Failure: The Key Ingredient to Learning

There's been a lot of talk lately about acceptance of failure. Probably because people are pushing for innovation, and it's difficult to innovate if you're afraid to fail. Thus the numerous posts of encouragement across the Internet assuring all of us that failure is ok. Of course as engineers, failure is not something we want to experience. In some cases, an engineering failure can result in loss of life or property damage. So engineers are very careful about eliminating failure as an option. But I suppose, we could consider acceptance of failure in areas of our lives not involving an engineering design. In other words, we should look for those pockets of opportunity throughout our day where innovation with a risk of failure could be an option.

Of course, our conservative and analytical approach requires us to ask, why? Why should we do this when our carefully planned and well calculated approach to life works just fine? To answer this, let's take a look at how others fail and the impacts they experience due to that failure.

Baby Learning to Crawl and WalkIf you have children, it will be very easy to think of how they fail. And it seems that the younger they are, the more they fail. Children are born with few skills and knowledge, but from the time they begin life on their own, they start to search out and learn as much as they can. But this learning process rarely goes smoothly – how many times does a baby fall before he learns to confidently walk? Some parents stand back allowing a certain amount of failure – these are the parents who will say, "let him go; he needs to learn." Other parents hover over their children waiting to rescue them at the hint of trouble. And this approach continues on until they turn into an adult and perhaps for some parents even later. Although I am not sure the same parent takes the same approach every year of their child's life. The one thing I am sure about is we cannot do everything for our child all the time jumping in before the point of imminent failure and save the day then think at age 18 they magically know everything and can go off merrily on their own. They need to learn, and like it or not, they learn through failure. Or they never become fully independent adults.

Now, the lesson is not to let your kid go off doing everything without resriction and hope they survive thinking that is the only way they will learn. After all some risks must be avoided, and as parents, we need to monitor the risks we allow our children to take. But not allowing risk at all not only removes their chance of learning life skills, it also conditions their adult behavior. Which kind of makes you wonder if engineers with their ultra conservative approach to life were raised by parents who minimized risks. I don't know – that's for the psychologists to figure out.

Now, let's look at what our risk aversion has done to our profession. Yes, it allowed us to continually improve our designs allowing for a much safer and more environmentally friendly world. And that is not something to dismiss – it's an amazing achievement for our society. But could we have done more if we better understood failure and risk and were able to distinguish the "ok to fail" opportunities. We explored the results of not innovating with the rest of the world in the "Does Civil Engineering Have a Next Paradigm?" and in "The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again?) of Engineering Consulting Firms."

3D Plant in Virtual World of Second LifePerhaps this is why I have been so intrigued by games and 3D environments. I don't want to take risks with what I do at work, so while I create successful projects with this approach, I perhaps miss out on insights provided by failures. But what I have quickly learned using games and spending time in virtual worlds is I can fail there all I want, and no one gets hurt including myself. And by doing so, I learn amazing things. We can never tell engineers working on an actual project to just go ahead and try any pipe size just to see what will happen. But we can in a game or in a 3D virtual world. Having a water system or plant set up in a game or virtual world where we could switch out pipe sizes,  or pumps, or fittings and watch what happens to the system would provide a great learning opportunity. How much better and faster a hydraulics or fluids lesson would sink in if we could calculate the result then actually try it out in an environment designed to safely allow for failure. 


A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 2


Today was one of those days filled with many micro tasks. And as @motownmutt pointed out yesterday on Twitter, listing tasks is most definitely something an engineer does. So here we go with most of the things I focused on today brought to you in typical engineering list fashion:

