What makes engineering consulting different

Its been a while since I posted – readers will realise that my lull in posts has coincided with my move to Johannesburg and my starting a new job in engineering consulting.

The past 2.5 months at my new company have been a whirlwind of excitement. Being thrown into two projects in the midst of implementation was more challenging than I could have anticipated. Also, learning a new company’s way of operating and getting a feel of how to find and leverage the resources available always takes some time.

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My new company is vastly different to my previous one: I now live in the city and take 5 minutes to get to work, as opposed to driving 65kms everyday to my project site. I work in a large, open-planned office with white walls dotted with brightly coloured panels. Colleagues bounce around on pilates balls at their desks and work flexible hours to beat the traffic. I have swapped out my pink hard-hat for a white one (still gonna try get my pink one back though) and have exchanged safety boots for elegant pencil skirts and heels.

The most interesting and different thing about my job however is that now I have a Client. It wasn’t 3 months ago when I was the Client! Sitting on the other side of the table is quite interesting. For one, I cant be the absolute brat that I am anymore. I really enjoyed being the end-user. Working for a huge multinational gives you the feeling that anything can be possible. Everything is just large – especially in capital projects and the suppliers and consultants that work for you know the value of a customer like that. As a consultant executing two projects for a large multinational, I realise how very difficult it sometimes can be on the receiving-end.

Saying that, it has allowed me to develop in areas I never had a chance to before. I am now very diplomatic about what I say and careful about how I say it. I am conscious about what I do and the quality and detail of my work is ever-more important. I cant say that I don’t enjoy it, in fact, I love it! Its a professional environment in which I am thriving.

The other side of the coin is that now I work even more closely with people than before. Coordinating activities between draughtsmen, engineers and project administrators is all about communication and relationship building. It requires a lot of energy though, and sometimes there is a bit of conflict – but I have come to enjoy a bit of conflict once in a while ;). Just to shake things up, you know?

All in all, everyone is different and are suited to different environments. Production and mining was great experience and something that has launched my career. I would definitely recommend that all engineers get this exposure a an early stage in their careers. However, consulting is very exciting and you get broader exposure to the industry as a whole. Some people start off in consulting and never leave. It may be stressful, but if you are a very driven individual who values professionalism and detail, I would recommend it to you!

What to consider before dating an engineer

Seeing as though I have dated not one, but two engineers, and I am constantly surrounded by (male) engineers, I seem to have become the authority on this topic. My site stats agree that this content – strange as it may be – attracts substantial traffic. So here it is: why not to date an engineer part two.

As much as I hate to generalise, and agree that there are surely many engineers out there who don’t fit the mold, I have picked up certain patterns that should be considered before getting yourself involved with an engineer guy.

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You will not get more of his time – so get over it

Whether your engineer boyfriend is a student, a graduate or senior-level engineer, our workload tends to border on ridiculous.  He will spend more time with his classmates and colleagues than with you.  One of the engineers I worked with and I spent so much time together at work that I knew his wife’s weekly schedule and reminded him a couple of times that he needed to be home early that day to babysit as his wife had book club.  Another graduate engineer at work recently got married and brought his young wife out to the little mining town we lived in. She found it really difficult to adjust to a new home and was always frustrated that her new husband consistently was at the plant late into the night.

Rest assured though – when your engineer boyfriend says he’s at work, he really is at work! And he is busy making a ton of money which you will enjoy spending. Sacrifices.

He will never be the life of a party – so get over it

Engineers are sensitive creatures underneath that tough exterior. They are genuine without being simple and smart without being arrogant. What they will never be is the social butterfly that you want them to be. If they are anything like my ex, they will be reserved and even shy in social situations. They feel most comfortable around family and familiar friends, and will sometimes even close down if forced to make conversation with someone new.  If having a cool, popular and outgoing partner is what you crave, date a guy who studied commerce.

What has worked for me though, is to ply them with a substantial amount of alcohol before introducing them to people. They tend to get on quite well once mildly inebriated.

