What do engineers do? Most people think engineers just design cools things. But beyond that, the work of engineers is a mystery to many.
Now, you’ve probably seen many engineers in movies. In almost every movie today, an engineer is working hard on a shiny new invention.
Imagine Tony Stark from the Iron Man movies. The most famous fictional engineer.
Tony writes software, creates electronics, and generates power for his suit. We can assume Tony’s background includes many types of engineering. I would guess the following:
- Mechanical Engineer
- Electrical Engineer
- Software Engineer
So, he holds many degrees or maybe he’s self-taught. Regardless, few people hold this many skills.
You can see why Elon Musk draws a comparison to Tony. They both juggle many skillsets almost effortlessly. Plus, they make engineering look cool.
Now, what engineers really do may not always seem as cool as what Tony does. Yes, parts of the work can be very boring. I know firsthand.
But engineers do, do some amazing things. Look around you. Your phone, airplanes, cars, the internet, and so on.
But, what you think engineers do differs a lot from reality. The movies only show you the end result of years of hard work.
The truth behind “what do engineers do?”
I’ve worked as an engineer for over a decade in California. I can easily answer the question of, “what do engineers do?”
But first, important to realize that many types of engineers exist. Some design, some research, some inspect, some crunch numbers, and the list goes on.
We can find these different types of engineers in each discipline of engineering. From electrical to mechanical, to every other field of engineering.
Now, I work as a consulting electrical engineer at a small firm. As a result, I directly work and see many things.
While some engineers focus on one thing, my work touches on many different activities.
Typically, you get more hands-on experience in smaller businesses. You get to work on a wide variety of things. At large companies your work becomes specialized.
For example, at a large company, you may only design one type of chip. Day after day you aim to perfect the chip design. Naturally, repetitive work can become old very fast for some people.
That said, I’m going to go over what I do in my work. My work provides a lens into the larger world of engineering. But still, so much more exists.
Regardless, you’ll get a much better idea of what engineers do. This will help you decide if you should be an engineer.
If this is the career path for you, I’ve even written an article on how to be a great engineer.
1) Finding engineering projects to work on
Without projects to work on, you can’t do any engineering design. And, new projects typically don’t fall in your lap either. Unless you’ve built a strong reputation.
My point is, the process isn’t a cakewalk. You need to beat out many other firms who want the same project too. Sometimes, this means competing with firms from across the country. Or even, from other countries.
Now, plenty of projects come our way. But still, a good part of my work involves going after projects.
Depending on the time of the month, I spend 4 to 6 hours a week doing this. This includes completing 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 a later section.
How to find new engineering projects
I receive project leads through certain project bid websites I subscribe to.
The websites try to closely match projects to our firm’s work expertise. A lot of the time, it’s hit and miss.
Next, I tap into my network. I check to see what projects other engineering firms are going after.
For the most part, one engineering firm can’t do a single project alone. Thus, firms subcontract specialty work out.
In my role, I offer support as the electrical sub when requested. We offer many electrical specialty services to support other firms with their projects.
For one, even many electric firms don’t have experience with high-voltage. This gives us a leg up.
Finally, other engineering firms directly contact us to join their team. These firms again need our expert support with various parts of projects. A lot of the times, we’ve worked with these firms in the past, who reach out to us.
This is why it’s important to always create great quality work. Your reputation can make or break you.
Choosing an Engineering Project to Pursue
I do project proposals for projects that fit my following criteria:
- Projects located in California or neighboring states.
- The scope of work aligns with our skillset. For instance, the scope of work includes electrical design. Not inspection or physical labor.
- We have the software the client wants to use, inhouse. In other words, we don’t need to go buy a $100,000 new software to do the project. For example, it wouldn’t make sense to buy expensive software when a project only pays $75,000.
Once I can check off my project criteria, I assemble my proposal. I’m not fond of this process though. It’s repetitive and grueling work that requires a lot of formal writing.
Unfortunately, it’s part of the process. It’s not what you’d expect when you think of, “what do engineers do?”
What’s included in the project proposal?
Here’s everything I include in my project proposal:
- Firm’s background and description
- Relevant experience of similar projects completed
- Description of the project design approach
- Description of project management
- Timeline to complete work
- Similar project design drawings from past projects as reference
- Insurance, permit, and certification documents
- Cost breakdown to complete project
- The formal contract that includes things like an NDA
Also, each of these documents I tailor for the given project scope. As an example, below is a sample scope of work for a hydroelectric project.
In total, the project proposal sometimes comes out to over 150 pages. A mini-book!
And sometimes, we compete with 30 plus other engineering firms on a large project we bid on. So you can’t skip out on quality.
Also, you only go after projects you have a chance to win. It sucks to spend days on these proposals and get nothing in return.
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 and the project work to all interested parties.
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 the owner the following questions:
- Why do you want to replace the transformer?
- Any design limitations I should consider?
- Will the transformer rating need to increase due to added loads?
- 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 put together a better project proposal.
On that note, some projects only require a 2-hour conference call instead of a job walk. Again, the same deal. It’s firms trying to learn about a project from the owner to put together the best proposal.
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.
In Hollywood movies, you see engineers in far corner rooms working hard on future gadgets.
I saw these movie scenes as a kid and they became etched in my mind. I thought it was so cool.
But, actual design work differs from movies. Nothing happens overnight.
In fact, the design process includes many steps and requires the effort of many people.
Before the electrical design work begins for a substation
Before I start a project, I review the scope of work and I request certain items from the client. These items 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 existing substation. Otherwise, I can’t properly draw my electrical design elements on a physical plan.
#2 Electrical loads: I need to know the loads the owner wants to power. This can include a 120-volt LED light load to a 4,160V 10,000 HP pump.
