Employee Mistrust – The Truth Behind Timecards

Maybe it’s time to take a fresh look at staff accountability and write-off timecards for good.


When I started my company, I swore that I would never fill out another timecard again.  After all, owning your own company should come with some perks and filling out daily timecards was one of the things I loathed most about working for the man. While employers will argue that timecards are essential for project tracking and staff accountability, it’s pretty obvious to those subjected to this daily exercise in creative storytelling that timecards are a waste of time.

First of all, relying on timecards to track project progress is a joke. Effective project managers should know where their projects stand based on actual results, not the number of hours that employees claim they have worked on a given task.

We all know the drill. For each day worked, employees input a detailed accounting of the projects they worked on, the tasks performed, and the number of hours – or fractions thereof – spent on each task. At the end of each billing cycle, a report is generated that shows the total time that employees billed to a given project on their timecards. Hours are multiplied by individual billing rates and a total dollar amount is generated. Then, after all of that… the project manager just bills what they can justify to the client based on actual results!

Next, timecards are inherently inaccurate and actually encourage dishonesty in the workplace.

What if employees have logged hours to a project in excess of the project budget? No problem. Just minimize additional hours allocated to that project and focus on projects with more budget. Meanwhile, the over-budget project still needs to get done. Where do those hours go on the timecard? To the project with extra budget, of course.

What about the inevitable non-billable time spent attending office meetings, checking emails, and (gulp) filling out timecards? If it was less than an hour; just round down or bill it to ‘project administration.’ Employees need to keep their utilization rate up if they’re going to survive the next round of layoffs!

Fudging timecards in order to meet utilization goals or avoid project write-offs doesn’t necessarily make one a bad person; but it certainly puts employees in a bad situation when they are rewarded for dishonesty and encouraged to round up or down in order to make the numbers work.

So, why fill out timecards at all? The best I can figure, there is an inherent mistrust that employers have towards their employees. Requiring staff to document every minute of the workday gives a sense of control and accountability to management. The reality, however, is that a high performance team doesn’t need an outdated system of time tracking in order to hold each other accountable and excel in serving their clients. Their results, not their tracked hours, speak for themselves.

 In today’s climate of flexible work arrangements, remote offices, and unlimited vacation policies, the employer-employee relationship is built on mutual trust. If there is an underlying fear that employees are going to waste time or cheat the company, timecards are not going to fix that.

I fully recognize that timecards are so embedded into the culture of most companies that questioning their necessity is like questioning the need for an office coffee machine. However, if starting a company has taught me anything, it’s that implementing practices simply because “we’ve always done it that way” is a recipe for mediocrity.

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Three Key Roles

In the engineering world today, there seems to be an abundance of seats on the bus, each with their own important sounding job titles.

School BusIn his bestselling book, Good to Great, Jim Collins emphasizes the importance of people to an organization by using a bus analogy.  He encourages companies to focus on “getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.” In the engineering world today, there seems to be an abundance of seats on the bus, each with their own important sounding job titles: Junior Engineer, Engineer, Engineer II, Project Engineer, Associate, Senior Associate, Vice President, Principal, etc. etc.  Despite all of these confusing titles, the essential functions of any successful firm can be narrowed down to three key roles: the Rainmaker, the Manager, and the Technician. Let’s look at each one individually and compare the critical parts that they play in keeping the bus on the road.

The Rainmaker. Among Native American cultures, the Rainmaker is the medicine man who, by rituals and incantations, makes it rain. In dry climates, rain brings life to people by providing food and water. In the corporate environment, the Rainmaker is the person who, by networking and building relationships, makes it rain new work. In competitive business climates, new work provides a steady source of revenue for the people tied to an organization. The Rainmaker’s job is selling. He or she sells professional services to a diverse clientele that is willing to exchange money for the assurance that their project will be in good hands.

