Thoughts for geotechnical engineers at the opposite end of their careers to my own – Laurie Wesley

Published 21 December 2019
Compilation ,
Thoughts for geotechnical engineers at the opposite end of their careers to my own – Laurie Wesley

Among the topics that were suggested to me when I was invited to contribute an item for this journal was career planning.  It is not a topic I’m well qualified to speak on, never having done any, but I will make a few relevant comments here and there. To begin, I believe there are two things that you should think about early in your careers. These are

1. That you will enjoy your work
2. That whatever engineering you do will be good engineering

On the first item, try to be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses, and what you really want to achieve as a geotechnical engineer. Your job opportunities are mainly in the private sector – mostly consulting companies but also construction companies. The very competitive market of today’s world is inevitably a source of workplace stress – some people seem to thrive on stress, others do not thrive but get by comfortably, and some do not cope and suffer mental health issues – and in some cases look for a different career. Apart from consulting and construction companies, there are job opportunities in government agencies and in local authorities, which are generally free of the main sources of stress in the private world. 

Most of you reading this article will have already made your initial career choices but I will make a few comments regardless. There are two things worth thinking about – will you be getting good experience, and what will the stress level be. In general I think you will get better experience and training in a large company than in a small one. However, the work atmosphere in a small company may be less stressful and more to your liking than in a big company, and some small specialist companies may still give you very good experience, though possibly of relatively narrow scope. If you are thinking of project management then a construction company is likely to be your best choice. 

Regarding the second issue- you may well ask what I mean by good engineering. Perhaps you think civil engineering, by its very nature, is good – but this is not necessarily so. Engineering can be judged good or bad on two counts. The first and obvious one is:  Is it good technically?  There are factors over which you have limited control that may result in poor quality work and the outcome is not “good technically”.  The leaky buildings tragedy is largely the result of engineers, architects and builders giving into the demands of greedy developers, which resulted in short cuts being taken, inferior materials used, and inadequate quality control during construction. Various technical “excuses” have been made for leaking buildings, and in a sense these are valid, but the basic reason is the greed and unscrupulousness of developers and the failure of professional engineers and architects to stand up to them. Sadly, ethical scruples in today’s world are being lost sight of, or as is said “our moral compass now  points in many directions other than the right direction”. More about this in the next paragraph.

The second count on which good engineering can be judged is: Is it of benefit to society? Auckland’s casino has a very impressive tower which is held up by many as a fine example of clever engineering. Technically that may well be correct, but the tower exists solely because it is part of a casino.  And the casino is fundamentally a means by which those with money and power make more money by exploiting the poor and gullible. Our politicians were warned of the damage that would be done to society because of the gambling addiction associated with casinos, but they still went ahead and allowed them. When the addiction problems became acute and evident, the government of the day put a stop to more casino licenses.  For me, the Sky City tower will always be very second rate engineering, nothing more than a beacon for a gambling den regardless of its technical excellence. I believe one structural engineer resigned from the company he was working for because of its involvement with the design of the casino.   

Engineering simply cannot be good engineering if it is harmful to society. An extreme example of good or bad engineering is the gas chambers used by the Nazis to exterminate Jews. I understand that technically they were well designed – minimised fuel costs and maximised deaths. But I think most people would agree that they were evil creations and have to be judged on that basis regardless of their technical excellence. To close this section on ethics, there is an important issue that I became aware of because of my involvement in projects in Indonesia and Malaysia, and that is the issue of paying bribes in order to obtain jobs. I know of one New Zealand company that was prepared to pay a bribe, and another one that would never consider it. The USA has very strict laws that forbid their companies paying bribes in both their own country and other countries. We have no such laws regarding overseas work 

Now for some comments regarding technical competence. Geotechnical engineers come in a range or types with varying degrees of competence. My experience is that at each end of that range there are two distinct types. The first is what I would call “textbook engineers”, that is, those with a sound grasp of conventional theory and methods of analysis, but lack what I would call a “feel” for the subject. The second type is those who have a similar grasp of fundamentals but also have a good “feel” for the subject. For want of a better term I will call these mature engineers

Text book engineers tend to solve problems by identifying the appropriate formula or method of analysis (or which computer programme to use) and putting it to use. As long as they have followed a learnt or standard method they will be satisfied with whatever answer they get. Mature engineers will have a sufficiently good “feel” for their subject that they may well know (at least approximately) the answer before they make use of formulas and methods. What makes a “text book” geotechnical engineer and a “mature” geotechnical engineer is an interesting question. It is not necessarily a progression from completing a degree to many years of relevant experience (though relevant experience certainly helps). This difference may already be present among new graduates, depending on the environment in which they grew up and gained their education. Those whose childhoods have involved building dams with sand on the beach, or building tree huts in the bush, or watching their parents build an extra room on the house are likely to have a good idea of how the physical world works and can relate their lecture material to that world. 