Engineers are nesters – and you may not like their particular nesting habits – but get over it

An engineer’s home is his safe place and they spend a lot of time making it just right and comfortable for their needs. I have NEVER seen straight men take so much care and pride in their homes.  I might add that not all of them are particularly neat nesters! My first engineer boyfriend was positively a mess! The random stuff he had accumulated over years was stored everywhere – including a massive set of couches which took up most of his room and served no apparent purpose. Nevertheless, what the engineers I know have in common is that they detest anyone trying to rearrange their homes. My first engineer boyfriend would not let me (a neat freak) throw anything out and the second – who I somehow convinced to allow me to redecorate his bedroom – held this against me until the day we broke up. He happened to be an even bigger neat-freak than I was and thought I was a mess. (the irony)

Your engineer boyfriend will have to trust you completely and be confident that you know them and their taste before you can attempt to rearrange their homes. Tread with care ladies – you have been warned.

Their dress-code is bizarre – so get over it

You will notice that your engineer boyfriend has a certain dress-code which he will stick to most days. This may be the standard t-shirt and jeans/ shorts as a student, which may transform into a golf-shirt and jeans/ shorts once he graduates. In short, engineers are most comfortable in their casual clothes and you may have to even put up with awful sock/sandals combinations which will make most women cringe (despite their expansive shoe-collections – don’t bother trying to figure this one out). Unfortunately, attire is not a high priority to engineers as they are practical beings who don’t see a practical reason to dress better than they do.

When engineers go out to a formal function, they realise that they need to dress up to conform to social expectations. Although this is a great start, their execution very often misses the mark entirely.  Ladies, be warned, you will have to guide them in this regard. DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES let them dress themselves. Oversee and direct this process as far as you can. They will likely appreciate the guidance in this area.  Basics such as dressing for your height and body shape, or choosing appropriate and fashionable ties (from this decade) – things that you will take for granted – will need to be supervised. You don’t want to end up at the races dressed in a classy, neutral, chiffon dress alongside your engineer boyfriend who is wearing a shiny, silver suit (which, to make matters worse, he is swimming in).

Yes, yes this actually happened.

So should you date him?

Despite all of the above, the engineers I have dated/ worked with have been great boyfriends. They are sincere and caring and if you can put up with the hours and bad dress sense, I’d say go for it!  Like most men, they will not understand you, will try and solve all your problems when all you want to do is vent a bit, and like any of us will have to make their own mistakes in relationships before they get it right. However, nothing in your house will ever remain broken for more than a week, you will have personalised and trustworthy advice when it comes to cars, cameras, laptops and just about any other mechanical/ electronic purchases and they will be there for you when you are in trouble.

Good luck!

6 Top Time Management Tips for Project Management

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An old varsity friend contacted me the other day for some advice.  He also now works in project management but as a scheduler for several projects happening on various sites. He recently had an incident where the incorrect information was communicated for the progress on one of the sites – which landed him in some hot water.  He asked how he could better keep track of the various tasks and bits of information you have to juggle and keep track of in the fast-paced world of project management

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6 Top Tips for Time Management

Tip 5 – Keep a tracking register

If you are feeling overwhelmed by the vast amounts of content generated by a project and are finding it difficult to keep track of everything, a useful tool is a tracking register. It’s a simple excel spreadsheet where you log each task you are responsible for and input any and all bits of information you can add to each task, including responsible persons, follow-up reminders, due dates and contact information of key persons.  I have used this tool with great effect.  The best part is that you can tick of completed tasks which is sometimes a much-needed ego boost in the demanding environment of project management.

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Tip 5 – Record everything as it comes up

Make sure your tracking register is in an accessible location on your computer, phone or tablet so you can add any new information you receive from site, suppliers or the design team as soon as you become aware of it. If you can’t carry a tablet on site, keep a journal and record absolutely all information. Its amazing how much you will forget when you have a lot going on so don’t rely on your memory.

