I’ve heard the question of “What do engineers do?” many times. To most, the work of engineers presents a mystery.
You’ve probably seen many engineers in movies though. In almost every movie today an engineer works hard on a shiny new invention.
I view Tony Stark from the Iron Man movies as the most famous fictional engineer.
Tony works on his cars, writes software for his suit, creates electronics for his suit, and powers his suit. So, we can assume Tony’s background includes many types of engineering. I would guess the following:
- Mechanical Engineer
- Electrical Engineer
- Software Engineer
Who knows which degree or degrees he holds. He may have even learned everything on his own. Regardless, few people have skills in so many fields.
You can see now why Elon Musk draws comparisons to Tony. They both juggle many skills almost effortlessly. Plus, both of them make engineering look beyond cool.
Now, what engineers really do may not always seem as cool as what Tony does. Yes, parts of the work do become tedious and boring. I can attest to this.
But engineers do, do some amazing things. Simply look around you. Your phone, airplanes, cars, the internet, and so on.
As with anything though, what you think differs a lot from reality. The movies only show you the end result of months or years of hard work.
The Truth Behind “What Do Engineers Do?”
I’ve worked as an engineer for over a decade in California. This makes it easy for me to answer the question of, “What do engineers do?”
First, we need to know that many different types of engineers exist. Some design, some research, some inspect, some crunch numbers only, and the list goes on.
We can find these different types of engineers in each discipline of engineering. From electrical, mechanical, civil, computer, and the list goes on.
Myself, I work as a consulting electrical engineer at a small firm. As a result, this allows me to directly work on many things and see many things.
I don’t just do one thing like many engineers. My work touches on many different activities.
Typically, you get more hands-on experience in smaller businesses. You get to work on a wider variety of things too. At large companies, your work becomes more specialized.
For example, at a large company, you may only design one thing. Day after day you aim to perfect the design of a chip. This repetitive work can become old very fast for some people.
With that said, I’m going to go over each of the things I do. My work provides a lens into the large world of engineering. But, obviously so much more exists.
Regardless, this will give you a much better idea of what engineers do and can do. Thereafter, you can decide if you should be an engineer.
If you then want to pursue engineering, I’ve written an article on how to be a great engineer. Like with anything else, with a proper road plan, you can accomplish the largest of goals.
1) Finding Engineering Projects to Work On
Without projects to work on, you can’t do any engineering design. Now, to get a project you need to beat out many other firms who want the same project too. If you win, you then have a project to work on.
Keep in mind projects typically don’t fall in your lap either. If they do, they’re smaller projects with a low budget.
So, a major part of my work involves going after projects. Depending on the time of the month I spend 6 to 8 hours a week doing this. This time also includes completing the project proposals.
Think of a project proposal like a resume and cover letter you send to an employer for a new job. The employer uses your resume and cover letter to decide if they want to hire you.
I’ll talk more about project proposals in detail below.
How to Find Engineering Projects
I receive many project leads through certain websites that I subscribe to. The websites send out constant emails with project leads.
They try to closely match jobs to our firm’s work expertise. I check these emails almost daily.
Also, I tap into my network of other engineering firms. I check to see what projects other firms have on their radar to go after.
For the most part, one engineering firm can’t do a single project alone. Firms subcontract each other out to partner up for projects. Each firm will offer their specific specialty.
I would offer support as the electrical sub when requested. We have many electrical specialty skills to support other firms with their projects.
As well, other engineering firms directly contact us to join them as an electrical sub. These firms again need our expert support with various parts of a project. Typically, these firms who contact us, we’ve worked with many times in the past.
This shows the importance of creating great quality work. Most of the firms I’ve worked with, in the past, want to work with me again on future projects too.
Choosing an Engineering Project to Pursue
I complete a project proposal once I find a project that fits my criteria. My project criteria include:
- Projects mainly located in California or neighboring states.
- The scope of work aligns with our skillset. For instance, the scope of work includes design, not inspection or physical labor.
- The requested software to use for a project, we have in house. In other words, we don’t need to go buy a $100,000 new software to do the project. It would not make sense to buy such expensive software. Especially, when a project only pays $75,000 for example.
Thereafter, if I can check off all my project criteria, I then start putting together the proposal. I’m not too fond of this process though. I find this part of the work very draining.
The work involves a lot of formal writing. The type of writing I’m not too fond of.
But, without doing this work you won’t have any projects to engineer. It’s not what you’d expect when you think of, “What do engineers do?”