On the other hand, some students without these experiences may still do well in learning what is taught but their understanding of the material may not extend much beyond the piece of paper in front of them. In other words they do not relate what they learn to the physical world they have experienced (or not experienced) around them. Asian students tend to be at a disadvantage here because many grow up without doing the sort of things in the physical world that Kiwi children do (or did when I was young). In New Zealand the situation has changed markedly since I grew up. In my day we took our bicycles to pieces fairly regularly for routine maintenance, which meant dismantling the hubs and re-greasing them. (and hopefully putting back the same number of ball bearings as we took out). Many of us got our pocket money mowing people’s lawns with a Masport hand mower. We knew how to take it apart and grease the bearings and clean out the gunk that jams up the gravity ratchet mechanism. I still mow my lawn with a Masport hand mower, and still take it to pieces for “servicing” when the need arises (I won’t be upset if this brings dinosaurs to mind – we enjoyed playing with them).


Let’s forget about the labels and I’ll try to answer the question you probably want answered: 

What should I be doing to become a good (mature?) geotechnical engineer? 

I think a clear grip of basic soil behaviour is an essential attribute. You may already have this, but to add to it you need to practice observation, which was one of Terzaghi’s dominant attributes, but is lost sight of today. You should observe behaviour in the field whenever the opportunity arises to do this. I don’t mean special opportunities, just the opportunities you come across incidentally in daily life. These include excavations, especially deep ones, trenches, and the cut slopes beside highways or even footpaths. Trenches are particularly useful because they are so plentiful these days – for installing or repairing (or re-repairing) services  Also, you should use every opportunity to familiarise yourself with laboratory testing and spend time in the field observing drilling and sampling techniques and the execution of other in situ tests, especially SPT and CPT tests. Without such exposure you will not be in a position to judge the reliability of data coming from field or laboratory tests. And we should be clear on one thing – a prime challenge for geotechnical engineers is making  judgements as to the extent to which theoretical concepts can be applied to the situations they are addressing.  

An all pervasive influence today that I never experienced during my education and while working as a geotechnical engineer is the computer. For the analysis of complex situations it is a marvellous tool but for routine geotechnical issues I’m not sure that its positives outweigh its negatives. Sound geotechnical engineering cannot be done in front of a computer screen, although it is easy to think so. I have reviewed reports on the stability of natural slopes that rely entirely on pages of computer generated printouts of slip circle analysis, but make no mention of what  a visual inspection of the site has revealed. Pages of multi coloured slip circle printouts certainly impress clients with no knowledge of soil mechanics, but leave others cold. The idea that theoretical analysis of natural slopes can take the place of other non-analytical methods, especially careful visual inspection of the site, is ludicrous. I once heard of an American consulting company that forbade its new staff from using computers for the first several years of their employment. I thought that was a very sound idea.

Finally, do not blindly believe everything you have been taught at university or even read in text books and papers. Think about these things and take any opportunities that arise to see if they make sense in the light of what you observe in the field. 

Finally (again) It seems that unplanned careers can be just as satisfying as planned ones. Maybe this is because those who don’t plan their careers don’t have specific aims and thus have no difficulty achieving them. That at least has been my experience, but I’m not suggesting this an example for you to follow. Actually, what I have just written is not quite truthful (it is alternative truth in the US president’s words). My aim when I graduated was to use whatever ability I had wherever it would be most useful, which is why I went to work in Indonesia under what was known at the time as the Volunteer Graduate Scheme (for Indonesia).     

Note: For a more comprehensive discussion on ethical issues in civil engineering see my letter in the June, 2015, edition of New Zealand Geomechanics News.

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