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What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?
2

What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

(OP)
Hello people,

I'm currently a SE graduate with lots of questions about the profession, and I was hoping you could share your experiences working at big renowned firms vs working in smaller ones. How do they compare in terms of workflow, environment, culture, etc.? Where do you learn more? Which one do you prefer?

Cheers.

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

Had a buddy who worked for Skidmore a while back. The structural engineers were, to say it nicely, expendable. He worked late one night to get out a big project. They rewarded him the next day by laying him off for lack of work.
You've got to love that glamour of a big Architectural firm! You get to work on big buildings!
Maybe it's changed. Of course it might of changed for the worse.

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

Haven't worked at a really big firm, but have friends that have and do. I own a small firm. I like the smaller firms as well. The atmosphere is much more relaxed, you don't have to deal with the red tape of a big corporation, and your employers tend to be a little more understanding of circumstances. You also may have a better opportunity of becoming a partner in a smaller firm eventually.

Depends on what excites you in the end. Do you want to be a number in a company doing very large and sometimes prestigious projects, or do you want to work in a smaller company where the variety is endless and your relationships are more personal.

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

At a large firm you know you'll get paid every two weeks.
At a small firm you know who you are working for.

My best job was with a small bridge outfit (BTW - I got paid every two weeks & the owner was there every day). We did several prestigious projects. It was a great place to learn and everyone cared about the projects. Through a number of sales & mergers I'm now with a very large company. The pluses: I get paid every two weeks; I have access to a wealth of technical information - codes, standards, specs, books, etc. BUT, in the 9 years I've been here I really haven't worked on anything prestigious (technically challenging yes but prestigious no); little interaction with the local management; on most projects the quality is mediocre; all the management cares about is 40 billable hours on the time sheet.

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

Personally, I started out in an urban market and have since moved to a more suburban firm. The first isn't one of the prestigious firms that you name, but I think that my experiences might be applicable. Ultimately, it all comes down to what you want out of life personally and professionally.

- In the urban environment, it was lots of late nights, huge stress, and projects that I could be proud of. Once in a lifetime type stuff that I still smile thinking back on (10 years later...). I could always count on every day being different. Ultimately, it consumed my life. I was stressed out when I got home, working holidays and weekends, a thinking about work 24-7. There was no appreciation in the office, just the crack of a whip and the fear of being reprimanded.

- In my current position, its more of a large family firm. There are still long hours, but much more appreciation for the work that I do and much less stress. Work stays at work and I can enjoy my nights and weekends. Most projects are *very* similar to previous projects and not much to talk about when family asks what I`m doing these days.

Overall, I`m glad for the first experience. It was a great place to learn, to get experience, and to get started. I`m also glad that I left and found something new.

Good luck with your decision.

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

Jed has it pretty much summed up... large firms are indifferent and cost driven. I work at a large firm and we do not have a current issue of the National Building Code of Canada, simply because it hasn't been officially adopted by the Province of Manitoba. There is a lot more bureaucracy and 'silly' programs that have to be completed.

Dik

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

Working at a large firm: Hell
Working at a smaller firm: Heaven

Of course I've never worked at a large firm but where I have worked it has been heaven...so why risk it? smile

Ripped off Hollywood quote from Field of Dreams:
"Is...is this heaven?"
"No...it's a small independent structural engineering firm."
"I could have sworn it was heaven".


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RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

My experience at a larger firm has been that the work seems more interesting, and it certainly helps you learn a lot. Downside is it's impersonal, job security is terrible, and my work life balance sucks. You've got to take the best opportunity you have but I'd pick a smaller firm given the choice.

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

In a big firm I expect you'd get the chance to work on big projects, but you'd be a small cog in a big machine. Unfortunately, the big "glory" projects could get cherry picked by the "higher ups" so the "lesser mortals" get the drudge work.

In a smaller firm I expect you'd see smaller projects, less glamourous. But I'd expect you'd have exposure to many different design problems/issues because you wouldn't have the specialists who deal with these "interesting" aspects. But the smaller firm would possible attract more drudge work projects (beneath the contempt of the large firms).

In a big firm I expect you'd have more training and "boon-doddles" as these expenses are easier to "hide", less for a small firm.