The Project Proposal
Each potential project includes a proposal. As we learned, to qualify for a project you need to complete a project’s proposal. Then you return the proposal to the owner for their review. The proposal includes such things as:
- Firm description
- Relevant experience of similar projects you’ve completed
- Description of how you’d approach the design of the project
- Description of how you’d manage the project
- Timeline to complete the design
Each of these documents I tailor for the project I’m going after. Sometimes I end up writing 30 plus pages.
Also, each proposal limits the number of pages you can submit in most instances too.
I also gather drawings and documents of our past work to include as reference. This will show our skillset with similar projects.
Then I complete the contract paperwork for the project. This paperwork is tedious and very involving.
But, these overly involved contracts have their place. You need a heavy contract when a project costs millions of dollars and can hurt people.
In total, the project proposal sometimes comes out to over 150 pages. A mini-book!
We typically compete with 15 other engineering firms on any given large project we bid on. A lot of competition exists. So, I can never compromise on the quality of the proposal even though I’m not a fan of the work.
Now, you can see how these proposals take a lot of time. Some of the projects I go after I spend 40 plus hours on. This doesn’t even include my next listed item we’ll discuss in, “What do engineers do?”
2) Job Walks at Project Sites
Some projects we go after, require a job walk. A job walk you go walk the project site with the owner.
The owner I would refer to as our client if we get a project as the prime consultant.
At a project site, the owner describes the project work to you and everyone else interested. Also, the owner will try to answer all the questions too.
For example, imagine a project where a transformer at a substation needs replacement. I would go to the substation to view the project details and ask questions to the owner. Questions I would ask include:
- Why do you want to replace the transformer?
- Any design limitations I should consider?
- Will the transformer rating need to increase?
- Is it necessary to maintain power to loads, when we cut out the transformer for replacement?
- What’s the timeline for the project?
These questions help me better understand the project. This way I can better put together a project proposal. Also, I can better estimate our cost of completing the project.
Now, some projects only require a 2-hour conference call instead of a job walk. Again, the call would include all interested parties in the project.
This call could include 30 other engineering firms. It all depends on the scale of a project. I’ve seen very large projects in California that attract bidders from Europe.
Finally, once I get answers to my questions I then complete the proposal. Thereafter, I submit the proposal to the owner for their review.
The owner then reviews and makes a decision. So, you win some and you lose some. All part of the project proposal game.
3) Design Work – the Heart of What Do Engineers Do
When you think of what do engineers do, design work comes to mind first. Designing a bridge, building, computer chips, planes, and the list goes on.
The meat of what do engineers do is design work. When you watch an action movie you see an engineer working on the latest future gadget.
They sit at their desk, hard at work alone doing calculations and putting things together.
I saw these scenes in movies with engineers as a kid and it became etched in my mind. I thought it was so cool. But, actual design work differs from what you see in movies.
A lot goes into a design. The process includes many steps and requires the effort of many people.
Before the Design Work Begins
Once I receive a project, I review the scope of work again. I request certain things before I begin the design work. These things include:
#1 Background drawings: I request the background drawings from the project’s civil engineers. Or, sometimes from the owner.
Imagine a substation project. I’ll need a background drawing of the substation to draw my electrical design elements over.
#2 Electrical loads: think of any equipment powered by electricity. As an electrical engineer, I need to know what exact equipment the owner desires to use.
I would more than likely get this information from the project’s civil engineers. They would provide me with information on the new loads.
Also, some equipment I choose for a project. Then, for existing loads, the owner would provide the information.
#3 Other clarifications: any other clarifications I need over the design. For example, any special requests or design limitations in the project I need to know about.
Thereafter, I begin my design work.
The design includes creating design drawings and writing project specs. Specs are short for specifications.
Putting Together Project Specs
The specs include two parts typically. Purchase specs and construction specs.
Purchase specs tell the client what exactly they need to purchase for a project. The purchase specs I write for a given project typically only relate to my own design work.
For example, I may write purchase specs for a 230,000 volt to 34,500 volt transformer. I would consider this a big-ticket item that’ll need a lot of my attention. I can’t make a mistake.
These transformers cost well over a million dollars. Also, the manufacturing lead time stretches over a year. So, specifying equipment of this size requires engineering work to get right.
I can’t just go on a website and order it. I’m not ordering the latest iPhone.
I need to carefully write the purchase specs. This way, the transformer will meet my exact project requirements.
But, with smaller products, I check the equipment of various manufacturers online. I check to see if their equipment will work with our project. This search could take days too.
