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Road to Civil Engineering

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Road to Civil Engineering

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What’s it like to engineer roadways and the physical infrastructure of society? Guest Jerel Rackley, P.E., explains. Jerel is a civil engineer with the design and consulting firm Atkins, and in his fourteen years of experience in the field, he has seen what it takes to succeed. Hear him talk about taking the Professional Engineer (P.E.) exam, working with clients, the importance of people skills, the future of advanced 3D modeling in civil engineering, and more.

Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

Listen to the Engineering Word Of The Day podcast. Also check out the book and ebook Engineer’s Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong, on Amazon, Kindle, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble Nook, and other retailers.

Subscribe and leave episode reviews wherever you get your podcasts. Support Pios Labs with regular donations on Patreon, by purchasing digital teaching materials at the Pios Labs curriculum store, or by buying a copy of the reference book Engineer's Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong. You'll also be supporting educational tools and projects like Chordinates! or The Calculator Gator. Thanks to our donors and listeners for making the show possible. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs.


Pius Wong  0:00 

It's August 14th, 2017, and this is the K12 Engineering Education Podcast. The oldest engineering discipline is civil engineering, and it's come a long way. My guest today is Jerel Rackley, a civil engineer at the design and consulting firm Atkins. Jerel spoke with me about what his team of engineers does today and about what young people might expect if they become civil engineers in the future.


Pius Wong  0:35 

I met Jerel at the Atkins office in Austin, Texas. Jerel and I sat down at a long table in a bright meeting room surrounded by glass to talk.


Pius Wong  0:45 

Welcome, Jerel Rackley. You are from Atkins, and what is Atkins? And can you explain a little bit about you're in, what you're doing here?


Jerel Rackley  0:54 

Absolutely. Atkins is a consulting firm. We do consulting in both design, engineering and project management. And there's 18,000 employees globally. A lot of the Atkins work is in UK and European markets, but there's also a good amount that's in the United States. I'm a civil engineer in the Austin office. We design roadways, is primarily what I do, different stages of roads from the early concept planning through final design. And then also we help with some of the design-related tasks during construction.


Pius Wong  1:40 

How long have you been with Atkins doing civil engineering?


Jerel Rackley  1:43 

I've been with Atkins for almost six years and in the industry for almost fourteen.


Pius Wong  1:51 

And just some background: So you are a civil engineer. What kind of education did you have to get where you are?


Jerel Rackley  2:00 

Yeah, so I went through high school, got to senior year, and thought: Probably doing some type of engineering be interesting. I had enjoyed math, enjoyed science. And so I went to Texas A&M as a civil engineering major. Didn't know for sure what exactly I would do. I knew some people that designed roads, kind of thought maybe that would be it. And it's probably my sophomore, junior year that I decided that designing roads would be would be what I wanted to do, but graduated from A&M in 2002. And have been in the field since.


Pius Wong  2:40 

And you also are a P.E. You've got a P.E. at the end of your name, Professional Engineer, right?


Jerel Rackley  2:45 

I do. And because we do engineering work on public projects, it's necessary that we have a be a Professional Engineer, sign the plans, do that engineering work, and then sign that they were responsible for that work. To get a P.E., you typically have to have four years of experience and pass the P.E. test. It was important for the work that I did. So as soon as I hit four years, I took the test and became a P.E.


Pius Wong  3:15 

Yeah, if people don't know what that is -- There's some teachers maybe who haven't ever really heard about the details of that. Is that something hard to do? Is it like an SAT test all over again?


Jerel Rackley  3:26 

it is, and it's mainly hard because you're out of the groove of doing classes and doing studying. So you got these engineers that that haven't really done much studying in a while. And we jump back into being prepared for tests. And so there's the prep for -- and the P.E. test is probably a lot more than what most people do for the SAT. Most engineers will spend eight weekends getting ready for the P.E. test, really devoted weekends. There's a lot of prep classes. There's organizations that offer prep classes. And so we'll do those to get ready. So it's quite a bit of effort to take.


