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De-coupling Your Professional Performance from the College Evaluation System. Is it necessary?

  • 1.  De-coupling Your Professional Performance from the College Evaluation System. Is it necessary?

    Posted 30 days ago

    From peer reviews & feedback to annual performance evaluations, the transition to not being so "perfect" can be mentally challenging. Pursuit of perfection can be professionally challenging when the most valued commodity is TIME. This never-ending pursuit of optimization eventually leads to a balance of "dotting 'I's", "crossing 'T's" and choosing one of many possible "perfect" solutions. As a decorated engineering student, it took a few years, a large company, and wise & patient supervisors to guide me thru this transition with assignments geared towards my skillset and challenge.

    Was the transition from decorated student to professional a mental or psychological challenge to you or another highly decorated professional neophyte that you know?

    How long before you realized there was no correlation between the school grading systems and peer reviews or performance evaluations?

    Is the transition easier for those in larger companies vs. smaller companies, government industries vs. private industries?

    Do grades even matter after receipt of the diploma?

    Note: As a self-employed professional engineer, I get to pursue as much perfection as I desire. Does it adversely impact my bottom line, absolutely. As the business owner, I consider firing myself on a regular basis. 



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    James Williams P.E., M.ASCE
    Principal/Owner
    POA&M Structural Engineering, PLC
    Yorktown, VA
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  • 2.  RE: De-coupling Your Professional Performance from the College Evaluation System. Is it necessary?

    Posted 28 days ago
    I have to remind myself frequently that redlined plans are not the same as a graded assignment. For one, there's no such thing as a "perfect" design. 12 good engineers could come up with 12 different solutions with pros and cons that all get the job done.
    I tell our interns that if one of our principals did a set of plans, another principal would still have redlines for them; that's just the nature of what we do.

    Another thing that was an interesting shift in mindset was the intermediate check sets. In school, even my "rough draft" submissions were typically 95% complete. In engineering practice, there's a such thing as doing too much too quickly. If the architect is at 25% complete when you reach 90% complete, you're going to spend a lot more time redesigning for changes than if you'd kept a closer pace. You'll still redesign, but you won't have wasted so much in time and resources.

    My steel design professor drew some graphs for us to illustrate accuracy vs time. The conclusion of the graphs was that if you get near 100% accuracy in a design, you spent less time getting from 0 to 90% accuracy than you did getting from 90 to close to 100%.
    Along those same lines, we talked about how your confidence interval gets tighter the longer you work on calculations, but at some point the confidence interval is more than sufficient to safely (and ethically / legally) make a design decision. At some point, narrowing that confidence interval doesn't even improve the design any further.
    His point was that in field practice, there are safety factors, limitations in availability of materials, and constructability concerns. The goal isn't to "get an A" for each component's design. You don't need to design each individual beam; you need to design typical beams using the highest applicable design case. He said if you design each individual component you end up complicating construction and increasing the possibility that beams are mixed up in the field by mistake.
    I was grateful to have a professor that gave us a "heads up" about the fact that our design mindset on a homework problem or exam wouldn't necessarily translate to the workforce.

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    Heidi C. Wallace, P.E., M.ASCE
    Tulsa, OK
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  • 3.  RE: De-coupling Your Professional Performance from the College Evaluation System. Is it necessary?

    Posted 26 days ago
    As someone who was almost never an A student once he got to college, I was very happy to come into the workforce and observe that oftentimes, the "right" answer was subjective. My internship at a geotechnical engineering company was a good eye-opener for that. One of my tasks was to test soils for proper compaction values before construction was to occur on the soil at the job site. Most of the time, it was required that I confirm the soil had been compacted to 95% of its max dry density. It took some time, common sense, and self-awareness to figure out whether or not I should make an issue with the the construction crews if one patch of soil was 93% and second test right next to it was 97%.

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    Christopher Seigel P.E., M.ASCE
    Civil Engineer
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  • 4.  RE: De-coupling Your Professional Performance from the College Evaluation System. Is it necessary?

    Posted 14 days ago
    Christopher:
    Do you think there may be a correlation between choice of civil engineering careers and GPAs, Personality Types, Introvert vs. Extrovert, and/or Engineering Artist vs. Engineering Conservative?

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    James Williams P.E., M.ASCE
    Principal/Owner
    POA&M Structural Engineering, PLC
    Yorktown, VA
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  • 5.  RE: De-coupling Your Professional Performance from the College Evaluation System. Is it necessary?

