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Expertise vs. Experience
2

Expertise vs. Experience

Expertise vs. Experience

(OP)
I have a general question in regards to when an engineer should and shouldn't get involved in a project. Common sense, as well as Professional engineering code of ethics, says do not take on a project in which you do not have expertise and experience in. This goes without saying as not a single engineer that I have met wants to take on un-needed liability or risk being sued.

In saying the above does anyone have an opinion on when one can take on a project even without experience in that particular design. For example, if an engineer has designed water contained concrete structures but not swimming pools should they not complete a swimming pool design unless another engineer in the office does have experience in that particular design. Another example would be designing a flagpole vs a streetlight. Both would have similar design processes although requiring the use of new codes.

The reason I post this is many times in the forum a question gets asked (many times with little information) and it gets shut down with a comment "If you're asking this you should find someone with experience to complete the design". Many times the OP is inexperienced and should not be designing it but I am sure sometimes the OP just hasn't done that specific design but many similar type projects.

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

You as the engineer are the only one who knows whether you are qualified by experience and expertise to design something. In the US, most state engineering laws are based on this self-regulation - essentially placing the initial burden of the decision on the engineer.

Later, if the engineer chooses to attempt to design something that they haven't ever done before, and something goes awry, then the state board can investigate and determine if the engineer did in fact have previous experience in that arena or not.

But in reference to some on this site who come here asking freshman-year type questions and then asking for others here to actually do their designs for them (what size of beam is required?) then they don't belong on this site. They aren't asking for "tips" within the realm of their own professional practice but are usually do-it-yourselfers looking for free engineering services.

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RE: Expertise vs. Experience

Here is a good, personal example. I do both bridge and building designs, but have predominantly done structural engineering in building design, plus I do a lot of work with precast and have experience with prestressed concrete design.

We recently bid on and were awarded a job for some precast voided slab bridges. I have never done a voided slab bridge before. However, I have done a few solid slab bridges, many box culverts, and plenty of prestressed panels. I had no qualms about self-studying any missing aspects of my knowledge on voided slab bridges and their details. If someone questions my design and sees I have no previous projects of voided slabs I can point at all the similar work and overlapping skills and experience to both defend that I am practicing within my experience and training, and to ensure that I personally feel comfortable that I'm not overlooking key design steps.

If someone changed this bridge to a cable-stayed bridge I'd have to pass. I have no background that overlaps with a cable-stayed bridge. Could I learn it? Sure! Could I design is successfully? Probably. Could I be efficient in my design and ensure I wasn't learning on the clients dime? Not likely. Could I defend my design based on my experience or training? No!

If someone said to me "learn how to design cable-stayed bridges" I would go out and do just that. Then, after much training and studying, I could then pursue such a design; but not before. The trick is to know what the cutoff point is. For me, it's when I feel I could perform a design without software or worked examples to guide me. If I feel I could do that then I feel confident in taking on the design and learning any additional details along the way.

Regarding the forum; there's often a clear delineation between the two types of posts. You'll often see posts where an engineer is stating "I have never done X before, please help me with questions A, B, C. Any reference documents you know of would be great." Versus someone not competent saying "I'm designing a beam, my software said to use X, I don't understand. What size beam should I use?" The first clearly understands what items he doesn't know and wants some tips. The second wants the forum to do their work for them, is relying on some tool to try to pass muster, and is making basic errors that are fundamental to engineering.

Ian Riley, PE, SE
Professional Engineer (ME, NH, VT, CT, MA, FL) Structural Engineer (IL)
American Concrete Industries https://americanconcrete.com/

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

"If you're asking this you should find someone with experience to complete the design."

That is a lazy answer from someone who wants to come across as smart but if put to the task couldn't do it either, i.e. an internet "expert."

I used to count sand. Now I don't count at all.

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

Disagree with that SandCounter. I've used that expression on Eng-Tips numerous times.

