The life & times of an HVAC Engineer

{July 9, 2012}   Working 9 to 5

9-5 Clock by Jonathan Aspinall Design

I get to work every day at between 7.30am & 7.45am, and leave at 4pm. I always try and leave my desk for lunch as I genuinely believe I am more effective in the afternoon if I’ve taken a break away from the office environment. Many of my colleagues work the same pattern as me. On occasion, when deadlines or site visits require it we work a few more hours. A significant proportion of my colleagues however, most of whom are in the higher echelons of seniority, work more hours than I do (more hours than they are paid for), every single day. They are an admirable, passionate, dedicated core of employees, whose sheer quantity of hours spent in the office is very impressive, and which I am sometimes a little cowed by.

These impressive folk are, to an extent, placed upon pedestals for their dedication to their work & the company. But (and I mean no disrespect with this comment, so please forgive me super-dedicated-colleagues) do they actually get any more work done than those of us who merely work our hours do? Or, is the respect they are endowed with based upon presence (and possibly stamina!) rather than a measured output. Do we even measure output, or is it just hours? More worryingly it seems that this additional ‘commitment’ is something that is not merely admired, but is something that the business has come to rely upon and expect in order to function & generate profit. Certainly it has been said to me that I will need to “give 110%” and “expect to have to give up” some of my STEM activities, which are mainly done in my own time, when I get to a senior level.

I know that beyond 8 hours I am not as effective as I am at hour 2 or 6 of the working day. It’s not just because I know I’m due to be at home, but because I’ve used up my brain’s capacity and focus for the day, I need to go home & rest, relax and eat. With the way that extra hours at the top seem to be the norm I had started to wonder if that need to rest was just me being weak and would damage my career. I did a little reading though, and it’s not just me. There are some great articles out there, this being one of them, which brilliantly summarise the research that has been done proving that workers, particularly knowledge workers, are just not as effective when working longer hours. Way back in the 1890’s employers found that by decreasing the working day to 8 hours, productivity per worker increased. Somehow we seem to have forgotten that.

I think certain industries, engineering consultancy being one of them, have an issue with machismo regarding hours worked. Also it’s a lot easier to measure hours worked than quality & quantity of work output & the impact that work has, but that’s a whole new blog post. I don’t know what the answer is though, except possibly for us dedicated “9-5ers” to infiltrate the top ranks (if such a thing is even possible!) and grow understanding around the benefits for all parties in folk only working an 8 hour day.

But until that happens, if you’re reading this in the office, past home time, then stop ‘demonstrating your company commitment’ and go & show your family & friends some commitment instead. Then come back in tomorrow morning & show how amazing you are after a good evening of rest and relaxation.


{June 25, 2012}   I know, but I don’t know

One of the things it has taken me longest to learn, is quite how much I have to learn. I had something of a realisation about this at university; that the more I learnt about these specialist subjects the more I could see was there, that I was merely brushing the surface of vast and complicated areas of engineering. I mean I learnt a lot at university, but how much of such an immense topic (Mechanical Engineering in my case, but I suspect the same holds true for almost any university subject) can you hope to gain an understanding of in 4 years?

But for all I realised that I didn’t know, there was still even more.

You see, I know I’m good at academia, at applying my science, maths and engineering knowledge in a pure context. I know this because my exam results demonstrate it. I know this because at university I was one of the people other guys asked for help. This ability gave me a lot of confidence and curiosity that has served me well over the years.

The trouble though, with having been the ‘go-to guy’ at uni, is that it makes you a bit of a big fish in a small pond. I think when I started work, I still expected some of that respect for my knowledge to exist in this brave new world. I thought I was a big fish.

Picture credit:

I wasn’t.

I don’t mean I wasn’t respected, my colleagues are all lovely people who (certain ex-aquaintances aside) have treated me with nothing but dignity throughout my career. I’ve been very respected for being highly capable, but not for my knowledge. This took me by surprise, and I found it frustrating & sometimes upsetting. Why couldn’t these people see how much stuff my brain was full of?!