A small firm would be (typically) more informal than a large one ... less bureaucracy, less "silly" programs, more flexibility. But if you don't get on personally with the guys near you (if one guy is louder and more opinionated) then this becomes harder to ignore and avoid.

another day in paradise, or is paradise one day closer ?

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

I'll offer up a different viewpoint. I work for a very large Canadian engineering firm. My previous job was a medium sized (70 people or so) but very well respected Struct Eng firm in my city.

My current big company job offers:
OT (hourly) pay over 40 hrs/week
5% matching retirement savings contributions
Stock ownership plans
4 weeks vacation
a banked time/earned days off program
Anonymity (if you want it) and recognition (if you earn it)
but also
Tedious bureaucracy and paperwork for every task
LOTS of 'dead weight' and people not pulling their own

My previous medium sized 'glory' type company offered:
A 'company culture' of working 50 hour weeks
Absolutely 0 downtime
No overtime pay whatsoever
Significantly lower salary
No benefits such as outlined above
Tons of responsibility
but also
Working on architecturally significant projects
providing a fantastic 'trial by fire' training ground

Maybe it's just me, but my experience is exactly the opposite. My big company job is quite cushy.

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

mapostu, another thing to think about. During these times, there's no guarantees that any size company won't get bought out by a larger company. Heck, if CH2M, for pity's sake, can be bought by Jacobs, what's to say your mom and pop or huge firm won't get swallowed up. So you've started at a small company and end up in a huge bureaucracy. Some CEO says, "this firm has annoyed me, crush them!" and you're a part of Halliburton.
If you have a choice, do what interests and challenges you. A big firm has advantages, a small firm has advantages.

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

I work at a small company and really enjoy it. I've found that a lot of things that I work on require me to learn how to design based on forums, textbooks, online examples or trial and error. The employees at the company are all fairly young, therefore we don't have the old structural guru serving as the mentor. I feel that everyone here is really invested in what we do and we're rewarded as a result. It also means that company golf days and BBQs are really enjoyable as everyone enjoys socializing about things other than work.

Also, I've been fortunate enough to take compassionate leaves for as long as I've needed with no penalty (besides missing paychecks). That's a huge thing when you need it.

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

There are pros and cons with each.....and both can have some of the same pitfalls. With the smaller firms you tend to learn a lot very quickly because of the faster pace. (I.e. because of smaller projects.) The bigger places typically offer better pay and more help. A big drawback with a lot of smaller companies is the fact you may have to wind up being the designer, estimator, scheduler, etc. At the bigger places, you (theoretically) get help there.

Both have their politics. In fact, the worst place I've ever worked at in my life as far as politics go had to be the first outfit I worked at coming out of college. They didn't even have a dozen people and it was insane: half of them were the owner's family. You made one of them mad.....they all got mad at you. A close second (as far as politics go) had to be the last large EPC outfit I worked at. The PM on a job I was a discipline lead on (who wouldn't stop complaining about the fact I didn't beat the scheduled issue dates by a week- no, that isn't a typo) managed to get arrested while down at a job site. (Off-site. Once for DUI. The second time for indecent exposure.) And in spite of that (to management) he was still their golden boy.....and I was (somehow) the bad guy. So what I am saying is: you aren't safe from politics anywhere.

If I had to pick a place (if I wasn't working for myself as I am now): it would be a good sized company that does industrial design. (And keep my fingers crossed.)

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

Disadvantages of a monster firm: a lot of red tape, procedures, bureaucracy, and time spent on "stupid" stuff (read: stuff we do not related to our job or productivity)

Advantages of a monster firm: They don't ask questions when you need to spend $500 on the latest code

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

I worked at one of the big ones back in the early 2000's, that had over 30,000 employees at the time. I knew it wasn't for me when my weekly timecard got rejected because I signed it in blue ink, instead of the black ink that the company required! I couldn't believe that one, even the IRS doesn't get that petty.

I've worked for small (one ~5 people, another about 15 that grew to 30 while I was there), that very large one above, and now work for a medium sized (300 company wide, about 30 in our office) company. In my experience you get very pigeon-holed in large organizations. On the other hand, when they are too small you end up doing everything, even the menial tasks that don't require a PE, like answering the phone and making your own copies. I think I found my forever home now at the medium-sized firm, where i have a level of responsibility that I'm comfortable with, have a team of support staff to hand off pieces of the work to and to take care of the administrative tasks, and a number of senior engineers to consult with when I hit an obstacle. It doesn't hurt that my current boss is very supportive and always has my back, plus the company is employee-owned, so I am a (very small) part of the ownership and have that as a second source of retirement income for later. Different strokes for different folks though, some would prefer to be a small cog in a big machine, but it's not for me.