It's not that I don't know how to answer the question - or am too lazy to answer.
The issue is that this site isn't intended for students, do-it-yourselfers, or those working outside their professional arena.

Usually when that type of answer is given the post soon is removed anyway.

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RE: Expertise vs. Experience

As others have alluded, previous experience is not the magic ingredient (although it helps. A lot!).

Related experience and expertise are important, but not critical.

The critical bit is being aware of (ascending difficulty):
  1. what you know
  2. what you do not know
  3. which of the things you do not know are important (and why)
  4. appropriate ways to find answers to those questions
Most posts that are met with "you need to hire a __ engineer" are between levels 1-2. If you are make it to somewhere near level 3, a forum like this can be a gold mine for information and experience.

----
The name is a long story -- just call me Lo.

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

Quote (Sandcounter)

That is a lazy answer from someone who wants to come across as smart but if put to the task couldn't do it either, i.e. an internet "expert."

I couldn't disagree more with this; further you've effectively insulted some very smart engineers here on eng-tips.

Similar to JAE, I've also used the phrase many times here on eng-tips and never once because I couldn't do the task or wanted to appear an expert. Rather because the question was fundamental and something I was capable of doing out of college. Beyond the ethical analysis of assisting a clearly unqualified person engaging in engineering, if I employ that statement it was because I felt the best help for that person was to let them know what they secretly already know themselves; they were out of their element and doing a task beyond their skill where it could cost people life or property.

If anything, I've been emailed multiple times by eng-tips staff for actually helping someone where I felt they clearly were not an engineer but had a simple enough question that I could safely get them an answer and put them on their way. Eng-tips staff regularly deletes such posts and dissuades other eng-tips members from rewarding posts by clearly unqualified "engineers".

I'll happily answer a question that's a low-hanging fruit for "internet expert" points; but I started putting my real name in my signature partly because I also will debate some higher-order topics and I don't want to ever feel like I can hide behind anonymity in stating my opinions without putting my reputation behind it.

That and free networking.

Ian Riley, PE, SE
Professional Engineer (ME, NH, VT, CT, MA, FL) Structural Engineer (IL)
American Concrete Industries https://americanconcrete.com/

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

(OP)
Thanks all for the replies, I do agree that generally when a post gets the "Get a real engineer" it is mostly because of a generic question with obviously no attempt made (How do you design a skyscraper).

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

In my experience engineering firms will not turn away a job even if they do not have experience in that area. For example, firms that have no medium voltage experience, will not turn away a substation job. If they can't or more often won't get someone who has the expertise, they will wing it. Unlike doctors who routinely refer patients to other doctors, engineering firms don't operate that way.

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

Only the ones who haven't learned the hard way...

Nothing will kill your year/division/company like taking on the wrong project.

----
The name is a long story -- just call me Lo.

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

Using your example, I would say that just because you have experience designing water containment structures does not mean you are qualified to design swimming pools. Design is more than calculations and equations (i.e. plug and chug). You need to know the ins and outs of what you are designing. The general considerations are strength, serviceability, safety, constructability, and cost. Designing for strength is the same in both situations. Its the other considerations that vary based on what you are designing.

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

JohnnnyBoy,

Maybe we need to define terminology here. An engineer is qualified because they have some level of training and practical experience that makes you confident they can do the work. An engineer is competent if they have demonstrated they actually can do the work.

How do you fit in the term expertise?

--
JHG

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

I didn't get into engineering to do the same task over and over again. I enjoy getting into new types of projects I haven't done before.

That said, as a structural/buildings guy, I'm not going anywhere near big bridges (though I have dabbled in small pedestrian bridges and platforms). Nor would I touch a wastewater or civil design . But I know local structural engineers who dabble in stormwater management, and don't fault them for that.

Then again, most structural guys love new building design. I prefer getting into alterations and restorations - I love diving into the unknown and making things work that don't always necessarily meet the letter of the code.