Years and months down the line, my understanding of the knowledge you actually need to carry out a project well, and my respect for the massive amount of relevant experience my colleagues have, has grown immensely. It seems so obvious to me now, now that I have some relevant knowledge & experience to be respected for, what it was I was missing. I just wish I’d known when I graduated that you don’t have to be respected for the knowledge you’ve crammed in your brain, but it can instead be for how rapidly you can glean new knowledge & how well you apply it.

If I were talking to my 20 year old self now, I would advise myself to become the ‘go-to guy’ for project specific knowledge, to be up to speed with what is going on now, not to aim to be an instant technical expert, that one takes a while to grow into. I think I could have saved myself a lot of angst!

{May 22, 2012}   The skills to pay the bills

Life in the Agg household is a very geeky affair, and dinner table conversation often consists of conversations about engineering. Many times in our relationship, particularly early on when I was just getting to know the family, we’ve talked about how much we admire my father-in-law’s skills: he designs & makes prototypes for specialist engine tools. The man is incredible, and can get his head around spacial, material & mechanical problems like no-one else I’ve ever met. I admired my Grandfather for similar skills (though admittedly Geoff’s are even more impressive).

But, these magnificent men & their flying building machines, and their wonderful wives, set their own businesses up to be their own bosses and they work (directly at least) with a very small number of people. Their achievements and skills are awe inspiring; but how would they cope in our workplaces?

So back to the dinner table, and earlier this week, over pasta bake, we were talking about what skills & knowledge you need to be a good engineer in current times, particularly in a consultancy. The conclusion that we came to is that engineering is not a pure and academic subject, it’s about the appliance of science and in order to apply science to a contextualised problem you have to really understand the problem. This means you have to have good communication and analytical skills in order to fully extract the client’s requirements. It’s a rare day that a client brief actually fully lays out all the constraints, issues and needs!

The client often is made up of several individuals, who all have different needs, but differing levels of authority and information. Understanding all of the different requirements and balancing them in terms of space, time and priority can mean you often have a be a real diplomat too. Then there’s the budget aspect too, if we didn’t have client’s with money to invest then we would be doing any engineering and there would be progress for the ‘science’ going on inside these buildings. Being a good engineer means designing cost effective buildings & products; in terms of hours to design, capital costs to build and running costs throughout the life of the building.

Also, no project is completed by one engineer alone. To design an operational building many different engineering disciplines must work together so teamworking skills really are critical, as is the confidence to stand by your ideas and fight your corner when you need to! Plus, the speed at which legislation and technology changes mean that it’s essential to be a life long learner – willing to take on new ideas and be interested in areas that may not be directly connected to your core working area.

I think though, that it’s all these extra skills, this broad range of activities that make engineering such a fascinating field to work in. It’s what brings so many different personalities to work with that so often put a smile on my face, and it’s the reason that after a long day at work Mr. Agg & I are still chatting about engineering at dinner.

Having won the Duke of Gloucester’s Young Achievers Scheme Engineering Award in November, I’m privileged to be receiving mentoring from senior engineer, Ben White, of Byrne Bros. We met for the first time in late January and it made for a fascinating morning. At CEL, routes to senior leadership have historically been through project management rather than through rising through the technical engineering ranks. Ben however, is a man after my own heart; he’s an engineer who wants to remain an engineer. The senior position he has risen to, and his own desire to stay a part of engineering, is a fantastic demonstration to me that it is possible to take an engineering route to the top, and to remain involved in engineering even at relatively high levels of seniority.

But having a mentor has benefits beyond providing a role model. Back on our first meeting we discussed all sorts of minor workplace challenges & he gave me some really good ideas to try out back in the office. Last but not least, the Construction Youth Trust has done an amazing job at managing to match me up with a mentor who really suits my ambitions & values. I’m very passionate about developing the people around me and in the long run getting them to engage with the next generation of engineers themselves. Ben is in the process of rolling out technical development programmes for the engineers working for him, and trying to figure out how he could roll this out to the rest of the company too. Given that this is a career goal of mine I think it’s going to make for a very interesting year hearing about his successes and lessons learnt from that project! 

