I’ve heard the question many times over of, “What do engineers do?”
You’ve probably seen many engineers in movies. Most every movie today has one working hard on a shiny new invention. The most famous is Tony Stark in the Iron Man movies.
Tony works on his cars, writes software for his suit, creates electronics for his suit, and powers his suit. So, we can assume Tony may be a:
- Mechanical Engineer
- Electrical Engineer
- Software Engineer
Who knows which degree or degrees he holds? He may even be self-taught. Regardless, not many people have skills in so many things.
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 be as cool as what Tony does. Yes, parts of the work 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 the list goes 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 consultant 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, the smaller the business the more hands on experience you get on different things. 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 to some people.
With that said, I’m going to go over each of the things I do. This will give you a much better idea of what engineers do and can do.
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 tens of 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. These websites send out constant emails with project leads that closely match my project criteria. I check these emails almost daily.
Also, I tap into my personal network of other engineering firms. I check to see what projects others may be going after.
For the most part, many engineering firms need to subcontract out portions of every project. I would offer support as the electrical sub when requested. We have many electrical specialty skills that help 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:
- Project located in California.
- The scope of work aligns with our skill set. For instance, the scope of work includes design, not inspection or physical labor.
- The project’s requested used software, 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 purchase such an 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 portion of the work to be very draining.
The work involves a lot of formal writing. The type of writing I’m not too fond of.
However, 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. Each proposal has a different page count limit.
I also gather drawings and documents of our past work to include as reference. This will show our skill set with similar projects.
Then I complete the contract paperwork for the project. This paperwork is tedious and very involving.
However, these overly involved contracts have their place. A project costing millions of dollars with the ability to hurt or even kill people, requires a heavy contract.
In total the project proposal sometimes comes out to over 150 pages. It’s a mini book!
We typically compete with up to 30 other engineering firms on any given project. The competition is high. 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 our 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 win a project.
At a project site, the owner describes the project work to you and to everyone else interested in the project. The owner will try to answer all of our 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 is the transformer being replaced?
- Any design limitations I should consider?
- Will the transformer rating need to increase?
- Is it necessary to maintain power to loads connected to the transformer, when the transformer is shut off?
- 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 for 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.
Sometimes this includes 30 other engineering firms who are all interested in the same project.
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. However, actual design work differs than what we 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 have won a project, I review the scope of work. I request certain things before I begin the design work too, which include:
#1 Background drawings. I request the background drawings from the project’s civil engineers. Imagine a substation project. I’ll need a background drawing of the substation to draw my electrical design over.
#2 Electrical loads. Think of any equipment powered by electricity. I need to know what exact equipment the owner desires to use as the electrical engineer.
I would more than likely get this information from the project’s civil engineers.
Some equipment I choose for a project. Then, other equipment the civil engineers would give to me.
#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 is 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 will need a lot of my attention. I can’t make a mistake.
The transformer cost is well over a million dollars. Also, the manufacturing lead time is 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 for this transformer to meet my exact project requirements.
Now, to complete the purchase specs for smaller products, I simply check the equipment of various manufacturers. 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.
This ensures the contractor understands all project details. Otherwise, a confused contractor could lead to change orders.
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 purchasing the wrong equipment and installing it at site. This would turn into a $10 million mistake for an expensive piece of equipment. Also, it would delay a project for well over one year.
Creating Design Drawings
The design drawings are typically the most time consuming of my work. For some projects I end up having to create over 50 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.
Also, any design work always includes curve balls thrown at you. 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 day 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.
- 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 a project and they make a client think of things they may have missed.
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 and do my design work. Given that, I never shy away from asking more and more questions, and pointing out someone’s mistakes.
Doesn’t matter who made the mistake. I’m hired as the expert for a reason.
Summing up, without social interactions a design will more than likely have many mistakes.
4) Construction Services
After completion of a project’s design the construction services begins. Construction services include several items:
1) RFIs (Request For Information): I answer contractor 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.
2) Submittal Review: I review the selected equipment by the contractor that come from my design, that they want to purchase. This equipment comes from my purchase specs. So, if I find the contractor’s selected equipment as acceptable, I allow them to place their order.
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, a conduit’s routing changes.
How I have shown a conduit routed on my design drawing may differ than how the conduit routes in construction.
This is because when construction begins something undocumented may be found underground. As a result, the conduit routing needs to change to go around the newly found underground object.
So, once construction completes, the contractor will send me all our design drawings marked up. 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. This way the client has a complete set of accurate design drawings that match the construction.
If the client wants to make any future changes to their site with new projects, they now easily can do so.
5) Startup of a Completed Project
When construction ends the installed equipment requires testing. A project then 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.
As an example, with a hydroelectric site many things need to be checked and tested in startup:
- Does the turbine and generator work?
- Do each of the generator alarms work?
- Do all the pipe valves properly open and close given certain commands?
- How well do the protective relays operate?
Once I give my approval over the startup, the project is then complete. It’s always great to see your design up and running with your clients happy.
However, nothing does ever go smoothly. Problems happen and solutions need to be found quickly. That’s engineering for you!
As with any business, the dollars in and out need management. I involve myself with the review over parts of the dollars circling in the business.
Some of the things I do include:
1) Tracking the budget for a project. Sometimes I need to request more money from a client when I’m doing too much out of scope work. As a result of doing out of scope work, I will have less budget for my actual contracted work.
2) Checking if a client pays their invoices on time.
3) Checking if invoices properly go out to clients. Some clients want certain information included on their invoices. For example, they want to know the exact work I did to bill 20 hours.
An accountant handles the remaining bulk of the 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 jobs, research different technical things, and organize my documents.
I always like to remain organized. Even with computers today, I still have a lot of handwritten notes and calculations spread across my desk. So, organizing documents clears space for new projects. Also, it helps me easily 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 the engineering field constantly evolves. You can always learn something new if you have the interest.
I’m not talking about formal education, rather self learning. Self learning I find more effective than sitting in a classroom listening to a professor talk.
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.
To stay ahead of the pack and to feed my mind I do several things:
1) I receive a monthly subscription 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 are still a great resource to learn new things.
2) 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) 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 in the hope I use their equipment in my future projects. 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, a curious mind needs to be fed.
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. However, the main work I do I covered in these 8 sections.
To make a point, each of these 8 things I do could be a full-time job in itself. However, this does excludes my downtime and researching of course.
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, your work doesn’t need to have such limitations. As a result, your work never becomes stale. You’ll constantly do different things and learn 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
In short, find what type of engineering interests you. Then look for your ideal job.
If you despise crunching the same numbers day after day or doing paperwork all 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 at. Even more, start your own engineering business. This way you’ll do both business and engineering work together.
You can find work in whatever you have an interest in. Some type of work exists for everyone, especially now that we’ve answered 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?
Author Bio: Ken 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 over a decade now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Ken 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).
Ken is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, and our history and future.