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An American (Pain In The) Tail

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I'd like to tell you all a story, the story of an engineer who just doesn't quite fit in. The boy does all right, for the most part - doesn't drool much, cusses only occasionally, is kind to both dogs and cats, and may even be current on all Federal income taxes...at least in the near future.

Still, too much right-brain in that boy. Too literal in some things, too fanciful in others. Makes other engineers kinda nervous to be around, like he's the only one in the room with a chartreuse pocket-protector, or still uses a Texas Instruments calculator.

Now, this boy decided to go to work for a very different company...at least from his perspective. This company manufactures widgets. More than that, they manufacture a VAST ARRAY OF WIDGETS. They have over the course of the last few decades, outsold and outlasted many of their widget-making competitors, and bought out quite a few of 'em in the process. So not only to they make all the widgets their founders invented, but many of the ones they used to compete against, until now they have your standard four-on-the-floor widgets, widgets that hang sideways, widgets that hunker from the ceiling, and even widgets whose particular purpose is to watch out for other widgets.

Our boy has mostly in his life been a structural engineer guy, like all of you. The widgeting world was new to him...and, he had to admit, somewhat intriguing for the difference (I told you he didn't quite fit in; I think you're beginning to see why). Having dealt with beams, columns, spandrels, purlins, groins, rakes, eaves, capitals, brackets, joists, copes, shear tabs, castellated beams, and the odd transfer girder or two, the world of widgets had a beguiling sort of newness to it that our boy just couldn't resist, particularly at this stage of his career (his career had gone on long enough to have stages in it, you see).

So he came aboard, with relish, gusto, and a dollop of mustard. The bosses - few of whom were engineers but whose life in widgets had brought them into contact with enough of them to think them capital fellows - were happy. Our boy was happy. Better yet, the young, wet-behind-the-ears Engineer Interns whom he'd been hired to shepherd, mentor, oversee and occasionally bathe, seemed to regard his coming with not a little relief as they'd been unshepherded for long enough that they were beginning to Go Astray.

Now, this company was not, of course, in the engineering business, strictly speaking...they made widgets, as I believe I've mentioned. They spent a lot more time thinking about shop schedules, equipment maintenance, welder training, material procurement, and general roundabout manufacturing stuff such as what goes into widget making generally. They were widgeteers. It defined them.

But...they had found a nice lucrative sideline in providing what they themselves called "engineering packages" to general and subcontractors - sold through their network of independent sales representatives - that featured their widgets quite prominently. But along with the widgets were widget braces, widget connectors, widget configurators, and other such widget accessories that, along with the widgets themselves, the company's engineers (well, to be sure, their EITs) selected and specified and calculated and put down on drawings for the contractors to install. And upon these packages, prominently displayed, were the seals of the engineer who had previously held the position our boy had now accepted, and his signature. Our boy was not quite so encumbered with licenses as his predecessor - that worthy had more than forty - but he was tasked with the task of obtaining as many as he could in accordance with the various states in which the company was providing engineering packages.

Now, for whatever reason - probably had something to do with overzealous toilet-training in his youth - our boy (who, you must remember, didn't tend to fit in all that well. You must remember it because I told you earlier. Remember?) was quite leery of all this sealing and signing, particularly as it appeared in the past to have been done without much due respect to the sealing rules in the given states. And above all, the company had not seen any necessity of obtaining the Certificates of Authority (or Firm Registrations, or Firm License, or Certificates of Authorization, which nomenclature depends on the state in question) in any of the states for which they were providing these sealed engineering packages.

Now, our boy discovered upon investigation that the company's management - made up with one exception of non-engineers; and that engineer was originally from the aerospace field - had only instituted the sealed engineering packages because contractors began asking for them, apparently without explanation. One of the non-engineer company officers went to far as to tell our boy "we sell engineering stamps. It's a nice part of our business."

You might understand our boy's trepidation at this point. He said "that sounds a bit crass, but beyond that, it kind of sounds like you're engaging in a bit of plan-stamping with the engineer consultants you have sealing these documents." Our boy's protestations seemed rather absurd to the company, since they'd been doing this for years anyway and besides, everyone knew that you didn't have to have sealed engineering documents if you're a manufacturer. They were only doing the sealing thing because the contractors wanted them. (The notion that building officials and inspectors might have been lurking in the background seemed not to have occurred).

So, seals weren't really needed but were provided because they brought in fees; and therefore the state Certificates of Authority (or...oh, you know...) were also unnecessary.

Our boy decided he needed to force the issue - his coming upon descriptions of disciplinary proceedings against engineers at companies that had failed to secure Certificates of Authority appears to have given him particular zeal - and stated that unless the company began to secure the CAs and the like in the states for which engineering packages were being provided, he would have no choice but to tender his resignation forthwith.

(I have personally wondered to myself the precise interval between some point in time, and "forthwith" from that point of time, and have come to find out from our boy that it consists of one business day. His resignation was summarily accepted, his keys and Blackberry demanded of him, and he was escorted from the premises forth... well, actually, "immediately").

Our boy is left wondering if he did right. First, he disagreed with the company that the engineering packages did NOT represent "providing engineering services to the public" since they were being purchased by, and provided to, construction contractors for the express intent of installation of the work represented in the packages. Second, he disagreed that the company could hand out sealed packages willy-nilly as instruments of commerce, without observing all the rudiments of the state engineering boards' rules. And finally, he most emphatically believed that continuing to be complicit in the company's policies would land his ass in a crack from which he might find it difficult to be extricated without some loss of blood, tissue, and at the least, his professional license.

Our boy wonders - through your humble servant - what you, his colleagues, think of all this, and if you think him a pompous ass who deserved to be kicked to the curb, or a principled professional who chose to put professional ethics before expediency.

Noble hound, or hound-dog? What think ye?

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