Tip 4 – Be wary of secondhand information

I have been burned several times by relying on information which I took to be facts, and which ended up being a stretch of the truth. When it comes to keeping track of progress and the completion of tasks, the best thing to do is check for yourself. I cannot tell you how many times a person has sworn that a milestone had been reached only to discover for myself (or worse, from my project manager) that they contractor was still busy!  If you cannot get onto site to check, make sure that the contact you have on that site is reliable and not conflicted.

Make sure you do spot-checks every once in a while to ensure that everyone is being perfectly honest. Remember, different people have different motivations and reporting a task that has run behind may cause that person great discomfort in his/ her chain of reporting.

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Tip 3 – Never open an email twice

How many times have you opened an email and flagged it for a follow-up only to overshoot the deadline on the task?  Take a systematic approach to your emails and action anything important immediately.  If you cannot action it, mark it as unread- this is sometimes more effective than flagging it.

Tip 2 – Prioritize

Within our project team, we use the following method to prioritize tasks: a priority task is either flagged as urgent or important depending on what it is. With so much going on, its easy to just manage the urgent tasks and let the important, yet not immediately urgent tasks overrun your schedule. Sometimes you need to take a firm stance on taking on new urgent tasks and put them on the back-burner for a bit while you attend to the important ones.  This may mean being assertive enough to refuse a task or being firm about how realistic your deadlines are.

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Tip 1 – Communication is key

Working within a multidisciplinary project team, you have a constant stream of information coming in. It also means that you need to constantly be feeding back to your team members and updating them on the tasks under your scope of responsibility.  If you’re falling behind, its best to communicate this early so that your teammates have the opportunity to assist you in easing the load, and are conscious about the amount of new work they are giving you.  When you become aware of a problem or a hiccup, the golden rule is to communicate this immediately to the relevant party. By keeping the lines of communication open at all times, your project team and manager will feel confident in your abilities and you will gain the appreciation you deserve.

Conclusion

Whether you are a student, graduate or professional engineer, project management is a critical skill and good time-management abilities are essential for success. Use the above techniques as they are tried and tested and will make your life a little easier.

What to do after a car accident

I recently had a major accident where I rolled my car about 5 times. The car was a mess and was written off, but by some miracle (it had to be a miracle) I climbed out of the upside down wreck relatively fine. The whiplash was one thing, but trust me, the admin that I had to deal with afterwards was quite another. It surprised me that directly after the accident, I had no idea what to do. I relied 100% on the kindness of absolute strangers who stopped on the side of the road to help me, to get medical attention and attend to immediate concerns.

To see pictures of the car after the crash see this post Changing jobs? Why I did it, and why you should do it too.

So in good, ol’ EngineerChic fashion, I am now going to share some essential advice in the unfortunate circumstance that you end up in a similar situation.

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Immediately after a crash

The first thing you want to do if you’re in a badly crumpled car is to check that you are indeed okay. You may have suffered a neck injury or something else may be broken that you wont even notice because of the adrenaline in your system at that point. Only hours after the accident I noticed that my knee and neck were in some serious pain!  If you suspect that you or anyone else in the vehicle has a neck injury, don’t allow anyone but a paramedic to move them, unless of course the car is on fire or something.

If you are hanging from a seat-belt upside down (like I was), be very careful when you un-clip yourself as you may land on your head and injure your neck further. The procedure is as follows:

  • Put one hand on the ceiling (which is now on the floor and push up to take the weight of the belt.
  • Turn your head to one side and with your other hand, release your seat-belt clip. (this is literally what I had to do)
  • Try to open the door. Luckily mine opened a bit and I just had to kick it a few times to get it opened enough to escape
  • If the door wont open, try breaking the window with a heavy object. Remember that other doors may have less damage than the one that is nearest to you
  • Check and see if there is anyone else you can assist

If the vehicle is still on, TURN IT OFF and remove the keys from the ignition! The car may ignite leaked fuel or something.  This may just be an old wive’s tale, but no hurt in doing it anyway. 

