Structural Engineers

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The Truth About Online Education

Recently I’ve seen a series of advertisements on late night TV for a “For Profit” institution about their online Master’s Degree program.  It shows a woman happily doing her work on a laptop at the beach, another of a parent with their child in their lap while doing her school work, and such type images.  The insinuation is that an online degree is easy to get, which it isn’t.  A true degree from an accredited institution obtained online is not easier than going to school on campus.  I obtained my Master of Science in Civil Engineering from Columbia University, New York online, and Columbia has the #1 rated online program in engineering for veterans according to U.S. News and World Reports.  This is what I’ve learned:

  1.  Going to school online allows you to get education that would be physically impossible otherwise.  If I tried to go to school at a physical campus for my master’s degree, I would have to commute to either Georgia Tech, which is an hour and a half trip from where I live, or Kennesaw State, which is about 2 hours.  I have to make a living, so that kind of commuting time to class would make getting a master’s degree impractical.  Instead, online I was able to get a graduate education from a world class Ivy League school.  That is an advantage that can’t be understated.
  2. Getting an online degree requires a LOT of self discipline.   At Columbia, lectures were recorded you watched them over the Internet on your time.  That’s helpful, but the problem is if you were sloppy you might find yourself falling behind in watching lectures.  There were also the homework assignments given that you had to turn in a certain time frame, and if you were late there was a score penalty.  If you are attending class on campus, there is something to force you to be at the lecture at a certain time, and this helps you schedule yourself to do your homework and study.  Online there is nothing to do this.  I found I had to schedule myself to watch the lecture on a scheduled night each week.  Homework had to be done the same way.
  3. Watching a lecture online can be much more boring than watching it in person.  Although I have to say this wasn’t a problem in most of my classes at Columbia.  I took a math course that in my opinion wasn’t taught so well, and the lectures were agony to watch.  Instead, I found lectures on YouTube that were given by the author of the book that my class used.  This is more of an issue of the professor though, not the medium.
  4. It helps to be able to get to the campus of the institution you are enrolled in for many reasons.  I found I had to go up to New York regularly.  In my first course, Elastic and Inelastic Structures, I was having a very hard time.  I hadn’t taken an engineering course in probably 30 years, and I was doing really bad.  I had to go up to Columbia and go over problems with the professor to be able to make it through.  It was also my last course in the program, I wasn’t happy about how I did, so I repeated it.  I flew through the course the second time.  I also went to New York for other courses, not because I was having problems, but sometimes it really helps to attend a lecture in person.
  5. Forget about doing your class work at the beach, or while paying attention to your children, or other non-conventional settings.  Recently I was on a job site, it was late in the afternoon and cloudy.  I STILL had a hard time reading the screen on my laptop. If you find a laptop where you can read the screen on the beach, I want to know the brand.  I’ll buy it.  As far as having your child sit on your lap – no.  You’ll be too distracted.The point is, you need to focus, just like when you went to a school on campus.  That means working in a specific study area that is set up for you. Sure, you can do your school work while traveling, but it is hard.  I did try watching lectures sitting on my patio, but it had to be at night so I could see the monitor well, and it attracted mosquitos.
  6. Since you aren’t wasting time commuting to campus, you can actually take a higher credit load.  I carried 6 credit hours/semester at Columbia, which I could not have done if I tried to commute to Georgia Tech.  Figure if I took a class at Georgia Tech, and it lasted three hours and was once a week, it would require 6 hours of time counting commuting.  That’s just for class.  Figuring studying in engineering requires at least two hours for each class hour, I had to study 12 hours each week for two courses.  That would have meant 24 hours a week.  That’s tough.  At Columbia, I spent about 18 hours a week working on two courses.  That’s hard, but doable.
  7. The biggest disadvantage to online learning is you don’t get the advantage of asking questions during the lectures or discussing the subject matter with your fellow students.  On the other hand, I never saw anyone ask questions in the classes I took at Columbia, and I don’t recall discussing course work with other students when I was an undergraduate, or when I took my MBA studies on campus. So, I don’t know if that is such a big deal.
  8. Because of diploma mills, online degrees have had a poor reputation.  As more universities embrace online education, and even if you are getting your degree on campus you may take some online courses, the stigma is going away.  However, it is something to consider when you choose your school.  A lot of For Profit institutions have a poor reputation.  You may spend a lot for your online degree and find it does little good.  The “brand” of your degree is very important.
  9. The cost can be high.  My degree at Columbia cost more than $60,000.  Part of that was paid for by the Post-911 GI Bill because of my service when I was activated from the Reserves, but it was still expensive.  If you attend a state institution and get in-state tuition it will be cheaper.  If you go to a for profit institution, the cost can be very high.  You have to decide if it is worth the cost.  For me, the cost of my Columbia degree was definitely worth it.

My advice if you want to obtain online degree is to understand it takes work and discipline.  Choose your institution carefully, I would stick to public or non-profit institutions, and go with ones with a good reputation.  Figure out how you are going to pay for it, and if it is worth the cost.

George

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Things I Wish I Had Been Taught In School

I would have to say I have an excellent education.  I have been well educated in Catholic schools through high school in literature, various religions, writing, and the sciences.  In college (the University of Maryland and then on to Columbia University, New York and Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh) I’ve studied math, physics, engineering, management, marketing, and accounting.  All of those are excellent, but here’s a few things that would have been nice to have been taught in 8th Grade:

1. There are bad people.  In grade school we were taught all people are basically good, but they make bad choices.  Given the attention, and proper therapy and instruction they can reform.  Maybe so, but what was neglected was that there are people that are Narcissists, Sociopaths, and Psycotics through probably a combination of environment and heredity.  These people are seldom, if ever, reformed, and can do serious damage.  Spotting people with these personalities and disorders can be fairly straightford, and a day or two of instruction would have saved a lot of us a lot of problems.  My understanding of the different personalities is as follows:

