This week’s guest on the Civil Engineering Academy Podcast is Kurt Brown, a licensed professional engineer (PE), with a lot of experience and knowledge to pass on to the next generation of civil engineers, specifically for those considering the possibility of going into the Geotechnical discipline of Civil Engineering. Kurt defines the years he had to go through his career without being able to take the PE exam. He took the Civil Engineering Academy’s Ultimate Civil PE Review Course in order to refresh his mind after being out of school for almost ten years and was able to pass.
This is a great episode to listen to some pieces of advice, tips and insights from a professional engineer who has worked in a variety of areas, including insurance (Yeah! You read it right.), have performed many different tasks and have also been through some hardships and tough times, especially during the financial crisis when he faced a layoff.
- PPI – PPI is our partner to help you ace your FE and PE exams. Use our discount code of CIVAC and our link to get 15% off any book you order.
- CEA Community – haven’t joined up on our free community? What’s wrong with you? J/K. Ok, just go there and join a group of like-minded civil engineers!
- Civil Engineering Academy – If you need exams, solved problems or courses make sure to check out our home base;
- Ultimate Civil PE Review Course – Check out Civil Engineering Academy PE Review course if you need a refresher on PE-related content.
- Scribd – Discover the best Audiobooks, eBooks, Documents, etc;
- Never Split The Difference, by Chris Voss – The book on negotiation, written by a hostage negotiator, mentioned by Isaac;
- The 48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene – The book power, mentioned by Kurt;
- Kurt Brown Linkedin – Get in touch with Kurt.
CEA Show Notes
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Isaac Oakeson: Hey. All right. So I have Kurt Brown on with me. How's it going, Kurt?
Kurt Brown: Pretty good. It's pretty good.
Isaac Oakeson: Pretty good. I like to hear that. Kurt's got some sweet experience and this'll be a fun interview for us. So I guess as we begin, Kurt why don't you tell us, I guess, a little bit about yourself? How you got into engineering? What do you do?
Kurt Brown: Well, I grew up in Jamaica and I actually started out in surveying school and I went study at the university of the West Indies, and spent about a year. And I remember surveying. They have these huge surveys that you have to do. Cadastral geodetic surveys that you go to every mountain top, and kind of try to site each location to tie everything together. And we were hiking to one of the locations and I realized, I don't think survey is for me. Hiking with a machete through some mountain pass to bringing equipment, like light on the back and I, everything.
Isaac Oakeson: Holy cow.
Kurt Brown: I'm like, yeah, I don't really think survey is for me. I was always interested in the sciences. My father was a chemist and I wanted to be a chemist, but my parents kind of nudge me in the direction of engineering. It's a good career and you'll always have a job and public works and stuff like That.
Isaac Oakeson: So you started in surveying and then that grew into civil engineering from there.
Kurt Brown: Yeah. I transferred to the university of South Florida in Tampa and went to school there and did a lot of work with the concrete research. My actually emphasis in college is a little bit different from everybody else's. Everybody else's is the geotech, structural. I did construction materials. Well, I worked at the construction materials lab. So we actually did FDOT (Florida Department of Transportation) research on cement and clinker. So that's kind of gets in the weeds when it comes to concrete and clinker and how it affects the setting time, the durability and how it's affected by aggressive environments in Florida. Yeah. Aggressive environments. People have houses that are exposed to sea water, they get exposed to sulfats. The production of cement itself actually contributes to it not being durable sometimes because when the burn, the raw materials in the kiln, the sulfur, because we were trying to keep the air clean, gets trapped and it falls back down into the concrete, into the cement and that sulfur for later in life when it meets with other different things, turns into aggressive crystals that cause falling and stuff like that. So I did a whole bunch of research on that and started working at PSI as a staff engineer, and primarily did a lot of regular concrete inspections, structural steel inspections. What else I'm trying to think.
Isaac Oakeson: For those that don't know what PSI is, What's PSI for those that maybe not know what that is.