So you’re out. Now what?

Okay, so you’ve escaped the smoking wreck. The thing not to do is jump back in to retrieve any valuables at this stage. In the case of my wreck, the car was still smoking and the petrol tank had spilled. Make sure the vehicle is safe before going anywhere near it. You may want to consider keeping a fire extinguisher in your vehicle – which can also be used to smash windows.

This may seem like complete crazy-talk, but trust me, you never know when something like this will happen to you!

So what you want to do (especially if you’re alone like I was) is to wave someone down. It’s very likely that people will stop. In my case, many people stopped to help. It’s absolutely amazing the kindness and compassion that absolute strangers showed me during that time. I think they were mostly shocked to see that I had survived.  You may need to seek medical attention.  If you do, then ask someone to call an ambulance or give you a lift to a hospital. This is the only good reason to leave the scene of the accident. If you are not injured, you must stay and call the police.

Reporting the accident

You need to call the local police authorities who will meet you at the scene and take down your details. In minor fender-benders with no injuries, you may want to move the vehicles out of the line of traffic after taking pictures of the vehicles positions. If someone has been seriously injured or killed, you may not under any circumstances move the vehicles involved as this would be considered tampering with evidence.

The policeman who helped me allowed me to fill out an accident report on the scene (for insurance) and I received the Accident Number in a few minutes on my cellphone.

Claiming from Insurance

The accident really brought home how important being with a good insurance company is.  I called in to their call center to report the accident. The guy on the phone could not believe how calm I was as I explained the accident and the condition of the vehicle. I was incredibly lucky! They took their time in assessing the vehicle and approving the pay-out, but they eventually did. In the mean time, I had a courtesy car to drive around in.  Luckily I had already broken even on my car repayments so I actually got a decent deposit to put towards my next vehicle.

Dealing with PTSD

Like the hero I believe myself to be, I tried going in to work the following day. By then, the adrenaline had set in and severe stiffness and pain had set in.  My project manager took one look at me in a neck-brace, starting to tear up from the pain and self-pity and sent me home to rest for a week. Do not underestimate the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. You will not believe the thoughts and questions that go through your mind after an experience such as this. Even if the accident/ incident was not as severe, you may have some serious fears to deal with! I went to stay with my aunt and grandmother for those few days and made sure I dealt with my accident properly.

Injury Recovery

As I am an avid runner, I had to take a 6-week break from strenuous physical exercise whilst attending physiotherapy twice a week for my neck spasm. Fortunately my injuries were not worse. In the end, my down-time had to be extended to 8 weeks and I started Pilates after about 4, but I am thankful that I took the time to recover properly.

In closing

Well, I sincerely hope you will never have to live through something like this, but if you do, I hop this post will help you.

I’d like to say thank you to a few people:

  • Those kind and caring strangers who went out their way to help me at the worst time of my life
  • BIG UPS to the South African Police Service and the Roosenakal Police Station for their help!
  • Thank you to the colleagues and friends who made sure I was safe and helped me in the day following the accident
  • Being surrounded by family and the outpouring of love and support from friends and family over that week was so helpful in pulling me through and I thank them all for it!
  • Thank you to my sister and mum who flew up from Cape Town and Durban to see me that week. I love you both very much!
  • Thank you to my amazing physio/ Pilates instructor/ friend who was so very supportive during this process.
  • And most of all, thank you to the higher power – what ever you choose to define it as – for keeping me safe and allowing me to emerge from such an experience. Whether it was to teach me something, or point me in a certain direction, I believe that there was a reason I survived.

Changing jobs? Why I did it, and why you should do it too.

After my recent post about my unemployed status, an old varsity-buddy contacted me on Twitter to ask what inspired me to do this. I suppose I should share my reasons as some of you out there may be in the same boat.

