Two Approaches to Delegating Tasks

Other than a few useful modules of my engineering degree, I’ve received very little formal management training. When I found myself plonked in the position of general manager of a small office of an industrial service provider aged 29, I took the approach that I would manage people how I’d want people to manage me. I won’t say I didn’t make any mistakes, mainly due to impatience born of immaturity, but I found the approach worked. When later I became a manager in a much larger company, I applied the same principle and, insofar as my management of my subordinates was concerned, I think it worked well. A common complaint I used to hear a lot from my former colleagues is they didn’t like the manner with which various managers handed down work. One of them, I’m not sure why, asked me how I would delegate a job to him if I were his manager. So I told him.

When I receive a piece of work someone in my team needed to carry out, the first thing I’ll do is take a good look at it myself. Is it a reasonable request? Have the other parties done their jobs, or has it come in half-arsed and my guy will spend most of his time running around trying to get information that should have been supplied to him already? What’s my first impression of the job? I’ll then identify the person in my team who I want to lead it and send him an email as follows:

“Fred, can you have a look at this sometime over the next few days when you’ve got a moment. I’ll come and see you on Friday, and we’ll have a chat about it.”

At some point before Friday I’ll wander over and see Fred and say, “did you get that email about the job?” and Fred will reply, “yeah, I’ll have a look at it after lunch.”

On Friday, I’ll sit across a table from Fred and ask him to tell me what he thinks. Is it a big job, a small job, a difficult one, and easy one, an impossible one? How long will it take? How would this fit in with his current workload? Can he squeeze it in next week or will it take a month of dedicated effort? Fred will then say something to the effect of:

“The job itself is do-able, nothing too complicated about it, but it will definitely need a site visit. And we’re going to have to have a meeting with Marine Operations because it’s not clear why they want to install that 2″ line from A to B. I’m busy with that other job now but I should be finished on Wednesday, after that I can start to pull the drawings out and have a proper look. But it really depends on when I can get offshore; once I’ve done that, I reckon it’s about two weeks’ work.”

I’m simplifying, but this gives me what I need to write an execution plan, and go back to my internal client and brief him up on when he can expect the job to get done. I also put in the request for the site visit, and let him know the job can’t properly get going until Fred’s been offshore. In my experience, the internal client is quite happy to have this discussion; half the time their requests disappear into the ether and they expend a lot of effort chasing up where they went. A little two-way communication goes a long way.

I’ve also found taking this approach means Fred is quite happy with the execution plan – which he should be given the bulk of it is his own and we practically agreed it in advance. Moreover, I’ve found engineers feel a lot more valued and respected if you give them an opportunity to propose how they want to do the job, and raise any concerns they have up front. If you don’t like something in their proposal you can argue the point with them before the work starts, so when it does you’re all in agreement. There’s nothing worse than a manager intervening with a bright idea of how things should be done once work has started, particularly if he had ample time to say what he wants beforehand.

If it’s a multi-disciplinary job and other departments are involved, I repeat the process above with each individual and at the end I send the execution plan around for  each person’s review. Then I hold a kick-off meeting which normally lasts 30 mins max as everyone nods their heads and says “yeah, we discussed this already”.

Unfortunately, it seems my approach to work delegation is unusual. In my experience, and that of a fair few of my former colleagues, managers normally distribute work via an email which reads as follows:

“See attached work request, this is urgent, please arrange a kick-off meeting for tomorrow and send invitations today.”

You open the work request and find it’s a garbled pile of incomplete nonsense which makes no sense to anyone. The total effort your manager has spent on it is to click the forward button, enter your address, and write the email. At the same time, you’re already working on three other jobs which you’ve also been told are urgent. If you ask your boss about this clash of priorities he will say “you just have to manage”. So you drop everything and spend  the entire afternoon trying to get the availability of people who you have no interest in talking to, at least not yet, for a meeting you don’t want to hold. Then you have to find a spare meeting room. Oh, and the manager wants a presentation with slides – lots of them.  The kick-off meeting goes on for several hours as each discipline or department bickers with one another as to how the job should be done and tries to solve technical problems there and then, while your manager intervenes at frequent intervals to tell you which tasks you can start “immediately”. Such as construction. Over the course of this meeting it becomes clear the job is only urgent in the sense that a Big Boss has asked for a status report after it’s languished on someone’s desk for months. It wasn’t unusual for me to receive “urgent” requests for work for which the paperwork had taken the offshore and onshore clerks more than a year to complete. Your manager will nonetheless expect you to react as if the platform is on fire.

Insofar as the two approaches to delegating work to team members go, I think I’ll stick with mine.

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Offshore Clerks

Back in the days when I had a career and was running a team of engineers, a job request landed on my desk regarding the replacement of a valve in the depths of an offshore platform. According to the process, this request was born from a problem identified by the offshore operations and maintenance team, who then discussed it with their onshore counterparts to consider what should be done and with what priority. The offshore team consisted of the Offshore Installation Manager (OIM), the field operations supervisor, the maintenance supervisor, the marine operations manager, plus a whole host of operators, technicians, maintenance personnel, and safety officers. Onshore, the team comprised a production manager, a deputy production manager, a maintenance manager, a safety manager, plus a load of engineers and other support staff. All were involved in the discussions surrounding the problem – the valve was seized – and they decided to replace it. Were it a straight-up replacement it would have been handled by the maintenance team, but because they wanted to move it to a different location nearby, it became an asset modification and needed engineering to get involved. As per the process, every manager and supervisor both onshore and offshore had to sign off on the request for engineering support, and each was given space to append their discipline comments to the form. These managers and supervisors were mainly western expats between 35 and 55 years of age, and considered some of the best the company had to offer. For this reason they were well paid.