#

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

(OP)
Thanks for you answers guys!

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

Viewing this from the perspective of a newly minted MS in Engineering, my thoughts are this:

Working in a large firm:
  • Chances are the job will be more secure.
  • Chances are the benefits will be better.
  • They may have a defined mentorship or training program to go through.
  • This may help to tech you basic engineering more quickly.
  • Less likely to be stuck doing menial work. So, you may learn basic engineering more quickly
  • Longer time before you are given a chance to really take responsibility for your work or manage projects. So, longer time before you know what it truly means to be a EOR or lead engineer.
Working in a small firm:
  • How good of a job it is will ENTIRELY depend on who you're working for / who the owner is.
  • Chance at profit sharing.
  • At first, you will do whatever grunt work that needs to be done. May mean you do CADD for a while rather than engineering.
  • Responsibilities will likely increase quickly.
  • Chance at earning an ownership stake if you can help grow the firm.
Personally, I think both paths can work out wonderfully. Lots of people start off with larger firms and then move onto smaller firms (or start their own) down the road. Not as many people do the opposite.

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

Quote (JP)

Lots of people start off with larger firms and then move onto smaller firms (or start their own) down the road. Not as many people do the opposite.

This is accurate and important in my opinion. One of the reasons for it is that, frankly, big firms tend not to respect small firm experience which will tie into my next comments.

In terms of project coolness and compensation, I think that a principal-ish gig at a big firm is pretty great. The trick is getting there, getting there in a timely fashion, and knowing when to call it a loss. Lower level positions at these firms can be pretty grueling as others have noted. You need to climb the ladder fast enough that your passion doesn't die on the vine first. If this winds up being your goal, I would:

1) Make the big company job your first job.
2) Bust your butt while you're young, have lots of energy, and relatively few commitments. Keep in mind that business development and project management matter much more than technical ability.
3) Make principal in ~10 years but know that you're on the short list by year six. If you can't tell by year six, you're not on the list.
4) If principal isn't going to happen, pull out early enough that you can move on to a smaller outfit, or your own, and achieve an equity stake in a reasonable time frame.

Getting to the top at one of the big firms is trickier than it might seem. It takes:

1) Excellence.
2) Effort.
3) Fortuitous timing.
4) Somebody with some power to recognize and believe in you.

Not all of that can be willed into existence. And not all of it is apportioned fairly.

I like to debate structural engineering theory -- a lot. If I challenge you on something, know that I'm doing so because I respect your opinion enough to either change it or adopt it.

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

I could not echo Kootk's point 2 enough - if you want to climb the ladder you need to have good BD skills, engineering won't get you very far at a big company.

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

JoshPlum - just cannot agree with some of your comments re larger firms:
-Chances are the job will be more secure.
I seem to have heard of more engineers getting laid off at the larger firms - big mass layoffs when large projects get done or are not awarded when earlier anticipated.
I've worked in a mid-to-small firm setting most of my career - never came close to getting laid off. For smaller firms, the effort to hire is a significant and carefully considered decision as one or two persons means a lot to the overall bottom line much more than in a large firm percentage-wise. So it follows that a larger firm can hire and fire as needed while a smaller firm is more careful.


Chances are the benefits will be better.
Financially I would agree.

They may have a defined mentorship or training program to go through.
This may help to tech you basic engineering more quickly.
True for the possible programs but you also have more of a chance of working with bad engineers while in a smaller firm you would know the actual engineers you would always work with. You can't always verify this during the interview but in my case, I hand my prospective employees resumes of the engineers they will work with so they can see the quality and experience of those who will be directly mentoring them. Not so in a larger firm. Also - formal mentoring programs vs. small office direct mentorship from a good engineer? No comparison.

