Kicking Dirt, Closing Email, and Podcasting for the Next Generation: A Conversation with Bob Hildebranski
- Bob Hildebranski has been a civil engineer for almost 35 years, and has loved every minute. He is currently a Senior Construction Engineer at Knight E/A and an instructor at Joliet Junior College, but has found himself in several roles throughout his career, including running a small engineering group, being a Survey Crew Chief, and even working in design.
- Bob shares his trials and tribulations in the heavy civil and site development industry on his podcast, The Construction Engineering Show.
- We spoke with Bob about how he has seen technology evolve throughout his career, how he has noticed some technology making construction more difficult, and his advice for reaching the next generation of civil engineers.
How have you seen technology evolve during your career?
When I started my career, construction technologies were just developing, so I am a product of seeing this digital transformation occur from the ground up. I was an early user of Primavera scheduling software and a program called Expedition from Oracle. It was really the first project data management system that allowed you to manage RFIs, submittals, correspondence, and meeting minutes.
Watching technology grow has given me such an appreciation for where we are now. Back then, line and grade were shot using a total station and a big data collector that performed just a few functions. Now, accuracy levels are spot-on with assistance from tablets, drones, and LiDAR. Paving operations that used to run off a string line now use a three-dimensional model for control.
I think the construction process will always require human beings to run the machines and make the judgment calls, but it is exciting to see these new advancements. The next level of technology will hone in on tightening accuracies—getting earthwork grades under a 10th or a half a 10th or setting pavement to a quarter-inch using models. We're on this trajectory where surface modeling is leading to more and more efficiencies.
Is technology making anything about construction harder than it used to be?
One particular deficiency I have noticed is with email. A World Without Email by Cal Newport has been a game-changer for me. He makes the point: Who said email has to be how we communicate with each other? It's a great tool to convey information, but now we've gotten to the point that we ping-pong emails back and forth rather than picking up the phone and talking to somebody.
I have been striving to keep my email closed. I check email in the morning, then turn it off and check it again at noon. If somebody really needs to contact me, they will give me a call. With this method, I’m not staring at Outlook all day, waiting for the next notification. If you let email notifications control your day, it’s hard to focus.
Cal Newport calls this the cost of context switching. You might be working on a bridge abutment problem, then receive an email that shifts your train of thought to a question about a timesheet. You now have to switch context and get back into thinking about bridge abutments. When working on an engineering problem, you really have to dive in deep and stay in the zone to find your solution. Email notifications become quite the distraction.
Would you recommend civil engineering as a career? Are you concerned about the current labor shortages within the industry?
Civil engineering will always be an excellent career choice. When you think about the job security, the benefits, the career path potential—it has everything. If you are a person who likes math and science, likes kicking dirt and being outside, and likes to see things get built, this is the industry to be in.
It's a daunting time right now. We have thousands upon thousands of roads and bridges that need to be fixed, but do we have enough people to run the machines, lay the sewer pipe, and install the pavement? Contractors are getting to the point that they can't bid on every project they'd like to because they can't maintain the capacity. On the one hand, ample work is a great problem to have, but I think it taxes our sources, and we don’t want to drive people away from the industry.
The next generation seems propelled to career paths within technology and other new-age sectors. How do you attract young people to a more traditional industry like civil engineering? I’m happy to use my podcast as this little piece of promotion for our industry. The idea is to build a buzz around construction to show young people that it has a lot to offer. I want to get these tools out of my head and into the hands of the next generation. Overall, I'm hopeful about the future.
What made you want to start a podcast? What is your goal for The Construction Engineering Show?
I love to write and I love to teach—that was the initial manifestation. I noticed podcasts starting to take off in 2016, and I was a frequent consumer. I thought, “maybe I can do this,” so in 2020, I tried it out. There has been a learning curve, but it has taught me to communicate better, and it’s fun and rewarding.
It's great to hear a listener say, “I heard this subject on your podcast and it really helped,” or “I used this method you talked about.” The overarching goal is to get it out there to as many listeners in the industry as possible. If somebody can use the information to improve their career, I've met my goal.
What is your advice to professional engineers who are feeling overwhelmed and overworked?
I had one moment in my career where I reached that point—drained from pushing out project after project. Now, especially with working from home, it can be easy to work late into the evening or on weekends to finish a deliverable. How do you know when to unplug? The worst thing that can happen is we start losing people from the industry that truly enjoy it, but the workload becomes too unbearable.
From my standpoint, it is important to be honest with those in your company. Tell them that your fuel tank is running low, so you come together to find a solution. Have that open discussion because it hurts us all when people aren’t getting enjoyment out of what they do. It’s finding that camaraderie of the unit; if that gets lost, you have to get it fixed.