Some engineering firms try to make it without a Rainmaker. For bringing in new work, they rely solely on their good reputation, repeat business, and word of mouth. This strategy can create a false sense of security when times are good and their services are in high demand; but these fair-weather firms are the first to cut salaries and layoff staff when the economy starts to level off. It is only through consistent business development efforts, during both good times and bad, that a company is able to maintain a steady and diversified backlog of high quality, profitable projects. Rainmakers are the fuel in the bus that keeps a company moving forward.

The Manager. Most often referred to as a Project Manager, the term becomes redundant when one considers that projects encompass every essential function that can be managed in an engineering organization. From the scheduling of submittals to the collection of fees, everything of any real value is ultimately tied to a project. Without projects, engineering companies die. Without good Managers to oversee these projects, the death is a slow and painful process. Managers keep a company on track through the effective oversight of revenue-generating projects.

Good engineering Managers are a rare breed. They are almost as scarce as engineering Rainmakers. Many times, engineers are promoted to the role of Project Manager simply because there is a need and he or she is available to fill it.  However, the effective management of tasks, clients, schedules, and budgets is not something taught in engineering schools. Managers need to be technical experts in their chosen field, yet at the same time be skilled in organization and interpersonal communications. Managers are the bus drivers that navigate a company to success, one project at a time.

The Technician. Stated quite simply, the Technician is the person who does the technical work. In land development engineering, the Technician creates the grading plan, prepares the drainage study, calculates fire water flows, and designs sanitary sewer collection systems. This is why most of us went to college and became engineers in the first place – to do engineering! The Technician is not to be confused with the now antiquated role of CAD Technician, which has been largely dissolved with the advent of civil modeling applications in which design and plan production occur in tandem.

Unfortunately, the pressure to climb some twisted corporate ladder is what leads many great Technicians into roles for which they are ill suited. A smart Technician with an eye for detail is a critically important factor in completing any project. This often underappreciated position is the third and final key role in successful engineering firms. The Technician is the engine that propels the bus down the road.

About this time, you’re probably asking yourself, “If there are only three key roles, who are all the other people on the bus?” It’s a great question. The fact is many of them are just along for the ride, beneficiaries of an outdated business model that’s people-heavy and service-deficient. A vast number of engineering companies that you see today are stuck in an old way of doing things that ultimately results in wasted talent, poor service, unhappy clients, and disgruntled employees. Perhaps it’s time to consider trading in the old bus for a true performance vehicle.

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Walking is So Overrated

What became very obvious to me as I looked at my swollen, worthless, bandaged feet was that I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

This month marks the one year anniversary of Atlas Civil Design, which I started after working 17 years as an employee for other people’s companies. As expected, it has taken a lot of sacrifice and hard work to get to this point. The amount of travel that I’ve done in the past year has been exhausting. I have attended countless remote meetings, put over 20,000 miles on my vehicle, and obtained Mileage Plus Silver status with United Airlines. What’s remarkable is that in the past 3 months – our most profitable quarter to date – I have done no traveling. Zero. Zilch. In fact, I haven’t attended a single meeting. My secret? Fall off a ladder.

“A life altering injury” is how the surgeon described my bilateral calcaneal fractures (i.e. two broken heels). Two intensive surgeries later, I was to discover that life alterations can sometimes be a good thing, in that they can reveal aspects about oneself, relationships, and even business that may have otherwise been missed. What became very obvious to me as I looked at my swollen, worthless, bandaged feet was that I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The irony in all of this is that I pride myself as a bit of an accessibility expert when it comes to site design; however, it only took a day or so in a wheelchair to realize that virtually no public facility is really accessible to those whose feet are sticking straight out in front of them. Needless to say, the situation did not look promising for a guy whose business required him to travel 50% of the time.

Immediately, I was forced to ask the question, “Is travel really necessary?” And by “travel,” I don’t just mean boarding an airplane to Denver. Getting in a car and attending a meeting at a client’s office across town had suddenly become a major ordeal. In-person site visits, which I had long defended as a necessary responsibility of any self-respecting civil engineer, were now extremely impractical. And how would I ever build and maintain the relationships necessary for sustained business development without taking potential clients out for lunch, coffee, dinner, or cigars? Though I was able to maintain a positive demeanor, there was an overwhelming sense that this ride was about to come to a screeching halt.

