Saturday, June 27, 2009

Everyone's an Engineer

June 27

About a month ago I visited a school in Eastern Iraq. We were doing a walk-through to determine if a statement of work we’d received from an Iraqi contractor covered all of the necessary repairs to make the school into a comfortable and safe learning environment for the kids. Throughout our visit, the students were having their lessons tucked away in one of the six or seven total classrooms. The others were vacant due to some combination of electrical, cooling, or safety deficiency, or due to the fact that there simply weren’t enough students (or teachers) there to merit use of another room. As we walked from room to room, around the perimeter, and even climbed up onto the roof of the school, we saw pretty much what we expected to see: broken or leaking pipes, worn out water and hot-water tanks, and finishes that were cracked, rusted and dirty. The main workings of the place, however, were in good order. They had duct work, to supply air conditioning to all of the rooms. It just wasn’t being used because they didn’t have working air conditioning units. They had power running to each of the rooms but it wasn’t working in all of them for one reason or another.

It was my first time in and around Iraqi children and I was once again surprised by their reaction to our presence. There were some young mothers in one of the front rooms and they noticeably held their babies closer as they nervously smiled at the soldiers poking around the building with guns in hand. The kids, however, acted as if there were clowns or circus performers walking around. They called out to us and smiled as we walked by the windows conducting our survey. When the teacher finally realized she was going to get no further attention out of them while we were there, they were released for recess, and they quickly ran laughing up to the soldiers “standing guard” around the perimeter. Most of the soldiers obliged their requests and dished out high fives and handshakes. It really was an incredible sight to see children running up to heavily armed foreign men crowding around them hands outstretched for high fives, or hoping to be fortunate and receive a free pencil or pen. My buddy made the mistake of giving his only pencil and pen to a kid on a separate trip very early into his walk-around (that time he was out inspecting a water tower) forcing him to not only have to remember a whole lot more from the trip (having nothing to write down his notes with), but also sending a wave of additional kids towards him for more free stuff. I avoided that awkwardness by smiling at them and taking a lot of pictures. The kids were very photogenic.

After about an hour, we thanked the headmaster for his time and as we headed back to the Strykers the kids started up an impromptu soccer match in the front yard of the school. There were no visible goals, or teams for that matter that I could see. The out of bounds on one side was the school although I think it was anything goes for playing it off the walls. I’m guessing that the barbed wire on the ground was out on the other side.

As we headed for our rides, the interpreter with us asked me a few questions about the project and what specifically we were going to be working on. I explained to him the extent of repairs we were looking at doing to which he quickly replied that his brother was a contractor, that could do the work, and he could do it for cheap. In Iraq, everyone is an engineer...

...We develop good working relationships with our contractors back home. In my office back in the states we have a multi-year contract established with a company to accomplish small construction projects around base, everything from repairs to some new minor construction jobs. We see the same project managers on a weekly or biweekly basis at our progress meetings and converse repeatedly with them during the time in between, around the job sites, over the phone, and through email. In that sort of partnership it would be natural for friendships to develop over time. However, the American system is very suspicious of these sorts of relationships, especially between government and civilian contractors, and there are strict laws in place to prohibit even the slightest “unprofessional” business relationships from developing that may lead to favoritism in future contract decisions. When our contractor decided to host a barbeque to raise money for a coworker who had fallen ill and was in the hospital, my boss made it absolutely clear to all of us that we were not to exceed the suggested donation amount and reminded us of the consequences of accepting gifts/meals/etc. for free in the future if ever the situation was to arise. I don’t like having to be cold in my interactions with people I deal with every day but as someone who could one day be involved in the selection of the next company who will hold our construction contract, I get it. I can't play favorites.

The past performance of a company in a contract (ours or another elsewhere) is an important component of the selection process and is a way that we can take into account how well (or poorly) a company’s employees got along with the members of our office. This is also how, after taking all other applicants into account, the same company can win back the contract. We know them. We’ve seen their work, their professionalism, their punctuality at meeting deadlines, and we feel comfortable with them and their price. However, I could not hire my brother’s company (due to our relationship only), even if I was the one with the final say. If his was in the running for the job, or he wanted to apply, I would likely have to step aside from the final decision for conflict of interest reasons and await the final decision by the other members of the committee.

This is a very far cry from the way business is done in the Middle East. Here in Iraq, it seems to be an expected practice to hire relatives or family friends for government contracts. To not do so would be insulting regardless of their professional experience or ability. It is almost as if when you elect an official for a government position, you are handing his whole family the key to the city. On a separate occasion we stopped by a village to ask a question about a project and asked a few locals who saw us if they could bring us to the mayor of the town so we could speak to him. Instead, his brother showed up and started talking to us as if he spoke for the town. I don’t know if he had been appointed official proxy for his brother or not, but I doubt it. One brother is elected and all others are immediately shareholders of his authority. Everyone can be mayor.

