Generation Gap

Author: David de Koning, Head of Structural Products at Oasys

Date published

26 March 2024

Generation Gap

Date published

David de Koning, Head of Structural Products at Oasys

Date published

26 March 2024


David de Koning, Head of Structural Products at Oasys

This blog discusses the generation gap within structural engineering and offers a framework in the form of three different perspectives (the attitude gap, the approach gap, and the learning gap) to achieve better understanding and more effective teamwork.

When the young and the old don't understand each other very well, we tend to label this as a "generation gap". While this is a convenient description, it does not help us bridge the gap. The structural engineering community is not immune to generation gaps either, which prevents our multi-generational design teams from receiving the best contribution from each member and reaching their full potential. 

Throughout my work on and with many design teams, including at Oasys, I have noticed three specific aspects of the structural engineering generation gap that provide a more helpful basis for empathy and collaboration: the attitude gap, the approach gap and the learning gap. If you don't always see eye to eye with your team members from a different generation, I hope that these three perspectives will provide a framework for better understanding and more effective teamwork. 

Attitude Gap 

The first gap is the gap between the older and younger generation's attitudes to how we work. It is a cliché that older folks think the young are lazy and unwilling to work and the younger folks think the old are stuck in the mud and unwilling to change. 

There may be some truth to these perceptions, but they do not help us understand each other or build a cross-generational team. 

It is much more productive to think of young engineers are waste-conscious and older engineers as risk-conscious. 

Engineers starting work in 2024 grew up in a world where banking apps are not a 'major efficiency improvement', but rather just 'how things are done'. When they encounter our industry's pile of excel sheets, pdfs and manual data transfer, they know that there is a better way. They aren't happy about the work, not because it is work, but rather because they know it is work that a computer is perfectly capable of handling. 

Older engineers all have one thing in common: they have had projects go wrong. Major change orders, rushed site meetings to resolve problems, and lawsuits have taught them all to be very aware of unintentional consequences of changes. They know our current ways of working are not as efficient as they could be, but they also know how to check the work as it is generated and manage the risks the process presents. 

Approach Gap 

A second cause of misunderstanding in design teams comes between those who approach design as if they were sculpting an object and those whose approach is by standing up a process. 

In the sculpting approach, the focus is on the design itself. A design is proposed in general terms, and is gradually made more and more precise throughout the design process. The early designs meet the project needs, but are not very detailed. As the work progresses, the design stays correct (it continues to meet the brief), and it becomes more and more detailed. By the time construction starts, it is (in theory...) both accurate and fully detailed. At any point in the process, there may be missing information, but what is shown of the design is correct. 

When standing up a process, on the other hand, the focus is on the process, and many designs are generated. With automated design tools available today, it is possible to generate many detailed design options and evaluate them against the project brief. This means that when we are looking at incomplete designs, they will be detailed, but not correct. As the work progresses, the design becomes more and more correct, all the while staying quite detailed. At any point in the process, there will always be a full design, but what is shown may not be correct until the very end. 

These two approaches lead to a very common source of mis-understanding in design reviews. It is not unusual for a senior engineer who is used to a sculpting approach to be reviewing the work of a younger engineer who is working hard to set up an efficient process. The presenting engineers shows a work in progress, and the reviewing engineer sees a level of detail that they usually associate with a complete design and it is full of errors!! In the best case, it takes some time to sort out the misunderstanding, and in the worst case, the senior engineer's confidence in their team is shaken, and the team is frustrated that they are not receiving guidance and support to improve their process and finish their work. 

Learning Gap 

A third and final gap relates to how different generations learned the art and craft of structural engineering. 

Prior to the widespread adoption of computers, a large part of an engineer's job was calculating - pencil and paper, calculator in hand and the design code open to the design check formulae. This led to a detailed understanding of the behaviour of structures, from the inside out. The work was too time consuming to consider very many options, but engineers were able to develop a strong sense of the effect of various design changes, since they knew the analysis and design calculations inside-out. At one point, engineers had several years to work 'inside' the calculations and develop an engineering intuition. 

Those days are gone. Computers allow us to carry out more detailed analysis, more quickly and more reliably than any human ever could. Starting in school, engineers are taught how to work with powerful finite element solutions that allow them to generate and assess tens and hundreds of options at a time. They can develop engineering intuition from the outside in: by making many changes to a design and assessing how that affects the design outcomes. 

Empathy Gap 

In a sense, none of these six attitudes and approaches are fundamentally opposed to each other. They are all part of the well-rounded engineer's toolkit. A senior engineer needs to be very aware of the risks they take responsibility for, but also must remove waste from their work to stay in business. A mature engineer thinks of their design as a sculpture to refine, but also considers the efficiency and reliability of their design process. 

This is especially true with respect to the learning gap: an understanding of the internals of engineering calculations is no good without understanding the implications on the overall design; an engineer cannot use a black box analysis tool without a thorough understanding of what is going on inside. 

The path that today's junior engineers take from brand new grads to responsible, senior engineers is different than the path that previous generations of engineers had to walk. We should remember to be empathetic towards each other: senior engineers should remember that younger engineers want to work hard - but would prefer meaningful work. As for younger engineers, just remember what Pete Seger said: "Be kind to your parents, though they don't deserve it.."! 

Having delivered innovative and reliable structural analysis software for over four decades, Oasys works hard to support all perspectives and approaches to engineering design. Our suite of structural design tools - Oasys GSA, Oasys AdSec and Oasys Compos - all feature traditional desktop software. This allows detailed investigation and checking of a single design and direct integrations into the Grasshopper parametric design environment to support efficient and repeating process setups. With the Oasys Grasshopper (GH) plugin, design teams can switch seamlessly between them throughout a design process so that engineers from all generations can contribute their experience and know-how to their team. 

Visit our LinkedIn page to find out more.  

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