My First Project as a Resident Engineer: A Lesson of What To Do (And What Not To Do)

At a high level, a project is fairly simple – initiate, conceptualize, design, execute and get it done. However, as the cliché goes, the devil is in the detail.

And once you recall the paradigm “ideas are a dime a dozen”, it rings true that turning an idea into a product is not as effortless as it seems from a distance.

Once you are in the midst of project action, it is easy to get lost in the abyss of the nitty-gritties.

Fast forward a few days, weeks or months, and the project is precariously behind schedule. Firefighting then becomes the norm; and as any Project Manager knows, it is the worst position to find yourself in as there are a lot of wrongs that stem from it.

A dream

I had been working in the design section for 3 and half years since joining the company. It had been an interesting time and I enjoyed my work. My days were spent on a swiveling office chair in an air-conditioned office designing and generating reports for civil infrastructure which included water and sewer reticulation for new developments, road networks and stormwater infrastructure. 

The countless hours I spent designing made me marvel at the infrastructure around me wherever I went – from a suspended beam used as a balcony where a baby crawls and a skyscraper office building where a young graduate works in the 23rd storey with no fear of the structure collapsing to the once treacherous roads which are now smooth highways carrying a chauffeur-driven business executive with a glass of refreshments between her forefinger and thumb — a salute is very much fitting in honor of these astounding achievements.

Another dream is ignited

A colleague of mine who was based on site would tease me every time he came to the office:

“How really will you survive site work with all these office comforts you are used to? Or you will carry an air-conditioner during site inspections?” 

He would laugh. I was however not intimidated by that talk. It actually ignited my curiosity! I wanted to take part in constructing the physical infrastructure. I wanted to be there to witness the project materializing firsthand.

The dream comes true

It was on a regular Friday afternoon when my desk phone rang.

I answered it instinctively, too engrossed in my design calculations. “May we have a meeting in the boardroom in 15 minutes?”. It was the Company Director. 

“There is a wastewater pump station construction project that we designed for. The client approved the design and we are moving to construction. A contractor has already been appointed. We want you to be the Resident Engineer and supervise construction on-site”, said the Director in the boardroom meeting.

In the midst of the rhythmless beats of my racing heart I thought, “Here comes my first site project.” I was experiencing raw, undiluted excitement.

My first mistake

In the next few weeks, I was doing preparations to move to the site full time by acquainting myself with the construction documentation. Having worked in design, my so-called preparation was only from a design perspective and not from the site personnel one. What a mistake! In summary, referencing the table below, I only concentrated on Items No. 1 and 2 of Design personnel duties:

Item No. Design Personnel Duties Site Personnel Duties
Develop design
Critique proposed design and understand why the proposed design was chosen.
Produce drawings
Understand produced drawings.
Develop specifications
Check project specifications against accepted standard to ensure conformity. Understand project specification.
Produce project programme
Critique project programme and propose a better construction schedule, if any. Understand project programme.
Develop quality control procedure
Understand quality control procedure.

By the time I moved to the site, I was not as prepared as I was supposed to be. That was the beginning of a cocktail of problems.

Lessons 1 – Be prepared to tackle assigned tasks.

Moving to site

A lot happens on site. Besides actual construction, the following are supposed to be managed:

  • Health and Safety aspects
  • The project’s Environmental impact
  • Different project risks

I was however awed by all the construction happening. I was a kid again watching a gigantic structure come to life, one activity at a time! A spectator I was, yet I was supposed to critique that which I was being awed by.

My lack of planning caused by my inadequate preparation whilst still in the office and wholesome appreciation of the tasks I had to execute made me immensely fail in coordinating site activities.

For instance, were excavation levels as per the design? Were the steel reinforcement widths in accordance with requirements? Was the sourced formwork as per project specifications? Was any aspect of the project negatively impacting any environmental laws?

Lesson 2 – Do not be a spectator.

Crushing realization

My supervisor would always say, “if you don’t understand, ask.” Noble words they were.

However, I was too proud to ask, rather insisting on trying to prove that I could handle the task/s at hand. What a mistake!

When half the structure had been constructed, I was verbally reminded of the routine level checks that I was supposed to do. I set up my survey equipment, a theodolite, and proceeded with the checks.

After finishing, I did my calculations and to my horror, the structure was 800mm above the design level, meaning that the incoming wastewater pipe could not discharge into the pump station!

In a panic I redid the level checks; there surely must have been some mistake. Again, after redoing my calculations, the structure was still 800mm off! Life flashed before my eyes!

Lesson 3 – If you don’t understand, ask.

What happened

Drama unfolded then. A lot of fingers were pointed, some to me, some to the Contractor. Long story short, the concrete structure was demolished, and a new team was put in charge to oversee construction.

The Director sat me down and had a very long and candid talk with me. I apologized for being negligent in my duties and promised to be more attentive going forward. “You will not be taught everything – you have to continuously read to learn”, I remember him saying. “Above all, ask if you don’t understand”, he concluded.

Lesson 4 – Accept your shortcomings and resolve them.

Moving on

Soon after, I was given a chance to redeem myself in a different project where I was supervising the construction of water, sewer, roads and stormwater infrastructure for a proposed medium-sized development. And boy did I redeem myself!

My word of advice – Chance is you will not be as lucky as I was to be given an opportunity to pick yourself up if you mess up. Therefore, make sure you get it right the first time. It was a huge eye-opener for me, but you do not want to undergo what I went through. Projects are to be handled like babies; with all the attention they deserve – for in truth they are.

In conclusion, these are the summarised lessons that I learned from my first site project:

Lesson 1 – Be prepared to tackle assigned tasks.
Lesson 2 – Do not be a spectator.
Lesson 3 – If you don’t understand, ask.
Lesson 4 – Accept your shortcomings and work on them.


  • Aurel Khumalo

    Aurel is a Civil Technologist by profession and an avid follower of Tactical Project Manager. Aurel currently studies toward a Postgraduate Diploma in Project Management. A huge proponent of learning, he believes lessons are always out there. He is a critical thinker who has a passion for entrepreneurship, writing and music.

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