See what I’m up to with my time off: LeisureChic

For the past three years I have been working in project management for a multi-national mining company. The project sites were far out of major cities/ airports and because there was not much to do out there, I ended up making many four-hour trips to the city and back. Returning to site one Monday morning last October, I was driven off the road by a carrier-truck and my SUV rolled several times and came to a grinding halt on its roof. I managed to get out of the car with minor whiplash injuries. I was incredibly lucky, but from the photographs below you can see that my car was not as lucky.

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Since then, I have been seriously thinking about my lifestyle and the fact that I am so far away from family and friends.  I moved out to Steelpoort to gain valuable experience in the field. I feel that I have done that and have succeeded in a very tough, cut-throat and demanding industry.  Another important point is that my growth curve – very steep throughout my last project – has recently started to plateau.  It all points to the fact that it is now time to apply the experience I have gained to a broader project environment.  I have taken a project engineer position with an engineering consultancy working on major projects for the mining industry across Africa. This is the type of company my previous employer would have outsourced its design and manufacturing services out to.

It’s exciting that I’m now going to see the other side of the coin. Having insight into the operations of a multi-national, as well as the management of a major project will (hopefully) give me an advantage in the consulting climate.  For one, I know the real-world impact of poor design decisions taken months or even years before.  In my experience, design engineers who have never worked in the field sometimes fall short in terms of operability and maintainability of equipment, or how difficult its assembly would be.  Having commissioned a plant and been involved in the running and problem solving of design blunders from the ground, I hope to avoid these basic mistakes.

But for those of you out there who are asking yourselves whether it may be time to make a change, perhaps the following questions would be able to help make your mind up:

  • Are you still learning at a very rapid rate? And if so, is this new experience/ knowledge valuable to your career long-term?
  • Does the experience you are gaining justify any major sacrifices to your lifestyle, health and well-being?
  • Do you enjoy what you do and is there scope for growth and promotion into a position that is attractive to you?

The answers to the above questions were a “no” for me. Perhaps you are in a different situation and still have more to gain where you are, or maybe it is time for you to move on.  You will know what is right when the time comes to decide.

EngineerChic Poll: Whats NOT appropriate in a job Interview

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Interview Tips for Engineers

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I recently got a comment from a reader who asked me to share some tips on what to wear for a first interview with some engineering companies.   Having a little experience in that department, let me try and offer some advice.

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1.  Be prepared

Possibly the most important thing you can do before an interview is your homework.  The interviewer wants to see that you know enough about the company, and that you really want to work for them above all other companies.  Research the core business of the company and have a good idea of what they produce or manufacture.   Know in which regions the company operates and where their head office is situated.   All of these facts can be easily found on their website or company profile.

 Also be ready to answer technically specific questions to the field you are applying to.  An operational or manufacturing company is vastly different from an engineering consultancy and the possible career-paths in each of these environments are worlds apart.  For an operational position, depending on your level of experience, you may be asked to answer technical questions, whereas in a consulting environment, they may quiz you on codes and standards related to design.   In project management, you may be questioned on schedule management and quality assurance.

Make sure you are prepared to tackle a question of a technical nature or a small, problem-solving exercise.

2.  Practice

Write down a few questions that are likely to come up in the interview such as:

  1. Tell us a little about yourself.
  2. Why do you want to work for this company?
  3. Why should we hire you for this job?

Practice your answers, out loud, several times until you are comfortable with them.  Your answers should be short and to-the-point and should not drift from the topic.  Each answer should be no longer that about a minute long and should cover a few important things about you that you want them to know.

You can find more common interview questions on the web.

3.  What to Wear

I think that engineers get confused as to how formally to dress for an interview.  Although in most cases, an interview always calls for neat, business-formal attire, there are some engineering companies where the dress code is more relaxed.

 A good rule to follow is to rather be overdressed than underdressed.

