What makes a great engineer?

  • By Peter McCarthy HonFAusIMM(CP), Director, AMC Consultants

Behaviours and attributes that lead to success

I have been working with mining, geological and geotechnical engineers for the past 45 years and have learned a great deal from them. At first, as an engineering trainee, I was taught to immediately admit a mistake and bring it to a more senior engineer’s attention. We all make mistakes from time to time – just fix them early. My reports were reviewed and corrected for spelling, format and grammar, a process that I resented at first, but it set me up for a lifetime of clear, unambiguous communication.

As a mine surveyor I learned from the mine foreman to prioritise tasks, so that the development party needing a centreline was not delayed while I surveyed a completed stope. In the workshop I was taught to sweep the floor at the end of each day, so that I could begin work immediately upon arrival in a positive frame of mind. In the office, I was taught to keep my desk clean and to prioritise my in-tray.

These may seem trivial experiences, but they translate into behaviours at a professional level. Here are the behaviours and attributes that I think make a great engineer.

Good communication

Engineers need to communicate effectively with those using their advice and designs, those providing information, their team, their superiors and the world at large, such as workers at a mine or the local community. This is regardless of whether communication is oral, written or via various social media. Communication with peers via active membership of a professional society is also important. Planning and design communication must be unambiguous, which requires clarity of thought and a lot of practice.

Client focus

Whether the client is another employee of the company or an outside consulting client, the engineer must be acting for that client’s benefit and should clearly understand their requirements. The engineer should not be acting for personal gain or aggrandisement, but to advance the interests of the client. If the client’s interests come into conflict with those of the community or another party, the engineer must mediate the best outcome with regards to the professional code of conduct.

Deep thinking

Many engineering problems require deep thinking and contemplation. Solutions sometimes come to mind in the early hours of the morning! It is important not to jump to conclusions, nor to assume that a design that worked elsewhere will probably work again. Proper planning and design takes time, and the engineer must be prepared to defend the time taken to optimise an outcome.

Open minded

We can all learn something new every day if we are open to doing so. Other people’s ideas should not be dismissed because the person is young, from another place or outspoken. Dogmatic team leaders may get their way, but their projects usually fail.

Experienced

There is a learning curve for every human activity. You don’t want people leading a feasibility study who have never worked on one, regardless of what other experience they might have. Similarly, a life-long consultant would not be the first choice as operations manager for a mine. And an individual who has experienced project failure, even disaster, brings a useful perspective to mine planning.

Current

Professionals must keep their knowledge up to date through reading, attending seminars/conferences and travel. Experience is valuable and recent experience, priceless. Awareness of research and new product trends keeps a professional in the loop when a new project is being discussed.

Cost conscious

I have never understood how some geotechnical engineers can design underground or slope support systems with no knowledge of the cost of the components or their installation. All engineering design is compromise. Very few situations provide a budget that extends to the perfect engineering solution. This thinking includes the cost of the engineer’s own time. There is a point where value has been delivered – perhaps using the 80/20 analogy – and further refinement is a poor use of resources.

On time, on budget

An engineer’s work fits into a bigger picture where budgets are limited and deadlines loom. Hence, an engineer should make a commitment to deliver on time and on budget. Sometimes this requires working late into the evening and on weekends on projects that the engineer may consider less important. A reputation is built on consistent performance, regardless of the size or importance of the project.

Available

Sometimes priorities must be adjusted to suit the needs of the client. A trip with the family may be sacrificed to meet the urgent and unforseen needs of a project. A quiet week in the office may suddenly turn into a flight across the world and a hike across a glacier. Like doctors, engineers make a professional commitment to be there when needed. The rewards outweigh the demands.

There have been times when my performance, on any of the above measures, was less than perfect. I hope that after 45 years, I have improved and can be satisfied with my performance most of the time. Working with a great team of professionals provides an opportunity for mutual support and for observing admirable behaviour that I can try to emulate. For example, one of my colleagues is a great listener. He never interrupts the client and comes away from a meeting remembering exactly what the client needs. He is widely respected in our industry and never says anything unless he has carefully thought it through. I try to follow his example. So it is important to look beyond the façade and past the show ponies to find solid engineering competence and a genuine track record of success.

Last but not least, a constant awareness of the health and safety implications of every engineering decision is a prerequisite for success. All of these measures come to nought if our teammates and employees do not go home safely at the end of every working day.

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