Of course, when trying something new, you will rarely get to charge full rates for all the hours invested in the particular job. because a lot of those hours in reality, are invested into yourself. broad experience can give you a lot of perspective on your specialized discipline (if you have one), IMO

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

Simple answer - no, you cannot ethically step outside your specialty with zero experience unless you are under the supervision of someone with experience in that niche. This is a personal peeve of mine having been the engineering review for many failed projects done by "consultants" hired by clueless management. Unethical folks may get away with it in simple applied design, but in proper engineering what you don't know will cost your customer a ton of money, possibly hurt others, and is quite literally the difference between being an engineer and a CAD jockey. If you cannot point to several years working similar projects and cannot guarantee the customer's success then don't do it plain and simple. The classic example posed on most every FE exam and study guide is the SE with experience in commercial structures being asked to take on a residential project, its unethical due to lack of experience despite being very similar work.

Quote:

"If you're asking this you should find someone with experience to complete the design review".

If you change the ending, you get what every junior engineer should be hearing at least several times weekly.

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

CWB1; I don't disagree but would modify every time you said "experience" to be "education or experience". That's the specific language in the engineering ethical clause and the practical nature of engineering.

Ian Riley, PE, SE
Professional Engineer (ME, NH, VT, CT, MA, FL) Structural Engineer (IL)
American Concrete Industries https://americanconcrete.com/

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

TehMighty, I have always found that phrase rather misleading. If engineers are truly qualified by "education OR experience" then experience wouldn't be necessary for licensure, yet in reality education is the unnecessary part. IME courts also could care less about education however attorneys commonly focus on experience, often spending an excruciating amount of time qualifying and/or discrediting testimony based on it. Beyond all that, how many folks do we all know that exemplify the "educated idiot" stereotype about engineers, or grads who cant handle actual engineering and move into other fields? Common sense says that one can replace the other, but not the other way around.

Personally I believe that phrase to be a nod toward the fact that education isn't necessary, not that it should be considered a sole qualifier.

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

There is a house being built near me. The builder age about 60 is doing much by himself. In watching what he is doing and discussing things with him in general (I hold back any suggestions since I know he has built maybe hundreds, etc.) his reasons for why things work do not always fit my knowledge or experience as to what I would do. However, his job is working, in spite of soil freezing and maybe lifting footings or potentially pushing a wall in. How many of us would backfill basement wall, no house on it yet, with concrete wall 7-1/2" thick and two horizontal re-bars 10 days old in below freezing weather? A crawler backhoe handling some filling even drove onto that loosely dumped sand backfill. The builder indicated he was unhappy with the operator, for darn good reason. In general while this guy has had no engineering training, his experiences are working for him if even to the point where SF is 1.0 I'd not sleep at night seeing some of his procedures if they were for me. But it is his house and he probably will "get away with it". Good thing for building codes, but they don't cover everything. This is a plus for experience I hope. I don't work that way.

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

CWB1: I believe (or at least my intent was) for "education" to count means education specific to a job. Say I've never done a post-and-beam wood framed building, but have don't lots of stick built buildings. I can pick up a book on the subject and read it, watch a few webinars on the topic, consult with other engineers on the topic, and discuss or observe similar work being built by others. I still have zero experience in the subject but have become qualified by education to perform the engineering.

This obviously has limits just like experience has limits; but my intent was to say that someone can learn to ethically perform an engineering task without experience (within reason).

Ian Riley, PE, SE
Professional Engineer (ME, NH, VT, CT, MA, FL) Structural Engineer (IL)
American Concrete Industries https://americanconcrete.com/

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

This is the ultimate judgment call. Nobody can extend their expertise without taking on things somewhat beyond it- the key is knowing how far you can stretch that without putting people in harm's way or wasting your client's money. A larger firm in theory has a broader base of experience to draw on so that whatever a client asks of them isn't too much of an extension beyond what the firm's staff currently knows well enough to deal with competently. That of course assumes that the staff talk to one another, which is not at all guaranteed.