Pius Wong  4:15 

I asked Jerel what the different civil engineers in his group do, starting with what a new civil engineer could expect.


Jerel Rackley  4:22 

You know, when you get into civil engineering, it's those first few years that are usually design-related, mostly design-related, at least in the civil engineering that I do. We design roads. When a new engineer comes to our office, usually those first few years are sitting at a computer, using our design packages, design tools on the computer to do the roadway design work. And those design tools -- Microstation is the CAD program that we use, and then there's a program that runs within Microstation called Geopack that we use extensively. It's required by most of our clients. It's the industry standard is what we do. So engineers will get to our office. They will grind away doing designs for three or four years. As they do that they begin managing some tasks, do a little bit more than just the straight-up design, beginning to eventually manage projects.


Pius Wong  5:27 

And you said that you train them in the beginning. It's not like they just jump in and you expect them to know all this stuff.


Jerel Rackley  5:32 

That is correct. We don't expect them to start in our office with much more than a great attitude. The problem-solving skills that come from being at the university for four years, the ability to work with other people, we want them to sit down with those things in hand. It would be great if they had some background, if they had spent some internships during their summers in college doing some design work, great if they had done some of that in high school with some engineering classes. But more than anything else, we expect them to get to our office and be ready to learn the specifics of how we do things. Usually what we do is pretty specific. Almost everything is on-the-job training, as far as the design-related tasks. We teach them how to do those alignments for the new location out in the middle of nowwhere. We teach them how to do those culvert designs. And we have a culture of mentorship and training from the other engineers. We have senior designers in our office, to folks that have been designing that are not engineers but have been designing for 15 or 20 years that are fantastic trainers. They can show every trick and most efficient way of doing things.


Pius Wong  7:05 

So it sounds like in the day in the life of an engineer, especially a newer one, here, they would be doing a lot of designs and computer work. What's it like? What's this day-in-the-life actually like?


Jerel Rackley  7:18 

Yeah, you know, if you looked around at our at our office, you'd see that probably 80% of an engineer's time, young engineer's time, is spent at their desk doing design work. The other part of their time is spent with other engineers either switching desks, looking over over their shoulder, working on designs together -- that training that we talked about. There's also a part of their day that's been in meetings. We have usually weekly, or maybe twice-a-week meetings with the project teams that are set up to make sure we're communicating and we're addressing the current state of projects and the issues, and make sure we have good direction forward. So it is a balance between those, but quite a bit of: at the desks doing the design and design and calculations, and there's a lot of engineering calculations that we do that they're performing, as well.


Pius Wong  8:20 

Yeah, sure, and probably some of them are working on their P.E.'s right now, as well.


Jerel Rackley  8:24 

Yes. In our office, about a third of our engineers are EITs, engineers in training, which means before P.E.'s. Yeah, about a third are young P.E.'s, five to ten years, and about a third are older P.E.'s.


Pius Wong  8:40 

What do you do then as a more experienced roadway engineer?


Jerel Rackley  8:45 

My role is to manage projects, manage the teams that are on those projects. My days are spent working with other folks on my team working with the clients for our projects. Dependent on the projects, right now that time could be a lot different. I've been recently on design-build projects, where my whole day is at a project office, most of it's been in meetings, coordinating with the contractor, coordinating with our team, planning the work ahead, and addressing issues that come up.


Pius Wong  9:25 

So you've got to deal with a lot of people, is what it sounds like.


Jerel Rackley  9:28 

I spend 90% of my day working with people. I cherish the moments that I get to sit down with my head at the computer, taking care of emails and other stuff. But most of my days is with folks. And it's -- I really enjoy that. It's fantastic. But it doesn't leave a lot of time for getting things done that I need to do.


Pius Wong  9:54 

And you had mentioned before that you work with the public. Why would an engineer need to work with the public?