Shard in Construction

Image credit: Jamie Barras

The main topic of conversation for our second meeting though was the Shard as I was lucky enough to be given a tour (Ben’s company, Byrne Group, are doing much of the work on site – hence our ‘backstage passes’ for the day). Construction and project management techniques used for high rise multi-use property are in some areas massively different from what you would find on the sorts of sites I’m familiar with, making it a very interesting and educational tour. That said, there were a lot of cross overs too, and the usual challenges of managing multiple contractors and trades within one site. Perhaps one learning for me to take back to my industry in that regard is dividing the construction site into sections (easily done on a high rise, as you can do it by floor) and then having managers/foremen supervising an area rather than a trade. It would certainly fit well with the concepts of collaborative working that we encourage on site.

The mentoring session wasn’t just about taking a trip around a construction site though; I got to have some very interesting discussions. Projects have been a little slow in the lull of winter, and I’ve had a lot of non-engineering work to do. Being the engineering geek I am I’ve struggled to find the motivation for some of these pieces of work as I’d rather be doing some HVAC maths & problem solving. Being able to talk it through with my mentor though gave me much more of the bigger picture, and has inspired me to make the most of these tasks. He’s also given me some great ideas about how to make the things I’m doing have even more of a positive impact on my company that they would have done. In fact as I write this the clock is counting down to an imminent meeting with my manager to discuss taking those ideas forwards. Talking with Ben has also made me feel much more positive and excited about a possible secondment opportunity I have…but more on that one if it comes to fruition.

For all the benefits mentoring by Ben & Byrne Group is providing for me though, it’s not all one way. I have to say I’ve felt a little pleased with myself at the end of both sessions so far, as each time my mentor has also gone away with a little idea from me & WSP CEL that may well be of use to him.  It just goes to show, there’s always something more to learn and it can come from any direction!

For the last 6 or so months I’ve been the project engineer for various projects, but one has run throughout the majority of my secondment. That project is going to be issued to the client today, and that is going to be a massive relief. Over the months that the project has been running (including the best part of 8 months before I came on board) the it has been much delayed and changed. Without wishing to get into the dangerous topics of fault, error and blame, no matter what the real reasons for delays and changes they have resulted in me sometimes feeling like I’ve been managing it really badly. Thankfully it is now coming together, the client seems happy, but I still have some of the sensation of “could do better”. Now admittedly it has been the first time I’ve done something like this, so there were always going to lessons to learn, but I still didn’t feel great about how things have gone. But comments made in the last couple of days have really made me feel less to blame.

So who made those comments & what were they? Were they from my managers? Were they ‘you’re doing a grand job’?

Oddly enough, no…

The comments my ego and conscience are treasuring most were made by the draftsmen on the project. It turns out that it’s the little throw away comments from someone else who has been affected that matter the most. Specifically, on occasions when they could have chosen to blame me for delaying the project by not getting them the right information first time round, these comments were made:

“I’ve read through that e-mail you forwarded…it’s like squeezing blood from a stone!”
“we asked the right questions at the right time”

We. We. We. It’s incredible how much that one little word makes you realise that you really are part of a team, and that you’re wanted on that team.

I’ve learnt a lot on this project, much of it about how projects run from a project management point of view, or about the commercial aspects of projects. But I’ve also learnt a lot about myself, teams, and tackling issues. Mainly, I’ve learnt that being part of a team, rather than a collection of individuals, provides a safety net that no amount of procedures or motivation from management could ever possibly replace.
I’ve also learnt that the grease to make the well-oiled machine of an engineering team run smoothly is chocolate biscuits.

