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Calvin Asks: Do you ever feel like you're out of your depth?
I currently work for a medium sized M&E contractor involved in large commercial and residential projects.

Having worked there for several years and despite considering myself to be a competent and knowledgeable engineer, I can’t help shake the feeling that I am out of my depth.

Whilst I understand a great deal across many different areas, there is still so much technically I am unsure of. Jack of all trades, master of none springs to mind.

My main concern is that this gap in knowledge will inevitably cause a serious issue somewhere down the line and put someone’s life, or a building at risk (for instance incorrectly sizing life-safety systems).

I suspect it is just a case of grinding it out and eventually things will start clicking into place. I am always expanding my knowledge both  in and out of work so feel I will get there soon enough.

Does anyone else get this feeling?

Despite the stresses I enjoy building services engineering so don’t want to call it a day just yet.

Stressed out in Salford
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9 Replies
First take comfort in the fact that no-one is an expert at everything. It is important to keep stretching yourself and expanding your knowledge. The most dangerous 'engineers' are those who think they know it all.
It sounds like you are aware of your limitations and that is good. If you feel you are beyond what you know, ask for help. This can be anything from "I have done this but due to the importance of the system could you please double check it for me" to "I've never had to do one of these before - please could you help me". Gradually you will close the gaps in your knowledge until you suddenly find that others are coming to you for the advice you used to have to seek.
I knew I had got there when I came back to my desk with a coffee to see the whole department discussing a problem, and one of them said "We'll ask Alasdair, he'll know!" (and I did - though it was a problem I had seen only once before, about 20 years previously in Finland.....)
2345 Posts

Do you ever feel like you're out of your depth?

Oh yes. A few times a year probably, when a project comes along that requires knowledge I do not yet have. The trick is to be able to know where to go to fill the  gaps quickly - who has worked on one of these systems before, would they spare some time to discuss it ?  Can we go an visit one that already exists to look round? Do the makers of the components publish application notes or can we call their folk in to discuss those bits of the design with us - they may even offer a design service that is cheaper than the cost of us creating a cock-up . If we are designing something that really has never ever been done before then we throw everything at it, lots of peer review, failure mode analysis, allocation of risk budget, evaluation of samples, manufacture of prototype A models, lots of testing to destruction. But it is great fun, though occasional sleepless nights and occasional overspend /late delivery.
(this sort of post is partly why I do not use my real name on here.)

And of course, we are not always right in the sense the solution is perfect, but it has to be good enough to work properly , the next one can be better optimised.
Andy Millar
1777 Posts
I had a very interesting conversation about this with a former colleague of mine who is both seen as an industry expert in his field and is also a very well regarded university lecturer. We were swapping stories of meetings we'd both sat in where we'd been thinking "everyone else here knows what they're talking about, I wish I did". And as we agreed (having candidly talked to other people in those same meetings), that everyone else around those tables was thinking the same thing! 

Absolutely as Alasdair and Mike say - learn everything you can, and never be embarrassed to ask questions (unless of course you are asking the same question every day!) Specifically on the "what if I get something wrong" question, which is a really good question: yes, of course you have a responsibility to do your work as well as you can, but equally your employers have a clear moral and legal responsibility to ensure that you are not put in a position where your lack of experience or knowledge could put anyone else at risk. What you have to watch out for is that if you are asked, say, to sign a job off and you think "I'm not sure this job is safe" but you don't say anything then that is your problem. But saying "I'm not sure this job is safe, so on this occasion can someone talk me through it so I know how to decide next time"  is a win situation for everybody.

And if anyone ever says to you "you should know that" or "work it out for yourself" and just walks off then that is usually somebody who REALLY doesn't know, or care, what they're talking about. People get knowledge by being interested in everything around them, and people who are interested in everything around them like sharing and enthusing others in that knowledge. Hang around with that type of person and you'll be fine.

Re "Jack of all Trades" - I often describe my knowledge of my area of engineering as being like a comb, I've got a broad shallow knowledge across the top, and then very deep knowledge in very specific (and often pretty useless) areas *. Some engineers are like needles, they have very deep knowledge in just one very narrow area, many are like you describe broad across many areas. It's all fine, any project needs a collection of these different types, and between the team it all works together to cover everything. But you'll usually find that the senior managers are the "broad but shallow" knowledge types - it means they have the perspective to pull a whole project together. So don't knock the jack of all trades!

Good luck!


