Discussion Thread

  • 1.  Working on International Projects

    Posted 07-22-2019 10:17 AM
    Now more than ever, engineers are becoming more global. Working in different countries and sharing their expertise. Personally, I have volunteered with Engineers Without Borders (EWB) for over five years now. I have worked on traveled to Bolivia when I was a student and no we have a project in Guatemala. Additionally, I am mentoring the CU-Boulder student chapter and we are traveling to Puerto Rico in the next couple of weeks. 

    One of the main lessons I have learned from working on these projects is that no matter how much knowledge you have, it is more important to breakdown the problem and connect with the community. This will allow you to listen to their needs and come up with a more reasonable scope of work. This is most relevant to communities with lower resources as they may not be very well educated and may not see the benefit of your work.

    Another important aspect is that your design must follow local guidelines as well as be constructed with local materials as possible for ease of maintenance in the future. For instance, where light-framed construction, or wood construction, is the standard construction method for most of the US for residential structures, in other countries masonry is more common and readily available. 

    Finally, communication in these countries will be more challenging due to the language barrier. I would recommend finding someone to help you translate design documents and be prepared with technical documents to share with the community. Whenever possible bring an interpreter as this will make communication easier. 

    I believe most international projects require a higher degree of cultural understanding over the technical knowledge we already have.  

    Have you worked on international projects? What has been the most challenging aspect of working abroad? Share your experiences or thoughts I will try to share more of what I have experiences in the replies below.

    Luis Duque EIT,A.M.ASCE
    Structural Engineer
    Broomfield CO

  • 2.  RE: Working on International Projects

    Posted 07-23-2019 01:22 PM

    Be prepared to be treated differently when working in another country than you would have been as a tourist. Ask others who have worked in this new location for advice before agreeing to start.

    Confirm approaches, criteria and standards you've used previously apply before using them in a new environment. Sometimes, it's as simple as knowing what materials are commonly available in a new location. Also, know the local professional licensing requirements.

    Most other countries use the metric system, now called the International System of Units (SI). If SI is new to you, you lose many of your sanity checks and have to create new cues to spot problems. Also, don't assume all you have to have are conversion tables to work in SI. After all, in the USA, even a 2x4 isn't two inches by four inches.

    Be aware of cultural differences. Body language differences are often significant. A hand gesture that means one thing in one country may be insulting in another.

    When using a translator, be aware you can't talk for a few minutes and expect the translator to remember everything you say. Say one or two short sentences before letting the translators do their thing. If your translator understands what you're doing technically, they may answer questions on your behalf, which means they will appear to be in charge and not you.

    There are significant differences between an international assignment that is short-term, say a month, and one where you move and live in another country. In a long-term assignment, you should learn the local tax law or find you may owe money to another country you hadn't anticipated. Long-term stays also put stress on family units. And, by the way, don't think working internationally will resolve a dysfunctional family dynamic that already exists.

    In some countries, ethical practices may not be up to ASCE's and your standard. Make an effort to ask others you trust how to handle ethical pressures without compromising your principles. Obviously, a country whose track record in individual rights is poor will be risky. For example, in one country, inspectors who complained to authorities that the contactor was doing poor work were beaten up, rather than listened to. In another, instance I still wonder if I had been used to smuggle electronics into a country.

    The above points come from the book "The Engineering is Easy/Memoir of a Project Manager" which describes many issues I encountered while working outside the USA.

    Bruce Podwal P.E.,F.ASCE
    New York City NY

  • 3.  RE: Working on International Projects

    Posted 07-24-2019 12:38 PM
    Thanks for sharing these insights here Bruce! I'm very glad you chimed in. Your book is a wealth of valuable stories and insights that every civil engineer would benefit from reading - and enjoy it too I bet. I've already loaned my copy to someone I'm mentoring but they better give it back (and buy their own copy) when they are done because it's a keeper. ;-)

    Brett Hoffstadt EIT,A.M.ASCE
    Folsom CA

  • 4.  RE: Working on International Projects

    Posted 07-26-2019 01:42 PM

    Hi Louis,

    I had a three month internship in Austria right after finishing undergrad. What stuck to me the most about working in Europe is that, because everything is so geographically close, you are exposed to a variety of languages and cultures by traveling just a small distance. Even the smallish company I was working for had projects and collaborations all across Europe, Central Asia and in Saudi Arabia. The conference calls were especially fun. We had to wait for an Italian collaborator to come back to the office from his two-hour siesta, and had an Albanian consultant chime in with 'it will be stolen' in response to every suggestion to install this or that piece of equipment at a constructed wetland in his country.

    I was also slightly surprised by all the stores in the small town closing promptly at 5 on weekdays and staying closed all day on Sundays, and by wine and beer in the company's lunch room.

    Because it was a small town, I've literally met everyone and their grandmother. People took me to their farms, family wineries and camping trips. It was actually a little too much for an introvert like me. I am also aware of an opposite trap - if you end up in a place with many other expatriates, sometimes it's easier to hang out with them and never really get to know the people who live in the country.

    From growing up in a country where small scale bribing is a way of life, It would be interesting to hear if anyone had experience with local corruption and how they handled it.

    Natalya Sokolovskaya P.E.,M.ASCE
    Wynnewood PA

  • 5.  RE: Working on International Projects

    Posted 07-28-2019 09:23 AM
    I've worked on projects on 6 continents, and lived in 4 for extended periods of time while doing so.  My biggest take away is to take time to listen when you arrive.  The way things are done vary from country to country, region to region, and company to company. Sometimes it takes a while to understand and appreciate the software and/or project management systems that are in place.  Until you have a good grasp of these local "traditions" and systems, you can't really make good decisions or recommendations on the way forward.  Communicate your values, showcase your professionalism and your integrity, display your technical depth.  That will earn you the respect of locals, creating a good foundation for positive contributions.  Put effort into learning the language.  Not only will others appreciate your effort, but learning about the language gives you insight into learning about the culture.  Buy books and work your way through them during your commute. Google translate has come a long way and is a great resource to help you.  Leave your bias at home and read up on social do's and don'ts in your adopted country.      

    I agree with the observations in the other responses with respect to local regulations, laws, materials, etc.  Agreeing to bolts in metric and nuts in english units is not a good compromise - get comfortable with the given system and don't look back.

    I have seen a huge shift in the ease of relocating and setting up households in the internet age.  Thirty years ago, expats would kill for a piece of an American newspaper, and communications with loved ones was via scratchy and yet obscenely expensive phone calls.  A jar of peanut butter was worth its weight in gold.  Setting up bank accounts and moving money from the US was expensive and time consuming.  But today, english is far more prevalent around the world, stores are more international, and news is at your fingertips.  Banks still take a cut of your earnings to transfer money back to the US, but it is a little better.  (Note that tax laws and banking system requirements vary from country to country.  It is an area where I would recommend seeking professional guidance.)  That all makes ex-pat living easier than ever, though it doesn't address the physical separation from family. 

    One downside I'd mention - some of my best friends live a long way away.     

    Stephen Balint P.E.,D.OE,F.ASCE
    Balint Consulting LLC
    Houston TX