The Work Ethic of Millennials

Blogs are full of anecdotes about Millennials and how lazy, entitled, or self-important they are. They don’t want to work long hours. They want lots of benefits. They’d rather be chatting with their friends than working. They get bored with their jobs. They leave perfectly good jobs with excellent companies every three years. They’re always complaining. They have no loyalty to the company, they won’t do what they’re told, and they’re generally loafing, constant pains in the neck who won’t shut up about how things could be better.

If you look through the old lens of Corporate America, then yes, the average Millennial seems to fit the bill. But let’s look at the past five years or so and see what the world looks like through the eyes of the young American worker.

The economy is terrible. Some unethical people in the financial industry made some poor choices and now there’s widespread belt-tightening. There have been layoffs on what seems like every other Tuesday. Work is far less fulfilling, as cool projects’ funding dries up and top companies start to compete for less inspiring work. There are fewer people left to do that less inspirational work, too, so the few people remaining in the office have to work longer hours on more frustrating projects. The C-suite and upper/middle leadership are constantly out pounding the pavement to fill the backlog, and so there’s diminished leadership left at the office to provide learning opportunities. Younger workers are left holding the majority of the workload, with little prior experience to draw from, few experts at the office of whom to ask questions, fewer formal learning opportunities… In short, everything that makes a place a great company to work for has dried up. Everyone is stressed, nobody feels invested in, and there’s the omnipresent spectre of being laid off.

It takes two full-time incomes to comfortably float a family with a mortgage and student loans (which have ballooned insanely). Day care is extraordinarily expensive, and costs are far higher than what they were when the working generation were children. What it means to be a “family-oriented company” has entirely changed. With both parents in the office nowadays, flexibility is the name of the game. With technological advances like the smart phone and the Internet, the Millennials are used to working from wherever there’s wifi… They are willing to be flexible if their employer meets them halfway.

The paradigm of employment is changing. It has to change, with societal and technological revolutions like the ones we’re seeing.

Millennials don’t want to work long hours because they know they don’t have to in order to get the job done. They understand how to use tools in order to streamline their work process, so they can get more done in a shorter amount of time and achieve a better work-life balance.

They want lots of benefits– chiefly, workplace flexibility. They’d like to be allowed to use the tools they have at their disposal so that they can achieve a better work-life balance, so they can relieve their spouses from 50% of the childcare duties, so that work does not define their entire personhood.

They’d rather be chatting with their friends than working? Not so. They’d rather have the opportunities to network with their colleagues to solve problems more efficiently. AIM and Facebook are just the modern iteration of the drive-by coffee break… You know, where a colleague stops by with a cup of coffee to chat about a project and touch base with their coworker. Many companies have figured out that chat tools and Facebook actually help their bottom line, allowing employees to reach out to their in-house and greater networks for help on problems.

They get bored with their jobs, or rather, with how they’re forced to do their jobs– “tail in seat” syndrome. They leave perfectly good jobs with historically-excellent companies every three years, because they realize that these “great companies” are stuck in the past. They’re always complaining about managers who refuse to realize that they’re swimming against the current of the times. They have no loyalty to the company who saddles them with inappropriate responsibility under the constant threat of termination, and they won’t do what they’re told when they know fifty tools that would help them do things a better way.

And who would want them to? Give me an independent thinker who challenges the “because we’ve always done it that way” folks, who brings me new tools to use and play with, who challenges me to be a better manager and get more work done with less (time, materials, personnel, money…). Give me that worker any day, and I will give them all the flexibility they desire.

There are those managers who ask, aren’t there people who will abuse this flexibility? How can we trust our employees to do the right thing if we give them that much slack?

I don’t understand people who ask these questions… There are people who abuse their employers in the old paradigm, too. We’re constantly combating employees who are late to work, who take long lunches, who pilfer envelopes for personal use.

However… if you treat an employee well, they will generally do right by you. My employees are awesome– they work well on their own. They advertise for my company on their own time because they BELIEVE wholeheartedly in my company. They are PROUD to work for my company because they know that the company is proud of them and invested in them and their development. They go above and beyond what I ask of them, because I give them freedom and I hold them to a high standard. Hire employees you can trust, and then trust them.