Jerel Rackley  10:00 

We do projects that are for the public. So when we plan projects, we need to get the public's input. We need to understand their priorities. We also need to understand their view of impacts. We can look at maps and do our investigations and studies and feel like we know the constraints in an area that would cause us to put a road here or there, but without going and talking to the people in that area, we don't know the full picture. They have a very unique perspective. And so we would go and talk to communities as we're considering building a road in their area. And we want gain that information. We understand the area, understand the project, understand the constraints better, because we've talked to those people to -- We inform. We let the community know what we're studying. We let them know how we're studying it and the things that we're considering. And then we work with them on what is the best alternatives for that community. So that's one reason or one way we talk to the public. And the other is, as we have an active roadway project, and we're building the road, we're impacting the community as we do it. We're affecting traffic.


Pius Wong  11:29 

Sure, all the construction stuff around, we see it in Austin all the time.


Jerel Rackley  11:33 

That that's exactly right. We have to inform them of what's coming up, what's going on. Again, we gather input. We a lot of times will learn from the public that that detour that we did last week, we expected to have maybe a three or four minute delay, and we hear from the public, actually it was a twelve minute delay. So it helps us make decisions about how we progress our work, to help us minimize that impact.


Pius Wong  12:03 

Yeah, because it sounds like a civil engineering company like Atkins, and you as an engineer, there's a lot of responsibility, then, because thousands of people are affected by what you do.


Jerel Rackley  12:14 

Yeah, and the work we do has the potential to really impact a lot of people in a lot of different ways. What's exciting is, most of it is very beneficial. And that's what makes me enjoy a lot of what we do is that we get to see those benefits. And that new road out in the middle of nowhere, it's providing the connections and the capacity for travel that's needed. It's fantastic. But it also has negative impacts, too. There's a lot of good things that come with it. But also there will always be negatives when you do something really good. And so we have to understand what those negative impacts are. It's a very large responsibility that we carry, that we're making decisions that are the best, that maximizes positive impacts and minimize the negatives.


Pius Wong  13:16 

Do you have to work with the government then, as well, to do what you need to do? Because you were talking about how, you know, you make decisions on what a road might look like, or where it's going to go. But someone probably tells you to do that too, right?


Jerel Rackley  13:30 

Yeah, that's exactly right. And that's a great point, is who our clients are. Being in the transportation industry doing roads, a lot of our contracts are with TXDOT, the highway department here in Texas. A lot of what we do is for the local toll agencies. So here in Austin, it's the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. They're one of our clients. And then we do city and county work as well. So we have those folks that -- that is that government entity that we do work with. And yes, they are very much a day-to-day partner with us in those those decisions.


Pius Wong  14:13 

And then I guess the Texas Department of Transportation and all those other clients that you have, they must have civil engineers or engineers on their side, too, right?


Jerel Rackley  14:21 

They do. And usually, the project manager for the client is a professional engineer. There's times that it's somebody else that has the same kind of experience but is still able to do that management on the owner side. But most of the time it is a professional engineer.


Pius Wong  14:51 

For this podcast, I've already spoken to an electrical engineer, I've spoken to mechanical engineers and chemical engineers, I have not spoken with a civil engineer yet. Could you give a brief summary of what other types of civil engineers are there? Besides, say, someone who designs roads?


Jerel Rackley  15:09 

I wish I knew the breakdown of, kind of percentages. But transportation is -- of course that's my perspective [laughs] yes, it's the best and it's what everybody does. But that would be a large part of civil engineers, is transportation. But land development, the development of neighborhoods, is land development. And that's a large field for civil engineers. Vertical construction or buildings is a large part. Civil engineers do building construction. A lot of that is a structural, the structural design for those buildings. There is water resources and water planning. So everything from water wells, to other water sources. Civil engineers also do the drainage, addressing flooding issues, and studying flooding and addressing it. Also environmental. A lot of environmental is related to water, during the flooding, but also environmental cleanup. So engineers are involved.


Pius Wong  16:26 

If a teacher, or maybe parents, if they've got kids who might be interested in engineering, or they don't know if they're interested in engineering, what signs could they look for to see if this kid might be a great civil engineer?


