I’ve looked back on a lot of my blog posts lately, and I’ve noticed that unlike many bloggers out there, I haven’t really written at all about my own life experiences. Instead, I’ve just given you my opinions on sports, sports, sports, a little politics, current events, and even more sports. So it should come as no surprise when my blog isn’t very popular, because why would anyone care about what any old rube like me has to say when there are professionals out there publishing sports columns online and are free for the general public to read? So what could I write about that is unique, in a sense, to me? Well, not too many of you out there know what’s it like to be an entry-level electrical engineer for a small consulting firm, so why not that?
I work your typical 8AM to 5PM schedule that many professionals are in the habit of doing. We’re pretty laid back at my office since we’re such a small company, so I typically roll into the parking lot in my ’96 Buick LeSabre at around 5 past 8, but sometimes I’m in before 8, and other times I’m in a little later. I usually head home no earlier than 5, and sometimes hang around a couple minutes later if I’m just wrapping up a task, or came in a bit later than I should have. Only on a handful of occasions have I been asked to stay late and work some overtime, and since I’m salaried, I’m pretty happy about that, because there are no financial incentives to do so, just the motivation to be a good employee and impress the boss.
I’m always getting asked what kind of work I actually do, and much to my own chagrin, I’m not always very good at articulating what exactly it is that I do. Our firm, like I mentioned before, is a small consulting firm that does both electrical and mechanical engineering consulting as well as CAD services. We do a lot of work on municipal jobs for villages and also some cities on the road system all over the state of Alaska. Since we’re so small, we can’t handle really big jobs, so we’re limited to working on a lot of wastewater treatment plants, lift stations, water treatment plants, and small airport jobs. Most jobs we are actually the sub-consultant, because the Civil engineering firm, or the architecture firm gets the contract, and then outsources the mechanical and/or electrical work to us. My bosses have worked hard to build up the reputation of our firm, so from what I hear, we don’t really have to go looking for jobs because other companies around town tend to come to us with work to do.
Now, for what I actually do on a day to day basis, it actually can vary quite a bit. I started out by doing a lot of CAD work, which consisted of my bosses marking up drawings that needed changes and then them giving the drawings to me so I could actually make the changes in AutoCAD. As I got more proficient at that, they started to have me do more actual design work while I did markups. So, I wasn’t just asked to draw a pump that needed to be added along with its circuit, but I actually was supposed to size the circuit correctly, according to the NEC, then size the conduit according to the NEC, and then draw the circuit and pump in AutoCAD. Now I’m to a point where I do that stuff all the time, and they even have me designing the proper lighting that is required for rooms, and also doing all kinds of service load calculations, which are some easy calculations with some complicating rules (at times) that you must do according to the NEC to figure out how big the electrical service needs to be for a building based on the electrical load of the building. Another task, that is less fun, and yet still challenging, is known as the submittal review. After our design is finished and it goes out to bid, a contractor will get the job, and then he must submit his request for what products to use in his installation of the design. So the submittal review is me looking at what he submitted versus what we specified in our design, to make sure he’s meeting our requirements. Sometimes contractors try to submit things that are substandard quality to save money, and it’s our responsibility to our client to make sure that the contractor doesn’t get away with that nonsense. Another task I’ve been given before is to size generators for buildings in cases of power failure. I also have made a number of site visits, which usually consist of taking a lot of pictures and notes to gather data and information about the job that would otherwise make design difficult or impossible. I’ve made a lot of phone calls to sales representatives about products we want to spec, to contractors, to clients, and to people that can answer whatever question it is I have. I never knew being an engineer involved so much time on the phone. And the more important you are, the more time you spend on the phone. There’s also a lot of communication via e-mail.
To become a professional engineer, you have to first become an engineer in training, and then after 4 (or maybe 5, I’m unsure on this) years of working under the supervision of a professional engineer in your field, you can take an exam to become a PE. But the first step, is to take the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam, and if you pass, you become an EIT. I had to take this test recently, and it was not fun to study for, and it was even less fun to take. It was an 8 hour exam in total, consisting of a morning session that covered all subjects that could be applied to engineering (including subjects I never took classes on like statics, thermodynamics, and fluid dynamics), and then an afternoon session in your selected field. I said to hell with the subjects I didn’t know and didn’t even try to teach myself them with my review manual and just concentrated on doing well on math, dynamics, chemistry, and of course, electrical engineering questions. I don’t get my results back for a while yet, but to say I hope that I passed would be an understatement comparable to saying that Brett Favre is self-absorbed. (haha, a sports reference in a non-sports related blog post) Author’s note: I eventually got my results back, and I did pass the test.
I’ve also spent considerable time training and attending continuing education events. The great part about this stuff is of course, the free food. I got to visit the village of Chevak back in October, and so that is my one and only site visit that I couldn’t drive to. That was a great experience, but the travel in an unpressurized airplane cabin left my right ear hurting for a couple of days. Every so often we have office wings day, where we get the best wings I’ve ever tasted for lunch, and I feel the grease sitting in my gut until the next day. If you’re ever in Anchorage, try Wings ‘n Things, and get the extra hot flavor; you won’t regret it.
So, that’s it. It’s not the most glamorous job out there, but the fact of the matter is, the world we know today would fail to exist without engineers. We’re not celebrated like doctors for saving lives, or teachers for impacting the lives of youth, but at least we’re not villainized like lawyers and politicians. We’re just under the radar, which probably fits, since the stereotypical engineer is supposedly antisocial and has a bland personality. Hopefully, you just learned something, but if you’re worried that I’m not going to be writing crazy sports opinion pieces anymore, fear not, because let’s face it, I know far more about sports than I do about electrical engineering.
Update: Since writing this post, I have written two more posts that have detailed specific site visits that I’ve made for my job. Click here for my visit to Fairbanks, and here for my visit to a village called False Pass.
Update (1/17/13): Here’s my latest post about being an electrical engineering consultant.