Where a pyramid is often the shape used to depict the authority structure in the United States, with the President on the top, citizens on the bottom, the general on top, the soldiers on the bottom, I wonder if an inverted pyramid might be a better way to look at the Iraqi structure. There are so many government representatives that at the end of the day it’s hard to tell who holds what authority and who they actually lead to accomplish whatever it is they want to accomplish. Not surprisingly the flow of money doesn’t work very well in this sort of arrangement. The money changes hands so many times that at the end of the day it’s hard to say exactly how much has reached the intended people/project. Along the way everyone gets their cut. Everyone gets their share...

...It has been daunting to take on some of the project designs we have seen during my first few months here. Yes, I’ve done renovations and repairs back home. Those I have some experience with. What, on the other hand, did I know about lining a canal to reduce losses due to seepage before coming here? When did I ever design a fence to keep sand from blowing onto train tracks or did I investigate the best methods for preventing gravel roads from washing out during heavy rains? There is no all-inclusive text book with detailed instructions for accomplishing these tasks. Even if there was, it would include instructions for only generic cases, not for every possibility.

And so, we start every new project here by doing two things. We check our database of existing and completed projects to see if we’ve done something similar in the past that we can adapt to the new circumstances. If that doesn’t pan out, we turn to google. I have become a highly proficient google-er, able to find what I’m looking for after a few tries. Sometimes you have to be creative. My officemate got us started on the sand fence by looking first at snow fences, something he was vaguely familiar with from living up north where they’re widely used. I found a website that sold a dust-screen product primarily intended for keeping dust from blowing off of construction sites by doing a google-search for “dust-mitigation products.” From these separate sites we were able to create, to extrapolate, a solid recommendation and cost estimate for the project to go forward. Was anything we did to gather all of the necessary information above or beyond what any other person given the same desired end-state could have done? Anyone with a computer certainly would have stumbled across the same information we did given the right amount of time. So, anyone can be engineer, right?

I appreciate engineering school much more after the fact. In school I was often frustrated by the lack of practical examples given in lectures but I am now beginning to understand that what we were intended to learn was not necessarily how to solve a series of specific design questions, but rather how to approach problems, break them down, gather all the necessary and available data, and then arrive at a solution, often not the only solution, but hopefully the best solution to the problem. It is here where I realize that there is hope for us engineers after all (we are not yet obsolete). It is impossible to list every problem imaginable online. By the time you do, new ones have risen. You cannot “How-to” the world. Even in the military engineers' world, one that does not always have time for thinking outside of the box (or the standard sized, standard design, wood personnel structure), there are situations that arise that are outside the norm. And that’s why we are here, in Iraq, right now. Because everyone can’t do what we do. Google and Wikipedia may give people access to the same information, but that's as far as they go.

Everyone is not an engineer... Not even in Iraq.


  1. Tim, I am enjoying your essays so much! What a window into a world we do not know. I printed out the previous essay and gave it to Patsy, who positively loved it. She remarked repeatedly how proud she was, and how proud Mark would have been of you. Of course, we are all proud of you. Love you very much!

  2. 1. I get the sense that what you learned in engineering school (and subsequently as a working engineer) has provided you with a pretty useful way to look at life. Before I'd even reached the paragraph towards the end of this post wherein you more or less point out as much, I said to Alanna that the salient feature of many of these essays is the methodical, comprehensive meticulous sweep of your thinking about pretty much everything. You have no idea (or maybe you do?) how valuable and rare a skill that is. Example:

    2. You contrast with the military's fairly scrupulous approach to contracting construction jobs with what sounds to me like pretty textbook nepotism in Iraq, which you map out with thorough concision . . . but you never actually use the WORD "nepotism." . . . And this to me is incredibly valuable. You have no idea how many people recklessly pretend to knowledge they haven't actually earned by throwing around bits of shorthand they've picked up half-assedly along the way, for the most part failing to understand ANY of what they want you to believe they "know." The essayist's job is to pour over the material that most people acquaint themselves with via casual catalogue or bullet-point paraphrase and catch the minutiae that the rest of us either miss or are too lazy to be bothered about. From what I've seen so far you are, or could be if you were so inclined, an essayist – an examiner, an organizer, a genuine thinker. One of the most rewarding aspects of reading these posts has been the way I've been able to see your mind's gears grinding towards careful understanding and explication of all sorts of topics, and though I doubt you need any exhortation from my end, since the cognitive-method seems to be encoded in your DNA (or RNA, or wherever the hell genetic predisposition gets encoded; see: I'm in with the lazies) for what it's worth, I really hope you keep on doing what you do. Great stuff.