So the request lands on my desk, I look at it for a while, then turn it the right way up, then call my lead piping engineer, a grizzled Scotsman who I’ll call Fred. Fred had more brownfield engineering experience than I could hope to acquire in three lifetimes, and I decided early on that he was someone worth listening to. I handed the request to Fred and asked him to take a look, and a few days later we sat down and discussed the job. Fred said the valve was enormous, it was very heavy, and the area it was in very tight and congested. It was therefore going to be a rather difficult job, but not impossible. However, he said he’d know a lot more if he could get out to the platform and take a look for himself.

I usually insist on a site visit by discipline engineers on any brownfield job because the drawings, even if properly updated to as-built status, can never give you the complete picture. 3D scans and PDMS models are very useful, but everything must be verified with a site visit. For all you know, someone’s built a temporary structure right in the area you thought was free; temporary modifications in the offshore oil industry have a terrible habit of remaining in place until the facility is decommissioned. Some managers are only too happy to have engineers visit the site to allow them to discuss the precise problem and proposed solutions with the operators, and some OIM’s insist on such a visit. But often visitors are not welcome offshore due to a lack of bedspace or seats on the helicopter. In this particular case, it was easier to get an audience with the Queen than get a guy offshore as the accommodation was permanently full of essential personnel who couldn’t be spared for a single day. However, I’m a stubborn sod and I refused to move forward with the engineering until Fred had gone offshore and looked at the job in person; I was of the opinion that if the OIM cannot accommodate an engineer for a couple of days, the job can’t be that important. I learned that management don’t like it when you put it like that in meetings.

So eventually Fred got his offshore visit, much to the annoyance of the offshore team. When Fred got there and had undergone the usual safety inductions, he stepped out of the living quarters to find the operations area like the Marie Celeste. He walked around  the whole platform and barely saw a soul, but when he went back to the living quarters and stuck his head in the offices, he found it stuffed to the gills full of people. It stayed like this for the whole two days he was out there. In the company of the most junior operator on the platform Fred descended into the bowels of the platform and found the valve that was seized. It really was huge. He spent an hour or so down there, taking measurements and working out what could be done. He then went back to the living quarters where he was summoned to the meeting room by the OIM and asked to present his findings. Around the table were all the senior people on the platform, who lived there 24/7 for 4 weeks at a time.

Fred began. “I think we need to look at a repair, rather than replacement.”

He was immediately interrupted by the OIM. “No, we have decided it is better to replace it.”

“Replacing it is going to be very difficult,” said Fred. “It’s a huge valve and…”

The maintenance manager cut in. “Yes, it is big but it needs to be replaced.”

“Then that will be a lot of work,” said Fred. “And I’m not sure how you’re going to get a cutting torch down there.”

“A cutting torch?” said someone.

“Yes,”  said Fred. “The valve is too big to fit out the entrance door, even if we dismantle it. The valve body won’t fit.”

“Are you sure?” asked the OIM. “I don’t think so.”

“Okay,” said Fred. “A show of hands, please. How many people around this table have actually been downstairs and had a look at the valve?” The room fell silent. Everyone looked at each other. No hands went up. “Okay, well I have and I’ve measured the valve, the valve body, and the size of the hatch and there is no way we’re getting that valve out without cutting it up, and that won’t be easy down there. So I recommend we dismantle it and repair it in situ.”

So what’s my point? The situation described in this anecdote might not be typical, but it is certainly not unusual either. It is almost inconceivable that an oil company would pay hundreds of thousands of dollars per month to have people sitting on an oil platform (with all its inherent risks) who limit their interaction with the facility in order to do bureaucratic tasks which could just as easily be done onshore, yet it happens. It is common, especially in big companies, to have an organisation staffed by ostensibly experienced and qualified people who are well paid, but simply decline to do their jobs. Instead, they busy themselves with other activities, often under the direction of a manager who never properly understood what they should be doing in the first place. It’s what happens when an organisation’s processes become divorced from the goals they are supposed to achieve, and managers are rewarded solely for following the process regardless of outcomes.

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The Bridge Collapse in Italy

In March this year, following the collapse of a footbridge in Miami, I said this:

For a standard, single-span footbridge to suddenly collapse in this manner in the United States in 2018 is incredible. Reinforced concrete footbridges have been built worldwide for decades, and ought to be the sort of thing a highways department can design and build on their own.

There is enough knowledge and experience by now to ensure these sort of accidents no longer occur.

I had the same thoughts yesterday when I read about this:

A motorway bridge has collapsed in the northwest Italian city of Genoa, killing 26 people and badly injuring 15, police told the BBC.

Dramatic video footage captured the moment of the disaster when one of the huge supporting towers crashed down during torrential rain.

Cars and trucks plummeted 45m (148ft) on to rail tracks, buildings and a river along with slabs of concrete.

This simply should not happen anywhere, much less in a modern, developed country with a history of engineering and industrial competence. The BBC has a good page on possible causes of the bridge’s collapse, but I fear it may have overlooked something far more serious: a general decline in overall competence.