Hire Millennials, and give them the tools they need to excel. Just have a good understanding of what their needs actually are and what their lives are like before you start measuring them against an outdated standard.

Institutionalized Empathy

In its blurb this month entitled “The 3 Things Employees Really Want,” Inc. prints it right there in black and white. First, employees want purpose. Secondly, they want autonomy. And finally, employees want empathy. “Caring doesn’t take money,” says the article, “but it does take time. It means creating an amazing work environment, welcoming people on their first day, remembering anniversaries, and being flexible with time off.”

I can imagine some mid-level manager scurrying off to HR after reading that, demanding that birthday cards be sent to all employees. That’s the way a lot of big companies manage their people– whenever there’s a problem on a human level, an algorithm is implemented to give the impression that the talking heads of the company really do care.

I once worked for a company that would send me a gift card to a movie theater on my birthday every year. It was a nice gesture, certainly, and I appreciated the idea that my nebulous corporate overlord would have a spreadsheet and secretary in place to wish me well every year, but I’ll never forget the time I was at that job and got an emergency phone call while I was talking to my supervisor.

They’d found my mom unconscious and not breathing on the floor of her apartment, and she was now in a coma in the hospital. I hung up, tears coursing down my face despite my best efforts at self-control, and I explained the situation to the supervisor I’d been talking to. I continued with what I’d been discussing before the phone call, trying to be as professional as possible, waiting for him to interrupt me to express condolences, to tell me to go home and tend to my family, to tell me that work could wait, to tell me that I should take an hour and a friend and go for a walk in the park next door, to tell me anything at all that acknowledged my humanity. Instead, I got to the end of what I’d been telling him, and he told me what the next step of my task for the project would be, and sent me on my way, out of his office. 

I’d have traded a truckload of gift cards for a little empathy right then.

My mom recovered, thank heavens, but my relationship with my supervisor only got worse from that point on.

Empathy doesn’t count if it doesn’t come from the core of one’s humanity. I’d caution Inc. readers that if their aim is to be an empathetic corporation, rote protocol is no substitute for human understanding. You can’t get credit for being an empathetic company if you as a manager don’t operate with heart.

The Value of Slowing Down

If there were a motto for this day and age, it would be “ASAP.”

Everything is due right now, everything needs to be submitted as soon as we can get it done, we’re constantly in a hurry because time is money, and if you waste any time, then you’re just throwing money down the drain. So hurry through your calcs, hurry through your drafting, hurry through your quality assurance procedures, and get the drawings out the door. We’ve all been guilty of this.

Things go badly when we as engineers cut corners. The amount of hustle in the first draft of the plans is directly proportional to the number of problems that arise after those first drawings are issued.

There’s a popular idea that there are three attributes that a client can ask for: fast, cheap, and good, and that you can pick two of the three and make it work. Low fees driven by a highly competitive market mean that the “cheap” part is already built into our business model, unfortunately. When “fast” becomes the default, then the only thing left to tweak is “good”… so it goes by the wayside, which can have disastrous consequences.

When you make a mistake, fix it.

When you make two mistakes, back up, take a deep breath, and look at everything with a fresh set of eyes.

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So, what exactly is it that an engineer does?

There’s massive confusion out there about the role civil and structural engineers fill in society.

When I let people know that I’m a structural engineer, they know it has something to do with math and science, and it does; they’re right. They’re also pretty sure that it has something to do with buildings, and they’d be right about that, too. But from there, it gets a little nebulous. The distinction between structural engineers and architects is pretty blurry from a layperson’s point of view– people know that they both “design buildings”. So, is structural engineering synonymous with architecture? Are structural engineers qualified to do the same things that architects do, or do they do something different? And then what on earth is this civil engineering/structural engineering distinction all about? Très confuse.

It’s probably most useful to think of buildings as being much like a human being. There are a lot of parallels between the two– the musculo-skeletal system (which is like the structural system in a building) keeps a person standing. The circulatory system (HVAC– heating, ventilation, air conditioning) regulates blood pressure and keeps fluid flowing through the veins. There’s a plumbing (mechanical, electrical, plumbing, or MEP) system, and skin (curtain walls, waterproofing membrane, EIFS) that keeps bad stuff out and good stuff in, and a person has to stand on a stable surface (foundation) to keep from falling over. It’s a really apt analogy.