  1. Narcissists – Consider the world to revolve around them.  They tend to be entitled, egotistical, and inconsiderate.  They are also very manipulative, and often are very destructive.  Steve Jobs may have been a narcissist, but for every one of him there are probably a thousand like your uncle who’s been in 5 marriages, can’t keep a job, and spends all his money on fancy cars and expensive clothes.
  2. Sociopaths – My understanding of a sociopath is this is a person who has no conscience.  A sociopath is the kind of person who fires an employee the day before she is vested in the company retirement plan, or totally guts a company to make the stock price rise so he or she can make money exercising stock options.  They are very dangerous in business because of their total lack of concern for others, and their lack of moral compass.
  3. Psycopaths – From what I’ve read, a psychopath is like a sociopath, but doesn’t think through the consequences of what he or she does, and has a need for high stimulation.  I knew a guy in high school that was probably a psycopath – one day he was walking down the street and he saw a family in their living room singing Christmas carols.  For no reason at all, he picked up a brick and through it through the picture window.  Just did it for excitement, he didn’t know who the people were.  He did other stuff too, like broke into houses and stole cars. You don’t want to deal with these people at all because their lack of concern for consequences can lead to serious problems for those around them.

If you could at least understand early on that these people exist, it could save a lot of heartache in the future.  Generally in life most of us can avoid the psycopaths, and we can often spot the sociopaths pretty fast, but narcissists are not so easy, and a bit of instruction on them would go a long way in saving a lot of pain.

2.  There is no “Get Out of Jail Free” card in life.  In many religions there is a hell for bad people to go to, but they usually have an out.  Various forms of forgiveness is granted, or if you go through some sort of ritual like a public baptism, you get granted forgiveness for whatever you do in advance.  It’s very convenient if you want to do bad things, because you can take advantage of that forgiveness to avoid Eternal Damnation.  A “Get Out of Jail Free” card for the Afterlife.

I’m not going to argue the theology of this, or whether spending an infinite amount of time in torture is an appropriate punishment for any conceivable crime (consider just how large infinity really is).  The point is, you can get forgiven all you want, but it won’t apply here.  FBI Agent Robert Hanssen sold a significant amount of secrets to the Soviet Union and also was a devout Catholic.  He reportedly confessed his sins of being an agent for the Soviets, and he also attended Mass regularly.  This may lead to his forgiveness in the Afterlife, but he is still serving 15 consecutive life sentences.

The fact is, most of our rules of morality like compassion, honesty, loyalty, and care for our fellow man are older than any religion and are based on hard experience.  Human societies where people show these virtues do much better than ones where people routinely kill and steal from each other.  It’s just how it is, you do bad things and bad things happen to you.  Maybe not right away, but then you can jump out of an airplane without a parachute and you don’t hit the ground immediately.  It doesn’t mean you are in orbit.

3. Things don’t happen for a reason.  I hear the stupid saying all the time here in the Southern US – “I believe everything happens for a reason” and “I don’t know what God’s plan is for me”.  If either of those statements were true, there would be no such thing as Free Will.  Awful things can happen to people for no other reason than they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.  There is no greater reason for the suffering of people in Haiti, and if I doubt any God would have a plan that included their day to day suffering.

We can debate why this seems to be true, but it doesn’t matter.  No deity is rewarding you for being a great person by your success in life, nor is any deity punishing you because something went wrong.  If your house got flooded out in a hurricane, it probably is because it was built in a flood plain, not because there is an injust God, or you are a bad person.

4. Our brains don’t think logically.  When I was in the Army in Military Police, I saw horrific domestic disputes.  Often our patrols would be sent to the same quarters repeatedly.  There was a Sergeant in my unit that was always seeing our commander for various domestic issues.  Seems he married a prostitute when he was in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, and she continued her business when they came back.  He was forced to leave their on-post quarters and move back in the barracks, while she continued “entertaining” men.  He’d periodically break in, get violent with her, and get hauled off by his fellow MP’s.

None of this stuff made sense.  First, why did guys hit their wives?  Why did they abuse their children?  Why didn’t their wives leave them?  With that Sergeant in my unit, why didn’t he divorce his wife and be done with it?  He had no children, and the woman clearly didn’t care for him.  There are some rational reasons why wives don’t leave abusive husbands (where would they go?), but there is no rational reason for a guy to beat his wife (or abuse his children), or vice versa – there are significant numbers of men that get physically abused by their wives too.  The fact is, people think with their emotions.

What’s important about knowing this, is that I may be thinking with my emotions too.  Did I take that business deal because it seemed exciting?  Am I renting out office space I don’t need to put on a big front? Am I borrowing ever greater amounts for my business that will never make a profit because I don’t want to admit defeat?

5.  When you make a decision, how will you look at it in the future?  This one is a killer, and I will drum this into my grandchildren.  It’s hard to know how any decision we make today will affect us further in life.  I was interviewed in my last semester in college by a recruiter for a major oil company.  He was kind of a jerk, and one of his more idiotic questions was “George, where do you see yourself 20 years from now?”  I almost busted out laughing at the dumb question.  How should I know?  I made up something I thought he’d like to hear and shared the idiotic question with my fellow students.  20 years from that day I was in the desert outside of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.  I’d been an Air Force Reservist, and it was 2001.  I was called to active duty after 9/11 and was given a number of all-expenses paid trips the the Middle East and Central Asia.  Could I have answered that stupid question with “Well, I see myself as being a Civil Engineering Squadron Commander on a small airbase in a Middle Eastern desert and my business being totally ruined because of a terrorist act on the US?”  No, that was a really stupid question.

The better question would be “George, 20 years from now, what will you see as the best thing you have done in your life so far?”  I would know that answer and it would stay the same.  It would be “There are two, I served in the US Army and I am getting a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering”.  So, if you are in college partying your way through and taking some easy major so you don’t have to work that hard, do you think 20 years from now you will look back and consider that was a great idea?  If you are considering cheating on your spouse, do you think in 10 years that you will look back on it and be glad you did?  It kind of changes the way things look, doesn’t it?