Exactly what I would wear

Exactly what I would wear

For a female engineer, you should apply the same logic as a woman applying for a job in sales or banking.  In exceptional cases, you may be called for an interview on a site where a safety dress-code is required, but this is not the norm and they will inform you of this beforehand.  Wear neat and well-fitted clothing that is not too small or large for you.  Rather buy something new that fits well than swim in something of your mother’s.  Stick to neutral, professional colours and neat lines without distracting flourishes and detailing.  A pants or skirt suit with a crisp, white shirt is always a winner.

Wear heels!  Just don’t wear crazy stilettos or anything that you think belongs in a club.  Make sure you can walk comfortably in them.  I like a wedge heel which is far more stable for me since I don’t wear heels on a daily basis.

Try and look attractive, but don’t break the cardinal rules of showing too much skin, cleavage or being to fashionable.  The people doing the interview may not appreciate your efforts!  Check out this earlier post for more tips.

10 Wardrobe Must-Haves for any Engineer-Chic

Selling Yourself: Where Engineers get it Wrong

What Does Business-Casual Mean Anyway?

4.  Accessories, Make-up and Hair

I would encourage the use of accessories and make-up, but in moderation.  Wear small, silver earrings or a dainty pendant and stay away from anything that dangles or distracts. I have a habit of continuously removing and replacing any watch I wear so get rid of anything that could cause a similar distraction.  Carry a small handbag with only what you need for the interview.  Fumbling for documents in a large, oversized handbag may give the impression that you’re disorganised.

 Make up should be light and tasteful. Think of a classy business women going into a meeting. Use foundation and blush sparingly, stay away from coloured eye-shadows and dark or bright lipstick. A little bit of eye-liner and a tasteful lipstick which you can rely on to last the interview is almost all you need. Go all-out on the mascara (I love mascara!).  Don’t ever apply make-up in front of anyone, unless it’s a clear chapstick or labello if you absolutely need to.

This is ideal for an interview

This is ideal for an interview

 Make sure your nails are neat and clean although you should steer clear from flashy French manicures and bright, trendy colours.  I once interviewed a girl with half chipped-off, red nail polish that she chipped away at during the interview.  This did not give a god impression and was very distracting.

 Your hair should be neat and swept or pinned back. It should be professional and you shouldn’t constantly have to sweep it away from your face.  Grown-out highlights may be really hot right now in Hollywood, but simply looks trashy in a professional setting.

5.  Manners

When you walk into the room, greet everyone with a smile and a firm handshake. Especially if you are a woman, offer your own hand and make sure its firm.   I repeat, make sure you offer a firm handshake while looking the person in the eye.  As you know, this is something that is foreign to most women and certain cultures in particular. (In my industry, everyone greets everyone with a handshake every day. This is still difficult for me, but I’m getting used to it).

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 Introduce yourself with your first and last name and try your best to remember theirs.  Don’t beat yourself up too much if you don’t get them right the first time.

 Sit up straight and be as relaxed and natural as possible.  Sitting in interviews can make you really nervous, but try not to be.  Try not to fidget or wobble your leg or anything like that.

 Smile!

 Look people in the eye when you talk to them and maintain good eye-contact.  This may be difficult if it’s something you don’t naturally do, but try practicing with your friends to get over the fear.  Acknowledge what they say and keep your answers and comments short and to the point.

Check out these relevant posts:

10 Wardrobe Must-Haves for any Engineer-Chic

Selling Yourself: Where Engineers get it Wrong

What Does Business-Casual Mean Anyway?

Winter Business Wear

Work-life Balance

I once was at an interview where a senior manager answered a question about the work-life balance of the company.   He answered simply, “Aren’t you living when you’re working?”  This made no sense to me then and I put it off as just being his way of excusing the unreasonable time-demands of the job, but heading into my fourth week of sleep-deprived, torturous (and completely satisfying) commissioning of a new plant, I see things differently.