#3 Other clarifications: any other clarifications I need over the design. For example, any special requests or design limitations I need to know about.
Once I have all my information, I begin my work. My design package includes design drawings and project specs. Specs are short for specifications.
Putting together project specs
Typically, project specs include two parts. Purchase specs and construction specs.
Purchase specs tell the client what exactly they need to purchase for a project. The purchase specs I write are for electrical equipment included in my 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 afford to make a mistake.
These transformers cost well over a million dollars. Also, the manufacturing lead time is over a year. So, specifying equipment of this size requires a lot of engineering work to get right.
I can’t just go on a website and order the transformer. It’s not like ordering the latest iPhone.
But, with smaller products, I check various manufacturers online. Also, I sometimes speak with their reps over the phone if I have any questions.
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. So, these specs are very detailed to avoid any contractor confusion.
This ensures the contractor completely 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 there will be project delays.
The contractor will say, “I did the design per the contract specs. The engineer’s specs didn’t state all high voltage equipment require a 48-inch clearance. So, I only kept a 36-inch clearance in my installation.”
These are expensive headaches you don’t want to deal with. Especially, when a client is on a tight schedule.
Creating design drawings
The design drawings typically take most of my time. For some projects, I end up creating over 75 design 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 a perfectly written cake recipe that you follow effortlessly.
Keep in mind, the design phase includes the following client curveballs too:
- The project scope changed midway through the design
- The requested engineering information isn’t received on time
- Finding a design limitation the client hadn’t talked about
- The client’s budget dried up
For this reason, I always remain ahead of schedule with my design work. Also, this is why in the beginning I ask the client many questions.
Not only do these questions help me better understand a project. They make a client re-think their project details.
4) Construction Services
Once the project design is complete, construction services begin. Construction services include the following:
1) RFIs (Request For Information): I answer contractor questions. Questions over my design drawings and specs.
The contractor may have difficulty finding something in my drawings or specs. Or, maybe I didn’t provide the level of detail they needed for construction.
2) Submittal Review: I review the contractor’s equipment choice before they purchase. I tell them if they can make the purchase or not.
In this process, the contractor looks to purchase the equipment I specify in my design work. I typically provide a specific equipment vendor and model, and also say “or approved equal”.
So, the contractor can purchase the exact model I specify. Or, they can find something comparable that may save them money.
To help you better understand, let’s do an exercise. Imagine I tell you to buy Adidas 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 approval 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 acceptable, I tell them to go ahead and buy.
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 contractor questions.
Sometimes I only go 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 twice a week for the entire length of the construction. It all depends on what the client wants.
4) As-built drawings: the construction always differs in some way from the final design.
For example, a contractor may change the routing of a conduit in the field. What I show in a design drawing is only schematic.
When construction begins, the contractor may find something undocumented underground. As a result, the conduit route changes to avoid the underground obstacle.
So, when construction ends, I receive our marked up design drawings from the contractor. The markups include all my design elements that have changed.
I reflect all contractor markups in a final set of design drawings. I also include design changes from the contractor’s RFIs.
As a result, the client will have a complete and accurate drawing set. This helps them with future projects.
5) Startup of a completed project
A project truly ends after successful startup testing. This happens after construction.
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, including equipment vendors and testing companies.
For example, with a hydroelectric project, we check and test many things in the startup phase. This includes the following:
- 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?
Keep in mind, nothing ever does go smoothly. You need to troubleshoot quickly onsite.
That said, once I give my approval over the startup testing, the project ends from my side.
It’s always great to see a completed working project. And even better, to have a happy client.
6) Handling billing and accounting
As with any business, the dollars in and out need management. Otherwise, a business would sink.
So, I directly 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 given out of scope work.
2) Invoice prep: checking if invoices properly go out to clients. Also, some clients request certain information included in their invoices. For example, the work I did for my billable 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 will handle the details of the accounting work.
7) Downtime as an engineer
Downtime always exists throughout the year. When I don’t have any billable work, I consider that downtime.
Sometimes the downtime is for several weeks straight, and other times only one day in a month.
Downtime allows you to do the following:
- Search for more projects
- Research technical subjects and new tech
- Organize documents
In short, downtime allows me to plan and learn for the future.
8) Lifelong learning for engineers
Engineering fields constantly evolve. So, you need to always be learning.
I’m not talking about formal education, rather self-learning. I find passionate self-learning more effective than sitting in any classroom.
I’m talking about learning about the latest industry news, inventions, and regulations. This way I can offer the best and most cost-effective designs to my clients.
So, to think like a great engineer you need to stay ahead of the pack. I do this by doing the following:
1) Magazine subscriptions: 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 I wouldn’t think to look up on Google too.
2) Books: I read many books. They help sharpen my mind and teach me new things.
I have a long list of books to read, that I’m constantly adding to too.
3) Equipment suppliers: I receive messages from suppliers all the time. When I have time, I invite them over for an in-person presentation.
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 benefits my clients and helps me learn more too.
In short, in engineering, you need to constantly feed a curious mind.
What Do Engineers Do? Many Things!
I went over 8 primary things I do as an engineer. Keep in mind, each of these 8 things could be their own full-time job.
For example, at a company, one engineer may only pursue new projects. Then at a different company, one engineer may only do design work.
Thankfully, there are many job types to choose from. So, your work never needs to become stale.
Like with me, one month I may focus more on pursuing new projects. Then the next several months I 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. Instead, 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 at a high level.
In short, you can find work in any interest you have. Engineering is a very large field with endless options.
What type of engineering work interests you? What’s your ideal engineering job?
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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 15 years 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, fitness, and our history and future.