My First Year as an Electrical Designer

by John Bourgeois

I was hired at Wood Harbinger a little over a year ago. I was just coming off my rookie season with internships at CH2M Hill down in Corvallis, OR and Portland General Electric. With an Electrical Engineering degree from Oregon State University focused on power systems, I packed my bags just after the new year and moved to the 206.

I wanted to share my thoughts and experiences of what it’s like for a recent graduate, with no previous exposure to consulting, to dive head first into the industry.

What is Consulting, Exactly?

First off, the word “consulting” is an extremely vague term. When telling someone what I do at Wood Harbinger, while yelling over a blown-out speaker at an overcrowded bar on Capitol Hill, I like to exercise a to-the-point approach. “I design building electrical systems.” More explanation needed? Awesome. “I would basically lay out the lighting in this building, and the outlets that you plug stuff into, as well as make sure the owner bought a proper speaker that is able to handle this volume.” Laughs ensue. Even at career fairs, the term “consulting” can alienate a lot of people because it can mean so many different things. Take the Merriam-Webster definition, for example: “Providing professional or expert advice.” Okay, great! Does that mean I’m sitting around talking all day? In what form does a consulting engineer provide “expert advice?” What does the day to day actually look like for a consulting engineer? Only consultants know what consulting entails.

Wax on, wax off

Second, I’m starting to get anxiety from how much knowledge is lost at a company when a higher-level engineer retires or leaves. While I’m currently trying to get my hands around Revit (a whole other saga), I realize I haven’t even begun the meat of my learning. Who decides to use Lithonia over Gammalux, or vice versa? Why do grounding techniques only get more confusing the more you talk about them? How come I had I never heard of the NEC until after college? And where does all the unused CAT5 go after construction?! Does the owner keep it? Does the contractor say, “No way, I’m taking that for my project down in Tacoma!” I have a lot to learn, and still so many questions that I don’t know I need to ask. I feel like Danny from the Karate Kid, who is surrounded by Miyagis, and all of them have something specific to teach me before someone else tries to “sweep the leg.”

Team Effort

Third, I’m realizing how imperative it is to be as good with people as you are with numbers. One of my biggest beefs with a typical Electrical Engineering degree course load is how little the professors emphasize teamwork. I understand that there are some engineers in the industry who show up to their office at 8am, log in to their computer, fire up their oscilloscope, and crank out 8 hours of work without communicating with a coworker. And honestly, that’s how I pictured the world of office engineering. But there is so much teamwork in consulting that it’s almost silly to try and imagine all the coordination required for a project. You have a manager that you coordinate with, your manager has a manager, and they have a manager. And that’s just within your firm or company, because that manager has a manager. That’s not even mentioning the other firms and teams you’re coordinating with. Here’s a fun way to think about it: Your teams have teams.  YOUR TEAMS. HAVE. TEAMS.

Now I understand that college professors want you to do your own work and not ride the coattails of other students, and group work can be the hardest type of assignment to accurately grade. But in the real world learning, does not happen in a vacuum. Every single day you work in teams to solve problems. Rarely do you find yourself isolated, required to resolve an issue solo. Unless you’re botanist/mechanical engineer Matt Damon. On Mars.  By yourself. That’s a different problem, and it doesn’t apply here. (And even then, once he found Pathfinder and got its comm system up and running, he had literally the whole world on his team! It’s all teamwork!)

If you find yourself stranded here, then you can tell me about how engineering is a solo enterprise. Until them, it’s collaboration for you! Image credit: NASA, Public Domain

Back to Work

Anyway, these are just my initial thoughts about the massive world that is Consulting Engineering. I really wish I could start touring college job fairs around the nation to try and bridge the gap between the collegiate and the industry. I have a very fresh sense of the disconnect between the two. Companies need young engineers, and engineering students need to know about this massive industry. I feel I’ve made my point. /Rant.

At the end of it all, I have a lot to learn and hopefully will never stop learning. So, respectfully, I would like to stop by every now and then to share my experiences with you as I learn and grow in the professional realm, and I hope that you, the reader, will indulge me. Have a great day!

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