{November 23, 2011}   Sisters are doin it for themselves

Doin' things for myself

I’ve achieved a lot over the last 28 years, and I’m very proud of it. I’ve worked really hard & done some good things. I’ve designed useful engineering solutions, been a STEM ambassador and won awards – I could very much agree with the lyrics of ‘Sisters are doin’ it for themselves’. In fact perhaps I could agree with them a little too well since even when notionally the things I’ve done have been for the good of others, it has always primarily been for my own development, my own satisfaction, my own pleasure.

Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with that, there is no way you’re going to do the best you can in academic studies for anyone but yourself. I’m reaching something of a transition point in my career and life though. I can now only achieve so much, and get so much further, if I’m doing it for me, also my bonds with those around me have grown and strengthened, so it matters more to me how well they do.

Think about it; how much time does a good senior manager spend looking after their own development compared to the development of their staff, the growth of the company or the progress of their projects? I guess some end up in that position because that’s where you must focus in order to progress, and some end up there because the development of others/projects/the company interested them more & more and their focus on this meant that they grew into the right person to promote.

Personally I love a technical challenge, and to play a part in the development of others. Those two things can also give other individuals, the company and society, the means to grow. So that (taking on a technical challenge & developing others) is what I’m going to do whenever I can, and that’s what I’m going to aim to do in the future too.

That means changes like not just being a STEM Ambassador myself, but potentially rolling it out as a means of development & motivation for more of the company, including training others in how to make the most of it. I’ve benefitted massively from the mentoring I’ve received, and from the secondment I’ve had, so I want to make sure others get those benefits too. Currently I’m creating a ‘Project Engineer’s Handbook’, and am reading the WSP University mentor training; perhaps I should also be writing some ‘Bloggers Tips’? I want a role, eventually, where I can guide our projects to technical success and our people to personal success.

All this of course comes with the caveat that I still matter, much like it’s necessary to have a good work-life balance it’s also necessary to have a good me-world balance…and in neither context does ‘good’ mean all of one & none of the other.

It feels good to finally know my own mind, and not to feel like I’m missing something obvious any more. So, onwards & upwards to see what happens when I focus my desire for progress on the people, company and industry around me!

My vision for the future of our business, & engineering generally, is to have a more engaged workforce who are excited by what they do and can share this excitement with school children to reinvigorate our communities with a thrill for what can be achieved through engineering. And I want to be a part of making that happen, that’s something I’m very passionate about.

As a separate but related fact, I am in love with being an engineer, or more specifically with telling people I’m an engineer and with the feeling I get from their reaction to that. All over the world, but particularly in countries where women are not so free to pursue a career, the level of respect and sometimes even awe, you get from saying “I’m an engineer” can be as addictive as a drug.

I am now faced with a very difficult decision. I’m coming to the end of my secondment in project engineering & I need to choose a career path. Do I go back to building services engineering, to the technical details & calculations that I enjoy, and the respect I’m addicted to, or do I stay in project engineering, with the people factors and organisation I enjoy and the potential to grow into a role where I will have the influence to shape my vision? The likelihood of me obtaining the authority and sway within the business to grow my vision on a grand scale seems much greater if I go the project engineeringproject manager – business stream manager – director route. But if I depart from being an engineer do I loose authenticity and influence in the classroom when trying to get young people being interested in being an engineer?

Another factor that clouds my decision even further is the rather negative view many people seem to hold of project managers. Whilst discussing project managers with colleagues, friends, family or even when reading other blogs you get so many comments like:

“project managers are failed engineers” “project managers don’t do anything” “project managers are useless/don’t contribute”

Now, whilst these comments are true of a few individuals, on the whole they’re not true and perhaps that’s something I’ll go into in more depth on another blog post. For now, let’s just assume that it’s a false view, but none-the-less is the opinion of project managers amongst the many of the people I know & care about as well as many of the strangers I meet. The trouble with this view existing is that I don’t know if I can bear to place that stigma upon myself…not when I’m so addicted to the drug of engineering respect, and not when I’m unsure of whether it’s right for me anyway.

So, despite time still ticking away at my secondment, I remain undecided…do I pursue my love or my vision? To be a building services engineer or to be a project engineer. That is the question.