I reached out to my clients and briefly explained the situation, assured them that their projects were still in good hands, and requested that I be permitted to participate in any upcoming meetings via phone. They all wished me a successful healing process and then went about their business. No one pulled their project. None of them expressed any great level of concern as to how the work would get done. No one really cared that I wasn’t going to personally attend the next all-hands meeting. To my clients, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Part of me was relieved. Another part of me was baffled and a bit deflated. Why had I been spending so much time traveling if it wasn’t an essential component to success?

The next thing I did was get to work. And boy did I work. It’s amazing how much time can be gained when one is not constantly traveling and attending meetings. My productivity shot through the roof. While I would never try to minimize the importance of face to face interactions, the fact is I had more time to reach out to more people by phone, email, and social media than I ever had driving around from one meeting to the next. The icing on the cake was that I was saving the company thousands of dollars in fuel, meals, and other travel related expenses.

One thing that the long months of traveling had taught me is how to work from anywhere. Armed with nothing more than a laptop and a cell phone, I can run my business from a coffee shop in Brazil (been there, done that). With cloud storage, email, Skype, and thousands of other great Web based information and collaboration tools available to us, it’s amazing that so many people still cling to the traditional conference table meeting. Do I really need to visit a project site in person? Or does Google Earth, online municipal GIS databases, and the 50 million scanner points that the surveyor uploaded paint an edequate picture? For me, the technology allows me to effectively work from home for weeks on end while my feet heal. The work still gets done. The bills still get paid. The backlog of projects continues to grow.

Don’t get me wrong – not being able to walk sucks and I wouldn’t wish this experience upon anyone. I can assure you, when I’m back on my feet, that I will once again be visiting project sites and meeting clients for cigars – if for no other reason than to get out of the office. But I will not be lured into believing the self imposed delusion that success is proportional to the amount of time spent behind the wheel or waiting in the security line at the airport. I’ve got better things to do… like climbing ladders.

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A New Business Model

It has been obvious to me for years now that there is an alternative out there to the traditional brick and mortar engineering business model. Fueled by collaborative technology and a desire on the part of engineers to tap into the collective brain trust of their global counterparts, this growing movement is one of the motivations behind the Engipreneur Blog and the Engipreneur Group on Linkedin. It wasn’t until I launched my own business, however, that I came to recognize the power behind this emerging trend and the very real threat that it poses to more conventional companies.

The mass layoffs of 2008 had a far reaching effect on the perception of the American workforce. Whatever trust that employees had in the corporate realm was vastly eroded. It was clear to everyone that the days of fat pensions and lifelong employment for one company were a thing of the past. Even the public sector failed to provide the security that it once offered. I witnessed the resentment and sense of betrayal firsthand as I engaged numerous times in that awkward discussion where loyal engineers are told that they no longer have a job. The thing about engineers, though, is they tend to analyze problems and look for the root cause so as to not repeat the same mistake twice. As the recession started to break and the rest of the workforce, with their short-term memory, dutifully returned to their jobs, the engineers had developed a cynicism that became obvious during job interviews. Something had changed.

The Great Recession changed companies as well. Less projects and the constant downward pressure on fees made it obvious to professional service firms that fixed overhead expenses were eating away at their profits. They learned that they could actually function with less administrative staff weighing down their bottom line. Many engineering companies further cut their overhead expenses by reducing their office space. Unfortunately, there was only so much fat to be cut. The traditional business structure itself came at a cost; there would always be rent to pay and employee benefit programs to fund.