I've seen groups that would rather struggle along and do something incompetently in return for billings by the hour, rather than bring in expertise to help do the job right.

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

I obviously pretty silly to say that a flag pole is fundamentally different from a light post, and its also incorrect to say that a responsible engineer would not evolve their skill base over time. I think in terms of ethics, there is a fairly big band of adjacent areas which you can responsibly take on.

One aspect is transparency. For example, your client may love you bc have amazing communication and service and they ask you to take on a historic renovation when you are normally focused on new build. If in that case you are clear with them and you do what is necessary to ensure its a successful project, it is completely ethical.

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

moltenmetal: large firms are really not big integrated groups, but independent fiefs flying under a common marketing banner. Getting someone from the mechanical group to join the project when you have been dealing with the structural group is almost as hard as getting a new firm involved.

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

Quote:

Say I've never done a post-and-beam wood framed building, but have don't lots of stick built buildings. I can pick up a book on the subject and read it, watch a few webinars on the topic, consult with other engineers on the topic, and discuss or observe similar work being built by others. I still have zero experience in the subject but have become qualified by education to perform the engineering.

TehMighty, so a few hours' education is equivalent to a decade or more's experience? I'd wager that no-experience couldn't effectively compete when challenged to efficiently design a post & beam kit product for a worldwide (less regulated) market, experience most likely winning out in terms of efficiency when folks have stiff competition rather than only the local-yokels and large safety factors and generous codes are thrown out in favor of juggling statistical failure analysis, manufacturing expertise, shipping cost/weight, and a number of other factors. Sorry but no, unless you've got experience guaranteeing world-class expertise for a niche then you cannot ethically be the engineer is responsible charge. As a former product manager once said to me, "we don't pay you for a functional design, we pay you for a BETTER design, ALL factors considered."

In the auto industry we hold engineers to very high ethical standards because efficiency is king, and you simply cannot be efficient without experience. I often am asked to apply my extensive experience in casting, forging, and machined part design outside of my specialty (a few particular systems within the larger powertrain) and I can, but am ethically required to defer to the brake/body/other lead engineer's expertise as to my assumptions of part loading, failure modes, etc.

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

That's probably a difference between the mechanical world (where efficiency is critical), and the structural world, where almost everything is a prototype/unique solution.

(Not to mention that in the structural engineering world, our technical precision is of much less importance to the final product cost than things like.... architecture... and permitting fees... and contractor mobilization)

----
The name is a long story -- just call me Lo.

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

Quote:

TehMighty, so a few hours' education is equivalent to a decade or more's experience?

Depending on the structural challenge in question and presuming that the years of experience by the structural engineer prior to that job can be built upon? Yes.

To build upon what Lo has stated. I've worked on many jobs where my technical expertise added no value and pretty much any structural engineer could do the work. Sure, a more experienced structural engineer might make a slightly more efficient design but those engineers charge for that experience. Thus, they'll actually be at a disadvantage over someone with less experience. If the owner is designing a garage they don't need a world class engineer to design it and certainly would be foolish to pay for it.

You are correct that, while the above is true for most cases, it's not true for all. There are plenty of situations this does not hold true; someone who designs footbridges will not be prepared for being the EOR of a multi-span bridge no matter how many books they pick up.

In the end it may boil down to the differences between mechanical engineering and structural engineering.

Ian Riley, PE, SE
Professional Engineer (ME, NH, VT, CT, MA, FL) Structural Engineer (IL)
American Concrete Industries https://americanconcrete.com/

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

Quote:

Depending on the structural challenge in question....

I've worked on many jobs where my technical expertise added no value and pretty much any structural engineer could do the work. Sure, a more experienced structural engineer might make a slightly more efficient design but those engineers charge for that experience. Thus, they'll actually be at a disadvantage over someone with less experience. If the owner is designing a garage they don't need a world class engineer to design it and certainly would be foolish to pay for it.