{September 23, 2011}   What’s-a matter you Hey!

I went to a seminar about anaerobic digestion recently, it was very interesting hearing about how we could be using our waste to generate electricity. It’s certainly something we should be considering to improve the sustainability of many engineering projects. Did you know that you can use the solid output of the digester to make tiles that grass will grow on to make a green roof? I really enjoyed the evening, it was absolutely fascinating. What I particularly enjoyed however, were two things that the scientist who was giving the presentation said:

“Engineers are great, you go to them with a problem and they solve it for you”


“I was working on a project with WSP, and they were all so positive.”

I loved those moments, I loved the little bit of an insight they gave into how the outside world views us, both engineers generally and WSP specifically. The best bit of all is that he’s right, WSP guys & gals are really positive, upbeat folk, at least when we’re speaking to the client or other ‘outsiders’, and it’s also true that engineers solve all sorts of problems and make loads of people’s lives better. I’m sad to say though, we’re not always brilliant at solving our own problems, or those of our team/department/company. Our outstanding professional pride means we’re so focussed on providing the client with a first class service, on solving every niggling little problem on the project, and on making the world a better place that we sometimes forget to make our own little niche in the world a better place.

So in the spirit of ‘physician heal thyself’ I give you, the happy flowchart:

The incredible Maya Angelou, poet, author & civil rights activist once said “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain”. It’s an approach we often take on projects, that’s how we as engineers have gained the mantle of being able to solve any problem, and why we as WSP are known for being positive and high quality – because if it’s not right, we make it right. It’s just what we do.

But for all that incredible problem solving ability, for all the pleasure we take in problem solving, and for all the drive we have to get things right, we don’t do that for ourselves. There’s no reason for that, though. Engineering gives you amazing skills at problem solving, and although we’ve been trained to apply that to buildings, structures & technology the logical thinking and creativity can often be applied just as well to things closer to home. Why not give it a try? Grab that flowchart, listen to Maya, and go engineer a solution that will make you happy…

{August 1, 2011}   Everybodys talking at me

I’ve never been the most girly of girls, for years I’ve lived in fear of the ‘hair styling’ aisle in Boots. Every time I go to the hairdresser they seem to do something incredible with my hair, and when I ask what I need to do to recreate that look at home they say strange things to me like ‘GHD curls’ or ‘use some product’. ‘Product’?! What ‘product’?! What does it mean? But asking what ‘product’ merely gets you a brand name, not that you realise that till you’re standing in the middle of the dreaded Hair Styling Aisle, staring at a thousand little bottles wondering whether you need mousse, gel, spray, tonic, or balm, and whether you want ‘strong hold’, ‘natural feel’ or ‘flexibility’. And what if I want to let my hair dry naturally, will the lotions & potions whose instructions say ‘and then blow dry hair as usual’ work if I don’t use a hairdryer? It’s at this point that I inevitably exit Boots with no ‘product’ and a confused look on my face. I don’t understand the difference between all the offerings, I have no idea what my hair needs and even if I did I wouldn’t know how to apply it. I give in, another boring pony tail it is.

I’ve recently discovered that my lack of ability to speak Girl (perhaps they should do GCSEs in this alongside French & German) extends further than the salon. My Mother has loaned me The Complete Guide to Sewing so I can take up making my own clothes. I figured that with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering I ought to be able to follow a pattern and technical instructions in order to use a machine to create something. How very wrong I was, though I have now successfully made myself a skirt there were nightly phone calls & many trips to one another’s houses so Mum could explain to me the meanings of words like ‘selvage’, ‘crosswise’ & ‘plackett’. These are not words that are in common use, so what does that make them? Are they technical language, jargon or just nonsense?