Kurt Brown: PSI was engineering firm called professional service industries. They were one of the few national firms out there that they had branches in the East, West Coast and the Midwest. So.
Isaac Oakeson: Pretty big company that did testing, Geo-tech. Yeah. That's great. So, okay. So then you're in the work now you're working for PSI and that's in Florida. And then where did you go from there?
Kurt Brown: From PSI, I ended up working for a company called Mactech. Mactech is very similar to PSI. It was a national firm, did a lot of concrete material testing. And then I was kind of in charge of a group of field technicians. And from there I actually went to work for a concrete forming contractor.
Isaac Oakeson: Oh, you got a lot of experience.
Kurt Brown: Yeah. They only worked on high-rises. So I went to South Florida, we did a couple hotels there and then the financial crisis happened.
Isaac Oakeson: Oh no. And that went away.
Kurt Brown: It went away. I remember getting laid off. Actually, most of the people in our company got laid off and that's kind of out of work for like three to six months, I think. And the only work I could find was with Geico Insurance. Yeah. So I became a medical insurance adjuster for four and a half years.
Isaac Oakeson: You went from engineering to adjuster. Wow.
Kurt Brown: So, one of the things that the financial crisis did was delayed my licensing, because I needed a certain amount of experience in order to apply. I was six months short of the experience I needed when I got laid off. With the experience at Geico, they wouldn't let me take the exam. So it kind of delayed that. I mean, I eventually started working for Universal Engineering after Geico. Actually, they didn't even want to hire me as an engineer. And they were like, "Oh, you've been out of it for five years". So here's this field technician position. Well, I'm like, wait, this pay cuts and work in the field. But honestly I got to work on a really interesting project in St. Petersburg, Florida. They were doing an addition to the VA Mental Health Institute. They were building like a big sychiatric hospital for the for the VA, and I got to be on that project. So I worked there and then I saw they had an opening for a staff engineer position in Fort Myers, which is three hours South. So.
Isaac Oakeson: You got back into engineering. I think there's a lot of lessons right there that you've talked about. I think a lot of people that might have a gap on their resume you can always-- You know, my own experience is that you can always find stuff to fill in for that gap in terms of a resume, in terms of trying to find a job. But you also bring up another point is that you need that experience under a licensed PE in order to take the PE and receive it. So those are things that you need to consider as an engineer, looking for a job in different places to make sure you can earn that PE license. So I think you've got some good pointers there. So what do you do right now? Where are we at now?
Kurt Brown: Right now? I'm a branch manager for a small firm in Southern California.
Isaac Oakeson: Doing geotechnical work?
Kurt Brown: Geotechnical firm. I'm involved in marketinggetting new work, writing proposalshelping kind of guide the work along. And I have a small team of engineers, but that got smaller because of the coronavirus. So I'm kind of working witha smaller staff than I was before. We do a lot of residential work, geotechnical soil studies, geologic studies. And we also do material testing. Not as much, but we also do material testing.
Isaac Oakeson: You wear a lot of hats over there. Sounds like doing a lot of things.
Kurt Brown: And that's the thing about smaller firms. And I think that's why this position kind of, initially, looked difficult, then a lot of people probably wouldn't take it, but t allows me to kind of get a lot of experience very quickly. Trial by fire in a kind of a way. Like you kind of -- You're able to learn the marketing process and getting clients, but then you're also involved heavily in the operations and production part. The larger the firm that you work in, the more segmented things become, and you're like, "Oh, I just write section 2.1 to 3.4 and I'd give it to this guy, and he finishes. All right". But like in that you have to make sure the product is complete. A Huge thing, and I think that is not emphasized in school a lot. We probably have one class in writing. Engineers need to be able to write. It's the most important thing. And the second most important thing on which, and that's why I don't really regret working at Geico, like doing customer service, is that customer service is a huge part of being in business. So as an engineer, a lot of engineers tend to be very stoic andkind of introverted and it doesn't really sell well. So like, if you notice in most engineering firms they'll have like a team of engineers and they have to hire like a sales guy, because he has to like tell people what to do to actually bringing the work in, you know? So, I think my experience working in customer service and then having a technical background, it actually makes it easier for me to tell clients what we do, cause it's like, "okay, that's what you need to be able to do", because at the end of the day, you're just selling a service. I think people get into engineering and they don't really think about what the career path is.