So, it would have been nice to have been taught the above, either in school or by my parents.  However, there are some things I was taught when I was young that I’ll cover in another post.

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Why I Think Crawl Space Encapsulation is Unnecessary

Typical Crawl Space Encapsulation from Basement Systems

In my work with foundation repair for houses, I run into a lot of marketing hype about crawl space encapsulation.  Encapsulation of a crawl space is done generally by laying down a very thick water proof membrane across the bottom of the crawl space and up the walls.  The crawl space is sealed with this membrane, all the vents are closed.  A dehumidifier is put in the encapsulated space to make it dry.  It makes the area very nice to enter into, it’s clean, dry, and bright (the membrane used is always white).  It’s easy to move around in because you’re not crawling in dirt and trash like you find in many crawl spaces.  What I like about the system is you get a really dry crawl space that is free of mold and other issues.

The problem is it is really expensive.  The other problem, which is not an issue with the system itself, is it often sold to unsuspecting homeowners as a solution to problems totally unrelated to crawl space moisture, or they are not properly installed.  The worse case I’ve seen was when a salesman tried to sell a homeowner a crawl space encapsulation system as a solution to cracks over a large archway – which were caused by a header beam that was too small.  The homeowner would have spent $25,000 to for a “solution” that would not solve the problem.   

The other issues I’ve seen is encapsulated crawl spaces put in without attempts to solve the incoming moisture problems in the crawl space.  If a crawl space is flooding, you need to take care of that with drains/sump pumps and so on before encapsulating.

So, other than improper installation, is it worth it to encapsulate your crawl space?  I’m going to run through the logic of it in this article and let’s see where it takes us.  Also, for a contrary view, please watch this excellent video.

First off, we want encapsulation to cut down moisture, water infiltration must be solved separately.  Moisture presents problems in crawl spaces when it condenses on the underside of the floor and insulation.  Once the moisture condenses into water droplets the wood floor can rot, insulation loses its insulating value and begins to fall, mold grows, and a great environment is provided for termites.

What makes the moisture condense?  When the temperature of the air goes below the dew point moisture comes out of the air and will form on solid surfaces.  That’s why in the summer when the temperature goes down at night you will find dew on the grass, your car, and other surfaces.  The same happens in your crawl space.  In the summer, warm moist air will come into your crawl space, and it gets cooled by your floor system (which is cooler because of your air conditioner).  Moisture then condenses on the surface of the underside of your floor.  In the winter, you have cold air come in, and warm moisture migrates through your floor, comes in contact with the cold air, and condenses.

The traditional solution is to provide ventilation in the crawl space, and place a vapor barrier such as a sheet of polyethylene plastic over the floor of the crawl space (which is almost always dirt).  This is supposed to circulate air through the crawl space, which lowers the vapor pressure in the crawl space, which allows the condensation that forms a chance to evaporate.  The plastic on the ground is supposed to keep water in the soil from evaporating into the crawl space and increasing the humidity.

Vapor pressure is the pressure in the air formed by the evaporated water (it can be any evaporated liquid, like gasoline, but we’ll focus on water).  When the vapor pressure is at its maximum, the air is saturated with water, and water can no longer evaporate.  If we circulate air into the crawl space with a lower vapor pressure, we can evaporate the condensation.  What’s important to know is that warm air has a higher vapor pressure than cool air.  So, if we hit maximum vapor pressure on air at let’s say 50° Fahrenheit (10° Celsius), it is at 100% relative humidity.  If we heat that air up to 70° F (21° C), our relative humidity will be much lower.  The air is dryer now, which is why your house is so dry in the winter.

The argument given by proponents of crawl space encapsulation is that when we ventilate a crawl space, we are bringing in more humid air, which adds to the condensation.  In the winter that doesn’t make sense, because the cooler air will cause the condensation that forms to evaporate quickly, because that cooler air is heating up in your crawl space.

What about summer?  Here we are bringing in warm air that is high humidity, and we cool it down in the crawl space.  Yes, that’s a problem.  You could argue that air movement from the ventilation would keep the vapor pressure down, which will evaporate any condensation.  This is the argument I’ve seen for crawl space fans.  I’ve recommended crawl space fans be put in, and they seemed to work well.  However, to really know you must observe them operating over time.  Also, if we have a wet day where the outside temperature is close to that of the crawl space, you are not getting any advantage from air circulation, since you are circulating saturated air throughout.

So, I think we’ve got some good logic for encapsulation.  The other question I have is, can we go short of crawl space encapsulation?  What if we place a vapor barrier on the ground, and put in a dehumidifier?  In such case, we need the crawl space vents open to comply with Code.    I’ve seen this work well on one job where we had serious warping issues in the floor due to humidity in the crawl space.  However, to make a judgement, we really need to do a controlled experiment of a number of houses.  I think this makes sense because in crawl spaces I’ve entered where water infiltration is controlled, there really isn’t a moisture issue.  So, encapsulation could be overkill.

Now, if we do encapsulate a crawl space, the cost of the membrane installation is very high.  Also, to comply with the latest Code, the following requirements must be met in Georgia:

  1. Exposed earth is covered with a continuous Class I vapor retarder. Joints of the vapor retarder shall overlap by 6 inches (152 mm) and shall be sealed or taped. The edges of the vapor retarder shall extend at least 6 inches (152 mm) up the stem wall and shall be attached and sealed to the stem wall or insulation; and
  2. One of the following is provided for the under-floor space:

     2.1. Continuously operated mechanical exhaust ventilation at a rate equal to 1 cubic foot per minute (0.47 L/s) for each 50 square feet (4.7m2) of crawlspace floor area, including an air pathway to the common area (such as a duct or transfer grille), and perimeter walls insulated in accordance with Section N1103.2.1 of this code;

    2.2. Conditioned air supply sized to deliver at a rate equal to 1 cubic foot per minute (0.47 L/s) for each 50 square feet (4.7 m2) of under-floor area, including a return air pathway to the common area (such as a duct or transfer grille), and perimeter walls insulated in accordance with Section N1102.2 of this code;

    2.3. Plenum in existing structures complying with Section M1601.5, if under-floor space is used as a plenum.

I haven’t seen any of this done in the encapsulations I’ve examined.  All of the encapsulated crawl space I’ve looked at were totally sealed, which is a violation of Code in this state and most other states that use the International Residential Code or its variations.  That doesn’t mean the system is bad though, it means you need to assure your contractor is following the Code.