My guess would be a lack of timely maintenance is the technical reason the bridge collapsed, but what I’m more interested in is how Italy became a country incapable of carrying out basic maintenance. This is the sort of thing you used to see in the Soviet Union, or basket-case countries whose rulers enjoy the kickbacks and prestige of large capital projects but can’t be bothered with the mundane task of maintaining anything. However shambolic Italy may have appeared over the years, you could be reasonably confident the bridge over which you were driving wasn’t going to disappear from under you halfway across: they might be corrupt and disorganised, but the basics still got done. That’s no longer the case, so what’s changed? Again, I’ll refer back to my earlier post:

There has been a major shift in modern companies from delivering something useful – such as a bridge which doesn’t collapse – to managing processes. A lot of companies have subcontracted out the actual work – designing, building, manufacturing, operating, maintaining – and instead busy themselves with “managing” the whole process. This involves lots of well-educated people in nice clothes sitting in glass-fronted office buildings sharing spreadsheets, reports, and PowerPoint presentations by email and holding lengthy meetings during which they convince one another of how essential they are. I’m sure this is pretty much what Carillion was doing when they went bust: anything useful was done by subcontractors. The distance between those doing the actual work and those supposedly responsible for the outcome has, in far too many companies, grown into a yawning chasm. Survival in a modern company is all about compliance and obedience, and accountability is non-existent because it is no longer required.

In such an environment, it is inevitable that the quality of work suffers, errors go unnoticed, and – occasionally – catastrophes occur.

Italy is flat broke and has been for some time, and this will likely be put forward as a contributing factor to the bridge’s collapse. But in my experience, when modern organisations start feeling the pinch the white-collar middle-managers clogging up the glass-fronted offices start preparing spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations which show if they cut back on certain things they can save money – things like maintenance. I’d hazard a guess the organisation responsible for maintaining this bridge has a budget which would make your eyes water, but almost all of it will be blown on overheads and inefficient, process-driven nonsense. They’ll also have a staff which would match the cast of Ben Hur, all of whom will know lots about the latest managerial missives but little about bridge maintenance. I’d also bet the individuals who actually maintain the bridge are subcontractors, and there’s a fair chance they’ve not been paid in a while.

I’m speculating, and perhaps I’m wrong. But currently there is a bridge lying on the ground when it ought to be sitting pretty in the air, and people are asking questions. This should never, ever have happened and it is almost inconceivable that it has. It might be a one-off but me, ever the skeptic, I’m not so sure. I think we’re going to see more of this sort of thing, vital pieces of infrastructure suddenly collapse or stop working in a manner which we in the west thought we’d never see again. I also expect we’re going to see several major corporations go under in the same period, and this will not be a coincidence. It’s good that engineers are now running around Italy inspecting other bridges for signs of collapse, but it’s high time some of these organisations and their management were subject to similar scrutiny.

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Getting wood over wood at The Economist

Part of the decline of The Economist, aside from the fact its employees write drivel, is its wholesale adoption of the environmentalist religion. With their latest video they seem to be plumbing new depths of woo-embracement:

The answer, of course, is no: wood has been used as a construction material since the dawn of time, and in the modern age there is probably not a thing we don’t know about it. Concrete and steel replaced wood for very good reasons, and unless wood has undergone some revolutionary step-change (e.g. trees grown with carbon-fibre grafted into them), those reasons still apply. If it made technological sense to use wood instead of steel, people would be doing it. If it made economic sense, the same would be true. But let’s take a look at the video (I’ll paraphrase rather than write the whole transcript).

0:25 The world’s population is increasing, by 2050 it will be 10bn most of whom will be living in cities in skyscrapers with a large carbon footprint.

The video shows Tokyo and other developed world cities, but almost all that population growth will come from Africa. Are they going to be living in high rises? Having seen the sprawling shanty towns of Lagos in person, I doubt it. And if “carbon footprints” are a problem, maybe its time to stop subsidising that population explosion in Africa? One of the main reasons Nigeria’s population is exploding is the lack of reliable electricity, which in turn is a direct result of corrupt government practices. What I’m trying to say is, if increasing populations are a concern, building materials are an odd thing to focus on.

0:30 Our view is all buildings should be made from timber, and we should look at steel and concrete as we do diesel and petrol.

I have no idea who this chap is, but he’s looking at a Landcruiser and trying to say a horse would be better. I suspect he’s saying this because his salary depends on it.

0:44 I think it’s realistic someone will build a wooden skyscraper in the coming years. There is a lot of potential that is unrealised for using timber at a very large scale.

It’s as if engineers are unaware of wood’s limitations in compression. Hell, even the Romans knew over a certain size you had to use stone and concrete.

1:00 Throughout history buildings have been made of wood But it has one drawback, it acts as kindling.

Don’t ever say Economist videos aren’t informative.

1:32 If concrete were ever to arrive as a new material on “Dragon’s Den”…but then you say we need a whole new fleet of trucks to move it around…

You can tell this guy is an academic. Firstly, there are transport costs associated with wood; they don’t grow trees on potential building sites and wait a hundred years. Secondly, the cost savings associated with using concrete obliterates the additional cost of needing specialist concrete trucks. It’s one thing to play devil’s advocate for some future hypothetical, but this guy is doing it for something that’s already happened: he’s already been proven wrong.

1:51 I don’t think it would be a compelling case.

The richest man in Africa is a Nigerian called Aliko Dangote; the bulk of his wealth comes from his owning Africa’s largest cement company. The invention of concrete revolutionised construction, and made an awful lot of people incredibly rich. But here we have an academic saying if it came along nowadays, nobody would be interested because you need to add steel and buy some specialist trucks.

1:58 Concrete and steel are costly to produce and heavy to transport.

