Canadian Consulting Engineer

Client relations, old-style

The search for a good engineer-client relationship is as old as engineering itself. Richard White's Gentlemen Engineers: the Working Lives of Frank and Walter Shanly (Toronto: University of Toronto Pr...

March 1, 2000   Canadian Consulting Engineer

The search for a good engineer-client relationship is as old as engineering itself. Richard White’s Gentlemen Engineers: the Working Lives of Frank and Walter Shanly (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), a book on two 19th-century Canadian engineers, is a great read. But what caught my interest most were its comments about establishing good relationships with clients.

Shortly after younger brother Frank was promoted to assistant engineer, Walter offered to help him with technical information, adding: “Remember what I said before — the little things will catch you.” In many ways, Frank was an excellent engineer but, much to the chagrin of some of his employers and quite a few creditors, he was often caught by the details.

As his career advanced, Walter Shanly became obsessed with the need for independence. He turned work down if he thought his judgement would not be respected. After being selected as what we would now call Chief Consulting Engineer for the Bytown and Prescott Railway, he joyfully wrote “no bloody office to go to and 600 a year at that.”

Walter’s vision of professionalism and client relations was based on two foundations: “gentlemanly authority and strict independence.” That didn’t mean absolute control. Walter thought the engineer should ask only for the chance “to sell the directors his knowledge and judgement so that they could make an informed decision.” One could offer one’s knowledge enthusiastically and repeatedly, but Walter was not trying to usurp authority. A gentleman knew his place and expected others to know theirs. For Walter, good engineering came in part from good clients.

Walter and Frank Shanly both thought consulting engineers should give clients readable reports. How’s that for deviant behaviour? Richard White admiringly describes one of Frank’s reports as “an impressive piece of writing” because it was thorough, clear, and written “in a pleasing, well organized manner.” Clients benefited because they knew what the engineer was saying and why. But it was good for the engineer too.

The 1860s were lean years for Frank. He couldn’t find conventional engineering work, so he built a new kind of practice for “inspecting or investigating a particular engineering problem or legal dispute and reporting his opinion in return for a professional fee. Frank was perfectly suited to such work. He had always valued his own judgement and disinterestedness, and he could write an excellent report.”

The story of the Shanly brothers illustrates that good engineer-client relations require attention to detail, independent judgement, good clients, respect for client needs, and finally, clear, readable reports. Today, we’re awash in computers and sophisticated information technology but we still have a few lessons to learn from the engineers who worked with slide rules, straight pens and foolscap paper. For a clear example of how to get in trouble by relying solely on the most recent and the most complicated technology, turn to “Failure of an Offshore Platform” on page 43.Norman R. Ball

Norman R. Ball, Ph.D. is director of the Centre for Society, Technology and Values at the University of Waterloo, Ontario.


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