That would imply that a top engineer has some ability that others in their niche dont. Top engineers charge for experience, reputation, and to a lesser extent proprietary tools, not ability. Unless a junior isnt qualified by education and experience, they should be able to (and commonly do) do the same work in a very similarly efficient manner for less money. Difficulty of the project is irrelevant, they all require proven unquestionable competence. If an engineer is uncomfortable being in responsible charge for any project due to high difficulty or has to waste a customer's money on unnecessary material or labor costs then they have no business leading work in that niche.

Ultimately, ethics and laws are black and white, not gray, so everything we do must also be black and white. A project either meets the customer requirements or it doesn't. The design has either been independently reviewed to ensure quality or it hasn't. The responsible engineer can either prove world-class ability by pointing to past difficult projects, or they can't. There's no judgement to engineering or "Depending on..." situational circumstances, one either can prove they thoroughly know a niche and can guarantee the highest quality work or they should not be approving work in it.

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

Quote (CWB1)

There's no judgement to engineering or "Depending on..." situational circumstances, one either can prove they thoroughly know a niche and can guarantee the highest quality work or they should not be approving work in it.

My point was about simple jobs that don't require expertise in a niche. It sounds like you're saying one can't be an ethical engineer of record unless their at the top of their field? You say it needs to be black and white but at which point does someone transition to being able to "guarantee the highest quality work"?

Incidentally, I hope you're not telling your clients you provide them a "guarantee the highest quality work". That's a great way to invalidate your liability insurance and get you in a pickle with the lawyers. I would hope you instead provide a "standard level of care".

Quote (CWB1)

The design has either been independently reviewed to ensure quality or it hasn't.

Interesting you mention that. I'm not aware of any universal ethical requirement that a project be reviewed independently. Certain projects make it impractical to not have independent review and local codes or jobs may require it, but there's plenty of jobs that can be done by a single engineer self-checking his or her work.

Ian Riley, PE, SE
Professional Engineer (ME, NH, VT, CT, MA, FL) Structural Engineer (IL)
American Concrete Industries https://americanconcrete.com/

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

Quote:

My point was about simple jobs that don't require expertise in a niche. It sounds like you're saying one can't be an ethical engineer of record unless their at the top of their field? You say it needs to be black and white but at which point does someone transition to being able to "guarantee the highest quality work"?

I am saying that to be ethical an EoR's competency within their niche should not be limited, they should be an expert in their specific chosen field. They don't have to be widely known or considered in some arbitrary percentage relative to others, but they should have proven history creating or applying the latest technology and analytical methods within their niche, and their work generally reviewed and accepted as being modern practice. If they choose to apply simple methods to simple projects as a cost savings to customers that's their prerogative, but selling oneself as an expert (particularly to the uninformed public) when one isn't is fraud and ignores the obligation to both clients and the profession.

Quote:

I'm not aware of any universal ethical requirement that a project be reviewed independently. Certain projects make it impractical to not have independent review and local codes or jobs may require it, but there's plenty of jobs that can be done by a single engineer self-checking his or her work.

I've had the need for 100% independent peer review requirement drummed into me from engineering ethics 101 through each successive employer's required ethics training and into society membership. We owe clients due diligence, and every quality control methodology preaches the fallibility of humans and the need for independent quality control/peer review because checking one's self simply isn't effective. Statistically speaking, the "simple" projects and tasks are the ones where most mistakes are made. Deeming a project simple enough not to need a design review simply defies common sense, so I don't see how it could be considered ethical.

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

CWB1: Your first paragraph is clear and makes sense to me now. I generally agree with it.

I also agree with your second paragraph in that I agree with the merits and uses of 3rd party review. However, that's the unfortunate nature of the structural consulting industry is it's not only not required but probably not even done in the majority of cases. I personally seek out 3rd party review where practical or am required to have it done due to my work predominantly being delegated engineering. That said, right now the current market for structural engineering doesn't generally required 3rd part review and thus a structural engineer is at a disadvantage quoting jobs where they include it. By all means, I would love to see this change in the future for structural work as it would solve many problems, but it's not something the industry appears to be eager to do.