Based on the above, I don’t think crawl space encapsulation is bad.  You must solve the water infiltration first, you don’t encapsulate a wet crawl space.  Also, the encapsulated crawl space must be ventilated.  My issue is, is it cost effective compared to a simpler method of controlling water infiltration, a vapor barrier, and possibly a dehumidifier?  In my opinion it isn’t.

I’ll go one step further.  If you have problems with moisture in your crawl space, you have the water infiltration problem anyway.  Laying plastic on the ground in your crawl space isn’t expensive at all.  A dehumidifier is not prohibitively expensive either.  If that solution doesn’t work, you won’t be spending much more to come back and encapsulate the space.  You are going to be out the minor expense of laying plastic on the ground, and possibly a few hundred for the dehumidifier if the contractor won’t leave it in the encapsulated space (which it can be, there is no “special” encapsulated crawl space dehumidifier).

Therefore, I will almost never recommend encapsulating a crawl space when I make a structural assessment.  It’s an expensive solution that may not be necessary.  Now, if you are a contractor that puts in these systems and you disagree with me, please send a rebuttal to me at georger @runcon.biz.  My opinion is not written in stone, and I am interested in counter arguments.  

George

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Job Hunting Advice From An Employer

For as long as I can remember, I have met people who just can’t seem to find a job.  They send out resumes and answer all the want ads, and get nowhere.  They read books on job hunting tips, they go to job fairs, and still they get nowhere.  They spend loads of time polishing their resumes, working out the “right” cover letter, and still nothing… Why is this?  I first started on this problem back in the 90’s when I was writing part time for the Motley Fool Investment Forum.  My job at the time with The Motley Fool was part-time, and to put it mildly, I hated my full time job with every ounce of my being.  I had two priorities, the first was to get out of that job, the second was to avoid getting into an even worse job (which happened to me once before).  I found out with a bit of research that almost everything that I had learned about job hunting from the career development center in college, books, and articles by “experts” was wrong.  A few years later I found myself running my own company, and I can tell you why common wisdom is wrong.

Let’s start with the typical way people look for jobs.  Back before the Internet, you would get the Sunday paper and scan through the classifieds.  You’d find a job that most likely fit, and send in a resume.  Maybe you didn’t have all the requirements, but you would think, “hey, what the heck, maybe they’ll hire me anyway”.  You’d type up your cover letter, copy your resume, and mail it all in and keep your fingers crossed and wait anxiously by the phone like a teenage girl would do back then hoping her latest crush would be calling her for a date.  The problem is what happened on the other end.

The employer doing the advertisement would find themselves snowed with applications.  I advertised a job once in the paper and I got about 100 responses.  Out of those, maybe one or two people were qualified.  A lot of the respondants to the advertisements didn’t meet any of the requirements at all.  Many of them were on a downward spiral in their lives, you could see a pattern of short term jobs that were ever lower paying.  If the employer was dumb enough to list the company name with the advertisement, they would also find themselves flooded with calls by very obnoxious or desperate people.  Generally, if anyone got hired out of that mess, it was the very first few qualified resumes to show up that got interviews.  Everything else went to the slush pile.  So, if you twiddled about for a day before getting your package in the mail, you may have been number 50 resume to show up, and by that time someone else got lucky and was already going through the selection process.  Your resume and cover letter either ended up in a file to be forgotten, or thrown in the trash.

Now we can advertise through job websites like Monster.  That turns out even worse.  I advertised for a part time position that had a few requirements: 1. You had to be studying engineering in college, second year or higher. 2. The job was part time.  3. You needed to commute to Lawrenceville, GA.  Apparently no one read the ad.  I got an application from a PhD in Texas, who I guess thought he could commute to Georgia and make Intern pay for 20 hours a week.  I got loads of applications from people with no education at all.  I got applications from mid-career engineers.  The closest application I got was from a young woman who was studying business at a local college that wanted a part time job.  Too bad I was looking for an engineer intern.  I wasted my time with over 100 worthless applications.

What a lot of employers do, and I will also when the company gets bigger, is use a “headhunter”.  That’s a corporate recruiter that finds and screens the applicants for you, and gives you some suitable people.  I have been contacted by headhunters, and I was lucky enough to be found by one that got me out of my miserable job and moved here to Atlanta.  The problem is headhunters tend to call you when you aren’t looking for a job.  If you manage to find a headhunter on your own, you have to hope they know of a job open that you are qualifed for – they don’t keep business by referring unqualified applicants to potential employers.  So, the othe alternative is to act as your own headhunter.

Here’s a good tip – call potential employers yourself.  If you call me looking for a job, I will talk to you.  It will be a short conversation, but I’ll ask you some specific questions, and if you are potentially qualified, I will ask for your resume.  When I’ve looked for jobs, I’ve gotten the same warm reception mostly.  There are two exceptions, one when I called a very large engineering firm’s personnel department, and the guy hung up on me.  I found out later (surprise) that it was kind of a miserable company.  The other one irritated me a lot.  I knew an executive in a large engineering firm that ran its office near where I lived in New Jersey.  He referred me to the manager of their Washington, DC office, where I was looking for a job. I called the DC office, told the receptionist my name and asked for the guy.  She came back on the phone and asked me why I was calling. I said “I’m looking for a job,and I was referred by xxx”.  She put me on hold, and then came back and said the individual I was calling was out, and she would take my number.  Of course he never called me, and he wasn’t out.  He was obviously a jerk, and I ended up avoiding working for him and having to look for a job AGAIN.