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My hard-hat during commissioning

Work-life balance is a hot topic no matter what field you may be in, and engineering is no exception.  There are very few engineers in industry who keep regular 9-5 office hours, and in an operational environment, shifts (and these may be night-shifts) may stretch well beyond 12-hours.  In project management , being a deliverable-focused environment, our working times are fluid and unpredictable.  Even during less-demanding phases in the project, you may suddenly have to pull an “all-nighter” to meet a specific deadline.   Right now however, we are in the most time-demanding phase of the project. 

I have been working on the design and construction of a chrome plant for the mining industry for the past 2 years and “commissioning” means that we are finally ready to start turning on all of the equipment: from conveyors to crushers to pumps;  all the way from when the ore comes out of the ground to when our final products spit out onto the massive stockpiles at the very end of the process.  Years of planning and hard work has culminated to bring us to this period and one just hopes like hell that everything will work properly.   Ironically, nothing ever works properly the first time.  Pipes will block (or explode), pumps will burn off their v-belts, the control system will bug out and water will shower (literally shower like a waterfall) from everything at random.  So we start, run into problems, stop, fix and start again.  On and on until you get the system to stabilise.

Although we worked long hours during construction, the engineers’ role comes to life during commissioning and it really is the most exciting part of the project.  This was especially true for me who has been involved in the project from the very start.  My in-depth and expansive knowledge of the process, design and plant equipment was pivotal to getting it started.  So much so, that in the early days of the commissioning, if I were not on site, nothing could happen in one of the major sections of the plant.  It’s an awesome feeling to be trusted and capable of such a feat, but the flip-side is that you cannot, under any circumstances, leave the plant for more than a few hours at a time.

I can honestly say that I have never before worked this hard.  There were days when I was here in overalls running up and down huge steel buildings, climbing onto tanks, sticking my hands into cyclones and turning valves (or attempting to at least), until the early hours of the morning when I could finally drop into bed; only to get back here at 7am and start all over again.  There were even some days (shock! horror!) that I didn’t even wear make-up!  

These past few weeks have really put hair on my chest.  Thick, curly hair.  In the words of a colleague, I grew a pair. 

Caked with mud and dust that settled in every crevice, I spent one evening scrubbing my fingernails with an old toothbrush until finally I gave up and just painted them a dark red to hide the metallic dust that crept into the corners.  Many (women) would consider this a low point in one’s life.  But for me, strangely enough, it wasn’t.  I was in my element, taking charge of my building and all the equipment contained in it, calling the control room to start or stop things, open or close things, leading a team and making adjustments, mistakes, more adjustments until finally getting the system running. Or at least until something happened to mess everything up again.  I loved the feeling of working hard for a real purpose. It was during those long hours on site, battling it out in the cold, dust and constant overflows and spillage pouring down on me that I saw for the first time my plant in action.  All the design and installation of the equipment had taught me very little about how it actually operates and how the various components of the system influence each other, but now I could see it all come to life like magic.  The disciplines  which had until then worked in isolation – mechanical, chemical, electrical and control – all came together to bring this amazing machine to life – a machine that had the power to move in any direction I steered it; and I held the reins.

I never thought that being on site late into the night, dirty, hungry and exhausted would be something I would actually want to do.  I enjoy my free time and like relaxing in the comfort of my home and spending time with family and friends.  I go running in the afternoons, cook, fuss around my house, go shopping and have my hair done like everyone else.  This past month however, I’ve had to steal time to eat, but I didn’t mind. This plant was my baby and it was learning to walk for the first time – I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.  Work-life balance simply didn’t make sense anymore. So much of my life had gone into this work, and now that the fruits of our efforts were about to ripen, we wanted to be here to witness it all.

My life will soon go back to some sort of normality and I will likely have to get used to having so much free time on my hands. The next project will be the same and there will be times when I will have to work like a dog again, but as long as I take ownership and pride in my work, that will be okay.  It’s not the same for everyone  (I don’t have a family at home), but whether you devote 18 hours a day or a fraction of that to something you are truly passionate about, that gets your engine revving,  that gives you a purpose in life; as long as you love what you do it doesn’t matter about work-life balance.  Loving what you do makes it not work at all.