Ian Riley, PE, SE
Professional Engineer (ME, NH, VT, CT, MA, FL) Structural Engineer (IL)
American Concrete Industries https://americanconcrete.com/

RE: Expertise vs. Experience

I don't see why 3rd party review would be an ethical requirement, per se, since it's simply best practice, unless, of course, it's something that was promised, but not actually done.

TTFN (ta ta for now)
I can do absolutely anything. I'm an expert! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKorP55Aqvg
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RE: Expertise vs. Experience

Quote (CWB1)

I am saying that to be ethical an EoR's competency within their niche should not be limited, they should be an expert in their specific chosen field. They don't have to be widely known or considered in some arbitrary percentage relative to others, but they should have proven history creating or applying the latest technology and analytical methods within their niche, and their work generally reviewed and accepted as being modern practice. If they choose to apply simple methods to simple projects as a cost savings to customers that's their prerogative, but selling oneself as an expert (particularly to the uninformed public) when one isn't is fraud and ignores the obligation to both clients and the profession.

I disagree; As far as I know, there is no requirement in any of the states that I'm licensed in that one has to be an "expert" in their specific field to practice engineering, merely that they need be minimally competent to the general standard of care of their specific practice or industry. Bear in mind, the majority of us Structural folks are licensed after about 4 years of experience - I don't think you could call any of us "experts" right after the exam, yet we were judged by the States' we were licensed in as minimally competent to be placed in responsible charge of significant engineering projects. Properly vetting consultants for adequate experience to economically and efficiently provide professional services is (and always should be) the responsibility of the buyer - Caveat Emptor.

Quote (CWB1)

I've had the need for 100% independent peer review requirement drummed into me from engineering ethics 101 through each successive employer's required ethics training and into society membership. We owe clients due diligence, and every quality control methodology preaches the fallibility of humans and the need for independent quality control/peer review because checking one's self simply isn't effective. Statistically speaking, the "simple" projects and tasks are the ones where most mistakes are made. Deeming a project simple enough not to need a design review simply defies common sense, so I don't see how it could be considered ethical.

Independent peer review is a best practice for sure but again, there is no hard and fast law or ethical standard that I am aware of mandates it as a requirement for all projects (at least as far as the Structural Engineering profession goes - I grant you, I have no clue about the Mechanical side).

CWB1, Several folks have suggested to you thus far that perhaps the differences between the Engineering disciplines may be obscuring the issue a bit here. I'll go a bit further - I don't think that I, as a senior Structural Engineer with over a decade of experience and licensed in multiple states, could alone, adequately judge whether an equivalent Mechanical Engineer had provided their services in accordance with their relevant ethical and professional obligations. I would also suggest to you that the opposite is likely true as well.

-Huck


RE: Expertise vs. Experience

Quote (Huck)

Properly vetting consultants for adequate experience to economically and efficiently provide professional services is (and always should be) the responsibility of the buyer - Caveat Emptor.

Oof, now you got me playing devil's advocate (forgive the term CWB1):

"Caveat emptor" should ideally not apply to a licensed profession (within obvious reason). If someone professes to be a competent engineer and is licensed as required, the whole point is a layman doesn't need more than a minimum of responsible vetting to ensure they are hiring a competent engineer. Licensing is entirely there to protect the public from unqualified persons performing engineering and (in an ideal world) to eliminate the need for any "buyer beware" mentality.

Otherwise I agree with your post; but felt strongly enough on the above sentence that I had to comment on it.

Ian Riley, PE, SE
Professional Engineer (ME, NH, VT, CT, MA, FL) Structural Engineer (IL, HI)
American Concrete Industries https://americanconcrete.com/

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