Generally every time I called a company I was called in for an interview.  Not every interview led to a job offer of course, but in every case the people I talked to were very polite, so it does work.  The fact is that many of us don’t advertise for job openings, and in a small business we really don’t even have job openings.  If you come in to see us, and we think we can make use of you, you may get a job.  OR, we may refer you to someone that is looking (that happened to me once).

Is there anything else you can do?  Some people think networking is good, like going to professional society meetings or civic organization meetings.  I got a job offer for repairing doorbells at a Lion’s Club meeting.  I’m not exaggerating, this happened when I was trying to leave the miserable job.  I politely explained to the guy that I was a graduate engineer with something like 15 years experience and a Professional Engineer license, and he went on to tell me what a big mistake I was making….  So, my feeling is that networking events are a waste of time, unless you like that sort of thing.  It’s the same problem with answering the job posting online – you are there with hundreds of other applicants if it is a job fair.  If it is a professional society meeting, you will be lucky to talk to a handful of people who probably have no hand in the hiring process in their companies.  If it is a civic organization, you may end up having your time wasted by someone in a doorbell repair business, some other oddball venture, or a distributed marketing venture.

Should you answer want ads in the paper, or go to online job sites?  The recruiter that got me the job in Atlanta said yes, it is important to get your name out there.  I think it is another waste of time for the most part, but it’s not much time wasted. It’s not like spending an afternoon at a job fair and coming home with a bunch of applications but no job in hand.  It is certainly better than going to some civic organization meeting and getting cornered by some guy who wants to recruit you to sell vitamins or insurance with a promise that you could be a “Regional Vice President” or some silliness like that if you can recruit people under you.  So, I reluctantly agree with the recruiter.  Also, when I was trying to leave the miserable job, I actually got a job offer from posting my resume online.  So, the 5 minutes or so I spent posting my resume wasn’t a waste of time.

What about your resume?  I don’t know what it is, but two guys I hired gave me resumes that were impossible to figure out.  Just give a chronoligical record of your jobs and the responsibilites.  Skip fancy fonts and expensive paper.  NO COLORED PAPER PLEASE!  I get resumes with so many different fonts that they look like ransom notes from the old days.  Also, I don’t really care about your personal interests, like that you garden, read books, or fish. You won’t do any of that at my office, so it matters little to none.  Don’t give any information on your religion or political views.  I really don’t want to know, I want to evaluate you on what you can do. Some people send pictures, don’t do that.  Please don’t do that.  You want the people screening you to be blind to your race, looks and age as much as possible.  Your picture doesn’t help.  To me three things are important – education, professional societies, work experience.  For entry level people, even unrelated work experience helps, I want to know if you’ve ever had a job.

Gaps in employment don’t help on resumes.  Hopefully if you were laid off and out of work for a long time you can fill in the gap with some sort of educational activity.  Maybe explain it with something like caring for a sick relative, or taking a sabbatical to travel or whatever.  Try not to make it look like you were sitting at home staring at the TV set feeling bad about yourself, even if you were.  Also, look at the job titles that you give yourself on the resumes.  I once was hiring an engineer, and I got an applicant that put down his present job as “Industrial Engineer Intern” at a local steel company.  He was out of school for about 4 years. He didn’t get the job.  Why would I hire a graduate engineer that was out of school for 4 years that was just an intern?  I thought about it later, and I would bet that Personnel at the company he worked at would only authorize an “Intern” position, and that’s what he was hired in.  More than likely he was doing real engineer work instead of getting coffee and making copies like interns do.  Now, it is a little tricky to change your job title on your resume if you work for a big company and have a formal job title.  So, he should have put down “Company xxx – Perform Industrial Engineering”.  Don’t let an awful job title kill your chances at another job.

Now, let’s get to the interview.  Some things go without saying.  Don’t drink before you go to an interview.  If an interviewer takes you to lunch and treats you to a glass of wine or a beer, and you have another interview later in the day, you just lost your chance for a job at the later interview.  If you get taken to lunch, don’t drink alchohol.  If the interviewer pushes you, tell him or her you have an important meeting to go to later and you don’t want to smell like alcohol. Dress properly.  Different types of job the dress is different.  If you come to see us, we’ll ask you to wear old clothes because we are going to take you to a jobsite.  Don’t wear revealing clothing, dirty clothes, or worn out clothes.  Show up on time.  Don’t show up super early, then they have to do something with you while you wait and that is not appreciated.

Dressing for job interviews used to be a lot easier.  You wore a suit and that was it.  There was a book called “Dressing for Success” which was good to follow.  Today we are all casual.  We wear shorts and flip flops in my office.  I usually go around in my stocking feet or barefoot, which was unheard of when I got out of college.  I still would wear a suit or a sports jacket if I were a man.  A woman should wear the female equivalent.  If you are older like me, don’t wear “old people clothes”.  That means no slip on orthopedic shoes (it won’t hurt you to wear regular shoes for an hour or two).  NO CARDIGAN SWEATER!  Remember the Dennis the Menace TV show? – if you are old enough to, this definitely applies to you.  Mr. Wilson always wore a cardigan sweater, to make sure you knew he was a crochety old man.  Don’t dress like Mr. Wilson.