Isaac Oakeson: No. Yeah. Well, and I think you hit on a lot of tips and tools for, like, the rising engineer that's still in school is a lot of engineers come out of school and they hated having to give the presentations or writing a paper and stuff. But the truth is, it's probably like mostly what you're doing when you're in work. Like, you have to be able to explain things with words and, you know, do a presentation that may make sense for a client to sell your services. And I totally agree with you. At the end of the day, we're, we're providing a service to customers, you know, whoever that customer may be. And so, having all of those soft skills whether you can take a course or practice it or, whatnot, though all of those things translate very well into the civil engineering world. So that's good. Good advice.
Kurt Brown: Yeah, really. I mean, those are the things that, like -- I have a 10th grade high school grammar workbook on my computer that I review because one of the things I have to do is to review other engineers' reports and so grammar, stuff like that. I mean, there's a lot of different things that goes into it. It's not just like running a calculation and moving on with it, you know?
Isaac Oakeson: Right. No, that's a great point. I wanted to ask you if maybe you could share a lesson learnedMaybe a mistake that you've seen someone else make or that you've made yourself from a distance that you've observed. Can you share what that might've been? So other engineers out there listening might benefit?
Kurt Brown: Well, I worked on a project once and it was in Fort Myers. I mean, it used to be an old historic Methodist church that a developer bought and tore down. So people were not happy in the community about this project. And there was a developer that wants to put in a five-story apartment complex. And we were on site doing soil borings for this complex. So there were, not protesters, but people keep coming up to you ask, "what are you doing?" Like, "why are you doing", like, stuff like that? And I had a set of drillers with me that I wanted them offsite as quickly as we possibly could. So we, we got down to -- that particular area is very, it's kind of alluvial area. It's like off the Fort Myers, off the river. And I think we were at 70 feet and we were still in, like, just really soft silt. Andwhen we bid the project, I think we had just bid it to do borings to 50 feet and that's on the feet I stopped. And I mean, I wrote a report, and this was back when I was writing, primarily just writing geotechnical reports, delivered it to the client, and they were like -- I mean, it was almost like it was inconclusive because the engineer that was reviewing it, he was like, "Well, why didn't you go deeper?". Like, I'm like, "I need to get out of site". Well, he's like, "well, we don't know anything about it". It's like still, where's the bearing strato. If we're going to put this on piles, where are we going to put the foundation? Yeah, that's a good question. So I think, one of the lessons and mistake on being younger is like, sometimes you get intimidated by people and situations. But like, I think when you're working on a project, you have to have clear goals and directives, like, "What am I out there to try to achieve?" And it's not like, "Oh, I'm just there to drill a hole in the ground". No, you're out here to find where the bearing strata is. And sometimes on site, things change. And then another thing is to communicate with the client at the time. Communicate with clients at the time, let them know like, "Hey, we're all here. This is what we found. If we stop here, we're not going to really have any information. We need authorization to go further". And I mean, I think that was my mistake at the time. Because I was the one that was managing that project. And I mean, eventually we had to go out there with another drill rig, which is significant costly to remobilize.
Isaac Oakeson: How deep did you have to go?
Kurt Brown: I think we ended up finding sand at like 80 feet. So moving forward and I think I've come across that again a couple of different times and especially here, being in Southern California, you will drive 10 miles and you'll run into completely different geology. Yeah. So just communicating with the clients, I think that's one of the most important thing. Clear goals and objectives and communicating with the client.