Inlet Flow

Picking out Frames and Grates
Early in the morning, I called our sales rep with  EJIW to try to decide if a particular frame and grate would work on some inlets on our Motor Fuel Tax job. These inlets are typical two-foot-diameter concrete structures. They currently have a square frame and grate that does not fit the circular inlet well. This sets up the potential for failure of the pavement because the soil/stone under the road can get washed into the inlet in the holes left where the frame overlaps the basin. The inlet is not placed well near the curb so I cannot use a typical curb inlet like the one in the photo. I could use a circular frame and grate, but the concern with our maintenance staff is that those grates catch debris more easily than some of the others. So, I found a square frame and grate with a round bottom that will fit well on the inlet. But the sales person needed to see if he could get these in time. If not, I’ll have to go with the round ones. 
Hunting Down Road Names
Last week we had given the county GIS department the names of four roads that didn’t match between our system and their GIS. The person who makes the changes at the county called asking for a map and the documents supporting the change. We’ve been researching our road names for about a year now to verify the ones in our GIS are the formally approved name. So I did have documentation for two of them. However, I didn’t realize we had passed along two changes that did not have documentation. So I spent time today looking for the document that changed those road names. Although my search resulted in learning how the roads were established, I never did find the documentation for the names. So rather than spend more time looking, I am going to see if we can have the city council approve the road names so I can record them. Only after we do this and record the change with the county will the county change the name on their GIS.

Reviewing Traffic Signal Agreements
Today I also continued to look over a traffic signal agreement between the city and IDOT that I had been reviewing. Because I could not figure out how the percentage of responsibility was split for both maintenance and energy, I contacted IDOT to ask them. (The district office we work with is always very helpful, and I am always very appreciative of that.) The person I talked to said I would need to look at the individual agreements that were signed each time each signal was improved. So our interns spent part of the day looking for these agreements. Unfortunately we could not find any. I decided to try another route. In my previous position, I was located in the District 3 territory for IDOT. There we had an awesome person who was responsible for all agreements. So I figured if I contact his counterpart in District 1, I can probably get copies of these old agreements. I think the total number of signals involved is between 10 and 15. Once we get these percentages verified, I can move the agreement along for consideration by city council.


Backyard Flooding & Detention Basins

I called back the resident who had concerns over the backyard flooding. This is the one where we discovered the backyard is a detention basin. I explained it is flooding because it is supposed to and it will hold water for some time before draining. However, because of the intense use of the basin by the residents, I explained that more debris does get into the system and occasionally plugs the outlet. So I encouraged the resident to contact us if the water does not seem to recede in a normal amount of time. I also mentioned that the above ground swimming pools that some residents have set up in the bottom of the basin are taking up space that is designed to hold stormwater. Therefore, water could rise faster than is designed. But I did not get the impression they were going to move their pool. We do not have a policy where we require these pools to be moved so I left it at just explaining the consequences.

Securing Project Documentation
Last year we constructed two jobs using ARRA funds. One of these we inspected with in-house staff saving approximately $60,000 based on the costs we incurred for outside inspection on the other one. At this point in the process, I am still working to close out the project documentation – mainly because I have not yet received the proper documentation. The final paperwork I’ve been waiting for has been from the landscaper who continues to give me the same thing over and over that is not correct. Because I tried talking to him once and had to listen to him tell me how he didn’t care if we never hired him again because he is so awesome, I figured it’s easier just to run down the information myself rather than go through that conversation again. By the end of the day, the seed and fertilizer suppliers had agreed to get me the right paperwork so hopefully I can get a little closer to finaling out the job.
Other Miscellaneous Tasks


  • Another engineer and I reviewed the sealcoating schedule for a few public parking lots. This is a major undertaking because the lots are so well used. The project engineer always does a great job letting people know about the work ahead of time so hopefully this year will go as smoothly as last year. But it does take quite a bit of planning.
  • We also discussed creating a map showing all of our road centerlines color-coded based on condition rating and year of repair and year of sealcoating. This map can help us more quickly identify the roads that are best positioned for sealcoating. So I spent some time with our GIS staff to decide how we wanted to set this up.
  • We received comments back from the county about potential access to properties lying within our Southeast Planning area. So I spent some time reviewing the comments.
  • We also researched the boundary information along a road lying between us and our neighboring city. The striping on the road needs to be re-done so we need to determine who has the responsibility to pay for it. I ended up asking our administrative office for a copy of the boundary agreement so will probably get this tomorrow.
  • We are researching the maintenance responsibilities of a detention basin in one of our subdivisions. So our GIS created a spreadsheet of the properties lying within the subdivision, and I passed this along to the person working on the project. Our interns also found the document creating the homeowner’s association for this subdivision. And the document does indicate each property owner in the subdivision is a member of the association, and the association is responsible for the basin.
  • Our planning department needed a copy of the plans for a development that was completed last year so I scanned and sent them. We also sent off related comments because someone is looking at the possibility of a development adjacent to that one, and there are improvements that need to be done when the remainder is improved.
  • We received comments from IDOT about drainage from a proposed development so I reviewed them and passed them along to the engineer reviewing the project.
  • During the morning, I also received a call from a resident who had fallen off their bicycle on one of our roads. So I spent some time documenting the incident and phone call.