Now, for the less obvious stuff.  I’m going to go through my pet peeves of an interview.  Don’t overshare – don’t volunteer about your treatment for Depression, or talk about how you were arrested for DUI at 17.  When you are being interviewed, the interviewer is looking for a reason to turn you down, don’t give him or her that reason.  Show some expression. I am always interviewing people who show a poker face and speak with a monotone all through the interview.  The same corporate recruiter I mentioned earlier found that annoying too – she thought it might be due to nervousness.  I tend to interpret it as you are the type of person who has no interest in anything, and will show no initiative.  Ease up, the interviewer is no better than you.  Smile, show some emotion.  Don’t do the nervous laugh.  This is typical oftentimes of young people, and it is real annoying.  I’ve had bad experiences with people that had this habit, so it will kill your chance of getting a job with me, and I suspect others may feel the same.

Don’t badmouth ANYTHING. I don’t care how much you hate your present job, don’t say it during the interview.  I made the mistake in one interview of telling the interviewer I was having trouble with my boss.  Everyone that knew my boss knew he was a petty tyrant, and so did the interviewer (who was the owner of the company I was interviewing at and knew my boss for years).  He spent two hours pumping me about how bad my boss was and what happened.  It was terribly depressing and I didn’t get the job.  Fortunately, I got a job shortly after, because that conversation could have found its way back to my former boss (actually it did after I left), and as bad as things were, it would have made things much much worse.  I’ve also had interviews where the interviewer badmouthed a former employer that I liked and still had very good relations with.  The best thing in that case is to not comment in any way.  Don’t tell the interviewer about bad experiences you had with other job interviews, the interviewer will be afraid you will do the same wih him or her.

The worst part of any interview for me is the end when they say “any questions?”.  At this point in time I always feel I’ve been trying to get a drink of water from a fire hose, and there really isn’t anything else I want to know.  I always have wanted to say, “I’ve had enough today, can I go home now?”  Even if the interviewer has had it, and would like you to leave too, don’t do that.  Ask something fairly simple like “can I see one of your company’s projects?”  That’s easy, not to painful for anyone, and you can get out.  Don’t ask about pay and benefits until you are offered the job.

If you get offered the job, make sure it is in writing with a start date.  I was once offered a job verbally, and the guy that hired me forgot that he offered me a job.  I quit my job, and went to work at the other place.  No one in the company knew who I was and why I was there when I showed up on the appointed date.  I had to cool my heels to wait for the guy (he was about an hour late).  He showed up, and got an “oh s*$t” look on his face. I ended up with a much lower job than I was originally offered.  A couple months later my former employer took me back, and the guy that hired me cursed me out when I gave him notice.  That was one of my first experiences with what I call a “Stupid Employee”.  That will be another blog post.

Some jobs make you relocate.  My first job out of college was with a major oil company in New Jersey, I lived in Maryland.  I didn’t ask about relocation expenses.  The company’s headquarters was in Cherry Hill, NJ and I was goig to work in Moorestown, NJ.  I went in to see the personnel guy, and told him I was ready for the corporate move.  He said “well, we hired you in Cherry Hill, and you are working in Moorestown, and that is only about 5 miles, so there is no move involved”.  I was horrifed.  I mentioned to him that I lived in Gaithersburg, MD, which was a good 150 miles away.  He told me that it didn’t matter.  Moral of the story – check about the moving benefits if you have to relocate.  I never let that happen again.

I hope this helps you in your job search, and I wish you the best of luck.

George

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Why We Don’t Do Work in California

We get a lot of requests for engineering in California, and we have turned them all down.  Why are we doing this?  Wouldn’t it be better to make the money?  Turns out it is not so simple.  There are really severe problems that we can’t overcome right now.  Let me go through it:

1. I am not licensed as a Professional Engineer in California.  To get licensed requires a specific Seismic Exam, which I have not had time to take.  I had to first complete my Master’s Degree, and now I am preparing to test for the Structural Engineer license.

2.  I have had people say they could get a Professional Engineer to stamp my drawings in California.  “Plan Stamping”, where an engineer stamps another unlicensed engineer’s work is forbidden in every state. While this restriction is sadly universally ignored, if something happens there can be very severe adverse consequences to my license and my liability.

3. One way we have worked around the “Plan Stamping” is that I have partnered with another engineer in California.  This has caused my costs to go way up because I’m working with another engineer that lacks experience in this type of work and we end up spending a lot more time then budgeted on the project.  Worse, the partnering engineer also spends more time than he or she budgeted, and that runs their costs up too.

4.  The distance.  We are thousands of miles away from California and 3 time zones.  If there are problems with a project, this can be a serious issue.  To fly out to California to deal with an issue will take up 3 days and a significant cost for air fare, car rental, and hotel.

It just doesn’t make sense at this time for us to take up projects in California, so for the foreseeable future we won’t be able to help you in that state.

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Early Adoption – A Bad Idea For Business

We all know someone that has the latest of everything, and many of us engineers are guilty of that.  In marketing class this type of person was called an “early adopter”.  An early adopter would have had the first iPhone, and then maybe jumped over to the Android phone when it came out.  Maybe she had the first iPod.  Most early adopters that I’ve known, which includes me and most of the members of my paternal side of my family (most of us are engineers by profession).  As a group, we like gadgets.  My father purchased “Pong” (one of the earliest video games), and the Timex Sinclair computer, which was a very early, but useless computer. It’s OK on a personal level, but horrible for a business to be that way.  The reason is you need technology to mature before it is useful, and I’ll give a bit of a history lesson.

Way back in 1981 IBM produced its first PC.  It had 16K of memory and ran on the Intel 8088 processor that ran at 5 Mhz.  For comparison, the computer I am writing on now has a 4.5 GHz processor, which is a thousand times more cycles, and it has 4 cores in the processor.  So, we can say it processes four thousand times faster.  Except it’s faster than that.  The 8088 was an 8 bit processor, and this processor is a 64 bit.  I’m not really sure what that means, but it does mean it’s faster.  It also has 4 cores, so it is in effect 4 processors vs. the one processor in the early IBM PC. This computer has 32 MBytes of memory, so that’s two thousand times as much memory, not counting the memory that is on the video card, the hard drive and the processor itself.

