A senior moment

Deep thoughts from one of the nation's senior engineers.


Peter Zak is a professional engineer based in Wisconsin. He has more than 30 years of experience with the design of mechanical systems, and is an emeritus member of the Consulting-Specifying Engineer editorial advisory board.Every now and then we all have those holy s$#& moments when something catches us completely off guard. My most recent “moment” occurred while investigating a new health club membership. At the end of the tour, the membership director suggested that I was eligible for a senior discount.

Although the concept of a discount was enticing, it was difficult to comprehend the senior part—after all, I thought that was a term that defines a completed phase in school life, such as a high school senior. It also means older or elder and has multiple synonyms. So I left and thought about things for a moment using typical engineer evaluations: grey, thinning hair (check); bifocals (check); pants a little snug (check); grandkids (check); AARP member (check). OK, I am a senior.

At about that time I was asked to renew my commitment as an editorial board member for this magazine. Given my latest epiphany, I had to give it some thought. After all, I’ve been involved with Consulting-Specifying Engineer for more than 15 years and in the consulting business for 35 years. I realized that it is time to pass the torch, so I have officially retired my position.

This has been a wonderful experience. I have enjoyed writing and reviewing articles as well as collaborating on the direction the magazine has taken. I could not have done this without the support of several people.

1. First: Rosann, my wife, who endured days with a kitchen table buried in plans, charts, books, and miscellaneous office paraphernalia I deemed necessary to prepare my articles.

2. Second: Kerri, my assistant for more than 20 years, who performed her magic translating my hieroglyphic scribbling, arrows, and notes into a cohesive translation of my work.

3. Finally: Amara, my editor, for her gentle (and not so gentle) reminders of deadlines, word counts, formatting, picture size, and well … she’s an editor.  

Anyone who knows me knows I have many opinions, so here are some of my parting thoughts and concerns:

  • I have always felt that technology has surpassed common sense. Every day I am reminded that the next high-speed computer or software package will virtually eliminate the burdens of calculations and design. It seems that today’s business model encourages speed and less hands-on time to be profitable. So off we run, chasing the next shiny object like lemmings to the cliff. Our business is becoming very litigious, and the cavalier and overconfident belief that technology will fix everything will keep lawyers well-financed for years.
  • I also have a partial theory (possibly a conspiracy) of why there is this blind rush for faster designs with less human interface. It is expensive to have people work on a project. The more experienced the person, the more costly. Why not have the technology systems compensate for the more experienced people? This would seem counter-intuitive to people of my era, as we were taught that part of the design process is to work and learn not only the technical aspects but also the practical side of design. So much of today’s business is driven by the competitive nature of the engineering services industry.
  • Early in my career I was taught that once you completed college, served your apprenticeship, and passed 16 hours of grueling exams to receive your professional engineer license, you became a safekeeper for the common good of mankind. You were the trusted adviser and selected for projects based on your reputation and expertise. Today engineers—especially mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP) or fire protection engineers—are regarded as a commodity. In my opinion, architects tend to look upon these services as a necessary evil and as consultants as all the same: if you provide a low fee, you get the job.
  • I’m not sure what is being taught in the architectural schools, but I do remember a quote from Mies van der Rohe, “less is more.” Was he referring to negotiating consultants’ fees?
  • Another thing that troubles me is the  formation of new technical societies that attempt to influence technical standards and create guidelines based on public opinions, or that have a financial agenda in the name of the environment or energy. Many of these, including some of our oldest and most respected technical organizations, have lobbyists and public agendas to change regulatory guidelines—or they use resources to create certification programs encouraging you to become an expert. For some, you don’t even need a college degree or engineering license, all you have to do is have 8 years of related experience and pay several hundred dollars for an exam. Upon successfully completing the exam you are now a certified (fill in the blank) person.
  • I recently completed an application on a matchbook cover and sent $25 to an agency to get certified; when the paperwork arrives, I should be certified to perform weddings and exorcisms.

Now that I have that off my chest, I have to consider my next great adventure. Certainly I will need to devote some time to mentoring my protégé. After all, the next generation of engineers moving into management and positions of responsibility still don’t know what they don’t know. I’m hoping our replacements will not be distracted by sparkly objects and take a moment to be objective, even a bit cynical, and learn from our mistakes.

I think a little more family time will be great. I’ll also need to get a little more hobby time, so I’m debating if I want to get more serious about road racing or pursue a career in cage fighting. I’ll need to discuss this with my wife.

Thank you to all who read my articles and provided feedback, as well as to this publication for the opportunity.

Peter Zak is a professional engineer based in Wisconsin. He has more than 30 years of experience with the design of mechanical systems, and is an emeritus member of the Consulting-Specifying Engineer editorial advisory board. 

THOMAS , PA, United States, 09/26/13 12:50 PM:

From one senior to another - Pete, your opinions are right on the mark! I have almost 45 years in this business, and I have seen the changes you describe, some for the better and some for the worse. Best of luck in your future pursuits. Let's hope the next generation can learn to be successful as well.
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