The life & times of an HVAC Engineer

{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

{February 14, 2011}   At last…

I’ve not written a blog post for a while, things have been very busy with getting documents ready to issue for construction, being interviewed by Radio 4, and taking a week off to go skiing. But most significantly, to my career at least, I was preparing and attending my presentation and interview to become a Chartered Engineer and Member of CIBSE
So, for those of you who are not engineers, what does it mean to be a Chartered Engineer?

In the most basic of terms it means that you have gained the appropriate qualifications and experience to prove that you’re a competent and respectable engineer…that you can, amongst other things, innovate, negotiate and calculate. In the words of the Engineering Council UK (the body that regulates the professional competence standards):

“Chartered Engineers develop appropriate solutions to engineering problems. They may develop and apply new technologies, promote advanced designs and design methods and introduce new and more efficient production techniques, or pioneer new engineering services and management methods. The title CEng is protected by civil law and is one of the most recognisable international engineering qualifications.”

Becoming chartered can potentially mean a promotion and an increase in pay, as many companies set the bar for becoming a Senior Engineer as chartership. It means you can put letters after your name (well it’s always nice to get a higher score in scrabble), and those letters get you a certain amount of professional recognition and respect. Use it right and it can get you access to learning, get you the European title of Eur Ing (letters you can put in front of your name for recognition in more countries), improve your career prospects and give you a greater influence within the industry.

For me though, becoming Chartered is all about pride, self-respect, and hopefully shaking off some of the assumptions I get about being a secretary or ‘just a little girl’. It’s something I’ve worked very hard for since before I even started my degree. When choosing a university course one of my main criteria was that it had to be accredited by the Engineering Council as without accredited qualifications becoming chartered can be very difficult. That’s not to say it’s easy as it is of course! I worked hard through my degree and when I started work I was always careful to keep a log book and a training record. I’ve also tried to use the competency criteria that are used for assessing you for chartership as a guide for my career development. During appraisals I tended to push for opportunities that would get me the experience I needed to deepen my knowledge in areas where I was lacking.

All of that effort has made for an exciting, fast paced, and sometimes really exhausting few years. But, as I found out today, it has all been worth it as I’m now a Chartered Engineer. Hurrah!

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?

et cetera
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