Keeping that metaphor in mind, the architect has a big job: they figure out exactly what the person looks like. Where the arms go, where the legs go, what the face looks like, eye color, hair color, where the elbows bend, how far the knees are supposed to bend… Things like that. In terms of a building, they determine the layout, the look of the building, how the building is to function, the aesthetics of everything… It’s a huge and complicated job.

The structural engineer gets the plans for the person, and they figure out the mechanics of the musculo-skeletal system. Where do we put the bones, where do we attach the muscles so that the body is able to do all the things that the architect has specified? In the building context, they determine placement and sizing of beams, columns, slabs, foundation specifics, and all the systems that are used to resist the different loads (wind, snow, earthquakes, falling anvils, bookshelves, things like that) which the building needs to be able to absorb and transmit to the ground.

There’s an MEP engineer (mechanical, electrical, plumbing) that determines how the nervous system functions, how the plumbing is all supposed to work, and designs the respiratory system so that everything that needs fresh air gets it. All the wiring and plumbing in a building is dictated by the MEP.

Beyond that, we have to abandon the human being analogy and look at how the building is connected to and interfaces with the rest of the world. Waste and drainage pipes have to be taken from the building and connect to municipal sewer systems. We need to hook up water connections from the municipal water supply to the building. We need to make sure that cars can reach parking lots, that parking lots are sufficient for the needs of the building, and that everything drains properly so you don’t end up with puddles everywhere when it rains. All this is the domain of the civil engineer.

Through intense coordination with one another, everyone on the design team works together to assemble plans for a seamless building design. At the best of times, we create something that functions as it ought, that is a shelter from the elements, that stands strong and tall, and that is comfortable for living, working, and playing. That’s why I love what we do.

Here at Thalia, we’re pleased to provide both structural and civil engineering services… If your needs are design, or analysis, or forensic, we’re here to help you.

Owning the Process

A little over a year ago, I jumped off a cliff. I left my job at a world-class engineering firm, peered over the edge, and jumped into entrepreneurship. I have a mortgage and a musician husband, and two cats and a dog, and I gave up my steady paycheck and awesome benefits to go out and do my own thing.

Because here’s the deal: I don’t think engineering firms are run properly. I don’t think we frame the process– working with an engineer– as we ought to. I think that people like you, who may need the services of a civil or structural engineer, are faced with hiring one of these firms to complete your project. When you do, you find that the journey is very confusing. Nobody explains what’s going on, the process isn’t at all transparent, the schedule is unclear, there are a lot of surprises, the engineer doesn’t seem to understand what you want and what your values are, and the experience is frustrating and incredibly nerve-wracking.

I have seen this happen over and over again in working for conventional firms. The thing you don’t know is that it doesn’t have to be this way. We, as an industry, are failing you. I knew that I could change how this works, and I wanted to start my own firm to prove it to my clients, to my cohorts, and to my industry. We can do better than we have done in the past.

I have a heartfelt commitment to making sure that my clients are comfortable with the process. Surprises are inherent to construction; there’s not a lot that I can do about that, but a lot of these surprises can be anticipated. We can take time to explain the back story of why the municipality is suddenly asking for a certification, or what’s going on when we look behind your wall and find a whole host of unseen problems. I’m a firm believer in explaining to the client as much as they care to know. I’m a born teacher who has a penchant for explaining calculus to seventh graders, so I know I can explain homes to homeowners, or buildings to architects, or even just basic structural principles to high school students (and nobody ends up with a headache from thinking too hard, either). The end goal is to make the client feel as though this is a process that they’re part of, that they’re in control of… Not some horrible ride that they’ve found themselves on.

That’s what we’re about at Thalia. Being customer-centric to the core.

How Can We Make an Earthquake-Proof Building?

This is a reprint of an article I wrote on Quora… It generated a lot of interest, and I think it reflects some great points of design that the general public may not be aware of… So here it is for the WordPress world to enjoy.