Imagine an engineer sitting in her home office preparing drainage studies. She no longer has a commute. She no longer has to worry about losing her job. Her clients are primarily other engineers, most of whom work out of their home or small office. She communicates with them and other engineers regularly via email, phone, or Skype. If she needs to collaborate with the grading engineer, she simply shares screens with him online. He is the best grading designer she has ever worked with; he lives four states away. File storage is in the cloud. Money is transferred electronically. Hard to imagine? No, not really.

Now imagine a whole network of engineers, each in business for themselves, collaborating on projects across the nation (or the world). Each one focuses on his or her area of expertise. Some are good at design. Others are good at business development. All of them are highly motivated to succeed. Their livelihood depends on it, as does their new enhanced lifestyle that is enabled by this “new” way of doing business.

Meanwhile, professional service firms across the nation are trying to figure out how to motivate and instill loyalty in a new generation of engineers who are now highly skeptical of the corporate world. They increase the recruiting budget, make salary adjustments that are long overdue, and invest in more team building and social events. Overhead expenses start to climb again. The stage is set for a new competitor to enter the market.

This competitor consists of a highly motivated team of professionals. There are no employees – yet the team is made up of the best and the brightest, made possible through the removal of geographic barriers.  There is no central office space – yet this does little to hinder their technology-fueled collaboration (and let’s face it, clients simply don’t care about plush conference rooms). There is no overhead – yet somehow they function without a hitch and are able to consistently undercut the big guys on fees when it really matters.

This isn’t a pipe dream. It’s happening now and businesses are feeling the effect. Some of them are scrambling to respond. Others are simply preparing for another day at the office in their pajamas.

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Pushing Through the Fear

Overcoming fear sometimes requires extreme measures; measures that make it hard, if not impossible, to fall back into our comfort zone.

As I write this, I am sitting in my parents’ mountain cabin, looking out at the fresh blanket of snow that silently fell during the night. It was one of the most restful nights of sleep that I can remember in my adult life. Now, as I sip coffee and enjoy the warmth of the fireplace, I am experiencing what can only be described as a profound sense of peace combined with eager anticipation at what lies ahead. When I return to civilization in a few short days, I will be handing in my resignation and walking away from a steady paycheck, company car, health benefits, and the opportunity to own a substantial chunk of the engineering firm for which I am currently employed. After 16 years of working for someone else, I am finally pushing through my fear and going into business for myself.

“Peace” and “eager anticipation” are not how I would describe what I was feeling a few short days ago. The internal stress and anxiety that accompanied this decision revealed itself physically in the form of several sleepless nights, muscle tension, and fever blisters. So much for hiding the stress from my wife.

Though I believed that I had already made up my mind, I was actually teetering on the precipice of indecision. There was still an opportunity to go back, to change my mind, to retreat to the safety and security of my comfortable day job. At the same time, I knew that the time was right to go out on my own. This internal conflict ate at me for several days, until I executed several key action items that put me on a solid path to reaching the goals that I knew I needed to pursue.

Fear is a powerful force that uses our internal feelings of doubt and insecurity to squash our ambitions. Give it a foothold, and it will overcome even the most resolute pursuits. Fear is what keeps us on a “safe” career path. It feeds on discouragement and leaves us in a state of paralysis. Overcoming fear sometimes requires extreme measures; measures that make it hard, if not impossible, to fall back into our comfort zone.

For me, those extreme measures included sharing my plans with several key people in my life whom I would never want to disappoint. In speaking with them, I used assertive language and definite timeframes, rather than the usual “some day…” and “I’ve been thinking about…” I took other definitive steps such as securing startup capital and making some key purchases; All things that would make it difficult for me to turn back. Like the attacking invaders that burn their ships upon landing on enemy shores, retreat is no longer an option. Maybe that’s a little dramatic, but you get the point.

With the crippling fear behind me, I can experience the satisfaction of knowing that the decision has been made. Now, I  can give the proper attention to making this new venture succeed; to doing what I was meant to do. Now, I can focus on being an Engipreneur.

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How to Lose Projects and Alienate Clients

Use these tactics on your clients, then sit back and and watch as the opportunities drift away!