Isaac Oakeson: Perfect. Yeah. Communication seems to be always the key and I know, as a new engineer, that's kind of hard to do, because you feel like you're just going out there to do whatever you're supposed to do. But if things don't make sense, you know, start communicating with people and trying to get answers to things or authorization to move forward on things that you know you need. I've been in those shoes before, even in my own career. So I remember designing a structure for transmission, I'm in the utility world, and I just got chewed out by the foreman because I had screwed up designing his pole and he had, you know, 40 years of experience looking at these things and could just pick things apart. So, you know, you got to learn sometime.
Kurt Brown: Yeah. I mean, sometimes you just learn a lot like that. I mean, it's tough.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. That's true.
Kurt Brown: Especially in geotechnical because you do not know what you're running into. At all. It's a very big approximation. I had a job one time where we did not do the geotechnical study. We had it from another firm and we were doing inspections for ground improvement. It was supposed to be like a six story building. And I'm looking at this thing and, the previous geotech had only done CPT, which is cone penetrometer. There's no sample recovery. They push a cone. Yeah. And you get like a indication of what's there. He's like, "Oh, there's this hard layer right here. And all that stuff". I'm like, "okay". So I'm there inspecting and I'm like, "okay. Well, the hard layers are on 30 feet. So we'll probably expect to see that". We get out there with the viber probe. And they did the first hole, and it turns out it wasn't rock. I guess 40 years ago, there was a railroad train station there. They had buried a bunch of railway sleepers underneath the site. And what we thought was rock was really just garbage. So of course, the client is pissed. It's not my fault, but at the same time, they're like trying to get you to sign off on stuff. I'm like, "No, you kind of have to remove all this stuff or replace"
Isaac Oakeson: We don't know what's in there, man. I had to say a similar problem. We were building a transmission line. It was right at, budding up against a dump site that used to be there. They had covered it over now. And so we had a few borings done and after they were done, it was like, "yeah, the soil is good". They go to put in, I had designed these for vibratory caissons because the soil was really soft and they could just plow these in real quick, and then you bolt your tower on top, and they get down to a certain point and they cannot get through a certain layer of soil. And no matter how hard they've been jacking this thing to get into dirt. And they ended up having to modify that. But, to this day, I don't know what is down there. When you build next to these dump sites and things where people have left stuff, things get a little unknown. What's underneath the soil? Sothat's, that's kind of tough. What do you, what do you think you should do when you're running into situations like that? Do you gotta just figure it out?
Kurt Brown: You can dig it up or you can use GPR to kind of see what's down there. You're not going to see a clear picture, but if there's an obstruction, they will tell you. And thenyou could do like sister piles. Like to move to the lateral side and design like a sister power system. So I mean, there's different things that you can do. I mean, this particular case, they ended up removing the upper 10 feet from the site and we found like everything. Like rebar, like masonry blocks. Yeah. So like, and that's the thing. And I didn't even realize this. I was talking to an engineer once. I mean, it's like, "Oh, just go to Google Earth, go at a site and go back in time."
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. Use that history view.
Kurt Brown: Yeah. That history view. Sometimes you will see them dumping trash there and it's there to be seen, you know.
Isaac Oakeson: It's an excellent tool. Excellent tool it is. Good Point.
Kurt Brown: We could go back even further on old aerials. But they were like in black and white and are grainy, but like you can go back all the way to like the forties, I think. But on Google, I think you can go back to like what, 10 years maybe.
Isaac Oakeson: Cool. Yeah. I can't remember. But sometimes they get grainy there too, but they can still kind of see what's going on. Now, that's a great tool. I think we've touched on a lot of projects that you have worked on. Have one of those been your favorite or do you have another one in mind that might be?
Kurt Brown: Wel, l when I went over the questions I saw which one. So there was one project I worked on completely. It was a 30-story Highrise. It was in downtown Tampa and I was the engineer on site doing the caissons, inspecting the caissons. There were, I think there were down to 80 feet into all lime rock socket. So I was out there doing the caissons, some of them I inspected all the rebar for all the footings, and then all the rebar for all the columns and then all the post-tension slabs and I'm measuring all the cables for that. So I was involved in that for like two and a half years during construction and like all sorts of different things happened during that project. Like, we had bad concrete one day and I mean, just all these different things and it kind of puts you in your role as a -- I don't know what state you practice in, but Florida has a unique -- it's actually a thing called the threshold inspections. Have you ever heard of that?
