Don’t throw this away

December 5, 2008

My company is moving to a new office at the end of the year. Preparations for the move have been put off for months, but now we’re out of time.  Fortunately I only have about four years of stuff to sort through. Some of my colleagues have dug up drawings and calculations for projects that are decades old.  Every file cabinet is a treasure trove of long-forgotten projects and old product specifications.

However, we’ve been warned that our new work stations will have considerably less storage space.  This means that we all have to make some serious decisions about what to keep and what to recycle. Do I really need those notes that I took in college about non-linear responses to dynamic loading events? Why was I saving a contractor’s brochure for chemical treatments for limestone veneer? Despite what I consider to be an aggressive purge, I’m still over the limit.  I guess a lot is coming home.

As everyone in the office begins to take stock of their paper holdings, our office is beginning to look like the aftermath of the eruption of a volcano that spews reams of yellowed paper.  Despite a reputation for being meticulous and logical, most civil engineers are neither orderly nor are they minimalists when it comes to printed papers.

Perhaps because the field of civil engineering is so broad, civil engineers cling to almost any scrap of printed knowledge.  Consulting Engineers want to be prepared for anything that comes across their desk.  When I first started working, I used to wonder when I would begin to face the same design challenges for a second or third time.  In most cases, I’m still waiting.

Expecting that a time would come where I’d be able to re-use my old designs and calculations, I attempted to save all of my work.  A few things have come in handy, but I’ve also learned that there are many potential dangers from taking the shortcut and copying old work.  You can fall into bad habits, miss out on updates to products and codes, and fail to produce the most efficient design for the situation.

On the other hand, the most important thing to save is the contact information for clients, consultants, and peers.  If you really want to be prepared to face any design challenge, you need to have a network of experts that you can turn to for help.  No one has ever printed a resource that’s better than another experienced engineer.  And when it comes to moving up in the company, you had better know someone who is willing to send projects your way.  I may be a few years away from being on the hook for bringing in work, but I can see the writing on the wall.  That’s how you move up in the competitive private sector.

As I wade through all of my papers, I’ll be fishing for those old project contacts.  This year I’m going to put together a list of the people I’ve worked with, and I plan to contact them over the holidays.  I’ll probably just wish them the best.  Hopefully, they’ll reply and our relationship will open the doors to a lot more information and opportunity than I ever stored in those boxes around my desk.


Brian Brenner wrote a very entertaining book based on his musings about that quintessential packrat nature of civil engineers.  The book, titled Don’t Throw This Away, is available in soft cover from ASCE Publications .

In Don’t Throw This Away! The Civil Engineering Life, Brenner reports on what it’s like to be a civil engineer in the 21st century: the mindset, the practice, the profession. Equally skilled as a writer and an engineer, Brenner ranges from serious discussions of suburban sprawl, technology run amok, and bridge aesthetics, to comical accounts of packrat habits, quacking moments, and engineering fashion. This entertaining collection of essays displays Brenner’s distinctive combination of quirky humor and engineering “right stuff.”

1 Comment
  • Ken,

    A colleague forwarded to me the link to your blog. It’s great. I think you can find pictures like that in every civil engineering office. I guess it comes with the territory.


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