A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 1

So many people seem to have no idea what civil engineers do each day. Is this because civil engineers typically avoid promoting their work and profession? Or is this just something that people are not taught in school? Or does anyone, other than engineers, really care? Or is it a little of all of that? In an effort to help contribute to removal of the first reason, I decided to try out documenting each work day with a short summary of what I did that day working as a city engineer at a municipality with a population of approximately 23,000. I will try to avoid specific names because they should not be relevant, and because the people involved might not want this information publicly posted on a blog. Feel free to post in the comment area any questions or ideas related to the post for that day. If something is posted that reminds you of a similar experience, I'd love to hear it!

Day 1 

My normal work day starts at 7 am and officially ends at 4 pm. Usually I hang around after 4 and leave between 4:30 and 5 pm unless I have another obligation. Today, I started my day as I normally do checking my calendar and my email. Our division had received an offer from a contractor to inspect a product that we had not yet used in our city. The inspection trip was scheduled for today, so we finalized the time and who was going to go during the early morning. While waiting for the contractor to show up, I worked on the following items:

  • Finalizing the property research our interns had completed to determine property ownership in a block where the city is designing a new parking lot. We need to know the property owners because the city attorney must use this information to prepare related agreements and easements.
  • I also worked with our interns to explain how to perform and document research to determine a chain of title of property for a detention pond in one of our subdivisions. 
  • I reviewed a development plan scheduled to be discussed later that day.
  • And of course, I read through and answered and organized the day's email.

CAM Product Road TreatmentDuring the last half of the morning, some of our staff went with a contractor to inspect the performance of his product. We were also able to witness the company in the process of placing the product along a county road. Many of the products we use have been around for a long time and have a long track record. In order for us to incorporate newer products into our designs, we need to spend the time to make sure they are worth the money and will perform. In this case, we thought the product greatly improved and enhanced the performance of the pavement to which it was applied. So we agreed the product does seem to provide value at a reasonable cost. (You can see how the product looks right after its application in the photo to the left. The pavement at the top of the photo shows how it looks after it has dried.)

We ended up only stopping for a short lunch then returning to attend a staff review meeting for a proposed development. These meetings include members from all departments in the city who are part of the development review team. The purpose of the meeting is to talk about the submittal and identify any concerns or areas requiring changes or clarification. So, we discussed the proposed plan and developed comments to send to the developer. 

After the meeting, another engineer and I left the office to inspect a drainage inquiry. Questions about drainage are the most common call our division receives from residents. In this case, the person was asking about their backyard flooding. After looking up the original subdivision plans, we realized the back yard of this residence is part of a detention basin. The area is designed to flood, or detain water, during a storm. After the storm, the water will eventually drain away. The last time it rained was a few days ago, so today, the area was dry.

I also ended the day touching base again with our interns about their property research. They had discovered the basin was owned by an association affiliated with the subdivision. So I showed them how to verify the corporation and ensure it had not been dissolved and explained how to look up articles of incorporation.

There were many miscellaneous items I addressed over the day through email although I'm not sure how detailed I should be about these. For now, I'll try a short listing of some of the items, but if this seems to be too much to include in a summary, let me know:

  • Reviewed a request to hold an event in our community to ensure there were no engineering-related issues with the event request
  • Worked on getting access for our staff to the ACE11 Virtual event
  • With the help of the county staff, resolved a question about who maintains cattails in the right of way of the county road in our community
  • Passed along striping requests to one of our staff members who is managing the striping operations for this year