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October 27, 2016
A little over a year ago, I moved my life from the eastern shore of Virginia to Washington after completing a master’s degree at Virginia Tech. After some initial shell shock from Hollywood misrepresenting my new home state as one giant, uniform ecosystem of dense firs and towering misty mountains, I have come to love living and working in north central Washington.
That’s not to say the journey has been turbulence-free. There is no clear guidance on how to transition from academia to consulting engineering. I found myself stumbling through a dynamic world of new tools, clients and fieldwork doing so with far more enthusiasm than practical experience.
Layer that uncertainty on top of the unique set of challenges that working in north central Washington presents, and it made for a series of encounters that I can only laugh at, looking back. Here are a few memorable moments from my early days on the job.
Mastering tools of the trade
“Thanks for setting up my phone, Mark!”
As our systems administrator headed out with a wave, I turned and eyed my new desk phone. So this was destined to be my first test as a consulting engineer the bane of all millennials, holding a phone conversation.
“Aspect Consulting. This is Taylor Dayton speaking,” I whispered to my desk, testing the weight and flow of each word. Unsatisfied, I tried again.
“This is Taylor Dayton from Aspect Consulting. How can I help you?” I paused, letting that sink in. “Better, but too formal.”
Before I could rehearse my third shot, my phone began ringing. Time for a defining moment: my first call as a consultant. I took a deep breath, picked up the phone, and rushed through an astoundingly incomprehensible, “This is Aspect and Taylor is speaking.”
What is wrong with me?
“Hello, Anne. I see here that you offer pet cremation services.”
Anne? Caught entirely off guard, I managed a response that rivaled my introduction. “Um, what?”
“Pet cremation. My cat just passed away and I see here that you perform pet funeral services.”
I leaned back in my office chair, briefly glanced out my open office door, and considered asking my nearest coworker if we really did have a pet cremation branch to the business. Environmental, geotechnical, water resources, and caring send-offs for your fuzzy loved ones. Not recalling that particular phrase from my first day of training, I called an audible.
“Sorry, ma’am. You may have the wrong number. I just got this number today, so it’s possible the pet cremation service has changed numbers.”
“Thank you, dear.”
I placed my phone back on its stand, heart racing. It didn’t take long for the screen to again light up with the same number ringing through.
This is going to become a thing.
Establishing a client base
Smoke hung low in the valley as I led the charge through the marshy, waist-high grass. I heard my client’s voice through the undergrowth. “Now, I know there are at least two wellheads out here somewhere. I just don’t remember exactly where…”
“We’ll find them, sir. It’s no problem.”
It was a little bit of a problem. The area we had to search could potentially take most of the day to canvas. After a good hour of tromping around the marsh, my body decided that it was as good a time as any to develop a spontaneous grass allergy. I began sneezing uncontrollably. By the 10th sneeze, blood began pouring from my nose in a flood.
I made eye contact with my client, both of us silently regarding each other in the sea of tissue-less undergrowth. For the second time in as many days, I called an audible.
“I am so sorry, but we’re both just going to have acknowledge that I am about to wipe all this blood on my sleeve like a 5-year-old and that it will be there all day.”
Building hands-on experience
I leaned in, studying the cobbled metal structure for some semblance of what I knew should be a wellhead and the supporting infrastructure.
“My granddad put this in years ago.” A few feet behind me, a local orchardist was explaining the history of the well. In my hand, I held a stack of papers describing the nature of his water rights, praying that he wouldn’t ask any questions outside the scope of my three and a half days of water law expertise.
Reaching out, I tapped a rusted pressure gauge with my finger, bits of blue coating flaking off and falling into the field. Curious at the absence of a pressure reading when I could hear a pump running somewhere in the general area, I laid a palm flat against the pipe, feeling for the telltale vibration of flowing water.
“Funny story, the last time I was out here working on this pump, the bit of grounding metal must have broken away. That’s what burned away most of my eyebrows and turned the tips of my fingers black. Luckily, Juan found and kicked me off before I got completely fried.”
Eyes wide, I slowly removed my hand from the casing and took a generous step back to continue my inspection from afar.
Whether it’s sharing a moment of mutual surprise with a rattlesnake in a field or gracelessly failing to escape a canal when your waders spring a leak, every unexpected adventure has become a piece of who I am as an engineer. This is the greatest aspect of professional development, and it can never be taught in a classroom. As consultants, we set out every day to solve a diverse set of problems that are often considered unsolvable. Every momentary stumble is an opportunity to see the problem from a slightly different angle.
Taylor Dayton, Engineer-in-Training, is a water resources engineer working out of Aspect Consulting’s Wenatchee office.
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