A Purpose-driven Life

I had a couch-surfer spend a few days at my place recently. If you don’t by now know what couch-surfing is, I suggest you Google it with some haste.  My experiences with couch-surfers have been on the whole positive, so when this American guy contacted me through the website saying that he was cycling from Cape Town to Botwana, I was quite interested to see how things would turn out.

So he pitches up on a bicycle – which looked more than slightly shabby.  Slightly shabby is not the word I would use to describe the rider though.  This rider had this big, shaggy beard and was wearing baggy, rooster-print pants which I dubbed “Africa-pants”.  Bluntly, he looked ridiculous!

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A few hours and a bottle of wine later, I’m wide-eyed staring at him as he tells me about his journey up to my little mining town and how the Lesotho mountain pass destroyed him.  I’m thinking, ‘Of all the routes you could have taken to get here, why would you choose the most treacherous, high-altitude and ridiculously cold route in the middle of winter?’  He seems like a real challenge-seeker though, so I say nothing.  Reading about it on his blog later, I was even more amazed that he honestly believed he could conquer Lesotho after already cycling through half the country.

 http://sterlinginafrica.blogspot.com/

The night wore on and more wine was poured and more was revealed about his life and adventures. The Peace Corps in Niger, waiting tables in the top London jazz bar, free-lancing  for Human Rights’ Watch…and now cycling to the Tuli block in Botswana to find a job around the Zimbabwe elections and serve as a correspondent if anything not-so-legit was happening.

Talk about a lost soul!  I couldn’t help myself thinking.

I showed him around our little piece of paradise for a few days and just before he was about to set off, he came down with this chest-cold.  Great, the crazy person is staying on! Note the sarcasm, but I couldn’t in good conscious turn him out to the elements – this poor, lost boy.  The week wore on and I would return each evening from my safe, secure job to find Africa-pants whipping up something interesting and delicious.  In return for my hospitality, he did my dishes and shared his thoughts with me. So many times I found myself being fascinated by his world-view. He was really smart. I mean REALLY smart. He could have been anything – could have by now had a house, a car, a fiancé – stuff we all want, right?  But his life was just so interesting, free and completely centred around his unapologetic sense of self-purpose.

During that week I started thinking about why Africa-pants decided to spend all his savings on a plane-ride to Cape Town, bought a bike and decided to ride north – leaving a girl and all his worldly possessions in London – especially when home and family are in the other direction!  Surely you don’t do this on a whim or because you’ve lost your way.  He was absolutely not lost.  As I got to know him, I realised that he was surer of his purpose in this world than many of the secure, settled individuals I knew.  He knew what he knew and that was that life would be hopelessly boring and vapid if he tried to fit himself into the same box as everybody else.  He was awake to a secret that all of us know deep inside – the secret that there is a greater purpose out there for us – a path that we all must follow in order to reach that destiny.  Most of us are just too scared or lazy to follow that path – making excuses for the things we wished we’d done in our youth.  So few of us are truly brave enough to live our passions and chase our dreams, escaping the trap of the mundane, the secure and striving ever onwards towards that unmistakable pull.

I thought back to my no-so-distant days with Engineers without Borders and to a time where I truly knew my purpose in life. I thought on how unsure my life was back then in many ways, but how incredibly driven, self-motivated and most of all happy I was!  I reflected on my life as an engineer – a rewarding and challenging one – and remembered something I had known before, and forgotten somewhere along these lonely African roads.  The reason I became an engineer was to serve Society and the planet.  My purpose in life was to use my knowledge and my talent to make the world a better, safer and more sustainable place to live in – and I needed to get back on that path, and soon!

Comparing my life right now to his, Africa-pants had no house, no car, no surety of where he was going to sleep that night, but it was undeniable that he was the richer one, the one who knew where he was going in this world.  He was truly living a purpose-driven life.

Who would have thought? All this from a shaggy, bearded traveller…

 http://sterlinginafrica.blogspot.com/