I search the website of these manufacturers and sometimes speak with their reps. This process ensures the equipment I choose meets all our project specs.
Construction specs go over the requirements for the construction of my design.
When I write construction specs I think through all parts of a project. I think of every edge case a contractor may experience. As a result, I always write my specs in deep detail.
You need to spell everything out for a contractor. Also, include all possible edge cases to ensure no confusions exist.
This ensures the contractor understands all project details. Otherwise, a contractor could issue a change order.
Change orders only lead to unhappy clients. The contractor will want more money and delays will happen in the project.
The contractor will say, “I did the design per the specs. The engineer’s specs didn’t say all high voltage equipment require a 48-inch clearance. Only the disconnect switches had this 48-inch clearance listed in the specs. So, for the other equipment, I only kept a 36-inch clearance.”
Also, imagine a contractor who purchases the wrong equipment. Next, they install the wrong equipment at the site.
This would turn into a $10 million mistake for an expensive piece of equipment. To top it off, it would delay a project for well over one year.
So, you want to always limit the number of change orders.
Creating Design Drawings
The design drawings typically take most of my time. For some projects, I end up creating over 75 pages of drawings.
Like my specs, I put a lot of detail into my design drawings. They need to show exactly what I want a contractor to do.
Again, I need to limit change orders. I want a contractor to know exactly what to do without asking many questions. No different than you quickly baking the perfect cake using a recipe you find online.
Also, the design process with a client always includes curveballs. You can’t avoid it. Common problems I experience in the design process include:
- The project scope changing midway in design.
- Not receiving all my requested information on time. For example, receiving answers to my questions the week before the deadline.
- Finding a design limitation once I start my work. As a result, I would discuss with the client my findings. I would also propose an alternative design at this point too.
- The owner’s budget dries up.
As a result of this, I always remain ahead of schedule with my design work. Also, I ask as many questions as I need to, to my client.
These questions help me better understand the project. Additionally, they make a client re-think their project scope. They may have overlooked a certain detail.
For this reason, some engineering requires social skills as hard to believe as that may sound. Especially more so for engineers on the front line, who directly work with clients.
I directly work with clients as I do design work. Given that, I never shy away from asking questions and pointing out someone’s mistakes.
It doesn’t matter who made the mistake. I’m hired as an expert for a reason.
In summary, without social interactions, your design work would struggle. You’ll make a mistake and have an unhappy client.
4) Construction Services
After completion of a project’s design the construction services begin. Construction services include several items:
1) RFIs (Request For Information): I answer contractor questions. Contractors will have questions over my design drawings and specs.
The contractor may have difficulty finding something in my drawings or in my specs. Or, my drawings and specs may not provide the level of detail they need in construction.
2) Submittal Review: I review the contractor’s equipment choice before they purchase. The contractor purchases equipment from what they find specified in my design work.
In other words, the contractor chooses a specific brand and type for the equipment I specify. I typically provide a specific equipment vendor and model, and also say “or approved equal”.
The contractor can then purchase the exact model I specify. Or, they can find something comparable that may save them money.
Now, to help you better understand, let’s do an exercise. Imagine I tell you to purchase Addidas Ultraboost size 10 blue running shoes. Or, approved equal shoes.
You then choose Nike Air Zoom size 10 blue color running shoes. You send me the link of the shoes and ask for my blessing before you buy it.
I check the shoes. If I find them acceptable for what I need, I’ll give you the green light to buy.
Similar to a contractor. If I find their selected equipment as acceptable, I’ll allow them to place their order. Very simple.
3) Construction Management: I go to the job site and watch over the construction. I check to see if the construction meets my design. Also, I answer any questions the contractor may have.
Sometimes I only go out to a job site once or twice in the entire project length. Once in the beginning and once when construction ends.
Other times, I may go out twice a week for the entire length of the construction. It all depends on what the owner wants me to do.
4) As-built drawings: the construction always differs in some way from the final design. For example, the routing of conduit changes.
In other words, a contractor may change the routing of a conduit in the field. What I have shown in a design drawing may not work in the field, once they start digging.
When construction begins, the contractor may find something undocumented underground. As a result, the conduit routing changes to go around the newly found underground object.
So, when construction ends, I receive our design drawings marked up with changes. The contractor marks up the design drawings with a colored pen or pencil.
I then reflect all the contractor’s markups on a final set of design drawings using my drafting software. Now, the client will have a complete and accurate drawing set.
If the client wants to make any future changes with new projects, they easily can now.
