All Good Things..

No longer a novice engineer, J.G. expounds on the value of writing, then lays down his pen

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I'm not sure when the writing first appeared on the wall. It could have been when I realized my working days were filled with paperwork and answering e-mails instead of standing in front of control enclosures, tracing wires to their source. It could have been when our corporate office called and asked me what I wanted on my new business cards, and I answered, "Project Manager." Regardless of the exact moment, the apparent truth dawned on me: It is time to hang up my literary spurs.

The everyday events that now take up my time do not seem as fit to print as they once did. It's tough to find things that would interest an audience when the biggest event of the day is a phone and e-mail debate with clients and contractors over who is to get paid for doing what.

Since I started writing my column, I have also changed location, gotten married, and bought my first home. Between a new bride, the enormous responsibilities of home ownership, and the changes in my job description, I find the time for simply sitting down and putting my thoughts on paper is being taken up by other things.

For the past three and a half years, I have had the enormous honor, privilege, and satisfaction of putting my professional life in print for you to read. There are no, well, words, to describe what such a simple act of describing the trials, tribulations, and experiences for others to read has meant to me, whether it be in the form of personal therapy or a good outlet for my creative writing skills.

Anyone who has ever had a work of their own published for mass consumption will understand. There is something amazingly gratifying in the knowledge that someone else is going to read what you have created, and they may be able to identify with it. As an engineer, there are sometimes few avenues to express oneself creatively. This column has given me the freedom to write candidly about what happens during the day, with any amount of witticisms, poignancy, technical expertise, and "human nature" that I chose.

For example, when life was consumed with planning and experiencing my wedding, I had the license to incorporate that into the writing of this column. Let's just say it would be very tough to do that while coming up with a scope of work for a PLC-based control system.

To be able to share the experiences I have had, the problems I have encountered, and the people I have met has been one of the most therapeutic things I have ever done. Everyone has those days when nothing seems to go the way it should, and those were the days I would write my column. All the things that had gone wrong, everything that had bothered me, I would put on paper. Nothing would be held back in this draft, from my fears, concerns, and anxieties to the reactions of the clients, contractors, and coworkers.

This "literary explosion" was always very rough, and not fit for anyone's eyes but my own. After rereading this draft, often the things that bothered me the most would appear the least significant. There are many instances that simply re-examining what had happened would point to the true root cause of my problems or would readjust my focus to the real task at hand. This simple act gave me a different viewpoint from which to examine my frustrations, and often allowed a cooler head to prevail, which is very important in the world of business. These "columns" never saw the light of day, but occasionally a heavily toned-down version of the event made its way into print.

The accounts of my experiences early in my career hopefully allowed some of you to look back and remember what it was like to be a young engineer, without the knowledge and experiences you now have. It is very easy (I find myself doing this, and I'm not that far into my career) to lose sight of the fact that everyone comes from a different perspective, especially when they are just entering a new field or occupation.

There are few things more daunting than to enter a company of much more experienced people, knowing they are all looking over your shoulder, often not in a mean or spiteful way, but doing so nonetheless. There is a tendency, on the part of the new engineer, to strive to be perfect so as not to let your coworkers down, and an even greater tendency to get down on yourself if and when mistakes occur.

I had the great fortune of working with a group of seasoned engineers who were very good at restoring my confidence when I would make mistakes. Maybe the accounts of my successes (and even more failures) allowed those of you with fresh young engineers working for you to see the world through their eyes, and understand and remember what it was like in their shoes.

In my very first column I wrote about my mentor, to whom I owe an immense debt of gratitude for his tireless efforts to teach me about the industry, the way my company approaches projects, some of his vast technical expertise, and how to conduct myself in a professional manner. Since he is considered a guru in his chosen field (and rightfully so), I had much to learn, and to this day I have not learned (and probably never will learn) all he has to teach.

Just recently, I was transferred to where he no longer has direct influence on my daily affairs. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the gentleman for everything he has given me, including a sincere love of this industry and all that it encompasses. I hope there comes a time when we can work together more closely again. Thank you Jim, I still owe you a pint, I haven't forgotten...

The star-struck quality I once had may have diminished over the course of this column, but the love for the industry still remains. Unfortunately, even though I am only 26 years old, I have seen (and survived) more "workforce readjustments" (apparently the new PC term for layoffs) than I want to count. It is very difficult to say goodbye to people you have worked, developed good relationships, and shared professional ups and downs with. Last year, during one of these downsizing periods, I was told by a manager that I had survived this round of cuts by "the skin of my teeth." It was an admission I will not soon forget, and it brings home, very effectively, that no matter how secure one feels in their position, there is always that possibility.

As I have chronicled in my column over the past three-plus years, I have experienced and been witness to a lot, both good and bad, and I look forward to seeing what this industry still has in store for me. The current economic slowdown cannot last forever, and I continue to look forward to the time when the biggest issue we deal with is finding qualified people to complete the large volume of available work. That is the way the industry stood when I entered it in November of 1999, and I have complete confidence it will reach those heights again.

Thanks for reading my column, as it has brought me great joy and personal satisfaction to write it. Simply by reading what I wrote, and through the letters and comments directed to the editor of this magazine about my writing, you have contributed to making me a better engineer and a person. Since I was taught not to say goodbye (it just seems too final), I will say, so long for now, since you never know when we'll see each other again.

J.G. Holbrook (a pen name) has decided to stop writing this column for CONTROL. If you believe your words could be suitable for this space, e-mail pstudebaker@putman.net.

 

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