This is a question I struggled with myself when I started out as a young civil engineer working in the field of land development. When you work in land development, there are many different aspects to a project, so I ended up learning enough about each one of them to ensure successful project completions. However, looking back, I wish I’d taken a different approach.
I wish I had selected a specific niche or focus and became an expert in it, like stormwater for example. Lucky for me, that was only the first part of my civil engineering career. About five years later, I was asked to relocate to a new office in an area where acres of farmland were being turned into housing developments, and this time I decided to select and foster an expertise.
I noticed that most of the communities in which we were working didn’t have a municipal sewer system, that instead the homes used individual septic systems. I decided I’d start learning about septic systems by reading everything I could, including the current regulations. In turn, and maybe partly because there were only a few of us in the office, I became the go-to person for all things septic systems, from the initial soil samples to the design and eventually construction inspection.
I then took it one step further. We had started to notice that the sites we were working on had limited amounts of flat area that fell within the slope regulations for septic system installation. So if a site wasn’t flat enough for a septic system, it either became unbuildable or else required a very expensive and often cost-prohibitive alternative fill system.
I decided to do some research and found a third-party septic field product which used a technology that decreased the area of the system footprint. Unfortunately, this system hadn’t yet been accepted for use in the county where we were working.
I didn’t let that stop me.
I asked the County Health Department if they would consider the product if we provided information as to its benefits, and they said they would consider it. With the support of my engineering firm at the time, I embarked on a several-month project during which I researched, tested, and provided case studies of this product, and through this effort, the product was eventually accepted by the county.
This was a huge win for our company and our clients, and in turn, for me. I had consolidated my reputation as a go-to expert in septic systems in this state, and that would help me tremendously in building my career as a successful civil engineer.
In my next post I’ll lay out some general steps you can take to build an expertise in a specific specialty within civil engineering, but the point of this story is to make you aware of the power you can find in doing this.
I know it can seem risky to put all of your eggs in one basket – and in this post I give examples of when you should be more general – but I would make the case that it’s actually the opposite. Why? Because most people don’t do it, which means that there are many avenues of civil engineering that could use more experts, and when you are considered a leading expert in a field, opportunities will flow your way.
Anthony Fasano, P.E., M.ASCE, is the founder of the Engineering Career Coach website, which has helped thousands of engineers develop their business and leadership skills. He hosts the Civil Engineering Podcast, and is the author of a bestselling book for engineers, Engineer Your Own Success. You can download a free video series on his website that will give you the tools needed to immediately improve your networking and communication skills by clicking here.