There are lots of books, blogs, articles, and seminars aimed at teaching us how to win business and maintain happy customers. To balance this out, I thought it only fair to post some basic guidelines for helping you achieve the exact opposite results. Use these tactics on your clients, then sit back and and watch as the opportunities drift away!

  1. Issue lots of change orders. Nothing communicates incompetence quite like a consultant who cannot accurately scope a project, but then makes up for it by constantly coming back to the client and asking for more money.
  2. Don’t check your work. You’re good. You’re really good. People as good as you don’t need others breathing down their neck trying to scrutinize a design which is obviously perfection. What a waste of time! Besides, how can you possibly wait to turn everything in at the last minute when there is a rigorous quality control system in place? Let it go. I’m sure the surveyors will pick up any problems with the design before it goes to construction.
  3. Wait for clients to call you. Let sleeping dogs lie. No news is good news. If you haven’t heard from your client in a while, it must mean that they’re happy and everything is going well. Let your monthly invoices communicate your progress and leave it at that.
  4. Surprise them. Everyone likes surprises, right? Surprises make life interesting. Do your part to help your clients lead a more interesting life by springing things on them at the last minute. Didn’t realize that the agency processing fees were going to double after the new year? Surprise! No one mentioned that the sewer is running into the wall footing? Surprise! Some of the more interesting companies manage their workload as if it were one big surprise party. Fun stuff!
  5. Be inflexible. As a professional, you have the best solution to your client’s problem. All other options are superfluous. Keep things simple and just do things the way you’ve always done them. Dig in your heels and dismiss the ideas of others as tripe.
  6. Make excuses. Have an explanation ready for the problems that inevitably arise, preferably something that diverts attention away from your own culpability in the matter. If you look hard enough, you’ll find that there is always someone else to blame: employees, agency personnel, or even the client himself. Other good excuses include budget constraints, time restrictions, and competing deadlines.

Pretty simple. Who knew it was so easy to drive clients away? What’s amazing is that these practices are consistently implemented by countless companies, both large and small, every day. The results, while not always immediate, are virtually guaranteed. Please feel free to implement these practices in your own organization and when your clients eventually do call, just send them my way!

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Risky Business

One of the byproducts of taking on risk is that, sooner or later, you’re going to get spanked

No risk, no reward. Or so they say. Unfortunately, one of the byproducts of taking on risk is that, sooner or later, you’re going to get spanked. Failure, adversity, problems, trouble, difficulty – Whatever you want to call it, it’s no fun. In fact, sometimes it’s downright gut-wrenching.

Put yourself in the shoes of the engineer who decides to take on a big client, only to have that client turn around and sue the engineer for all he’s got. Even if the engineer has done everything he can to mitigate the risk (quality control measures, incorporating his business, purchasing professional liability insurance), the situation is extremely stressful and a potential threat to his very livelihood. Could the stress have been avoided? Sure. He could have chosen a career in paper shuffling. Not that there is anything wrong with that; however, if you strive to be truly successful in making a positive impact on the world around you, you’re not likely to get there by consistently traveling on the road of comfort and safety.

The most successful individuals are those willing to risk failure to achieve their goals. And fail they do. It is how they respond to such adversity that sets them apart.

Are there ways to mitigate the stress associated with the inevitable problems we will face in response to taking risks? Of course. In fact, the goal is to create an opportunity to actually grow and learn from the experience. The following are some pointers on how to make the most of an otherwise bad situation:

Maintain perspective. We have a tendency to blow things out of proportion when we’re confronted with stress. No matter how bad the circumstances, chances are that it could be a lot worse. Step away from the problem and take inventory of the big picture. Still got your health/family/friends? Count your blessings and see the problem at hand for what it really is – a minor blip on the radar screen of life; an opportunity to better yourself and gain some perspective on what is truly important to you.