Ok, the technology has advanced. The big question was, what could you do with the technology in 1981?  It turns out not so much.  You could use Visicalc (the first spreadsheet – an earlier version of this post was in error, it became available in 1979) and one word processor.  So, if you bought a PC for yourself, you could write some letters, do some budgets on the wordprocessor, and play with the BASIC computer language that came with it, and that was about it for a while.  If you were a dedicated hobbyist, that was probably OK.  You could play with BASIC and write various useless programs (like I did).  For a business, a PC would be a pretty expensive investment for the few functions it provided initially.  By the mid-eighties a lot of businesses had them though – I remember they would decorate the offices of senior executives and never get turned on.

Software did follow rapidly, but it was horribly expensive and often hard to use.  In 1984 when I bought my own PC there were I don’t know how many different word processors out there, there were “flat file” databases and “relational” databases.  VisiCalc had been the spreadsheet program, but it fell to Lotus 1-2-3.  There were also “integrated” software packages that included a word processor, spreadsheet and database.  I bought FrameWork from Ashton Tate, which was good, but in the Government we had the Perfect Software from some company that went out of business early on, and the package which was next to useless.  Then the Federal Government went big on Enable, which was a little better than useless.  Basically, in an office environment we all flopped around trying to figure what was best while a dizzying array of various software packages came and went.

The only things that consistently worked well were the boring stuff.  Word processors, databases, and spreadsheets.  Even those sometimes weren’t so good.  The word processor in Enable was horrible, it was almost easier to type on a manual typewriter.  The other software that came out in the first few years of PC’s added more work than they took away.  Then there were the CAD programs.  In 1981 there were a handful of companies that produced CAD systems that were based on minicomputers.  The systems ran hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Other than mapping, utility uses, or mega projects like nuclear power plants, I can’t see how that type of cost could be justified, you could never make that money back on the investment.  As I remember the first CAD users were organizations like the Army Corps of Engineers, companies like Bechtel, and utilities – which makes sense.

In the late 80’s I worked for a very short while for a large architectural and engineering firm that was exceedingly proud of its CAD system that they bought some years back.  It was an Intergraph system, which was really good at the time and technologically advanced.  The management never would tell me how much it cost, but they said it was in the mid six figures.  They were desperately trying to make it work by having the system operating 7 days a week 24 hours a day.  There is only so much you can charge for creating drawings, and to make that money back you have to run your system.  However, a drawing created by a CAD operator at 2AM when the design engineer is at home in her bed and not available to look over the CAD operator’s shoulder is usually one that needs to be reworked a few times.  So, the system was time consuming and could run your cost on a project to two or three times more than hand drafting.

Because the company had put so much cost in the system, they refused to even consider a PC based solution like AutoCAD, which had started to mature nicely.  An AutoCAD workstation at the time would cost you about $2,000 for the PC, $2,500 for the software, and $5,000 for the plotter.  With about a $10,000 price for a workstation, you could put in 20 or more workstations for one Intergraph machine.  The system wasn’t as advanced as Intergraph, but so what?  This would have made a serious difference for the office I worked for, because at that kind of cost we could have given a CAD computer to every engineer and draftsperson, but they had already put a lot of cost in the older system and were suckering for the Sunk Cost Fallacy.  That is when you pursue something down the rabbit hole because you put so much mone into it, and it never pays back.

Going forward, there were other things that came out that made little sense for a company to buy.  The Palm is a good one.  This was a Personal Digital Assistant that did things that later were added to cell phones and became smart phones.  It had a schedule, it could synchronize e-mail to your computer, and it could hold an address book.  It had a word processor too.  OK, I had an appointment book that kept my schedule just as well.  The synchronizing e-mail was silly, why connect a little Palm to your PC to download email when you could just check it on your PC?  Also, were you really going to type a document on a screen about 3×4 inches with a little stylus?  Yet loads of people bought them.  They were fun toys, but would it be worth it to spend money to outfit your employees with them?

Today the technology has matured into smart phones, which are more like handheld PC’s.  They are exceedingly useful with GPS, e-mail, texting, weather reports, web access, ability to read books…  If you resisted the urge to be an early adopter for your business and got the devices when they started to mature, the investment would be justified.

A less extreme example are the tablets – like the iPad and Android tablets.  I had an Android tablet, which I carried with me when I traveled to read books and watch TV and movies on the Internet.  It was not so good for business though, actually useless with the exception of the Kindle app, which I could use to reference various texts wherever I was.  Then the Microsoft Surface Pro came out, which can use a keyboard and all the Microsoft Office Applications along with doing what a tablet can do.  We got one for all the engineers, the technology had matured.

So, where are we at today?  In more recent years in engineering there has been a move to 3d type design software.  The costs at first were outlandish, and there still are a lot of different packages out there.  In recent years the price has started to come down and companies are drifting to a few different packages.  We’ve gone with Autodesk Revit for buildings and Inventor for other uses.  If we’d gone to these packages a few years ago the cost would not have justified the expense, we could not make money back on the investment.

I haven’t even touched on the things that led to a dead end.  There were PCs with the CPM operating system, the Apple Lisa that cost almost $5,000 in the mid-eighties, the Commodore Amiga.  Imagine if your office bought a bunch of Apple’s Lisa computers and then the system was discontinued?  What if you bought a bunch of Next PC’s?  My cousin, Bob, got the Apple Newton, which I thought was really great.  Apparently not too many other people did though, the product was discontinued.  Does anyone remember the OS/2 operating system that was to replace DOS?  All of these got rave reviews by the media when they came out, but the technology ran into a dead end.

The Apple Lisa - it cost about $4,700 in the mid-eighties, which is about $10,700 in 2017 dollars.

The Apple Lisa – it cost about $4,700 in the mid-eighties, which is about $10,700 in 2017 dollars.