Dilbert does jargon

As an engineer I use a lot of technical language, particularly when I’m speaking to my engineering colleagues, and I’m by no means the only one who does. In fact it’s really quite hard for me to even know which of the words in my vocabulary are ‘jargon’ because they’re so familiar to me and because they’re well accepted and understood by my peers. A few to pick out would be ‘get it cadded up’ (i.e. get the designer to draw up a sketch using the Computer Aided Design software), ‘P&ID’ (i.e. a process & instrumentation diagram, a line drawing of the process, accurate in terms of connections & direction but not in terms of routing or size – much like London Underground tube maps) and even my own job title ‘Building Services Engineer’ (i.e. an engineer who designs air conditioning systems and piped services like water, steam & compressed air).

You don’t have to be an engineer to use specialised words and language though – we almost all use jargon, often without even realising we’re doing it, like the sewing book authors and hairdressers. Sometimes it’s not vocation/discipline specific, sometimes it’s generational (innit, emo, LOL) or regional (batch, roll, bun, cob, bap, breadcake, barm cake). So essentially, in one way or another we all use some slang or jargon. What effect does it have on the people arround us though? It all depends on your audience really, use technical language in the appropriate context, like around colleagues who have a similar background and training to you, and you’ll probably impress and/or manage to clearly communicate very precise pieces of information. Use it around people who don’t have the same technical background though and you’re more likely to alienate people, you may confuse them or make them feel like you’re trying to show off about your knowledge. What you certainly wont do is communicate clearly. The same goes for slang & colloquialisms. Tell your Gran that her cooking is ‘wicked’, and she may not take it as a compliment. Tell your interviewer that you’re ‘down with that’ and you may not get the job. Equally by using the same slang as your peers you and they will feel like you belong, it’s almost a means of bonding.

So both slang and technical language have their purposes…just try and save them for the right places. If technical language is a necessity, such as in a specific book or work place then maybe consider developing or including a glossary, it can really help your audience to understand you, and make newcomers feel like part of the team. Unless of course you prefer leaving people with a certain sense of je ne sais quoi

There are many mis-conceptions when it comes to engineers. People think we’re perpetually covered in grease & armpit deep in machinery. Or that we’re clad in white coats, carrying clip boards and peering over halfmoon glasses with our silvery hair. Last but not least, many people seem to think that engineers are lone geeks sitting in dark back rooms, speaking to no-one for days on end.

Now ok, there are a fair few grey hairs to be spotted in most engineering offices, and my mother claims she knows I’m an engineer because I’m always mucky…so perhaps I shouldn’t argue too much with the first two descriptions. The last, however, is another matter. Engineers, whilst they don’t tend to be renowned for having the greatest social skills or ’emotional intelligence’, are not the sad lonely folk we’re often painted to be. Engineers are cogs in a machine – they need all the other cogs to be able to produce anything of any use.

We are always working alongside other engineers; as a building services engineer I need the electrical engineer to provide a power supply for my air handling units, I need the control & instrumentation engineer to monitor and control the air conditions passing through it. I need the civil engineer to build a strong enough floor for me to put all my equipment on and the process engineer to tell me if there is anything hazardous or explosive in the air I’m extracting. I need the mechanical engineer to route, and support, pipes for heating & cooling and of course I need an architect to design the building layout. And that’s before you get to all the people I work with on the client’s team or along the supply chain.

When you take all of this, and the support of more experienced engineers from your own department, into account, being an engineer is certainly not a lonely job. Instead I often end up feeling like part of the family. Of course families can be very caring & sharing, and they can also be very argumentative, but whatever their temprement on a given day, I’m always glad to be a part of them.

The fact that engineering teams have to work so closely together means that team bonding is an important point to consider as a project or business stream manager. So every now & then the ‘family’ all come together and head out for a meal….and a few drinks, and following the drinks…a few anecdotes. Which means that alongside all our drawings, calculations & specifications there’s a lot of banter, and a lot of grinning at the rememberence of stories that might not have been told without the help of a pint. When those stories include revelations about someone’s saturday night cross-dressing habit, comparisons between team members & the cast of baywatch, and the discovery of someones marvellous singing voice through the medium of “I’m a lumberjack & I’m ok…”, it’s little wonder that the engineering office is so filled with laughter now & then.

et cetera
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