5) Startup of a Completed Project
When construction ends, the installed equipment needs testing. So, a project always ends with successful startup testing.
For this last project phase, I go to the project site to check and watch over the startup of the equipment.
Everyone meets at the project site on a coordinated date. This includes the various testing companies.
For example, with a hydroelectric project we check and test many things in the startup phase:
- Do the turbine and generator work?
- Do all generator alarms trigger properly?
- How well do the protective relays operate?
- Do all the pipe valves open and close when commanded?
Now, nothing ever does go smoothly. Problems happen and you need to find solutions quickly.
But, once I give my approval over the startup testing, the project ends from my side. I always enjoy seeing my completed design with the hard work of everyone involved.
Also, you can’t beat a happy client.
As with any business, the dollars in and out need management. So, I involve myself with the accounting work of projects. Also, I deal with clients over billing and invoices.
Some of the accounting work I do includes:
1) Budgeting: tracking the budget for a project. Sometimes I need to request more money from a client when I do too much out of scope work. Because of this out of scope work, I have less budget for my actual contracted work.
2) Invoice prep: checking if invoices properly go out to clients. Also, some clients request certain information included in their invoices. For example, they want to know the exact work I did to bill 20 hours.
3) Invoice tracking: checking if a client pays their invoices on time. With some clients, it becomes like pulling teeth to get paid.
Beyond the above listed, an accountant handles the remaining accounting work.
7) Downtime as an Engineer
Downtime always exists at various times in a year. When I don’t have any work to do, I consider that downtime.
Sometimes the downtime lasts for several weeks straight, and other times only one day a month.
Downtime gives me time to search for more projects. Also, to research different technical subjects and organize my documents.
I always like to remain organized. Even with computers, I have a lot of handwritten notes and calculations on my desk.
So, organizing documents clears space for new projects. Also, it helps me reference technical ideas for future projects.
Downtime also allows me to plan other things I need to do, such as what I need to learn.
8) Lifelong Learning for Engineers
All in all, engineering fields constantly evolve. You can always learn something new if you have the interest.
I’m not talking about formal education, rather self-learning. I find passionate self-learning more effective than sitting in a classroom. Even when you have a great professor.
For that reason, I find it important to keep up with the latest news, inventions, and information. This way I can offer the best and most cost-effective designs to my clients. Plus, I love to learn more and more every day.
So, to think like an engineer you need to stay ahead of the pack. This means you always need to feed your mind. I do this by doing the following:
1) Magazine subscription: I receive monthly subscriptions to engineering magazines. Yes, I know, who reads magazines these days? I do. I still enjoy holding and reading certain magazines.
Some of the articles are topics that I wouldn’t think to look up on Google. So, magazines can still benefit you and help you learn new things.
2) Books: I read a lot of books. They help sharpen my mind and teach me new things.
I have a long list of books I still need to read, and that I’m constantly adding to.
3) Equipment suppliers: I receive messages from suppliers all the time. They want to showcase their latest equipment to me. When I have time, I invite them over.
The suppliers go over their latest equipment with me. They hope I use their equipment in my future projects. All in all, new better equipment helps my clients and helps me learn more too.
Finally, one thing I always say when asked, “What do engineers do?” My response always ends with, continue your learning.
Most of us become engineers because we have a curious mind. Like a hungry stomach, you need to feed a curious mind.
What Do Engineers Do? Many Things!
To summarize, I went over 8 things I do as an engineer. Some of the smaller pieces of my work I left out. But, the main work I do I covered in these 8 sections.
To make a point, each of these 8 things I do could become their own full-time jobs.
For example, at a company, one engineer may only go after jobs. Then at a different company, one engineer may only do design work.
Thankfully, in engineering, your type of work doesn’t need to have limitations. As a result, your work never becomes stale. You’ll constantly do and learn different and new things.
One month you may mostly go after new jobs. Then the next several months you may only do design work.
Search and Find What You Want to Do
Find what type of engineering interests you. Then look for your ideal job.
If you despise crunching the same numbers day after day, then avoid large companies. At a large company, you’ll more than likely only have a specialized role.
If you don’t want limitations with your work, look for a small company to work in. Even more, start your own engineering business. This way you’ll do both business and engineering work together at a high level.
In short, you can find work in whatever you have an interest in. After all, you now have the answer to the question of, “What do engineers do?”
To sum up, what type of work interests you? Also, did you envision engineering work to be like how I’ve described?
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Author Bio: Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2019 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for well over a decade now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, sports, and our history and future.