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 9, 2012}   Happy Happy Joy Joy

The irony of blogging is that when you have things worth blogging about you’re too busy to blog, and things have been pretty busy for me lately. After about 8 months of working on oil & gas projects as a project engineer, and a couple more months working on technical audits & quality procedures, I’m now back in the familiar territory of pharmaceutical HVAC. I can’t talk specifics as, like so many other pharmaceutical projects, it’s confidential. What I can say though is that I’ve loving it, I’m back being involved in my favourite part of a project: identifying all of the requirements, and starting to find concept solutions.

The last couple of weeks have been jam-packed (not literally, it’s not a preserve factory) with site visits to discuss the client’s needs, reading through URSs (User Requirement Specifications) to glean as much information as possible about what we need to provide and going over Part L of the building regulations and the BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Energy Assessment Method) guidelines with a fine tooth comb to ensure our designs will be compliant. It makes for a steep learning curve on every project to get the whole team up to speed with what the purpose of the project is, what the client wants and what the constraints of the site and the funding is, it can be (and certainly has been on this occasion) quite an intensive time.

ImageFor me though, it’s a happy time, I like working out a precise brief, and I really love figuring out how we’re going to meet that brief. Also for this project I’ve had the mixed blessing of working with both a highly experience Pharmaceutical HVAC consultant, and having an equally highly experienced Sustainability & HVAC lead engineer. I say it’s a mixed blessing because though I’m benefitting hugely from their knowledge, they’re never in the office at the same time. This can be an interesting problem as they both approach the project from very different view points so I’m not just an engineer – I’m the diplomat & go-between for our talented founts of information. Hopefully though, by having my consistent presence to play the go-between role we’re able to take on board both knowledge sets, giving us a final solution that is both pharmaceutically sound and environmentally friendly – ideal since that’s the career specialism I aspire to!

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!

{December 5, 2011}   A little of (y)our time

It's not for girls!

I’ve seen a lot of schemes & read a lot of articles about women in science, engineering & technology of late. The articles are all about how only 7% of engineers in the UK are female, why this might be and what could or should we be doing about it.

In my humble opinion, much of it is about perception. Teachers, pupils and parents perceive our industry to be dirty, dangerous, boring, unethical or just plain Not For Girls.

But this perception doesn’t just put off young women from entering the profession, but also many of the best young male minds as well. Whether or not you agree with the positive discrimination taking place to entice girls into STEM careers, the danger is that if we don’t do something to address the image of engineering then very few youngsters will have any interest in joining it; whatever their gender, race, religion or socio-economic background.

Thankfully perception is relatively inexpensive, albeit time consuming, to change. But in order to do so we need engineers to talk to the public about what they do, why it’s important and what makes it exciting.

As Sir John Parker , President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, says of engineers: We are not automatic seekers of publicity, maybe we should take responsibility […] to explain our profession

There are loads of engineers and scientists who are willing to do just that, there are over 29,000 STEM Ambassadors for starters! As individuals many engineers can see the need for, and the fulfillment to be had from, school & public engagement. The problem that they, and other willing volunteers, face though, is that they can’t find the time to interact with schools.

Wherever I can I make time, I’ll do evening, weekend or online events, or I do short events during the school day & then make up the hours at another time. When I can’t make up the time my company is generally very supportive and allows me a certain amount of leeway. This is hard won and wearing though, and isn’t plausible for everyone currently. Companies need to recognise the need for the profile of engineering and engineers to be raised. The need for a career in engineering to be seen as respectable, desirable and most of all: exciting!

So I throw down the gauntlet. If companies genuinely are interested in having a diverse workforce. If they want to ensure that there will be enough young engineers to fill the places of those who will be retiring over the next 5-15 years. If they want to be able to grow their businesses with new ideas and new people…they will have to commit to not just allowing but encouraging their employees to spend company time on engaging with the public, especially with schools.

So what will you, and your company, commit to?

{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!

{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…

{September 5, 2011}   Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?

I spent most of the bank holiday weekend dressed up as a wolf. And I was working. For WSP CEL. This, I assure you, is not my usual work wear. However, I was still engineering. No really, I was!

