Orange County Branch Newsletter
Soft Doesn't Mean Easy
By Jeff Braun, P.E.
Engineering involves math and science, right? Long enough ago that I don’t want to say how long ago it was, I was a high school student who enjoyed my physics and math classes more than the history and literature readings. I loved tinkering with mechanical toys and seeing how they worked, checking out bridges and buildings to see what kept them from falling down. I loved my drafting class, where I was able to create plans for a house I may want someday.
We often refer to the baseline skills necessary to be an engineer as “hard skills”, and the curriculum for civil engineering programs at most colleges are centered on those skills. They provide the foundation civil engineers need to start a career, including statics, mechanics of materials, concrete design, steel design, hydrology, environmental engineering, and of course soil mechanics. Each of those subject matters are immensely important for a civil engineer, and we are tested on our proficiency on them at several stages through our careers – EIT, PE, GE, SE, LEED-AP, CEG, ENVISION, etc. Earning these important certifications requires lots of preparation, studying equations, material properties, and engineering concepts; the hard skills we studied for years. As I opined in a previous month’s message, civil engineers have a responsibility to continue developing these hard skills throughout their career. But that is not enough to be as successful and impactful as the engineers we celebrate during our yearly awards or in our textbooks.
What sets the leaders of our industry apart are their “soft skills”. Leading project teams, interacting with clients, and projecting future project opportunities requires capabilities and skills rarely included in engineering curriculum. There aren’t standard methods that will always be successful, or code-based minimums to use when negotiating contracts, developing young engineers, motivating multi-discipline teams to meet tight timelines, or for communicating engineering analysis methods to non-engineer stakeholders. Even if you are wildly successful on one project, the same words and methods may not work for the next due to different conditions and team members. Successfully completing these essential tasks is not easy…especially for engineers.
Many of us, well at least me, became interested in engineering because we liked working with material things (construction toys and remote control cars) and enjoyed the math and science classes. These only occasionally required working with others as a part of a lab class or the dreaded team project. We may have become engineers because we didn’t think we were good at the softer skills or even didn’t like using them very much. Engineers focus on solving problems by applying proven methods or processes. Opportunities that involve people are more complicated because you are working with emotions, different knowledge levels, and varying motivations. That is much different than designing a wall using a specified rebar strength and mix-design.
If you look around and consider the role of the more successful engineers around us, they are finding new project opportunities, leading project teams, running offices, and may be influencing legislation or government policies. Understanding the economic climate and market needs was most likely not included in your undergraduate program. Communication skills used when settling differences of opinions between the architect, client, and structural engineer were not included in our PE reference books or tested on the GE exam. The California Building Code doesn’t provide a list of questions to ask when interviewing potential candidates, or describe the feeling you will have in your gut when deciding if the candidate will fit into the office culture. I never thought understanding politics and how local and regional policies were made would be important for my civil engineering career.
If these skills aren’t offered in our civil engineering undergraduate or graduate programs, where can we develop them? Formal public policy masters or MBA programs are options, but may not be feasible for all. Many of us learn through observation of others and on-the-job training, although that requires being exposed to the opportunities where you can observe or practice those skills.
In case you haven’t already experienced it, ASCE offers great opportunities to develop the soft skills while also keeping up with the latest technical methods and research. More structured options include webinars or attend dinner presentations such as the Orange County Younger Member Forum’s Speaker Series sessions coming up in just a couple of weeks. While these sessions provide essential information from highly qualified and respected speakers, being proficient at soft skills also requires practice.
Reading body language and knowing how hard to push in a negotiation is difficult to get through a slide presentation or panel discussion, but ASCE provides low-threat chances to learn through doing as well. As a volunteer organization, there are countless opportunities to develop leadership skills, work with teams, and develop the essential interpersonal skills for a long and successful career. Whether you start as a committee member or join the board of a technical institute, you can practice these skill while planning exciting events, managing budgets, and coordinating the efforts of other volunteers working to advance our profession. If you are interested in developing soft skills, or improving the ones you already have, there are few opportunities for civil engineers that are more readily available yet directly applicable as being involved with ASCE. I don’t mean attending lunches and seminars, but serving in a leadership role either as the lead for an upcoming committee event or taking on a board position.
We already have excellent leadership within our Orange County Branch committees, technical institutes, and YMF, but it is important for those leaders to transition over time. New ideas and energy are essential to keeping our programs fresh, and the engineers who have dedicated the time and effort to serve as leaders may need to shift focus to other priorities they set aside for the benefit of ASCE. This allows for new leadership to grab the torch and practice those essential soft skills. We’ve had leadership changes for several of our ASCE OC organizations recently, including our award winning Website Committee, Community Service Committee, Structural Engineering Institute, and Geo-Institute, along with our normal leadership transitions for YMF and the Branch. The new teams are already making their mark while continuing programs that have proven very successful.
If you are interested in developing your soft skills, volunteer through ASCE to help plan the next school visit or dinner presentation. Reach out to current committee and board members to see how you can help and if there will be leadership changes soon. For those interested in Branch Board roles, we will soon be soliciting nominees for the Branch Treasurer and President-Elect.
My advice is that you should not wait until you are in a project manager or group leader role to see if you developed the soft skills necessary to excel. Come and build your skills while having fun with like-minded professionals and friends.
Congratulations OC YMF!!
Lastly, I want to provide a huge CONGRATULATIONS to our Orange County Younger Member Forum! They once again earned the ASCE Society Younger Member Group Award for Large Groups. The OC YMF team has had amazing leadership and committed membership year-after-year and I am honored to work beside all of you as you continue providing great professional development opportunities for our members.