Compared to what? This is like saying the weather is good.

2:05 Wood, however, can be grown sustainably and is lighter than concrete.

Weight doesn’t matter much in buildings, because they tend to be stationary objects supported by the ground. You also have a lot of glass curtain walling these days. If weight is a concern you use steel – as the Manhattan skyline nicely demonstrates. Insofar as transportation costs go, aggregate can be shipped cheaply in bulk from anywhere, and you can install a concrete batch plant on or near to the construction site. A someone who lived in Dubai during the construction boom, I saw a lot of this.

2:07 And crucially, as trees grow, they absorb carbon dioxide from the air, locking it into the timber.

This is crucial? Not to construction considerations it isn’t. If you want trees to absorb carbon dioxide then plant more trees, but to put this forward as an advantage for using wood in construction? You might as well say forests are nice places to walk a dog. In any case, unless these buildings will stand for centuries, at some point the wood will rot or burn releasing all that carbon dioxide into the atmosphere anyway. Why not leave the trees standing?

2:18 One study showed that by using timber to construction a 125-metre skyscraper could reduce the building’s carbon footprint by up to 75%.

One study…could…by up to. Well I don’t know about you, but I’m convinced! Note all this assumes a building’s “carbon footprint” is something we should be concerned about.

2:42 Wood isn’t strong enough to build high, but engineers have come up with a solution: cross-lamination.

Plywood?

2:45 It’s cross laminated so layers of wood are glued at 90-degrees to one another.

Plywood!

3:17 But what about fire?

They demonstrate how a skyscraper made from wood will withstand a fire by holding a blowtorch to a piece of plywood before claiming it will extinguish itself after losing “some structural mass”.

3:25 We’ve actually seen steel roofs collapse in fires when wooden ones have not.

Assuming this is true, this is an argument for making sheds from wood, not skyscrapers.

3:52 Once these wooden panels arrive on site we’re building a floor a week.

Right, but it’s essentially a 5-storey plywood box. Are you sure this method is going to work for skyscrapers with 50 plus floors?

3:57 This is maybe twice as fast as concrete.

The guys in Dubai were pouring a floor every few days. I’d like to see how fast these wooden panels go in when they’re a hundred metres above the pavement.

4:23 Andrew and his collagues designed Britain’s first wooden high-rise apartment block.

It’s ten floors, hardly high-rise.

4:51 As yet, nobody has used CLT (plywood) beyond 55 metres.

The building they refer to is Brock Commons tower in Vancouver:

The structure is concealed behind drywall and concrete topping, mainly to comply with the accepted fire-safety codes and consequently speed up approval from building authorities.

So it needs concrete to stop it turning into a matchbox, incinerating everyone inside. But wait, what’s this?

Due to concerns about structural stability, the American Wood Council and the International Code Council currently limit wood structures to a maximum of six stories above grade, depending on occupancy type.

For good reasons, I’d imagine.

To reach its height of 18 stories, Brock Commons used a slightly different approach. It follows in the shoes of the supertall skyscrapers we’ve seen cropping up across Asia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which use a central structural core to take the stress off of the building’s exterior.

Oh! What type of central core?

Two concrete “trunks” on a concrete podium form the core of the structure, with the rest of its 18 stories being constructed of cross-laminated timber (CLT) flooring and glue-laminated timber (GLT, or glulam) columns.

So this groundbreaking tower block which demonstrates the viability of wooden skyscrapers is held up by two, bog-standard concrete cores? The Economist never mentioned that.

This entire video is basically a puff-piece for a London-based architectural firm with its eye no doubt on government monies earmarked for eye-catching green “solutions”. Wood can be used effectively for construction, but it has severe limitations which are well known: warping due to heat, rotting due to damp, termites, separation of lamination with time – and the ubiquitous fire hazard. I’d love to see how well this Brock Commons tower is holding up in a decade’s time, and hear it from the poor sods who have to live in it, not the architects. This is before we even address such issues as increased land use to grow the trees, not to mention the wastage. The good thing about steel and concrete is it can be moulded to the shape you want without wastage, but wood has the tendency to be grown tree-shaped and from there you need to chop, saw, shave, and sand it into something useful – all of which creates mountains of waste product (when I was a kid, timber merchants used to give away wood shavings and sawdust for free). So what happens to that?

How many trees occupying how much land are needed to build a 100m building, and how much waste is involved? And how much chemical treatment does the wood require? Some numbers would have been nice, but this is The Economist: when it comes to the environment they sound more like The Watchtower.

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What Makes an Engineer

Last June I wrote this in relation to Laurie Penny’s claims she was a nerd:

There was a time when to be a nerd you had to be good at science, technology, engineering, or maths (STEM) to the detriment of everything else. Or at least you had to be more interested in these subjects than most other people were, which made you socially inept as a teenager. Given that I studied maths, physics, and chemisty for A-level, did a Mechanical Engineering degree, and have (sort of) worked as an engineer for most of my career, believe me when I say I know what nerds are.

By claiming to be a nerd, Laurie is implying that she is highly intelligent and is respected in a field which requires a lot of hard work and dedication to enter.

I was reminded of this during a Twitter discussion initiated by yesterday’s post on pretending people with no maths and doing mostly group projects can be called engineers.