You see over the bank holiday weekend Coventry Airbase hosted the 2011 Imagineering Fair. I love the Imagineering Fair, it’s all about getting kids excited about engineering. All sorts of different companies turn up, so as a professional engineer you get to meet a whole load of engineers that you would otherwise never see. The companies then put on activities for the kids to get hands on with engineering problems. I love that part for two different reasons

– one, because seeing the kids’ faces when they build something successful is massively rewarding and is definitely worth working through the weekend for
– and two, because kids are so much more imaginative than we adults are. All our training, all that education we have – it’s brilliant because it teaches you efficient solutions to standard problems and it teaches you the maths & theory & material properties you need to know to be able to calculate whether your answer will work. But, the other thing it does is make you forget to imagine, forget that trial & error is ok, forget that weird & wonderful untried solutions can sometimes be even better than answers that have been developed & refined over decades. I think that’s very worth being reminded of on a regular basis. Perhaps we should get kids into the office sometimes.

But that’s an aside. Why was I dressed as a wolf? I was in fact the big bad wolf. The WSP activity was constructing paper towers to keep the 3 little pigs out of the wolf’s reach. Of course the paper towers then also had to resist the wolf’s huff & puff…otherwise known as a desk fan.

The pigs had lots of adventures, and a fair few tumbles, but on the whole there were a lot of amazing solutions to the task. Over the weekend a large pig city rapidly built up around our stand. It really was something to behold – the sheer variety of different approaches. I certainly found it very inspiring, seeing all that imagination. One thing it’s reminded me of, and a learning I will take back to the office, is that there is never just one right answer.

As you may have read in my previous post about getting chartered, my goal for a very long time was to be a chartered engineer. The problem, however, with achieving goals is that you either need to have another goal lined up before you manage it, or you end up feeling a bit lost after the initial elation. It didn’t even occur to me to think about ‘what next’ before I got chartered…so I fell off a bit of a cliff in terms of knowing what I want from life. So since then I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want out of my career.

I had been working in building services, but due to the type of work we currently have in the business there was no immediate opportunity to move into a lead/senior role, and no new challenges on the horizon. Thankfully I’m a part of a company who recognizes my need for challenge, development and change and now I’m on secondment in project engineering in the chemical side of the business.

But, like some of the students who have just received their A-Level results, or many of the 2011 graduates, I now have the combined puzzles of ‘what do I want to do next?’ and ‘how am I supposed to figure that out?’. It’s an age old question that people ponder over time and time again through out their lives, and it’s one that certainly doesn’t have a correct answer!

For me, unlike the students picking degree courses & so on, the question is not much about what the content of my work is, or the technical subject, but what do I find rewarding about it? I know I enjoy engineering, particularly building services and particularly the process industry. I’m also enjoying a lot of what I’m doing as a project engineer, which is what makes it so hard to pick between them and to come up with some long term career goals. For me the rewards are overcoming a challenge (I love problem solving), making the world a better place (which is why I like pharmaceuticals & talking in schools) and being recognised for what I’m doing (who doesn’t appreciate a pat on the back after all).

The former two can find satisfaction in many different roles and at my level & age recognition is relatively simple. There are lots of managers I report to, or folk who are keeping an eye on what I’m doing & they can give me a pat on the back, or a thank-you/well done & that means something to me. There are also still visible promotions in reach. There are also lots of award schemes out there for people at my level. But an interesting dilemma is how do you balance out the desire to progress upwards within the company/industry with the need for recognition? The higher up you are, the less managers you have, and then the less people there are to tell you that you’ve done a good job. Again, there is no simple answer, other than that as you go up the ladder, you increasingly need to recognise your own achievements and set your own standards & goals…and there were we are back at goals again.

So when considering your future career, what will you want from it? To be a technical expert? A senior manager? To earn lots of money? To have freedom over your time & how you do your work? To have lots of interesting challenges? Do you want recognition? Will you become an entrepreneur? Is family your highest priority? Or do you really want to make the world a better place & serve society? It’s certainly worth considering as whatever it is that makes you tick, satisfying that will make you a lot happier than having picked the right academic topic to focus your career on. Perhaps that’s what school career advisors ought to be focusing on rather than which subjects to pick.

I’m happy with the subjects I picked, and I’m happy with the career I have right now, but I do need to get myself some new goals. Fortunately all the thinking I’ve been doing lately has at least allowed me to pin down what it is that I really love, and that is engagement. I really enjoy getting people excited about engineering, getting clients on board with the idea of using sustainable solutions, getting team members interested in the project work and their own career development, getting teams to be part of a positive health & safety culture and getting the company to buy into people development. All of which are about getting people & teams engaged in something, and it makes me smile. I guess many of those things can be done no matter what role I end up in, lead building services engineer, project manager or whatever else. But it would be interesting to know what roles people think would be ideal for me & my love of getting people ‘engaged’ – although if anyone says matchmaker I will not be impressed!

{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

et cetera
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