Less likely to be stuck doing menial work. So, you may learn basic engineering more quickly
A lot of engineers I've ever known who went to work with larger firms have gotten stuck doing menial repetitive work. In a small office we get exposed to conceptual designs, framing layouts, scope and fee estimates, contract preparation, direct client contacts and communications, specification writing, design in every material, design in every area (commercial, industrial, forensic, educational, etc.), design associated with construction issues and errors, - I could go on. One buddy of mine in a larger firm did retaining walls for two years.

Longer time before you are given a chance to really take responsibility for your work or manage projects. So, longer time before you know what it truly means to be a EOR or lead engineer.
Agree - this is why a smaller firm experience makes for very good engineers.

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RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

JAE -

Layoffs:
Good point about the layoffs. That is not something I was thinking about, but is an important consideration. I was thinking from the perspective of a new grad engineer who is (presumably) less likely to get laid off in the early years.
The thinking being "why would they hire him/ her if the company was going to lay a bunch of people off in 6 months". Also, the new grad should be making a lower salary and ergo be less likely to get laid off.

However, if you're talking long term career planning, then layoffs with large firms are a big deal.

Menial work:
It kind of depends on your definition of menial work. I was really thinking of CAD and general office work.
The repetitive work that I've seen people do with large engineering firms is "develop your engineering skills in one small aspect of a job" (like anchor bolts or spread footings or something) and do ONLY that work for months at a time. Bleech! for an experienced engineer. But, still not that bad for a new grad.

Personal Opinion:
My tendency is to think that working at a large firm can be beneficial in the first years of your career. But, that the beneficial aspects decrease significantly over time. Know when you have begun to "plateau" at the job. Then take the knowledge and skills that they have given you and move on.



RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

"In a big firm I expect you'd have more training and "boon-doddles" as these expenses are easier to "hide", less for a small firm."

Most large firms there is little or no professional development... you're pretty much on your own. The shareholders don't want to spend any of their profits... comes right off the top; if they can save a buck, then the their profits are directly increased by a buck + the cost of any processing and paperwork... See my comment above re: purchase of current code...

Dik

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

JoshPlum - In our firm (30 people) our engineers do all the CAD or BIM/Revit work and we use no drafting - this integrates the design with the drawings very well and we don't consider it "menial" at all.

Doing cad drawings from another's redlines or sketches - yes - probably menial.

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RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

As far as stability goes: a young engineer is considered expendable at (either) a small or large firm. That's just the plain fact of it. That is, unless we are talking a case where they are intentionally cleaning house at a large firm to get younger (i.e. cheaper) people in there.

No place is safe. The closest you can get to it is being the only stamp (for a particular discipline) at a small outfit.

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

I worked at a large firm (2000+ employees) and have transitioned to a smaller one (350 employees when I started, damn near 1000 now).
dik is right about training and other "perks". They stunk at the big firm. Every hour you weren't billable was a disaster. I remember having to wear another engineer's name badge at the one AISC Seminar I went to, so I could attend some of the sessions. And as far as getting codes, I didn't have the same experience as bridgebuster. You had to buy all your own codes. They might have a library copy or two, but that was it. They would tell you, "we pay you and you can buy any supplies or codes you need" They would limit the number of scissors and three hole punches they gave out at the department head level. "If you need a scissors, borrow it from the guy next to you!"
Oh yeah, every copy, phone call and print order had to have a project number. And I do mean a single Xerox. I'm surprised the toilet paper wasn't monitored.

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

I don't think the big company/small company divide is as big as people pretend it is. 90% of whether something is a good job depends on the people you have to rely on and interact with. You'll have small companies where the owner is a dictator, and large companies where your manager and other team members are wonderful to work with and help you grow. You'll also have the exact opposite thing.

In a big company, an office in one city is likely run completely differently than an office in a different city, depending on who's in charge locally. The money all ends up in one place, but an engineering office can only be standardized to a certain extent.

The problem is, identifying the good small company, or good large company office only really happens by getting inside information from people you know. So, starting out, just try for things that look good. You could end up in the small five person office with the owner that cares, or a large company that has a formalized training system. That'd be great. You could also end up in the chaotic small office with no checking procedures, bottom of the barrel copy and paste engineering and no teaching skills, or the big company that has you design anchor bolts with a spreadsheet for four years.

Try to get a feel for the people when you interview, but don't be afraid to leave a job that isn't helping you grow. To a certain extent, the only way to figure out what's a good fit is to try.