There’s a certain solidarity among engineers, and it completely transcends cultures and international boundaries. This obviously applies to other subjects too, but the fundamentals of engineering are universal. If a British, Brazilian, Japanese, and Turkish engineer all end up in the same room they automatically have an enormous amount in common having all sat through 20+ hours per week of the same stuff for three or four years. Without a doubt the courses will differ, but the fundamentals on which they’re based are the same. A Nigerian, Iranian, Australian, and Chinese structural engineer will draw bending moment diagrams and calculate second moments of area in exactly the same way. One of the most under-appreciated and understated bonding mechanisms in teams of engineers is shared suffering through university. It’s a bit like having gone through a war and you later meet some someone who was on the same battlefield.

Yesterday in a very pleasant Twitter discussion I made the point about how much of engineering is actually maths, in particular calculus. A typical lecture mid-way through a first or second year fluid mechanics module would start with something like:

“Take a spherical object of radius d and temperature t suspended in a fluid of temperature T. Heat loss from the object is given by dt/dθ….”

At which point I’d get hopelessly lost, which is why the above example is likely nonsense. Within a few minutes the lecturer would write an equation the length of the board containing all manner of differentials and half the Greek alphabet. If your calculus isn’t up to scratch (and mine wasn’t) you’re going to struggle. The main reason why my old friend Wendy did so well at Mechanical Engineering is because she found calculus as easy as breathing.

Then you had matrices. To this day I don’t know what matrices are for, but when it came to control systems and electrical engineering – both major components in a Mech Eng degree – they are very important. I vaguely knew how to multiply one configuration with the same one, but if they were different? Oh, who the hell knows? As I was contemplating this last night I got a horrifying flashback, similar to the repressed memories trauma victims lock in a vault somewhere, to what are known as complex numbers: square roots of negative numbers, which until then I’d been confident were impossible hence didn’t exist, involving liberal use of the letter i. They were again something to do with control systems, but I couldn’t tell you how I ever passed an exam containing questions on complex numbers. Actually, looking at my academic transcript I got 39% for Control Engineering and 36% for Signal Processing, so in fact I didn’t. Ahem.

My point is, the degree was bloody hard and Manchester University’s Mechanical Engineering course was by no means the hardest out there: some of the foreign Mech Eng courses were absolutely brutal. I have a friend who studied at the prestigious Middle East Technical University in Ankara in a non-STEM field, and she told me what the engineers were subject to there bordered on abuse. But then, places were extremely limited, applications many, and anyone who graduated had a rewarding career to look forward to.

When you’re working with a bunch of engineers there’s an appreciation that everyone in the room has gone through much the same mill, regardless of where they’re from. Surprisingly, they’re not in the habit of looking down on people who haven’t, but that’s probably because the vast majority have. It’s one of the reasons why female engineers are accepted rather well by their male counterparts, because they’ve proved themselves to some degree already. No matter who you’re put to work with, you can at least take comfort in the knowledge that they too sat through lectures on subjects they found utterly bewildering and somehow managed to scrape together enough exam marks to graduate. Looking again at my academic transcript, over 4 years I sat 32 engineering exams and did a project, a directed study, and an industrial placement. I know my colleagues of both sexes did much the same, probably even more (they might even have passed Signal Processing, but I doubt it). Yes it’s hard, that’s the whole point. It’s horrible, but it’s the same for everyone: nobody enjoys it. You just suck it up, and that’s what makes you an engineer.

This is why I find the proposal I wrote about last week rather offensive: either do the course and sit the exams like everyone else, or f*ck off. There are no shortcuts.

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An Insult to Female Engineers

I’ve mentioned my genius ex-girlfriend several times before:

Back in 1999 I dated a girl who was studying Mechanical Engineering in the year below me. She went by the name of Wendy and came from somewhere near Nottingham, and she was probably the cleverest person I’ve ever met anywhere, one of those extraordinarily gifted people who just turn up out of nowhere. I think she completed her four year course with an average mark across all subjects of around 90%, and won every damned prize going in the engineering school such that even after her second year her name graced most of the plaques in the foyer. I remember her sitting a 2-hour engineering maths exam and walking out at the earliest opportunity, which was 30 minutes. She told me she’d finished after 20 minutes and that included checking.  She got 100%. She was also a Grade 8 at piano and clarinet. Like I say, an absolute genius (although not clever enough to keep clear of me). My point is that exceptionally clever women have been excelling in hard engineering subjects for at least 20 years, it is nothing new.

Here’s another thing about her: she flatly rejected suggestions she was especially clever (Kate Mulvey, take note), insisting she simply worked hard. Which she did, she worked like hell, revising for days before each exam taking every one deadly seriously, which is why she got scores over 90%. If she’d done no revision, skipped lectures, and stayed in bed until 2pm she’d have still coasted through with first class honours, but that’s not who she was. And I don’t think it would have ever occurred to her that she was remarkable because she was a woman; the idea that female engineers were more noteworthy than the males, or there was any difference between us, was simply not on the horizon in my university days, or in the early years of my career. How times have changed:

Britain’s first specialist engineering university will take school-leavers without A-level maths or physics to boost the number of female students.

The first provost of the New Model in Technology and Engineering (NMITE), which is due to open in Hereford in 2020, said that she was determined to increase the number of women taking the subject.

Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, 46, the university’s provost and chief academic officer, said that she would welcome students with three arts A levels. She said that Britain was the only country to insist that engineering students had maths and physics qualifications. School-leavers with strong GCSEs in maths and science and A levels in any subject could apply to NMITE.

Its students will be called “learners” because there will be no lectures, studying or traditional exams and they will not graduate with an honours degree. Nor will they specialise in a particular type of engineering, such as mechanical or electrical. Instead they will work on real projects in groups of five, for nearly a month at a time, and build up a portfolio proving their skills, leaving with a pass or fail in a masters degree.

