I should be able to figure out this new program…

September 9, 2012

ASCE-SEI Logo

Recently I had to edit a graphic banner for the SEI Sustainability Committee website that I’m currently responsible for maintaining. The task was simple enough; I just needed to take the typical SEI logo and add some text to identify the specific committee. We recently upgraded our home computer to an iMac, so I had to complete this task without the simple but reliable Paint program that has been my go-to graphic editor for so many years. After a quick web search, I found a free open source alternative for Mac called Gimp.

Gimp is much more like Photoshop than Paint and works on a lot of similar principles, like using layers and filters to edit images. Never a graphic artist, all of those features were new to me. Frustrated by the not-so-intuitive interface, I actually had to read the online instructions. After about two hours of research and experimentation, I was finally able to add the necessary lines of text to the graphic.

ASCE-SEI Sustainability Committee Website Banner

I’ve always prided myself on being able to figure out new computer programs – at least well enough to get the job done. Learning new programs on your own is a necessary skill for this generation’s engineers. A new hire will be expected to learn probably a dozen different design and analysis, modeling, and productivity programs in their first year. With some luck, they will have seen some similar software at school, but the functional details are bound to be different. It’s important to be a self-learner, because there will be no time for a formal training session. That’s just the way it is.

Lately, I feel like I’ve been slipping. New essential programs appear on the scene all the time. Even when you achieve competency on one platform, an update is guaranteed to shift everything around. Shortcut keys and right-click commands are bound to be reversed in each different program.

One of my most complicated projects requires frequently switching between the architect’s model in Rhino, our structural model in Revit, and the analytical model in SAP 2000. The zoom, rotate, and pan hot keys are different in each one. I end up spending half my time floundering with the navigation each time I change platforms. And now that I’ve been using Revit as the standard drawing production platform, I use AutoCAD about as fast as chiseling a stone tablet.

My new managerial responsibilities also reduce my exposure to our entire software catalogue. I used to complain that my managers didn’t even know how to print from our drafting programs. Now, I have found myself emailing basic AutoCAD files to my staff to have plotted for me. I think I owe some old bosses an apology. I hope to maintain competence in the basic programs, but I can see that it will take a special effort on my part to stay current.

I now find that my most pressing challenge is teaching my staff how drawings should look and what aspects of the project require detailed analysis. While it’s possible to get up to speed on modeling software quite quickly, it takes years of experience to understand what information needs to be conveyed in the drawings and how that is best illustrated. Contrary to modeling software advertisements, the best way to draw a detail is seldom with the most realistic illustration. Structural drafting is a particular art form that identifies critical information without providing superfluous information that distracts from the important details. We’ve learned, that even when taking live sections in Revit, it’s best to sketch over the live elements with detail lines. It’s more like cartooning that painting a still life.

Sometimes you need realism in your drawings; sometimes you just need to add some text to a graphic. Sometimes a design problem requires detailed analysis; sometimes experience dictates that a ½” plate is more than enough. Sometimes you need to learn a new program; sometimes you can ask a new hire to do the heavy lifting. Being an efficient, effective engineer requires constant learning and knowing when a simple solution is good enough. I’ll continue trying to learn new programs, but I’m going to need a little more help now.

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5 Comments
  • Now at the current time changes and modification are on its high and they are supportive to provide the better working and designing opportunities quickly and this is the result in the civil work that construction and designing work becoming one of the creative field.

  • Ken, great post. One tip: on the Mac there is a neat image editing app called Acorn, which is much, much simpler to use than Gimp. I use it all the time for tasks like what you describe above and find it fairly self-explanatory (at least much more so than Gimp, which I’ve never been able to grok).

    Regarding key combinations: I have had some success removing the friction from context switches between different software by remapping keys within an application. I even went so far as to do this globally for some things. One example: I frequently switch between Windows and OSX, so I swapped the control and alt keys on my Windows box (using Autohotkey) so copy and paste work identically between the two machines. Simple little hack, but I was constantly getting them wrong before I did that.

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