* If anyone wants someone to design analogue op-amp based audio frequency filters then I'm your person. Anyone??? 😊
I have thought about this a bit more and would add to my previous response to say that if you never feel like you're out of your depth then you aren't pushing your boundaries enough.
We all need to continually improve and the way to improve is to move out of your comfort zone. It is only when you start to feel out of your depth that you know you are pushing that boundary, Feeling out of your depth once in a while is fine, as long as it is not a permanent feeling.
I would endorse Andy's comments about being in meetings and thinking "everyone else knows what they are talking about" but I have also been in meetings where I have gone in thinking "I don't know why they asked me as I know almost nothing about this" but come out realising "I knew practically nothing but everyone else knew less.....". Just don't be afraid to ask questions even if you know it may reveal your limitations - you may learn a lot (even if it is just "everyone else seems to be in the same boat as me"....)
Roy Bowdler
844 Posts
Nearly twenty years ago I was introduced to concept called “Career Path Appreciation” based on the work of Elliott Jaques. It was being sold to me as a consultancy intervention to aid succession planning and management development. I liked the basic concept, which a colleague from another company had used, so I worked up a proposal and pitched it to my Board of Directors as an option. They didn’t buy it, but they strongly supported my proposed “Degree Apprenticeship” for Engineers and Quantity Surveyors , which was much more important (as a major M&E Contractor).  

I had been aware of Jaques from academic studies, but hadn’t picket up on the linked work of Gillian Stamp and the concept of “flow” which addresses your issue.  This article explains it well http://bioss.com/gillian-stamp/the-individual-the-organisation-and-the-path-to-mutual-appreciation/ .  If you are short of time skip down to the diagrams. There is an element of  a sales pitch for the method, but the concept is easy to grasp.

Anyone who has grown very far has found themselves “out of their depth” or “stretched” at times. If this doesn’t harm yourself through excessive stress or an accident, or others through your degree of incompetence, then just try hard to catch up and then push a bit more.  Many people find themselves satisfied either with the level they have achieved or like their work-life balance and prioritise other issues like family or hobby interests.  

Obviously many engineers carry a heavy burden of responsibility for safety critical issues, where risk cannot be eliminated only managed. In these circumstances, the question becomes the exercise of due diligence often by researching (which includes talking to people) and trying to distil sometimes conflicting information into the basis for a course of action.  Everyone who has ever done something like this will tell you that with the benefit of hindsight, how they missed something and perhaps didn’t make the most optimal choice.  Where working “out of your depth” becomes a serious problem is when the important attribute of self-confidence, “brass neck”, chutzpah or whatever you want to call it, blinds you to your own weaknesses, or your belief in the infallibility of others leads you to ignore theirs , a collective version of this being “group think”.

Sorry to seem a bit academic this afternoon
🙄, but if that issue interests you then this may be of interest   https://www.jstor.org/stable/30162615?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents . Dean Tsovold’s original 1991 book influenced my MSc research.  We love the mythology of great or evil leaders (a form of celebrity culture) it makes good headlines. Arguably some of the best encourage conflicting ideas, but don’t allow those different ideas to dominate, or degenerate into competing politics.  Senior management in particular is always a form of politics.    
Lisa Miles
1249 Posts
A few years ago I learnt a very valuable lesson.

I was on a training course (the subject of which escapes me at the moment) and after a very lengthy explanation of something important, the tutor asked if we’d understood what he’d said…

To be honest, it all sounded completely 'double-dutch' to me but looking around the room at my colleagues, who were all nodding as an indication that they knew what he was talking about, I felt a little ‘out of my depth’…

Now I could have just nodded along with my colleagues, kept quiet and hoped that all would become clear as we went on but something inside said ‘No…This is important. Ask him to clarify what he just said’ 

So I stuck up my hand and said ‘I’m sorry but could you explain that again for me as I didn’t understand’ fully expecting there to be groans and eye rolls from my colleagues for being the idiot who didn’t get it. I also added that if everyone just wanted to move on then I was happy to stay behind after the class had finished so he could go through it with me one more time. 

However, just as I said that, someone else piped up and said ‘’Yes could you go through that again please?’ As he explained it over again it became clear that NO ONE in the room had really understood what he’d first said!

Afterwards, many of them came up to me and thanked me for being the one to stick up my hand and ask for clarification as they felt too embarrassed to do it themselves and didn’t want to look stupid in front of their colleagues or the tutor himself.

On that day I learned that it's fear of embarrassment  that holds people back and from that moment on, I always pipe up if I don’t understand or feel completely out of my depth with something. 

