The life & times of an HVAC Engineer

{October 25, 2010}   When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me

Ingenious Donkey

Making an ass out of me

A week or so ago I thought I’d finished writing the specification and producing the drawings for the air handling units for the project I’m currently working on. Then I sat down to review all of the specifications with engineers from other disciplines, and with the buyers. It quickly became apparent that I, and many of the other engineers, had made assumptions about what items had been included in other department’s specifications. It’s really not a problem discovering these things at the current stage of the project – we just add, or occasionally delete, items into our specifications to make sure that all the interfaces are covered. If we hadn’t stopped to have that review though, there would have been a few gaps that would have left us looking pretty silly once items were installed on site. After all, it’s no good specifying, paying for, and installing equipment if no-one provides a power supply to it!

One of the items that had been left out for example was the mesh in the low level extract scoops. You normally extract air from a room via grilles in the ceiling and the ductwork contractor provides all the necessary items. However, in clean rooms it’s often preferable to extract air at a low level, in which case the architectural contractor forms the ducts within the room as they’re making the rest of the room. That’s fine so long as they’re aware of all the bits you need within that ductwork – like a mesh to stop pieces of paper or rubber gloves or cleaning cloths being sucked up into the air extract system. Thankfully we found out that they hadn’t included the mesh in their specification and now it is in there. I wouldn’t have envied the commissioning engineers trying to figure out what was wrong with the new system only to discover the filters, which are intended for very tiny particles, were covered in rubber gloves!

Another assumption which has been made a few times recently is that I’m a secretary or document controller. Or more simply, when people haven’t seen me in a room, they often assume the meeting room or office is going to have no women in it. It can be a little frustrating having to regularly put people straight & explain that I’m not just there to take the meeting minutes but can also make useful contributions to the discussions as well. That said, I’m sure part of that is my age & youthful looks rather than just my gender – I have been ID’d when buying alcohol within the last 6 months after all! The second assumption, that there will be no women in any given engineering office/meeting room can actually provide a certain amount of amusement. The mischievous, mould-breaking streak in me rather enjoys seeing people blush beetroot red as they’ve said ‘morning gents’ then realised I’m there. I also find it rather curious how embarrassed many male engineers become having realised they’ve sworn in front of a woman as well. It’s not like my delicate donkey ears haven’t heard such words before after all…

Last but not least, I went on mentor training last week in preparation for having a 16-19 year old mentee from the local school’s Engineering Diploma programme. One of the main aspects of the training was about not assuming the mentees will know what we consider to be the most basic of work place behaviour. It was fascinating listening to previous students’ testimonials. Prior to the help of a mentor they had made mistakes on work experience such as answering a work phonecall by saying “yo”, or accidentally making a cup of mixed tea and coffee and then being too embarrassed by their error to do anything but drink the horrible concoction.

As you can see, over the last week it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that the saying, and title of this blog, “when you assume, you make an ass out of you and me” really is rather true. If I can try and make a few less assumptions perhaps I’ll avoid some embarrassing moments, not just for myself but for others too. After all, who wants to be an ass?


Ruth Wilson says:

This is so true – you’ve touched on lots of interesting things, Chloe. It is so easy to make assumptions, and sometimes all to difficult to spot them. And when we stereotype people we are limiting our lives – in fact, research increasingly shows that having a mixed team (where some people clearly will not conform to the stereotype) is really good for projects and for business, because they include a greater variety of ways of thinking, and therefore I suppose do not get trapped in assumptions.

Did you ever read a children’s book called ‘The Phantom Toolbooth’? I really recommend it. There is a great bit where they start, literally, jumping to conclusions. Your post made me think of it.

Come and join in a discussion about stereotypes if you want:

I love the photo and your good humour about being seen as the secretary. good luck with the mentoring!

geekchloe says:

Hi Ruth,

Thanks for the positive feedback – I think assumptions can be dangerous things in all walks of life, but I’ve definitely had the error of my assumptions most clearly pointed out to me through engineering. Possibly because assumptions there lead not just to a bit of embarressment or needing to set the record straight but also to whole designs not functioning.

I’d also agree with your comment about mixed teams working better than those where everyone meets the stereotype – I know I flourish when I have my set ways of thinking challenged.

And yes, I have read The Phantom Tollbooth – it’s a brilliant book. One I would highly recommend to anyone (though particularly school goers) who wants to question the world around them without getting too serious.

Jaxtasha says:

Love it! I totally get the age thing… me and a colleague of mine get told “to ask our teachers” for forms we go to collect all the time!

geekchloe says:

Aah the wonderful irony…mind you, give it a few years and we’ll be wishing we still looked young enough to have these problems!

Richard C says:

So true! I read this to my partner Helen who also works in a male dominated job – construction – and she is fed up with blokes assuming she’s the safety officer, swearing/apologising, and her boss… “Don’t get me started” she says 🙂

As for reviews, isn’t that why we engineers have them? In case something has been missed out.


geekchloe says:

Hi Rich,

Thank-you for reading, and for reading it to Helen. It’s a shame it’s still such a universal problem, but I’m finding it’s also shows who the real good guys are when they get outraged on your behalf when inappropriate comments are made! It’s also a relief seeing how, generally speaking at least, it doesn’t affect the new graduates so much – on the whole one’s gender seems to make no difference to their behaviour – which is how it should be in my opinion.

And yes, it’s absolutely why we have reviews…but it’s also why reviews need to be done properly. As they have the potential to be quite dull if you’ve got things right people seem to have the tendancy to stop paying attention or start trying to whizz through them really fast. I think there’s a lot to be said for reminding people that if it’s dull it’s because they’ve done a really good job & they’re going to have very few corrections/clarifications to do afterwards. In which case dull reviews with no errors deserve a post-review trip to the pub!


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