This isn’t about getting women into engineering; it’s not even about engineering at all. It’s about pretending dim middle-class women are cleverer than they are by having them play-act a serious role. They might as well take them to a petting zoo and a garden centre and call them farmers. I shudder to think what my female engineering colleagues think of this.

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Another deadly fire in Russia

This is bad:

At least 53 people have died in a fire that tore through a shopping and entertainment complex in the Siberian coal-mining city of Kemerovo.

As many as 41 children may be among the victims, officials say, and more than 10 are listed as missing.

The blaze started on an upper floor of the Winter Cherry complex while many of the victims were at the cinema.

Video posted on social media showed people jumping from windows to escape the flames on Sunday.

“According to preliminary information, the roof collapsed in two cinemas,” Russia’s Investigative Committee said in a statement.

Deadly fires are too common in Russia, the most infamous in recent memory being the Perm nightclub fire in 2009 which killed 156 people. As was reported at the time:

Alexander Fridman, a local entertainment producer in Perm, says he has little doubt that corruption has to be factored into any explanation for the Lame Horse tragedy.

“Fire inspectors found violations of the regulations a year ago, yet they didn’t come back to check whether corrections were made. Why was that?,” he asks. “There were hundreds of people gathering at that club every night, yet they never closed it down. The basic lesson is that fire inspectors should not take bribes.”

Amid Russia’s decaying infrastructure and often jury-rigged new construction, the potential for such accidents abound because laws are not enforced, experts say.

“I see this danger everywhere I go, especially places like supermarkets,” says Vyacheslav Glazychev, a professor at Moscow’s official Institute of Architecture. “As long as we have this practice of paying bribes rather than making the needed improvements, nothing will change.”

I have experience in construction in Russia and dealing with the fire safety authorities, and I can confirm that the entire system is a vehicle for graft. There’s actually not a lot wrong with Russia’s fire safety laws, and the design of a new building must include adequate fire protection and safety measures to get approval. However, the fire inspectors have a nasty habit of finding “problems” – even if none exists – and to rectify the situation to their satisfaction you must pay a specific person or company. Once paid, they leave you alone in many cases. So instead of having a situation whereby the fire inspectors are satisfied only once they’ve seen a building is safe, we have one whereby they are satisfied merely by being paid. Note that the building’s owner might not always be at fault here: he has no choice but to pay, and might not be aware that he’s in breach of fire safety regulations (like most Russian laws, following them is not straightforward). It’s the inspectors’ job to identify any non-compliances, but if they’re only interested in shaking people down for bribes who knows what they might overlook?

As well as a multiplex cinema, the shopping centre, which opened in 2013, includes restaurants, a sauna, a bowling alley and a petting zoo.

This is a modern building, not some ramshackle old thing made from wood. There should have been adequate fire protection systems in place (e.g. fireproof cladding), as well as a sprinkler system which would slow the fire’s spread and give everyone enough time to get out. As with previous disasters, the authorities will investigate, widespread corruption and non-compliances with the fire code will be identified, some sap will be fingered and thrown in jail and anyone with money and connections will walk free. Even if the owner is jailed, as was the case after the Perm nightclub fire, you can be sure no senior government official will suffer anything greater than an awkward question or two.

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Credit where none is due

I can see what’s happened here:

Twelve-year-old Michelle Flores shared a special moment with her family at FIU this past Saturday: She and her sister Gabriela joined their parents, FIU alumni Leonor and Henry Flores MIS ’01, to watch a 950-ton section of a pedestrian bridge swing into its permanent position across Southwest 8th Street.

Leonor Flores ’98 is a project executive and one of 63 FIU alumni who work for MCM, the construction firm building the FIU-Sweetwater UniversityCity Bridge, which will further connect FIU and its northerly neighbor, the City of Sweetwater. She was excited to share her work with her family, especially Michelle, who is interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in school.

Michelle said she might want to follow in her parents’ footsteps and go to FIU when the time comes, and that it was fascinating to see her mom’s work in action. “I’m interested in the architecture and the design of the bridge, and the math portion of it,” she said.

Said Leonor: “It’s very important for me as a woman and an engineer to be able to promote that to my daughter, because I think women have a different perspective. We’re able to put in an artistic touch and we’re able to build, too.”

Then the bridge collapsed across eight lanes of highway crushing people underneath, and FIU provided this update:

UPDATE, March 16, 2018, 11 a.m.: To clarify, Leonor Flores did not work on the FIU-Sweetwater UniversityCity Bridge project in any capacity.

When you read the original text carefully, you can see it doesn’t actually say that Flores worked on the bridge. But by including her heart-warming tale of women in engineering in a story about a bridge installation, that’s what they implied. It was a deliberate attempt to link Flores and female engineers in general with this particular project, which at the time was looking like a success and attracting publicity. However, now people across the internet are questioning the wisdom of having a woman put “an artistic touch” to something that goes on to fail in deadly fashion, they’re having to come clean.