Isaac Oakeson: I have not.
Kurt Brown: So in Florida, there's what they call the threshold law and certain buildings are the threshold buildings. So if it occupies over 500 people, if it's over 50 feet in height, it requires special, independent inspection, like for everything. So like all the footings, from the soil reports, everything needs to be checked on that building separately. And it's a separate engineer license, that's only available in Florida. It's called a special inspector's license.
Isaac Oakeson: I have never heard of that before.
Kurt Brown: In conjunction with the structural engineer of record, this threshold inspector also has to review the inspection reports and sign off on the building. Without the threshold inspector, they can't get a view, so.
Isaac Oakeson: Huh. I had no idea that was going on. I wonder what other States might have that. I think it's related to the category of the building.
Kurt Brown: Yeah. It's really, -- I think when we're doing like here, where we're doing seismic classes of buildings, certain buildings or certain seismic classes, because likeit's a healthcare building, so it's school, it's is for public or it's a high-rise that's going to house a certain amount of people. Yeah. Every state is different, then honestly I'm still learning every day. Like, the different requirements with different States.
Isaac Oakeson: No. Well, I think every engineer is still learning. Once you think, you know it all you don't. So, you know, that's just the nature of it. There's so much to know. Well, that's pretty cool. You've got a lot of cool experience. I want to jump into kind of a quick question around with you. Maybe you can answer these as long or as short as you want, but you already talked about this, about an obstacle that you faced becoming a civil engineer. Would you rate that, getting that PE license was high on that list for you? Or is there another obstacle? Was school hard?
Kurt Brown: No, I think getting the PE license was very challenging. It was very challenging. Just having to wait the extra four years, you know, to get it. And that made it really challenging.I mean, it's definitely rewarding. So I know there are some engineers that think it might not be worth it to get the PE license, but it definitely is.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. I think. I mean, Well Civil Engineering Academy is basically built to help people get their licenses. Help you become a professional engineer. So yeah. And you took a course from us, right Kurt?
Kurt Brown: Yeah. I took the course when I was taking my license. Getting prepared for it, because it had been what, 10 years since I'd been on a school. So I needed some definite refresher. Yeah. Definite refresher.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, that's awesome. If anybody needs that coursing so you can go check it out. We created it. It's called the ultimate civil PE review course. And the website for that as civilpereviewcourse.com. Go check that out. How about this: What's the best advice you've ever received or just good advice in general?
Kurt Brown: Well, I mean, over the years I've worked with several different engineers and several different advice, but I mean the two biggest things, as I said earlier, was you have to know to communicate and you have to know what your objectives are. So, when you're looking at the project, figure out what your objectives are. If you don't know, you need to talk to somebody else. And don't be afraid to ask questions. I mean, you don't know everything, so don't be afraid to reach out to somebody else. You know,everybody who works at companies, I'm sure they have a chief engineer or somebody who has more experience and they should be able to answer that stuff really quickly. There's no way to have to know everything without convening the experience.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. Good point. How about this? Who's someone you look up to and why?
Kurt Brown: Hm. That's a hard question. I don't know. You know, honestly, I think, and this might sound a little odd that, recently, it's been Elon Musk.
Isaac Oakeson: Oh really?
Kurt Brown: Yeah. Like I think he is probably the -- I don't know if he's an engineer by training, but I think he's the ultimate problem solver. Like, I think he's the type of person that sits down and looks at what problems are and how he could provide solutions. I mean, it might not always be the greatest idea in the world, but I think he's definitely making headway. Like, I don't know if you've heard of the boring company
Isaac Oakeson: I have.
Kurt Brown: Yeah. So he's built a tunnel in LA where you could drive underground, you know, like.
Isaac Oakeson: I didn't know, he already built it.
Kurt Brown: He has a test tunnel.