    Posted 23 days ago
    What a great conversation. Luckily, I learned early in my career that the black and white of being right in class was different than the real world.

    I remember one of my first site designs out of college I was struggling with drainage: my grass ditch was less than 2% which was the minimum slope I was taught in college. My boss looked at me like I was crazy and said in that case he'd be fine if I got 1%. When I switched to airport design, I again struggle with this as there were times when site and regulatory limitations caused me to design aircraft ramps with 0.25% and ditches with 0.5%. My boss guided me there to explain this to our client, so they'd understand what impact ("bird baths") this would have on their facility. 

    My top things about the real world versus college are:
    • Engineering judgment. As noted by the story above, the world is seldom like the textbook.
    • Memorization of everything isn't needed. Instead, we just need to remember where to find the answer, equation, or similar application.
    • We don't need to be perfect (i.e. shooting for the A grade). My goal is to have a single addendum on construction projects or one comment letter from a regulator.
    Lastly, Lawyers and insurance companies note that some of the biggest "engineering issues" they deal with could have been resolved through better communication. As engineers, we tend to wait until we have all the information at hand, so we can provide a solution. However, it is many times more important to let our clients, the public, etc. know that we don't have all the information yet, but here are the potential outcomes. In my opinion, communication skills are just as important as our technical skills.

    My recommendation is to be confident in your decisions and learn to move forward knowing that it may not be perfect but it is more than sufficient. Further, even if someone points out a better way, accept it humbly and remember it is usually a small part of the overall design and in totality meets the standard of care.

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    Brian Rath P.E., M.ASCE
    Grimes IA
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  • 6.  RE: De-coupling Your Professional Performance from the College Evaluation System. Is it necessary?

    Posted 16 days ago
    Brian:

    Thank you for your feedback and input.

    Is it time for engineering programs to examine the effectiveness of the "tools" they place in the student's "tool bags"? Given the accessibility of information and sources, I agree with the idea of steering away from memorization and more towards "finding answers". In addition, I would like to see students continue working together with an emphasis on the dynamics of peer reviews and feedback, effective communication, project and time management, documenting and crediting sources.

    I like the idea of presenting case studies like yours with an emphasis on managing the design, expectations and effectively communicating with stakeholders.

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    James Williams P.E., M.ASCE
    Principal/Owner
    POA&M Structural Engineering, PLC
    Yorktown, VA
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  • 7.  RE: De-coupling Your Professional Performance from the College Evaluation System. Is it necessary?

    Posted 16 days ago
    This is a hugely important question, James. Thanks for bringing it up.
    I see two important points. The first is that the work must be done on time and on budget, with only one valid excuse for not doing so -- safety. Perfection can rarely be achieved on a budget, so the "adequate" result is usually the best we can achieve.
    The second point is to recognize Juran's "fitness for use" definition of quality. When my organization designed levees, inches in height meant the difference between containing flood waters and overtopping and cost differences in the tens of millions. When we responded to a U.S. Army Captain's phone call from a battle zone, he wanted a projection of river stage in meters, not inches, but he wanted it within 24 hours. Understanding the client's needs and matching our product's fitness for use with those needs is essential.

    As for the transition part of your question, it can be brutal. I had new grads who wanted an "A+" on everything they did and couldn't cope with the redlining that Heidi mentioned. I also had new grads who thought failure to complete was okay as long as they "did their best." It takes about a year of supervisory coaching to get both types to understand the realities of work. The only advantage to a large company is that there may be lots of others to commiserate with.

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    William McAnally Ph.D., P.E., D.CE, D.NE, F.ASCE
    ENGINEER
    Columbus MS
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  • 8.  RE: De-coupling Your Professional Performance from the College Evaluation System. Is it necessary?

    Posted 14 days ago
    When I became a supervisor many moons ago, I do not recall any company training associated with coaching new graduates or professionals straight out of college.

    I cannot comprehend "failure to complete" especially where a team is involved. One of the advantages of working for a larger company comes into play. When you were stuck, there was a peer, senior engineer or supervisor to provide additional direction. Of course, I knew some electrical and mechanical engineers that found themselves without similar support.

    [After working in the field 10-12 years, I was standing outside my supervisor's cubicle when he was assigning a task to a young engineer. The engineer said "I don't want that one." and they were given a different task. In amazement, I said "We can do that!".]


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    James Williams P.E., M.ASCE
    Principal/Owner
    POA&M Structural Engineering, PLC
    Yorktown, VA
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  • 9.  RE: De-coupling Your Professional Performance from the College Evaluation System. Is it necessary?