This sort of manipulation is not unusual in modern engineering projects, or anywhere else in today’s corporate world. I once worked for a large multinational engineering firm who had on their books a rather photogenic female Russian safety engineer. Sure enough, she featured prominently in several of the quarterly magazines (or whatever they call those propaganda rags that get hoyed in the bin by anyone who does something useful). Now she wasn’t a terrible engineer, but she didn’t deserve so many puff-pieces in short succession. Speaking to friends and colleagues who’ve worked on sites and in yards around the world, whenever there’s a photo session going on the women and ethnic minorities are placed in prominent positions and white men told to stand to the side, preferably behind a large object. An exception is in Nigeria where a European woman, who’d played a key role in the engineering of the installation, was asked to remove herself from the group because having no white people in the photo made Nigerians happier. Go through the prospectus of any company or organisation these days and you’ll get interviews and quotes from women and ethnic minorities, half of whom I suspect don’t even work there. I am absolutely sure most of the “staff” photos are from stock.

I don’t mind women or ethnic minorities being interviewed, and I even don’t get upset if they’re given a little more prominence than perhaps they deserve (it’s PR, after all). But to interview someone who wasn’t even involved with the project is pretty cynical. I’m sure there were women working on this bridge and doing a fine job, but presumably couldn’t provide a twelve year old daughter who comes out with cutesy lines right on cue. I wonder what they thought of the interview when it was first published? I can imagine “Who the fuck is she?” was asked quite a lot.

If companies want people to take women in engineering seriously they need to quit pulling stunts like this, or they might as well go and hire actors.

(With thanks to Lord T and JerryC in the comments.)

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The Bridge Collapse in Miami

It goes without saying that this is a disaster:

At least four people have been killed and 10 others hurt after a footbridge collapsed near Florida International University in Miami, officials say.

The 862-tonne, 174ft (53m) bridge fell over an eight-lane motorway on Thursday afternoon, crushing at least eight vehicles, police said.

They told local media that vehicles were stopped at a traffic light when the structure collapsed at about 13:30 local time (17:30 GMT).

It is still unclear how many people were under the bridge at the time.

For a standard, single-span footbridge to suddenly collapse in this manner in the United States in 2018 is incredible. Reinforced concrete footbridges have been built worldwide for decades, and ought to be the sort of thing a highways department can design and build on their own. Perhaps one 53m long over an 8-lane highway requires some specialist assistance, but still. This was not the Millau Viaduct.

These days engineering firms use finite element modelling (FEM) programs which can predict how a structure will perform under load, identify any weak points, and calculate the stresses induced in every location. The bridge which collapsed looks to be of an unusual design, no doubt approved by an architect somewhere, but that is precisely what the FEM models are for. Using them you can depart from a traditional design, incorporate architectural features, and still be sure your structure is sound. A newly installed footbridge suddenly collapsing onto traffic in the US is the equivalent of a batch of canned goods killing people, the contents having reacted to the metal. There is enough knowledge and experience by now to ensure these sort of accidents no longer occur.

Yet it did, so why? The BBC tells us this:

The bridge was erected on Saturday in just six hours.

It was built using a method called “accelerated bridge construction” to avoid traffic disruption. A major section of the bridge was assembled on the side of the road and then raised into place.

I’ve written before about bridge collapses, and how they tend to happen during construction, but I don’t think the installation method described above had anything to do with it. There’s a video here of the bridge being installed, and it looks to me like a pretty common technique which doesn’t in itself explain why it collapsed a few days later.

So here’s my guess: somebody screwed up the calculations or the finite element model, and nobody picked up the error. If this was in the developing world I’d be more inclined to believe it was shoddy construction or poor materials rather than a design error, but this being the US I can’t see that happening. The company that carried out the engineering was Munilla Construction company, a family-owned firm whose website is here. They’re based in Miama and have been around since 1983 and they claim:

WE BUILD YOUR PROJECT ON TIME, ON BUDGET, AS DESIGNED AND WITHOUT ANY SURPRISES.

They might want to update that at some point.

What follows is pure speculation on my part but it’s based on what I’ve observed of engineering companies and corporations over the past 15-20 years or so. Back in 1983 the firm would have employed serious engineers who held themselves accountable, and the brothers who founded it probably did a lot of the work themselves. There is no doubt this company was able to successfully deliver engineering projects for a couple of decades, so they’re not some fly-by-night outfit owned by the wife of the local mayor.

But I suspect things changed sometime in the past 5-10 years. There is nothing on the company website to suggest they succumbed to the relentless pressure placed upon firms to hire people based on their appearance and sex rather than competence and ability, but I’d be surprised if they were wholly unaffected by demands for greater workforce “diversity”. After all, this was a firm which did several projects for the public sector, and installed the bridge on behalf of a university. It’s unlikely they weren’t required to demonstrate they were fully on-board with the latest progressive directives. At a guess, I would say this is a company which has seen several experienced engineers retire over the past decade, replaced with people whose abilities are questionable.

Secondly, as I have complained about in the past, there has been a major shift in modern companies from delivering something useful – such as a bridge which doesn’t collapse – to managing processes. A lot of companies have subcontracted out the actual work – designing, building, manufacturing, operating, maintaining – and instead busy themselves with “managing” the whole process. This involves lots of well-educated people in nice clothes sitting in glass-fronted office buildings sharing spreadsheets, reports, and PowerPoint presentations by email and holding lengthy meetings during which they convince one another of how essential they are. I’m sure this is pretty much what Carillion was doing when they went bust: anything useful was done by subcontractors. The distance between those doing the actual work and those supposedly responsible for the outcome has, in far too many companies, grown into a yawning chasm. Survival in a modern company is all about compliance and obedience, and accountability is non-existent because it is no longer required.