Jerel Rackley  16:43 

Yeah, most engineers, they enjoy math, enjoy science. They enjoy those things. It'd probably be pretty good indicators if you would be good to engineer. You know what we talked about earlier is kind of counterintuitive, but a great civil engineer is a great communicator, too. Someone that works good with people and has good social skills.


Pius Wong  17:09 

So people wouldn't know that right?


Jerel Rackley  17:11 

You wouldn't expect it from an engineer, either. We think about engineers being kind of nerdy folks. And that often work works well. And it's pretty pretty okay to be very technical and not a great communicator. But it's definitely an asset for a civil engineer to be good at working well with other people. And so that would be something to look for in a student, as well. But I would think, you know, a lot of what probably affects how good we are at something is what we like and enjoy, and if a student had a real interest in building things and being a creator, that could be a sign that they would be a good civil engineer.


Pius Wong  18:01 

A creator who can talk to anybody would be really good. You know, I'm getting the impression that maybe civil engineers, out of all the engineering professions, might be the more social because they have to be. They're forced to talk to all these people, whereas if I were just, I don't know, designing a small little part for a mechanical device, maybe I don't have to talk to as many people.


Jerel Rackley  18:22 

You know, there may be some some truth to that. I think so.


Pius Wong  18:31 

What's been your favorite project, or favorite thing that you've done?


Jerel Rackley  18:35 

Yeah, I'll talk based on recent experience. We're building 183 South, which is a highway on the south side of Austin right now. And it's a project that we got to be a part of from the planning. I was the design manager as we did environmental studies, got to be a part of the team that did the final design. I was on the oversight team and was able to be a part of working with the public through all of that. And so we're constructing that project now. The project is planned to be constructed in 2019 and 2020. And it's to me really exciting, because we're seeing those plans we've been working on for years come to fruition. And getting to be a part of it, through all the stages, has been personally very, very rewarding. It's neat to see that  hard work getting built. And right now we're building the bridges and moving the dirt and doing those different components of -- It's happening. Yeah. And it's great to see.


Pius Wong  19:44 

That's cool, because you're working on this project that it sounds like it's taking longer than most people spend in school, I guess.


Jerel Rackley  19:51 

Yeah. I started on the project in 2012.


Pius Wong  19:54 



Jerel Rackley  19:55 

And I would think that a lot of people that -- hopefully if they started college in 2012, they would be graduated by now.


Pius Wong  20:06 

Because we're talking about kids who may become engineers down the road in several years, what kind of civil engineering technology will they be working on or working with? What do you see in the future of civil engineering?


Jerel Rackley  20:21 

Sure, you know, in our field, we see slow changes usually, and various software packages make some tweaks, but we're seeing some fast changes over the past years. So coming up in the future a lot of it is integration of 3D tools in a very -- in a package that allows for changes very quickly. So in the past, we would, as we're doing a road, we would have an alignment, and then a profile, and then a cross section, all these three things that were completely separate. Now, we have new software. It's a Bentley program called OpenRoads that combines it all. And I'm certainly not the expert on it. But the folks in the office that are, are really excited about what it means to our industry, in that we'll lay out a road and put it in a 3D model. And then when we make changes and make one little change, everything updates at once. And it's model-driven.


Pius Wong  21:24 

So it makes design just much faster, is what it sounds like.


Jerel Rackley  21:28 

it does. It makes the initial design a little bit quicker and more intuitive. The best part is, it makes those -- you know, we're always changing things -- and it makes those changes a little bit simpler, too. As we do things in in 3D models, it also gives us a really good communication tool. Today, there's times that we go to public meetings and present things to the public. We create a 3D model, 3D rendering, but there's a lot of effort required in it. With some of these new -- with our CAD environment being in 3D, then it makes that conversion to a 3D rendering very easy. There are some tools within OpenRoads, if you push a button, and you have a pretty good rendering that you could use as a communication tool to the public.


Pius Wong  22:17 

So I'm imagining like in the past, maybe you had a bunch of 2D drawings or something? But now you can quickly make a 3D rendering in any perspective that you want, and do it pretty fast. Is that right?