If there’s anything I’ve learned since I started in this field over a decade ago, it’s that in a battle between humans and Mother Nature, Mother Nature is always going to win if she really wants to.
It’s impossible to make a building completely earthquake-proof… Particularly not one that anybody would want to spend any time in. (A building that would reasonably withstand an off-the-scales earthquake would be very bunker-like.)

There are various things that we as engineers do in order to make buildings as earthquake-proof as we can… and we do those things. It really does depend upon both the particular structure that we’re building, and it depends pretty significantly upon the approach that we choose to take…

  • We can make a building very flexible so that it sways like a reed in the wind.
  • We can make a building incredibly rigid so that it will withstand the forces that the earthquake applies to it, just by brute force.
  • We can make a building that has dampers (kind of like shock absorbers) so that it doesn’t experience as much of the force that the earthquake would otherwise apply to the building.

…but the problem with all of these approaches is that they only work up to a certain point. If the earthquake is larger than what we can possibly design a building for (without making it look like a bunker), if we can’t make it flexible enough or rigid enough or damped enough to withstand the forces, then we haven’t done a good job engineering the building.

So, we use approaches like that to a certain extent, but we always, always do something that the public doesn’t necessarily think about.We choose the manner in which we want the building to fail, and if the earthquake IS larger than what our initial approach can withstand, we design the building so that it will fail in a predictable manner. We design so that buildings will NOT undergo progressive collapse (“pancaking”). We design so that the columns are stronger than the beams, so that if anything’s going to fail and absorb energy during its failure, it’ll be the beams. That way, we will just lose part of a floor, instead of losing a column which might be supporting all the floors above it.

And so it goes, on and on, with this sort of methodology of planning out what we want to happen first during an earthquake, for any building we design in a seismically active area. We’re still in the middle of figuring out the best strategies for how to deal with earthquakes. Since they thankfully don’t occur very often, we have to wait quite a long time to prove the full-scale seismic resistance methods that we use in actual buildings, so the lag time on learning things can be pretty high… but we are still learning more every day, and we’re applying new knowledge immediately, as soon as we’re confident in that knowledge, to the new buildings that we design.

An “earthquake-proof” building may be beyond our grasp now, but it’s an ever-evolving process of learning, and while we may never be able to make our buildings withstand everything that Mother Nature throws at us engineers, we’re getting better and better at trying.

Core Principle #001: Show Me Who You Are

As a foreword, I will, from time to time, write about a core principle that I use in hiring at my firm. The gestalt of these principles form my studio’s identity. I am building more than just a company, I am building a culture that aims to change the course of the industry. At the moment, I’m a one-gal shop. The core principles I’ll be writing about are brain skimmings; things I’m codifying now so that my little Vive la Revolucion of the engineering industry can be deliberate rather than haphazard. And so, the core principles.

You are not a calculator made of meat. “Computers” are laptops, or workstations, not job descriptions. You are far more than what you do for a living.

Way, way too often, we talk about poor work-life balance. There’s a connotation behind this: that work is work, and there’s a distinct boundary between work and your life, and when we talk about the boundary between work and life becoming more and more blurred, we mean that work bleeds into and pollutes our outside lives.

This is backwards, and it’s a waste of our lives. Open a new browser window and run a Google Image Search for “team” and ponder what you see… This is the gold standard for Corporate America: achieving what’s embodied in this generic image of crisply suited, falsely enthusiastic individuals, uniformly eager and ready to take on the next contrived task. The 99%’ers may not have a clear notion of what they want to achieve with the Occupy movement, but I think it has a lot to do with this idea.

When you work for me, I want for your life to bleed into your work. Your life and what you’re all about should ring forward beyond your home and imbue your professional side with all your unique character. You’re a musician? Have those headphones on, and bring your musical side into my office. Into speech and debate? Bring the hard-hitting negotiating skills into the conference room and let’s see what we can do. Are you an artist? Help us visualize what the architect wants to see. Sketch on my walls; I don’t care.

Bring your joy into your work. When you do that, you’ll fit in with my team, and you’ll be more appealing to our (surprisingly, also human) clients. Show me who you are.