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

This has been an interesting discussion; we have a lot of similar views. I started with a DOT and since then have worked the worked the full spectrum - small to extra large (current employer). I'm at the tail end of my career; looking back the small & medium companies were by the fast (except for a small DBE that I spent a year at.) If I were to rate my employers, the current one is near the bottom. For me there's two reasons, TLHS hit on one of them:

Quote (In a big company, an office in one city is likely run completely differently than an office in a different city, depending on who's in charge locally. )


I think the local management where I'm at leaves much to be desired. Too many reasons to go into but they're all out for themselves. The other reason is that with a large/extra large firm, I've lost the sense of connection. I admit it's partly me. This phase of my life is winding down so I'm indifferent to the company and all the rah-rah BS. I don't know or care how many offices and employees we have; I don't know what the stock is selling at or what our revenue is; I know the company has done some signature projects but I probably can't name three.

when I was with smaller firms I knew what was going on and there were work sharing opportunities. In the behemoth, all they care about is 40 billable hours. I'm sure my supervisor knows what projects each individual in the group is working on - because he signs the time sheets - but I would bet he's clueless about what any of us are doing specifically. A typical day is come in, go to his office, shut the door and only leave for coffee, lunch, the call of nature, and going home.

The company tells young people they have three potential tracks: management, operations, and technical. The trouble is there's no clear cut path; they make it sound like all you need to do is pick one and you're on your way.

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

CAD - Is it really menial?

CAD is a very important part of engineering...in fact, I would say it is truly part of the art of engineering. If you can't draw it by hand or in CAD, then you may be out of touch with how things are actually constructed. My company operates on both the engineering and construction side. I can certainly tell the difference between a novice using a drafter and someone actually spending the time to do the drafting themselves. All of my engineers do their own drafting...and in my opinion, that makes them better engineers.

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

How does being able to use CAD relate to constructibility in any way at all? I agree that it's an important part of the engineering proccess, but if you think you know how things are built based on having done a lot of drafting work you are in for a real surprise on a construction site.

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

I find the act of having to be engaged in the drafting of your designs, and the time spent sitting there drafting, provokes thought and ideas to tweak your designs as you draw them out.

I've worked at an outfit where engineers arent even allowed CAD on our computers, and instead we go back and forth with draftsmen. Often, under pressure of a deadline, and the file has gone back and forth 8 times, taking a month in the process, and you get something that is somewhat close to what you want, but not exactly, and you are so fed up with things, eventually you just say "**** it, that works, send it out"

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

I agree. I do all of my own drafting (I am a sole proprietor) This gets me intimately involved in the project very quickly. As a bonus, I typically engineer it while I am drafting which saves alot of time.

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

@canwesteng:

As a person that used to swing a hammer, hang drywall, and do trim work...I can truly say that I see the benefit of being able to draw something by hand or in CAD. If you don't know how to draw it, then you surely aren't going to know how to build it. Site visits and discussions with contractors are invaluable to a young engineers profession. It puts their eye's on a project and helps them understand what it is they are drawing and figure out better ways to draw things for contractors. Being able to use CAD enables you to control your drawings in a much more intimate manner. It also allows you to better understand the difficulties that may arise from a construct-ability standpoint.

***I'M DONE HI-JACKING THIS TREAD ON DRAFTING*** SORRY OP

@mapostu: The best advice I could give you is to apply to a firms of various sizes. The job market is crazy hot right now, and quite frankly, you are in a time where you can easily pick and choose where you want to work if your interview/resume support it. Try to interview at small, medium, and large firms so that you can see the difference. Spend time with the younger engineers to better understand the company and what the work environment is like. Not saying older engineers will give a bad opinion, but the EIT's that have been there for a few years have a pretty good grasp on what you will be doing.

RE: What's like to work at renowned firms (SOM, TT, Arup, etc.) vs work at smaller ones?

I was looking for something else today and stumbled upon this neat looking book series: Detail Engineering. Basically case studies by four of the big dog architectural engineering firms. I wouldn't suggest that the books would give you an accurate impression of office life at one of these shops. However, I would assume that cool projects would be a big part of the draw for one of these firms and these books seem to be good anthologies of what A-list projects at one would be like.

I like to debate structural engineering theory -- a lot. If I challenge you on something, know that I'm doing so because I respect your opinion enough to either change it or adopt it.

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