Jerel Rackley  22:30 

That's right. And in the past, we would create 3D renderings out of it, but it would just take time and a lot of effort. Sometimes we didn't do it, because the effort didn't justify the reward.


Pius Wong  22:41 

That's really neat. I'm waiting for the virtual reality people to, like, work with you, so they can just step right into your imagined road, and that would be really neat, too.


Jerel Rackley  22:49 

That'd be great. You could take people out to a site and say, this is what this area looks like today. Well, let's lay over an augmented reality vision, and here's, here's what it will be in ten years.


Pius Wong  23:05 

What's some of the hardest things about being an engineer, that someone should know, before going into it?


Jerel Rackley  23:12 

I think, going back to what we said earlier, that working with other people -- that can be hard for engineers.


Pius Wong  23:19 

Maybe unexpected.


Jerel Rackley  23:20 

Yeah. And also the -- Sometimes hard to continue to find the drive day-in and day-out. If you get stuck in something that's rather monotonous. And there's some engineering tasks that are that way, that you do the same thing over and over and over. And that can be hard.


Pius Wong  23:40 

To follow up with that, then how do you stay motivated? I mean, a kid, they I'm sure get impatient. How do you develop that skill of just doing what you gotta do and getting the payoff?


Jerel Rackley  23:53 

Yeah, I think it's something that everybody probably develops differently or figures out. I know that it's also -- it is something that's learned. You just learn to keep on going. And you also develop relationships at work and friends that keep you going, too. You find times to take a break and go and enjoy the people around you. That would probably be a tip that I would have for folks in the field. And for teachers, helping students understand that being technically proficient and having the skills is awesome. But when they start shopping for jobs someday, to really think and choose companies that are a good fit for them, that are doing the type of work they want to do, but also as a culture, a good fit. Find a place that they enjoy the work.


Pius Wong  24:52 

I think everybody's looking for that, too, but that's good advice. Find good people, essentially.


Jerel Rackley  24:57 

And I don't know exactly how you do that. I think a lot that is luck.


Pius Wong  25:01 

Maybe teachers -- maybe that's what they've got to work on. Teachers will figure out how to teach their kids to do that.


Jerel Rackley  25:06 

Maybe so.


Pius Wong  25:08 

Well, Jerel Rackley, thank you so much. You are a civil engineer from Atkins, and I really appreciate you taking the time out to talk to me and to everyone listening.


Jerel Rackley  25:17 

Absolutely. Thank you.


Pius Wong  25:23 

Thank you also to several others at Atkins for helping arrange this talk. For links to some of the topics that Jerel mentioned today. And for transcripts, visit the podcast website, k12engineering.net. Do me a favor and rate and review the show on iTunes or Stitcher. You can help others discover the podcast that way. Message the show on Twitter. You can tweet @K12engineering, or tweet me, your host, directly @PiusWong, or you can leave a message on the show's Facebook page. Finally, you can financially support this show and the other projects of Pios labs by donating on Patreon at www.patreon.com/pioslabs. You should check out Bleeptor on the internet because they wrote the closing music for this episode. The music is called "Late for School", and Bleeptor distributed it under a Creative Commons Attribution License. So thank you for that. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of my independent studio Pios Labs.


Pius Wong  26:31 

You still have a few days left this August 2017 to vote for your favorite sessions for the upcoming South by Southwest festival and conference in 2018. And yours truly has submitted some sessions. So my colleagues and I submitted to the education conference part of South by Southwest. And if you go to panelpicker.sxsw.com, you can register, and you can vote for our sessions. So again, go to panelpicker.sxsw.com and search for my name. You can search for my name P-I-U-S and our proposals. Our session proposals will come up. One of them is related to this podcast. It's called Podcasting for Education Meetup. So if you like this podcast, I'm sure that you'll support the idea of podcasters collaborating to promote education. That's all I gotta say. Go to panelpicker.sxsw.com and please vote for us. Thanks.