“Dumbing Things Down” and the Softer Side of Engineering

I had an interesting talk with the head of an engineering firm HR department today.

Her department is aptly named Human Resources… and it’s important to break down the term and note the first word: “human.” Because that’s what’s at the crux of the job she does. She acknowledges the employees as individual human beings with needs and desires and interests and goals, and she acts as a resource to help those humans be fulfilled, while balancing the needs of the company overall.

As I discussed the human side of engineering with her, she said that her efforts to get the company’s senior management to train their middle managers in negotiation, communication, and conflict resolution had been rejected outright. They said that focusing on these sorts of issues rather than technical engineering and project management would only “dumb things down” and would waste valuable training time.

I thought I’d outgrown naive optimism, but this was the first time I’d considered that the engineering profession might be openly disparaging of what she termed the “soft side of engineering.”

Isn’t this half of what we’re about, though?

There are so many firms that have strong technical chops, and the technical side of proper project management is just basic housekeeping. It’s very difficult to distinguish ourselves among other firms by just touting that we have the ability to build a very good mousetrap.

The trick is to help people understand why they want to trap mice.

The notion of client buy-in is something that is typically overlooked. We all want to provide our clients with an amazing business experience, but in order for our clients to truly appreciate our solutions, we must show that our solutions are especially valuable to them. Providing our typical client with reams of calculations will be entirely inaccessible to them. A spreadsheet tabulating our worth as engineers is not necessarily going to do it for them, either; nor is proving to them that we’ve done this sort of project a million times before.

The things that make clients rave about my work is how stressless I am to work with. I bring good solutions to the table (they’re probably more creative than what others might come up with, but grace of design is often difficult for a client to appreciate) and I lessen my clients’ worry. If there’s a problem, they know that they can look to me to help them decide what to do, and that when they look to me, I will approach their problem with the kind of honesty, responsiveness, and humor that they have grown to expect of me. My technical background doesn’t interest them so long as I’m able to complete their designs. It’s my negotiation, communication, and conflict resolution that makes their lives easier, their jobs more fun, and keeps them coming back to work with me.

We must learn how to relate to other humans in order to sell our genius mathy-math brains. That’s what distinguishes any of us from the rest. At the end of the day, the person selecting our team is just a person. We ultimately have to think of that person as an individual human being with needs and desires and interests and goals, and we must convince that particular individual that we will act as a resource to help them be fulfilled, while balancing the needs of the project overall.

We have to be technically proficient. But we also have to sell our proficiency. To do that, we have to be willing to embrace the softer side of engineering.

Quo Vadimus?

Where are we going?

There’s a lot of change in the world today. Marketing practices have been turned on their sides. The Internet has revolutionized the way we interact. “Knowledge Management” has become the buzzword of the hour.

Over here in the engineering industry, we still use “kips” (kilopounds, no kidding) as our fundamental unit of force. We issue all our drawings on unwieldy, large-format paper. Even basic communication is a hugely mysterious skill, and one that is largely considered unnecessary to reinforce in young engineers until they’re well into their career, at which point it’s far too late.

This would be all right if engineers were an isolated bunch, content to sit in a corner and crunch their numbers after they’ve been handed final designs from an architect…

Can you appreciate how truly archaic that sounds? We’re in the twenty-first century now. If you step into the oncoming flow of information traffic and expect it to gently roll to a stop and politely present itself to you, you’re going to get steamrollered in a rude and violent manner.

All design is fluid now. We’re way past paper; drawings are outdated as soon as they hit the plotter. Aggressively proactive communication is so essential if you don’t want to get sued, and communicating such that we achieve a seamless level of design coordination is an animal that nobody’s ever even seen. We can land dudes on the moon, but we still can’t come out the grand opening side of a major project without looking back at our plans and seeing a pitiful mass of spaghettious kludge.

Why is that? How can we pick this apart? I don’t think that we do design/business/knowledge management very well as a profession. I’m going to look at our process, our procedures, our philosophies, and see where we don’t quite add up. This blog is going to cover a lot, and it’s mainly for me to get my thoughts in order, but I welcome anybody who’s keen to come along on the ride.