Consider potential outcomes. Ask yourself, “What is the worst possible outcome that could come from this?” Whatever the worst case may be, remember that there are very few things in this life that are irreversible and the worst case rarely happens. What you’ll find is that if you prepare yourself mentally for the worst case scenario, you’ll better be able to deal with the less severe outcomes that are much more likely to occur.

Weigh your options. Reflect on your potential responses to the situation. What response is most likely to achieve the desired outcome? Who are the players that you’re dealing with and what is the best approach to working with them as individuals? Is there someone in your network that you should reach out to for additional help or counsel?

Take action. Problems don’t typically go away on their own and stress has a tendency to immobilize us. Don’t assume that everything is ok just because the phone is not ringing. Be proactive. Make the call. Write the letter. Do what you need to do to reach a resolution so that you can move on.

Assess the lessons learned. This step is the most critical. Look back carefully at the circumstances that lead to the problem in the first place. What was the root cause? What could have been done differently? What system or procedure can you put in place to help ensure that this never happens again?

How we respond to failure is a critical component of our personal and professional development. The same risk that leads to greatness can also beat us up at times. We can either let failure defeat us or we can use it as an opportunity to better ourselves and take us one step closer to achieving our goals.

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Seeing Red

Let’s not become so preoccupied with cutting fat that we neglect the opportunities right in front of us.

If you know me, you know that I’m a numbers guy. But, maybe not the kind of numbers you would think. I’m not talking about the kind of numbers that most engineers deal with – design calculations, field measurements and such. I’m talking about the numbers that really matter: the numbers on your monthly financial statement.

There is one number that stands out from all the others. It’s the one by which businesses either succeed or fail. It is the one that may determine whether you have a job or not. To make things more interesting, this number even gets color-coded. Black means you survived another month. Red means you’re in trouble. We are, of course, talking about profit.

Staying in the black has become a big challenge for engineering firms. Recession economies typically result in two heavy burdens that pull profits down:

  • Less work leads to greater competition, which leads to lower fees. Lower fees hurt profit potential.
  • Less work also leads to a reduction in “non-essential” staff like drafters and other production people. Unfortunately, these tend to also be the most profitable workers that a company employs. The result is a top-heavy organization that makes staying in the black even more elusive.

In general, there are two primary methods of improving profit margins and staying out of the red. The first is to increase income. While certainly more challenging in a down market, there are still plenty of opportunities out there for individuals willing to think a little differently about marketing and  business development. I cover this subject extensively in other blog posts, so we won’t dwell on it here. The second way to increase profits is to decrease expenses. This is never fun. Anyone want to volunteer for a pay cut?

There is one other method of boosting profits that I have found to be extremely effective. It’s simple to implement. It actually helps your business operations by freeing up your time. Best of all, it doesn’t result in that slimy feeling you get from laying off good employees and buying the cheap toilet paper for the staff restroom. Here is how it works:

  1. Identify those services you offer that can be easily handled by a subconsultant. Land surveying is an obvious one for my line of work. Others may include landscape architecture, dry utility coordination, or traffic engineering.
  2. Assemble a list of subconsultants who can provide the services you need. Include both large corporate firms and individuals working out of their garage. Organize this list, putting the best firms at the top – or those that you most enjoy working with.
  3. Call the owner of the first firm on your list. Tell him or her that you are interested in giving them preferred status on all projects going forward. In exchange, you will ‘split’ whatever fee you are able to negotiate with your client for the services offered by the subconsultant. For example, if I can get a $10,000 fee for a landscape design, my preferred landscape architect would get $5,000. Under this scenario, your sub will likely do very well on some projects and not so great on others; it’s all based on market conditions, not necessarily what the sub thinks they are owed. The tradeoff, of course, is that this sub gets all of your work.
  4. If the first firm balks, move onto the next consultant on your list. Do this until you find a consultant who agrees to your terms. If no one bites (not likely in the current market), be prepared to adjust your terms slightly.
  5. Go land as much land surveying, landscape design, etc. work as you can find.

