“I used to believe that good engineers never made mistakes.”

This story was featured in the December 2016 issue of Modern Steel Construction.

I used to believe that good engineers never made mistakes. Now I believe that good engineers have simply learned to never repeat mistakes. In the decade I’ve been working as an engineer, I’ve made countless decisions — most good, but some bad. Each decision taught me something, but the lessons from the bad ones are harder to forget. One of those lessons has stuck with me since my first week on the job, more than ten years ago.

My story begins after I graduated in 2005. After attending the University of Pittsburgh, I was blessed to receive a job offer from the American Bridge Company. My first day, my manager informs I would be relocating to Washington D.C., to work on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project; the ten lane $200 million bascule portion of the much bigger $2.5 billion beltway project. After spending familiarizing myself with the project, buying my first pair of real work boots and packing my clothes, I was off to our nation’s capital for my first taste of ‘real work’.

Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River, completed by hundreds of engineers in 2006.

Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River

“The cranes were tall, the steel was big, and the equipment was loud.”

It’s every child’s fantasy to be on a construction site like the one I was walking onto that morning. The cranes were tall, the steel was big and the equipment was loud. The sound of rolling machinery and clanking steel was the perfect soundtrack to the landscape that surrounded me. The words awe and overwhelmed fail to capture my feelings as I began to take it all in.

I didn’t think my spirits could be higher — until one of the project managers delivered some exciting news. The Discovery Channel were coming to the project site to film the show Extreme Engineering. If being on a construction site like this was every kid’s fantasy, being on Extreme Engineering was every engineers!   

The show was centered on the “heavy lift”. Essentially, the heavy lift comprised the center portion of half of the outer loop (about three lanes of traffic). The assembly we were lifting was a monstrous 100’x 50’ mixture of steel floor beams, stringers and cross bracing. This was supported inside the nearly 15’ tall custom plate girders that served as the main load bearing elements for the span. At just shy of 500 tons, there was no denying that this was a serious operation.

“We did not have a ‘Plan B’ should this fail.”

The plan for the lift entailed ‘picking’ the piece at each of the four corners using strand jacks. The assembly was going to be lifted off of its resting place from a barge below and then set into place — the accuracy within a fraction of an inch. An engineer and several ironworkers would man each of the corner strand jacks. It was the ironworker’s job to work the jack while the engineer would measure each stroke and report it to the chief engineer for analysis. The goal was to lift the assembly nearly level — too much tilt in any direction could cause the jacks to seize. Since the jacks could only move in one direction, having one seize halfway through the operation could spell disaster.

I remember everyone arriving early that morning; most before the sun started to creep over the horizon. Electricity was coursing through the air as we fastened our harnesses and grabbed our hardhats. Hushed conversations over steaming cups of coffee tended towards the fact that we did not have a “Plan B” should this fail. The only feasible method to get this piece into place was the operation we were about to undertake. We didn’t have a crane onsite that could lift it — the only barge big enough to support it would need to depart the site shortly after we started and the channel had to be open for national security reasons by that afternoon.  

This was a high-pressure operation for everybody. The size, manpower and physical constraints of the lift put everyone on edge. The presence of a TV crew and the many VIP’s from both DOT’s only added to to the tension. For a fresh faced, green engineer in his first week in the real world, I was having trouble climbing the ladder to the platform — my hands were shaking so badly.

“Almost immediately, we had a problem.”

The lift started with little fanfare — a simple radio command to take up the slack and we were off. In 18” increments, the 500 ton monolith of steel began to rise from the waters of the Potomac. For the next eight hours, each engineer had a crucial roll in ensuring everything was going according to plan.

Almost immediately, we had a problem. The measurements on the jack I was monitoring were slightly off from the other three. Not by much, just fractions of an inch.  But after a few hours and countless lifts, those minor discrepancies were adding up and becoming concerning. As the piece slowly came closer and closer, the chance that it may not fit into its spot was becoming a frighteningly real possibility.

The problem grew to the point that legendary ironworker superintendent, Ugo Del Costello (Hokey), came up to my platform to see what was happening. Hokey was a salty, iron jawed, no nonsense guy who reminded me of Sam Elliot’s character (Sgt. Major Plumley) from the movie “We Were Soldiers”. By the time I would leave the project site 1.5 years later, I had immense respect for Hokey — but he scared the daylights out of me during my first week.

Hokey looked over my shoulder and quickly identified the problem. A colorful string of mostly incoherent adjectives spewed from Hokey’s mouth. During this tirade, I was able to pick out the phrase that would forever stick with me — “he’s holding the tape backwards”.  What he was referring to (and what I would soon learn) was that ‘engineer stick rulers’ actually have two sides. The front side measured 1/16” and the back measured 1/10 for surveying. While the other engineers were reading the 1/16″ side, I was reading the 1/10 side. When your tolerance is a fraction of an inch and you are repeatedly taking measurements, this seemingly small difference adds up to a real problem.

“The piece landed exactly where we predicted it would.”

Once my error was discovered, the rest of the lift proceeded without incident. The piece landed exactly where we predicted it would, the ironworkers finished bolting it in place and everyone shared a collective sigh of relief as we climbed down from our platforms. The Discovery Channel captured the intensity of the whole operation beautifully — the episode even included a cameo shot of yours truly holding the infamous ruler (thankfully the right way!). 

I’ve contemplated this day often over the course of my career. Occasionally I remember being on the Discovery Channel — sometimes I think about Hokey. But the two lessons I learned that morning have stuck with me through every project.

First, education is a beautiful thing. Engineers take great pride in their education. I always believed that my education would provide me with the answers needed to face real world challenges. But no amount of education could have prepared me for that day. We also need to step beyond what we read, study and learn by observing our surroundings. For a structural engineer like myself, that means seeing my designs as something that will be built by real people using real tools and methods — it’s not only about statics, physics and geometry. We must open our eyes and realize the answers we learn during our education are useless — unless we ask the right question first.

Second, details matter. At the time, I wasn’t able to comprehend just how big of a process that lift (and that whole project) was. I think of the thousands of decisions leading up to this effort and the hundreds of people involved in it. Yet, the smallest detail, which side of the tape should I should be using, almost caused the entire project to fail. Since that day, I’ve taken pride in my attention to detail. The “what” is great, but if you don’t also know the “how, why, where, when, and who”, then you don’t truly understand the problem. In each new project, I strive to find the details that eluded me on the last one; always aiming for each project to be perfect — with every ‘I’ dotted and ‘T’ crossed. Because details matter in our business.  

“The measure of an engineer isn’t their ability to avoid making mistakes.”

Successful Engineers

Mike Howell’s Lucky Ruler

For a long time, I didn’t share this story. I didn’t want to believe that it was okay for an engineer to make a mistake. After all, our job is to provide solutions. But I’ve learned good engineers aren’t immune to making mistakes — it’s their ability to learn to never make the same mistake twice that separates the best from everyone else.

To see the Modern Steel Construction article, click here. Page 24.