There are few things I can predict with certainty, but I can predict that newer disruptive technology will appear.  Maybe it will be a quantum computer that can calculate at a dizzying speed.  Maybe some form of holographic technology.  Whatever it is, from a business side you need to be careful before you invest in it.  History has shown that it is best to wait until technology matures a bit before you jump into it.

 

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Education Late in Life

Just this week I was awarded a Master of Science in Civil Engineering from Columbia University at the tender age of 60.  The most common question I get is, “why did you do it?”  I own my business, so it won’t get me promoted.  There will be no increase in pay.  I just wanted to learn.  That never satisfies the people that ask me why I did it, because if you ask that question you won’t understand the reason.  Education is not about diplomas, certificates, or pay raises.  It is about gaining knowledge.  The certificate or diploma is something that is tangible that shows you worked to get the knowledge.

To be fair, I originally didn’t want the MS.  I wanted to take a course at a local university in structural analysis.  I went to Admissions to see if I could take the course, most schools will let you take a couple of courses without formal admission if you already have a degree.  I was told I could if I could get Department approval. So, I went to the Civil Engineering Department and sought approval. I met with the Dean of Something or the Other, and he told me Admissions was wrong, I would need to be admitted. I went back to Admissions, and they told me HE was wrong, and showed the policy to me in writing in the catalog.  I went back to Civil Engineering, and the Dean of whatever told me both the catalog and Admissions were wrong.

It got worse.  I suggested I could apply for Admission.  He told me “you need a 3.0 GPA.” I told him I although my undergrad GPA was 2.3, I had a 3.3 GPA in the MBA program I was in.  He told me “graduate school GPAs don’t count, only undergraduate.  Besides, this course you want is too hard for you. You should just take continuing education courses.”  It went on this way for a while.  It became the most important thing in the world for this guy to keep me out of school ever again. He even called me later on my cell phone to continue telling me why I couldn’t get into his university.  I told him I was busy and hung up on him.

Obviously, I was pretty sore about being treated in such a way.  I was visiting family, and I told my nephew about it. He had just graduated from Columbia University with a degree in Software Engineering.  He told me they had a pretty good online program, maybe I could take a course there.  Sure enough, Columbia does have an online program, and you can take some courses without being admitted.  I signed up for the structural analysis course that I was told was too hard for me by the dean of something at the local university.  It was a nightmare since I hadn’t done this type of course work for 30 years, but I passed.  Then I saw that Columbia was offering a course on Wind and Earthquake Design online. Well, I needed that, so I took it.  Then I saw a course in Forensic Engineering, which is what I already do – well, obviously that would be helpful. I took it too.

In the meantime I discovered I was eligible for Veteran’s Benefits under the 9/11 GI Bill because of all the time I had spent being activated by the Reserves. Well, I didn’t want to let those benefits go to waste, so I ended up applying for admission to Columbia, and was accepted.  In what seemed like an instant, I was finished. Now I have a Master’s degree from an Ivy League school because a dean of something at a local university was such a jerk towards me.

Now, going to school later in life in a technical subject is no picnic, and even harder if you do it online. With Columbia’s program, you watch the lectures of the course online, have the same assignments as the rest of the class, and take the same exams as the rest of the class. It’s just like being a student on campus but twice as hard. You can call or e-mail the professor or teaching assistants any questions that you have, which honestly doesn’t work at all.  Not only that, watching a college lecture on a computer is a truly agonizing experience.  You can’t ask questions, and lectures just don’t work well watching them on a 2d screen.  If you a have trouble with an assignment, there really is no way to go see a teaching assistant or the professor unless you travel to New York City, which I did a couple times.  I also went up to New York just to sit in on the classes.

The very worst experience was in a math course I took – Introduction to Dynamical Systems.  This course seemed like it would be interesting, but it is past Differential Equations, which I took over 30 years ago and never used since.  It was an absolute nightmare.  The best experience was my course in Advanced Structural Steel design.  We covered stuff I had already done, but I learned the theory behind the equations in the standards. In the midterm, the class average was a 60, I got a 90.  I was That Guy that blows the class average and screws up the curve for everyone else. My saddest course was in Linear Algebra. I was holding a strong “A”, but I went blank on the final and got a “B”.  I did that repeatedly as an undergraduate by the way.

After that experience, I found out my blanking out on the final was pretty common.  There are all kinds of ways recommended to deal with it – hum to yourself, or somehow provide a distraction.  Well, I got that on another exam.  I was totally blanked out, and was terrified I’d have to send in a blank test.  Then I got an emergency call about a job that something went terribly wrong.  My terror of the exam was superseded by my terror of what was wrong on the project.  As it worked out, about 15 minutes on the phone solved the issue on the project, I went back to the exam, and everything was easy.  I got a good grade, but I’d rather not use that way again to get over the exam terror.

One more story – my very last class I took was a repeat of the analysis course, which was my first course I took.  I wasn’t happy with my grasp of the subject matter, and another course I had signed up for was canceled.  The analysis course is titled “Elastic and Inelastic Analysis”. The first time I took it was under Dr. Christian Meyers, who was probably a couple years older than me.  The professor this time was Dr. Shiho Kawashima.  Doctor Kawashima was named in 2015 as one of Forbes 30 Under 30 List in the science category.  She was an excellent professor, and is the youngest professor I have ever had (I’m not counting part time adjunct professors).  She told me that she believes I am the oldest student she has ever taught, which is pretty cool.

What is it like going to school so late in life? Well, it gives you understanding of the stuff you have experienced.  I found myself totally enthralled with items that I believe went totally over my fellow students’ heads.  The different equations in Advanced Steel Design, the proper format of reports and the way to present evidence in Forensic Engineering, the use of stiffness matrices in Elastic and Inelastic Analysis…  All of these things had real world meaningful applications to me, where to my fellow young students these seemed to be stuff just to be mastered to pass the tests.  On the professional side, extremely complex articles in professional journals and difficult texts are like first grade readers to me now. You can’t put a price on that, and you can’t explain it to people that put a price on education.

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