That’s it. The best part is that your profit margin on the subconsultant’s work is guaranteed; or maybe the best part is that you’re making a significant profit on work that you’re not even performing. Regardless, everyone is happy. A real win-win scenario. No more red ink.

Subconsultants can be a great source of financial leverage, especially in a soft market. Let’s not become so preoccupied with cutting fat that we neglect the opportunities right in front of us.

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How to Turn Engineers Into Rainmakers

“All I want is a good engineer who can meet with clients and sell our services.” The words rolled off his tongue as if he really believed that these types of people actually existed in abundance and it was just a matter of hiring them.

“All I want is a good engineer who can meet with clients and sell our services.” The words rolled off his tongue as if he really believed that these types of people actually existed in abundance and it was just a matter of hiring them.

This may come as a shock, but the truth is that engineers in general are not the most outgoing, gregarious, and extroverted individuals. For some reason, the qualities that tend to make a good engineer (math skills, analytic ability, the propensity to isolate oneself for hours on end to focus on solving a single problem) usually work in contrast to the qualities that make a good salesperson (magnetic personality, sense of humor, physical attractiveness). Is it any wonder then that the few engineers who find themselves able to maintain meaningful employment in a business development role are usually horrible at engineering?

There is hope, however. A few years ago, I stumbled upon a concept that, when properly implemented, can be very effective in transforming engineers into service-selling superstars. It’s a simple point-based system that helps keep business development activities on the top of the daily to-do list. Let’s face it, without clear objectives, we as engineers will tend to gravitate to those activities that bring us order and predictability while neglecting those things that make us uncomfortable (like cold calling). The beauty of this system is that it feeds the engineer’s need for order while pushing him or her to meet specific daily business development goals.

Here is how the system would work for a team of people responsible for bringing projects in the door:

1 point                 Connecting with a decision maker via LinkedIn, phone call, or email

2 points                Meeting in person with a decision maker

3 points                Submitting a proposal

4 points                Landing a project

  • Minimum of four points per day required.
  • Activity must be documented.
  • A weekly meeting or teleconference will be held to share leads and contacts, report on activity, identify networking opportunities, collaborate, and share business development techniques.

That’s it. Pretty simple, right? The program tends to work especially well in group environments where the competitive spirit can kick in. Prizes can even be awarded for the most points earned in a given week or month.

You’ll find that this program gets increasingly difficult as you work your way through your existing contacts. Notice also that no points are awarded for attending so-called networking events. Networking and industry functions are merely tools for meeting decision makers. It’s the follow-up that counts, not the amount of swag that you collect at a trade show!

So, give it a try and be sure to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below. Let’s show the world that engineers can, in fact, become effective business developers… we just need some numbers to work with!

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Secrets They Don’t Teach You in College, Part 2: All About Bob

Bob realizes that the odds are stacked against him and this drives him to identify something – anything – that he can offer to potential employers that his competition can’t.

I recognize that some of the concepts presented in the previous blog entry may seem somewhat abstract, so here is an example of how a fictional student, let’s call him Bob, put this plan into action.

Bob is an average college student studying civil engineering at Cal Poly. He is graduating next year and  knows that the job market will be extremely tough. He needs an edge; something that will set him apart. His friends are no help – they are discouraging and complain about how hard it is to just find Summer employment, much less a meaningful career. Some of them are talking about going to graduate school until the economy improves. Bob doesn’t want to be a victim of his present circumstance. He hears a great talk by a tall guy at an ASCE meeting and commits to stop viewing his career path as someone else’s responsibility. Instead, he chooses to run it as he would his own small business. As CEO of Bob, Inc., he is determined to become an engipreneur.

Bob knows that he is competing not only with his fellow students for the few jobs that are out there, but also with seasoned engineers who have a ton of practical experience. Bob has no experience. He realizes that the odds are stacked against him and this drives him to identify something – anything – that he can offer to potential employers that his competition can’t.

