This Job is Hard

February 10, 2013

One of my favorite Saturday Night Live sketches featured Will Farrel playing President George Bush. The neophyte President immediately finds himself besieged by dire threats ranging from thermal nuclear war to alien invasion. As the windows in the West Wing depict a post-apocalyptic landscape, the President can only exclaim, “this job is hard!” Eventually, George H.W. Bush (Dana Carvey) appears and starts to set things straight.

I think the episode aired about when I began grad school. At the time, I felt similarly overwhelmed by some of my advanced level courses. Taking a full course load including the theory of linear algebra and the theory of material plasticity pushed me past my comfort zone. I often joked with my roommates, “grad school is hard!” Eventually, I found my footing in those courses and benefited greatly from the course work of my Master’s degree. I graduated with an abundance of confidence in my analytical abilities. The start of my career required another adjustment, but I rarely questioned my abilities. I knew that I could solve most analytical problems with time and research in the right manuals. I gained more confidence over the years.

However, by the beginning of last year I was taking on more management roles within my group. Then, with the departure of one of my mentors and a promotion to follow, I made another career jump. All of a sudden, “this job is hard again!” Don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining. I actually find these new challenges to be exhilarating. I sometimes feel on the verge of being in over my head, but walking that line has made my job feel new again.

The technical challenges didn’t change much, but now I feel more responsibility for delivering the project on time, in budget, and to happy clients. I have to write fee proposals for new jobs and find ways to grow my presence in the industry so that I too can one day bring work to the company. Each month, I’m asked to approve billings for my projects, and when they don’t pay, I have to call to request payment. I can’t do it all alone, but that also means I have to manage my team. All of these tasks require different skills, and few of these issues were covered in school.

In a typical week, I’ll work on a half-dozen or so different projects. Some jobs will just be taking off while others are heavy into construction.  It’s sometimes hard to keep the projects straight. On more than a couple occasions, I’ve sent an email about one project to the wrong client. As the point person on most of my projects, I’m copied on almost all project email, and my phone is the first to ring. Some days I spend all my time just responding to email, answering voicemail, and dialing into conference calls.

It’s best to have at least one large project in the mix. I’ve been tending an adaptive reuse project at the University of Chicago for the past two years. I know the project inside and out, but now that its under construction we’re discovering lots of unexpected conditions. I know as we go forward and deal with these conditions on the fly, that I’ll have to take responsibility for having safe, constructable, and economical solutions. In the past, a manager would have given me the basic constraints and had me run the calcs. Now I try to anticipate the solution before an engineers starts running through the limit states. Communicating the solution to the construction team and owner is yet another challenge.

It strikes me that the basic engineering calculations that caused me grief in school are now my last refuge of comfort. I can’t imagine a time when I’ll have everything figured out again. That’s all right, Dealing with all of these challenges makes my day go by extremely fast. I suppose that’s one measure of an invigorating job. This job is hard, and I like it that way!

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