    Posted 13 days ago
    That's a great story about declining work, James. Thanks.

    The Corps of Engineers requires new supervisors to take short courses in personnel management and those helped me transition to supervision. It's one of the advantages of being an Army civilian. The Army takes training seriously and has a sequence of courses designed (with OPM) to prepare people for management and executive positions. It's sometimes thwarted by limited training budgets and recalcitrant supervisors, but on the whole it works. Even small companies can do something similar.

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    William McAnally Ph.D., P.E., D.CE, D.NE, F.ASCE
    ENGINEER
    Columbus MS
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  • 10.  RE: De-coupling Your Professional Performance from the College Evaluation System. Is it necessary?

    Posted 12 days ago
    Hi James, thanks for the chat.

    Q. "Do grades even matter after receipt of the diploma?"

    A. The "Silent" lesson learned in engineering school when course-by-course
    one's graded performance is subject to a single professor, i.e., one person within one class
    during one semester, is BLOWN away when one starts work.

    Why?
    Because in many engineering work situations, e.g., projects, the "Grade"  for what you do is nowhere nearly as prescribed as for college courses.
    For example, one may, as part of a project work group lose time and money due to various types of the normal-abnormal
    processes used to work together.

    Like What?
    To date soft skills . . . a clear misnomer...were deliberately excluded for the courses engineers had.
    Which means that given some 70% or more of engineers who tend to favor the MBTI  "Introvert" model, many do not feel moved to just go up to another engineer in another discipline and ask "Why is this being continued without first collaborating with our discipline?"

    Then managers pull out their references on "Conflict Resolution."

    • Short-Term Suggestion:
    Within our engineering firms and related govt. agencies, start personally modelling "Radical Listening."

    Behaviors and attitudes that level the "You're wrong, I'm right" playing field into genuine teamwork is contagious!

    Respectfully,
    Bill


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    William M. Hayden Jr., Ph.D., P.E., CMQ/OE, F.ASCE
    Buffalo, N.Y.

    "It is never too late to be what you might have been." -- George Eliot 1819 - 1880
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  • 11.  RE: De-coupling Your Professional Performance from the College Evaluation System. Is it necessary?

    Posted 10 days ago
    Bill:
    [Thanks In advance for your patience with the following rambling. Progressing towards being concise. LOL!]

    Re: Engineering work situations - I started a discussion on the pros and cons of big companies vs. small companies. When it comes to the larger companies, the percentage of money or time loss is typically relatively small compared to project budget size; especially where the meeting time is billed to the client. Larger companies tend to have multi-disciplined staff, centralized and standardized processes, project management and QA/QC in-house. Not to say that every individual considers meetings a great use of their time, but in some cases they are necessary and a saver of resources. With some smaller companies, elements or portions of a multi-disciplined project may lie with other firms and rely heavily upon the primary's ability to manage subs; this can be challenging. Of course, technical meetings should be part of the proposal submitted. I am sure they have come up with an acceptable percentage for technical meetings and collaborations.

    Re: Soft skills - Bill, I wonder how many engineers gradually become proficient in this area. I knew engineers that struggled for years, but the company adapted to their shortcomings due to their technical talent. When you master being a social ninja (unseen) at a young age, auto response is tough o interrupt. I learned to communicate a little better throughout college and my soft skills improved the more I had to engage with people. Desire for public and project safety always exceeded my fear of speaking up at a meeting. [Note: While saddened by the numerous personal tragedies, I must confess to loving the shutdown of social events due to the pandemic.]

    "Radical Listening" is a new to me. I have a little research to do. I have used "effective communication" for so long, it may no longer be in style.

    "Genuine Teamwork" is what I had idealized the work place to be when I entered college. I believe it was IBM that had the commercial where folks were sitting around and someone said, "What if ..." as the commercial ended. I was disappointed when I entered the workplace and that scenario was not quite how it worked early on. Of course, one sees more "What if ..." scenarios as one is seen as a "SME" or subject matter expert. Being seen as a SME is something that happens when you are the sole source or 10 to 15 years down the line.

    The competitive nature of the work place can hamper genuine teamwork. One would almost need an internal NDA for folks to share ideas without the fear of someone "stealing" ideas for their professional gain. Properly crediting sources can be a challenge in some companies.

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    James Williams P.E., M.ASCE
    Principal/Owner
    POA&M Structural Engineering, PLC
    Yorktown, VA
    Winston-Salem, NC
    ------------------------------