Bob starts doing some research. He quickly realizes that while a huge amount of his college coursework has been focused largely on structural engineering, most civil engineers are not actually employed in this field. There are not a whole lot of new bridges, skyscrapers, and dams being designed these days.  His research shows him that most of the civil engineering firms out there are focused either on land development, public works, or some combination of both. He also learns that most of these firms use AutoCAD software as their primary design tool. Bob starts wondering why he hasn’t been required to take more AutoCAD classes in school.

Bob reconnects on Facebook with an old friend from High School whose dad, Leo, happens to be a civil engineer. It turns out Leo was laid off from his job 8 months ago, but he agrees to take time out from his job search effort to meet Bob for lunch. Leo tells Bob that he has been trying to get up to speed with AutoCAD Civil 3D, Autodesk’s latest design software that is replacing their old Land Desktop software. Bob does some additional research and learns that many civil engineering firms have not yet made the transition to Civil 3D, either due to staffing issues or because the transition training is too expensive. Most of these firms are on a subscription plan, so while they have Civil 3D sitting in a box in their office, they’re stuck using the old, inefficient software because they have never invested in the transition setup and training. Bob has successfully identified his target market and a big pain point!

Bob spends the next 4 months learning everything he can about Civil 3D and, more specifically, the steps involved in transitioning from Land Desktop. He’s able to purchase a student version of the software pretty cheap and he spends 3 hours every morning before class, plus weekends, sharpening his skills. He scrapes together some extra cash and manages to attend Autodesk University in Las Vegas, where he meets other Civil 3D transition experts who turn him onto some great resources. In 6 months, he has developed his own 6-step program for transitioning from Land Desktop to Civil 3D – a unique service offering indeed.

For his senior project, Bob writes a white paper that details out his 6-step approach to the Civil 3D transition process. He teams up with a local engineering firm that agrees to let him volunteer to work with their CAD Manager to assist in their own software transition. He uses this experience to develop a case study for his senior project. He also receives very nice written recommendations from the CAD Manager and the owner of the firm. He uploads these, along with other templates and tools that he has developed onto a web site: civil3dbob.com. He adds a guarantee: “I’ll help you transition to Civil 3D in 3 months or it’s free.”

Bob tells everyone he meets about his new passion. His family and friends think he’s nuts. He practices his sales pitch until it practically rolls off his tongue. Bob is ready to go public.

In order to generate leads, Bob starts calling several contacts he met at Autodesk University who actually sell the software. Some of them don’t want to share any information about their customers with Bob, but others view it as a great way of helping their customers take their business to the next level. Bob ends up with a sizeable list of key contacts at engineering companies who are still bogged down with using Land Desktop. He meets several more at a local chapter meeting for the American Council of Engineering Companies. He follows up each new introduction with an invitation to connect on LinkedIn. His network steadily grows.

On his web site, Bob starts blogging about the transition to Civil 3D and why it’s good for business. Every time he posts a new blog, he Tweets about it and sends a brief email to his contact list with a personal note and a link to his web site. Finally, on a Friday morning in late Spring, Bob rents a small conference room in Orange County and offers a Free Course on “Transitioning to Civil 3D.” His network helps him promote the event and about 20 people show up. One of the people in the audience is a local business owner who invites Bob to dinner. By the following Monday, he has sent Bob an offer of employment.

In the weeks that follow, Bob receives several other job offers, all from companies hungry not only for his unique Civil 3D skill set, but for his entrepreneurial drive, self-motivation, and unwavering determination to succeed. As it turns out, these qualities are in even higher demand than good CAD skills! Go figure.

Does Bob’s story represent reality? While many of the details are made up, I believe there is enough truth represented here to provide a realistic glimpse into what is possible when one applies the principles of good business to their career pursuits. The workplace has changed. Much of what worked in the past to help us land secure, high-paying jobs right out of college is no longer valid. It’s time for students to stop relying on career counselors and HR departments to define their professional paths. It’s time to start thinking like engipreneurs.

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