Isaac Oakeson: So I'm behind the times here. I think he's a great example. I think he's definitely a problem solver. I love hearing about what he's doing and what he's working on and all the stuff he's doing. It boggles my mind, everything he's involved with. It's awesome too, so. I think he's got resources to do it. He's got a mind that works that way and he's fun to learn about, so good one. How about this: What's a good resource that you would recommend for the Civil Engineering Academy community and maybe why you think it's a good one.
Kurt Brown: Honestly, I've been using, and there's this website called Scribd. And on Scribd, you could get like all these eBooks and stuff like that, but also people could upload like documents and different, like, books and stuff like that. It's been a huge resource. Like, different engineers from all over the world.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. That's funny you mentioned the world. Yeah. I use that myself. In fact, I use it to listen to books as well. There's a book I'm actually listening to right now. It's called Never Split The difference by Chris Voss and that's on scribed as well. But it talks about negotiating and this guy was like a hostage negotiator.
Kurt Brown: I think I've heard of that.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah, it's a fascinating book to learn some of the tips he has in there for negotiating. So Scribd is a great resource. I just talked about a book, but do you have any books you recommend for any engineer or the community?
Kurt Brown: There's an author that I really likeHe wrote a couple of different books and a lot of them are human Nature's. Have you heard of Robert Green?
Isaac Oakeson: I have, but I'm not familiar with his books.
Kurt Brown: So he has one called the 48 Laws of Power. And some of them were a little bit outlandish and might seem weird, but like I've listened to his book several times, the 48 Laws of Power. He also has one on mastery and one on human nature. He does this thing where he analyzes people's behavior and kind of try to figure out a way and it's very useful business. Especially in the marketing world trying to get projects. Trying to get competitively ahead. I mean, The 40 Laws of Power, I think a lot of rappers like to reference it, but like I think it has applications that cross the board.
Isaac Oakeson: Okay, well I'm going to link that. We'll put it in some show notes to make sure people know about it. Go check that out: 48 Laws of Power. This is a fun question I like to ask people, but if you had all the knowledge and resources in the world, what's something you'd like to be part of in the civil engineering world or in anything, really?
Kurt Brown: I think high speed rail. I mean, I think this country is begging for a high speed rail system. There should be a train besides I-10, from the East Coast to here.
Isaac Oakeson: That would be awesome.
Kurt Brown: That would be amazing. Like, you could just hop on that trainin like, Jacksonville, and get off in San Francisco. A bullet train that goes like 400 miles an hour. I think there was supposed to be high speed rail in Florida, but when I was there,and we were involved a little bit in initial borings that the track was supposed to run along I-4,one of the tracks, and I guess the project got shelved because of funding or whatever. Definitely high speed rail.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, let's get Elon Musk on that so we can get to get this thing built. I would love that. I would love that. Well I think you've shared a lot of tips with us today. I know I've learned a lot. Is there any last piece of guidance or a best way, if somebody want to communicate with you to get a hold of you, if they had any questions, maybe even about becoming a geotech engineer, cause that's kind of where you're at.
Kurt Brown: Yeah. Like, so I'm on Gmail or I'm on Instagram as well. On Facebook.
Isaac Oakeson: Or LinkedIn.
Kurt Brown: I'm on LinkedIn as well. Yeah.
Isaac Oakeson: Check out Kurt Brown, go find him.
Kurt Brown: So you could reach out to me there. And I mean, I'm more than willing to help anybody. I mean, I know how I felt growing up, when I was a young engineer and I still consider myself a young engineer.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. Well, you got guys in school and I'm sure they're looking for mentors too. So if you have any advice, you know, take Kurt's offer and reach out to him, especially if you're looking to go into the geotech arena. I think you bring a lot of experience already. You've worked on some big projects and that all that is very I think, important to people. So, I think that's great. Well, Kurt, thanks for coming on the show. I really appreciate it. And yeah, that was really great. We'll talk to you later.
Kurt Brown: Alright. Sounds good.
Isaac Oakeson: Alright. See you.
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