with the public?

-> Is it the trial-by-fire method where they are just sent to public meetings and expected to learn through immersion?

-> Do they tag along with project managers and company principal’s and learn by example and mentorship?

-> Will seminars alone on this very topic make a difference?

-> Should one join Toastmasters?

-> Or does this ability just come along with maturity in the profession?

What has your experience been in relation to this topic? How have you honed your communication skills when interacting with the public? What strategies would you recommend implementing in order for a civil engineer to improve this particular skill set?

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Entry filed under: Career Development, Civil Engineering, civil engineering blog, Civil Engineering Issues, Fun Stuff, Project Management, The U.S. Economy & Civil Engineering, The Workplace, Uncategorized. Tags: , , .

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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Top 10 Blog Posts of 2011 from «  |  December 27, 2011 at 10:12 am

    […] 6.      Conversation With a Civil Engineer […]

  • 2. Zach  |  May 4, 2011 at 11:35 am

    HAHA. That video is hillarious. Luckily I spent my childhood having things explained to me in simple terms, and then my education showed me that the math worked. But all us Engineers are hard-wired from birth to be strange little hermits sitting in a dark corner hunched over a keyboard so I eventually conformed to the role during my time in college. Well I happily played the part for a while and rode the housing bubble wave until it popped, I took my headphones off, and was out of work with absoultlety no network or real business skills. That was 2.5 years ago and I have taken many strides to improve my business skills and general “marketability” since then. Here’s a few things I’ve done to improve my interpersonal skills while expanding my network:
    Start a Business, Attend Conferences, Give Presentations, Join Comitees, Volunteer at Non-Profits, Work with Non-Engineers, Be Nice!

    • 3. aepcentral  |  May 4, 2011 at 11:49 am

      Hi Zach – thanks for sharing! It’s the simple things that you mentioned that often seem to work – practice at giving presentations, attend the conferences and committee meetings of those associations you are a part of, and be kind!

  • 4. Robert Gately  |  May 2, 2011 at 7:42 am

    Congratulations Shawn, that was a big change.

    Hiring managers seldom look too far ahead and if they do look ahead they’re scared by young engineers who may have more promise than they do. Few managers want to hire their future bosses.

    I see we are in bordering States. I’ll send you my contact info by email if you’d like to chat. By the way, my favorite non-technical elective course in undergraduate college was Moral Philosophy.

  • 5. Shawn  |  May 1, 2011 at 4:12 am

    Although I have not had too much experience working with engineers, the stigma that engineers have regarding communication skills is probably true given I’ve heard about it from many different kinds of people. Nevertheless, I’m not sure recruiters or hiring managers are concerned.

    I’m a recent CE graduate and have been looking for work for more than a half year now, but before this I was an academic in the humanities for about eight years. I had spent this time lecturing, giving presentations, writing, and editing. Firms aren’t exactly scrambling to hire me for my communication skills.

  • 6. Al Handy  |  April 28, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    your three strikes are essentially right on the mark, you should also include the lack of writing skills to list! Climbing up on my soap box for a minute, the potential requirement of obtaining a masters degree to get your PE and the ridiculous continuing education requirements all the societies are endorsing now, further diminishes “our interpersonal skills” training us to be “better” technical engineers. As for continuing education, past engineers such as; Parsons, Hardesty, pr Roebling did not have to meet a minimum requirement to keep their licenses!

    If anything should be mandatory of us engineers is to get an MBA!

    I could write a book on this subject! I asked one of my fellow engineers, “what in hell has happen to our profession? It is not professional anymore!” He said “Attorneys!” I am in this career now over 30 years and I have become very disillusioned with it, so much so, when I hear someone wants to become a civil engineer, I try to dissuade them!

    As for your questions, I have attended many Dale Carnegie classes, on project management and how to handle people, so are seminars good? The right ones are. As I have matured so has my writing and ability to interact with all kinds of people has also matured and has gotten better (although you may not be able to tell by this musing). Earlier in my career my mentor (did not graduate HS, was arrested and on a chain gang, however had his PE, LS, Pilot lic, etc etc) was very influential on my outlook and training as an engineer! It is important that at least once in ones career, you have a mentor that is practical and is willing to teach you your craft!

    One last thought, engineering is the second oldest profession in the world, why do we act like the first?

    • 7. Robert Gately  |  May 1, 2011 at 8:35 am

      Hello Al, we seem to have similarly points of view. Your comment about writing skills is excellent. I had to wait until my boss told me to learn how to write technical reports before I learned how to do it; a two day workshop on how to edit technical reports was all that was needed.

      I’m not sure about all engineers getting an MBA but I am sure that all engineers who are business managers should have an MBA prior to becoming a business manager. Engineers who want to stay in the engineering end of the engineering business do need to be educated in management theory and practice before they become managers.

      “One last thought, engineering is the second oldest profession in the world, why do we act like the first?”

      Because so few of us know anything about business so we use our common sense which is neither common nor sensible.

  • 8. Anthony Fasano  |  April 27, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    Where I do begin, this is one of the reasons I left my career as a design engineer to start helping engineers improve their non-technical skills!

    “What has your experience been in relation to this topic?”

    My experience is the same mentioned in the post times 100 b/c I work with engineers one-on-one each day and try to help them overcome these challenges. It’s not our fault, we were never taught these skills!

    “How have you honed your communication skills when interacting with the public?”

    I taught myself these skills by reading and listening to books, audio books and videos on communication, networking and leadership. I also asked others that were good at these skills to give me pointers on how I can improve.

    “What strategies would you recommend implementing in order for a civil engineer to improve this particular skill set?”

    I agree with Bob – join Toastmasers!!!! ASAP

    Speak in public as often as possible, the more you do, the more comfortable you will be!

    Here is an article I recently wrote called: How to Explain (Almost) Rocket Science to a Non-technical Person

    • 9. aepcentral  |  April 27, 2011 at 10:01 pm

      Thanks for responding Anthony! For those of you reading this and can relate, be sure to contact Anthony. Anthony is the only professional civil engineer I know who can successfully coach you on these skills as he has actually been in your shoes and can absolutely relate to the challenges you may be facing above and beyond your technical skill set.

  • 10. Robert Gately  |  April 27, 2011 at 11:17 am

    I think the homeowner may well be smarter than the engineer in the video.

    “What has your experience been in relation to this topic?”

    My experience is similar.

    “How have you honed your communication skills when interacting with the public?”

    Listen, listen and then listen.
    Then think, think and think again.
    Then speak.
    Then ask “Does that answer your question?

    “What strategies would you recommend implementing in order for a civil engineer to improve this particular skill set?”

    Take a public speaking course.

    Learn how to prepare well-writen technical reports, it will help focus the mind on putting answers into an understandable format for the non-technical reader.

    Spend some time on local boards or commissions to gain experience speaking in public.

    Silence is golden when compared to “ums” and “ahs” while speaking.

    • 11. aepcentral  |  April 27, 2011 at 11:29 am

      Hi Bob – thanks for reading and sharing your advice – all very good comments. It sounds as though your recommendations are coming from someone who may have mastered this process themselves !

      • 12. Robert Gately  |  May 1, 2011 at 8:21 am

        You’re welcome and it is my pleasure. I don’t know about mastering but all those steps helped a great deal. At a town meeting I was told that my speech influenced the vote.

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