One of my favourite phrases (I have a few!) is ‘and this is where my talent expires’ meaning that beyond this point I’m totally out of my comfort zone and I’ll need time to study and learn the thing that I need to do.  I like to call it ‘managing other’s expectations of me’ 😊

So yes, it’s okay (and quite healthy)  to feel and to recognise that you're out of your depth but it’s how you deal with it that matters the most. Understand and note where there are gaps in your knowledge and take steps to fill in those gaps i.e. keep up with CPD and never stop learning! 
Many years ago (1990 IIRC) I was set in a Fields and Circuits lecture, the lecturer had literally written a book if not the book on the subject (I know this as buying the book, from him, or producing a receipt from the campus book store was a requirement for getting anything above a D on any assignment he marked).  He was working through a long derivation that included both lowercase w and lower case omega (basically a curly w) which looked pretty much identical in his handwriting.  As is common in such lectures he periodically skipped a few steps, one of these skips being immedately before he wrote the final solution on the board.

I'd gotten lost quite early in the derivation so put my hand up to ask for a clarification.  He eventually acknowlewdged me when he complered the derivation but refused to go back and clarify, he said I should see one of his research students and get them to walk me through.  I made an appointment with one of his research students and explained the issue.  As we walked through the derivation we found that he had introduced an error in his first skip and carried it through to the end then apparently just ignored it and written the known solution.  This particular research student had been an undergraduate on the same course I was doing and went back to his notes from that lecture, the same error was there.

This lecturer had been teaching this course for at least 20 years and in all likelihood had been teaching that exact same lecture, with the exact same error, the whole time.  Apparently I was the first student to admit to being lost and needing clarification.

Just goes to prove the adage that a lecture is the transfer of information from the lecturer's notes to the student's notes without passing throguh the brain of either.

I have subsequently discovered that his book is known for requiring a sizeable erratta.
2345 Posts
And I can relate to both of these - actually many years ago when I worked at a University, the observation was that only two types of people ask a lecturer the  really tricky questions - either first year students at the front who don't mind looking foolish, or Visiting Emeritus Professors at the back, who have reached a peak and again, have nothing to lose by admitting a gap in the knowledge.
Denis McMahon
266 Posts

Alasdair Anderson:
I have thought about this a bit more and would add to my previous response to say that if you never feel like you're out of your depth then you aren't pushing your boundaries enough. . .

I could not agree more with Alasdair here. I can think of many occasions when I have felt out of depth. Here are three examples, from early, middle and late in my working life.

I was a young electrical maintenance supervisor at a small power station. My electrician staff told me that there was a problem with a generator exciter brush-gear and they were investigating. Meanwhile, Grid Control had informed us that there would probably be a particularly heavy demand for generation later that day. We could not shut down the generator for maintenance but I dreaded to think about the consequences of a breakdown later. My line manager however was almost flippant about the situation. "The brushes are sparking like mad and Grid wants maximum generation. Hey-ho, this could be fun!" I soon realised that this was his way of being supportive. He was experienced as an engineer and affable in personality. Had there been a breakdown, he would not have expected me to shoulder the responsibility myself, but would have guided me through dealing with the situation and expanding my experience. Fortunately we got past this period without a problem.

I spent mid-career in the education profession. Our college had successfully delivered the first year of a new course for electronic technicians. The course tutor convened a staff meeting to discuss the syllabus for the second year and allocate staff to subject areas. The first year had been fairly straightforward but the second year syllabus looked tough. We were scratching around trying to find anyone who had the necessary experience and knowledge to tackle some of the more-specialised areas. We all felt out of depth at that meeting, including the course tutor. But there was team spirit among us. We identified our weaknesses, learned up as necessary, turned our weaknesses into strengths and went on to deliver a successful second year.

I spent several years in IT support, in due course moving to IT contracting. I was fortunate to land a long-term, well-paid contract with a financial organisation. I certainly had to work for my dough! This was PC software and hardware support and much more. "The Bridge" was a secure area, behind locked doors accessible only with a special pass, where there were hardware configurations the likes of which I had not seen before, coupled with all manner of specialised financial monitoring software to which I had no access myself, but was expected to support nevertheless. After a few months assisting an experienced engineer, I was left with site support responsibility for my section, supporting around  300 staff. My manager advised don't be too proud to ask for help if you get stuck; it is usually only a phone call away. Yes these were challenging times and on more than a few occasions I felt out of depth. But I loved that job and was sorry when the  time came to retire from full-time working for domestic reasons. At least I had the satisfaction of leaving on a high.  

Some of the things I miss from my 52 years of service include the challenges, not only the technical ones but those of a more personal nature - dealing with difficult colleagues and managers, assiduous job hunting with unemployment knocking at the door, counselling juniors with their personal problems. It's been a roller-coaster ride and it has been fun!



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