In such an environment, it is inevitable that the quality of work suffers, errors go unnoticed, and – occasionally – catastrophes occur. Now I don’t know if that was the case at the Munilla Construction company, but somehow they’ve gone from an outfit who could deliver a project with their eyes closed to one that has just dropped a simple footbridge on eight lanes of highway. If I were investigating, I’d want to know who did the actual design and where it was done. I’d be willing to bet a hundred quid the calculations and finite element modelling were done outside the US to save money, or subcontracted to another company, and supervision – which involves expensive Americans – was at nowhere near the levels it should have been. Regardless of where they were done, I’d also be willing to bet the company spent more manhours on progress meetings and overly-detailed weekly reports to let the management know what was going on than they did checking the engineering calculations.

I might be wrong, and maybe I’m being unfair to the Munilla Construction company. But I’m not wrong in describing how modern companies work. I have a hunch we’re going to see more disasters like this in the coming years as successive generations of managers and engineers fail to deliver what were, until recently, pretty ordinary projects.

UPDATE

David Moore posts a link to this video which reckons the bridge was supposed to be supported from above using cables in the final design. If they’re right, then this is a classic case of a poorly-supported bridge span collapsing during construction, and we can all go and read my previous post. It doesn’t make the cock-up any less severe though, just slightly more understandable.

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When Towers and Trust Collapse

The BBC is running a story about 9/11 conspiracy theories:

On 11 September 2001, four passenger planes were hijacked by radical Islamist terrorists – almost 3,000 people were killed as the aircraft were flown into the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. Just hours after the collapse of New York’s Twin Towers, a conspiracy theory surfaced online which persists more than 16 years later.

“Is it just me?” an internet user named David Rostcheck wrote, “or did anyone else recognise that it wasn’t the airplane impacts that blew up the World Trade Centre?

“I hope other people are actually catching this, but I haven’t seen anyone say it yet, so I guess I will. There’s no doubt that the planes hit the building and did a lot of damage. But look at the footage – those buildings were demolished,” he continued. “To demolish a building, you don’t need all that much explosive but it needs to be placed in the correct places… Someone had to have a lot of access to all of both towers and a lot of time to do this. This is pretty grim. The really dire part is – what were the planes for?”

Subsequent investigations made it clear that the tower structures were weakened by the inferno from the planes and felled by the weight of collapsing floors. However even now some people refuse to believe this version of events.

I watched the towers collapse on a television in the conference room of an engineering consultancy, surrounded by civil and structural engineers. None of us could believe what we saw, and many of us thought an airplane crashing into the towers couldn’t cause the towers to collapse as they did. A few months later some American TV station aired a program explaining exactly how they collapsed, someone recorded it, and we all packed into the same conference room to watch it. Everyone came away fully satisfied by the explanations given.

The video explained that the two towers fell in quite different ways. Their construction consisted of an inner steel core and an outer shell, held together by cross-braces made of light steel. Neither the inner core or outer shell could stand independently, so the cross bracing was essential. When the aircraft struck the impact knocked off a lot of the fire protection, and the subsequent fire weakened the cross bracing to the point the outer shell fell away, causing the entire tower to collapse. In one video clip you can actually see the core standing on its own for a fraction of a second before it too collapsed to the ground. The other tower fell differently. When the aircraft struck, the resulting fire weakened the supporting steel above the impact point so the entire (intact) tower section above slammed into the floor below, which gave way, and the process repeated through several floors bringing the entire structure crashing down. Although burning jet fuel is insufficient to melt steel, any increase in temperature beyond a certain point severely reduces its structural strength, and temperatures far exceeded that point.

There are many inexplicable elements to 9/11, but most have to do with the fact that this event was entirely without precedent. Nobody could possibly have predicted what would happen should two colossal skyscrapers come crashing down in sequence in the middle of a city, and the mechanisms it triggered in the immediate surroundings will never be properly understood. People say WTC 7 (or whatever) should not have collapsed in the way it did; well, nobody knows how a building is going to behave subject to forces of that nature, all we can do is look at the wreckage and try to figure it out. If the same thing was repeated half a dozen times we might get a better idea, but until then there will always be a lot of odd phenomena about 9/11 we can’t explain. This is what conspiracy theorists rely on when peddling their nonsense.

However, the point of my post is to highlight how much times have changed. When 9/11 occurred there was still some semblance of trust in the US government, and only demented conspiracy theorists believed it would be an inside job. Most people were even on board with the official explanation, which seemed to make sense to me. I certainly can’t see any reason not to believe the official version of events, at least those concerning the WTC and the Pentagon (the story of Flight 93 lends itself to some manipulation, not least because we don’t know for sure what the target was and how it was brought down). But public trust took a huge knock a year later when George W. Bush and co. started banging on about Iraq’s nuclear weapons and resorting to complete bullshit to make the case for war. Since then things have gone rapidly downhill: the Obama years saw the utter corruption of government agencies, flat-out lies concerning Benghazi and Fast and Furious, and since Trump’s election it’s been non-stop disinformation regarding Russia’s alleged interference in US politics. To cap it all, we had a gunman firing hundreds of rounds into a crowd in Las Vegas and after a brief period of feeding the public contemptible bullshit, law enforcement officials and politicians have decided they’re not going to tell anyone what happened, and the media aren’t in the slightest bit interested in finding out. The government’s reaction to this event was so remarkable that even normal, balanced people were convinced something was rotten about the whole thing. And we’re still waiting for answers, by the way.

So my point is that the 9/11 conspiracy theories are nonsense, but if 9/11 happened today the public would have every reason to think they were being told a pack of lies from the outset and they’d almost certainly be right. This collapse in public trust may prove almost as catastrophic as the collapse of the towers themselves.

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