Six. That’s how many attempts it took today’s guest to pass the PE exam and get his license. For those out there who may be feeling disappointed for having failed the exam before, this episode will prove that it’s all part of the process.
James Johnson is a construction engineer at the Indiana Department of Transportation, where he’s had the opportunity to work on a variety of projects from roads to bridges, and even the first project in the entire state of Indiana to use galvanized steel beams. His PE license will really bolster his professional career, but it didn’t come easily.
By elaborating on his learnings from his five failed attempts, James shares how CEA’s Ultimate Civil PE Review Course, Facebook community, and practice exams helped him during his sixth attempt with his studies, mindset, and motivation. In addition, he shares how doing well in the morning portion really sets you up for success in the afternoon portion of the exam, as well as the importance of truly knowing your references and working out hundreds of practice problems—he did 600+!
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CEA’s Civil PE Breadth Exams – https://civilengineeringacademy.com/breadth
CEA’s Civil PE Depth Exams – https://civilengineeringacademy.com/depth-exam
Civil Engineering PE Practice Exams: Breadth and Depth, by Indranil Goswami – Click here
PPI’s PE Civil Reference Manual – http://www.civilengineeringacademy.com/ppi
Civil Engineering Academy Podcast Ep. 70: How to Crush the Transportation PE Exam with Shannon – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fgGV4KQDJio
NCEES’s Exam Preparation Resources – https://account.ncees.org/exam-prep
Indiana Department of Transportation – https://www.in.gov/indot
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Transcript of Show
You can download our show notes summary here or get our transcript of the show below!
Isaac Oakeson: All right! Hey, we've got James with us today. How's it going, James?
James Johnson: It's going. Glad to be here.
Isaac Oakeson: I'm glad you're here too. We're here together, man. We're going to make it through. Hey, I'm excited that you're here a. A recent test taker of the PE exam. I wanted to bring you on and talk about your experience. But before we jump into that, why don't you tell us a little bit about how you got into civil engineering? Maybe why this was the field you wanted to get into and maybe your story there.
James Johnson: In high school, I was taking a drafting class. I thought I wanted to be an architect. So I'm like, "Okay. This is great". You know, I don't mind drawing building stuff, but I hated curves. Just absolutely hated them. Like, why do they want to -- I used to make everything square and [inaudible]. So I was talking to my dad and grandpa about it, and my grandfather was like, "Why don't you go into civil engineering?". So, what the heck is a civil engineer? "That's what I did for 30 years". I didn't know what he did. So then he kept talking about it. He's like, "Well, you get to draw straight lines, should not worry about curves". I'm like, "Perfect. Just absolutely perfect". So that's how I ended up going into the field. I've always been strong in mathematics, but terrible speller. So I just stuck to my strengths and here I am.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome. And so where do you work now? What did you end up going into?
James Johnson: I graduated in December, 2010. So the job market wasn't exactly the best when I came out. Fortunately the state of Indiana was starting to build Interstate 69. It was a brand new virgin road. Nothing had been built in this area yet. So I started in the interstate project and I fortunately was hired in March of 2011. I've been with Indiana DOT since.
Isaac Oakeson: Okay. And you work on the construction side, if I remember right.
James Johnson: Yes.
Isaac Oakeson: And so are you enjoying that?
James Johnson: I do enjoy my job. I've been very fortunate in my time at INDOT. I've been able to do a lot of jobs. I've not been pigeonholed and just, "Oh, you're always on the roads doing repair jobs". This time around, I've been able to do some bridges. I got to work with galvanized steel beams. This was the first job in the state of Indiana to use galvanized steel beam. So that was kind of a -- It was a neat little change of pace. I've been fortunate to be able to work on some projects that were very unique and kind of the first in Indiana. So I've been very blessed in that sense.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome. Yeah. And I think working out in the field is a fun place to be, when you're working with crew members and, you know, you're kind of getting your hands dirty and seeing how these projects actually come together and dealing with the issues with that. So I think it's a good spot. But anyway, let's talk about your PE and how that went. So tell us about your exam experience with PE. And I guess the road to get where you're at.
James Johnson: I was a repeat test taker. I failed it five previous times. So on my sixth time I did pass it. So for the folks out there that are like, "Man, [inaudible] keep persevering and you will get passed. The first couple of times I took it, I didn't study. I never knew how to study. I was one of those students in college that I just picked up tests, took it, and got A's and B's on it without any work. So I had to kind of change that mindset and work through it. And I stopped kind of worrying about the PE for about four years. I'm like, "Why am I worried about this? I don't really need it for my position. It doesn't really change anything except the little more money". So I kind of just put it on backroom. My wife and I started having kids. So we're starting this family.
James Johnson: And in the last year or so, I started kind of, like, "Well, I kind of want to move up and be promoted". It was like, you can't get promoted without that license. So I'm like, "Well, okay. So I've got this glass ceiling threshold. If I want to improve, I'm going to have to". And I kind of got turned down for a couple of promotions, like, "It's because you don't have your license. That wasn't automatic. Sorry". So I'm like, "Okay". So I went back, started studying last spring. I did not sign up for the COVID exam. So I wasn't one of those people that got canceled in the spring. My father ended up passing from cancer about two months before the fall exam. So I was kind of dealing with that. The fifth time you could have named a lot of things went wrong for me.
James Johnson: Had a window stuck down. So it rained all day, the Friday of the exams. So my car was wet. You know, had a trash bag over -- So I was already kind of just not in the right mindset. And my wife and I talked about it. So she's like, "What do you think you need to do differently?". Cause I'd got my results. And I got a 50 out of 80, which was good, but it wasn't enough to pass. I knew I was close, but I just wasn't quite close enough. So I'm like, "All right. So what do I need to do differently?" And she's like, "Look, we have to have you pass this exam. There's no other way around this. This has been a burden on you for so long. It's wearing on both of us".
James Johnson: So I said, "Okay". So I sat down and I tried doing kind of a study plan. "I'll work these problems every week", you know, a couple of weeks work. Just certain sets of problems that move on. In the fall -- Man that just didn't work for me. I forgot some of the things I did early on. So what I did this time was I just started doing a myriad of questions. I just started taking exam after exam after exam, and just did it that way. And for whatever reason it clicked. I got into the exam this time around and there was -- In the morning session, it was geared more towards construction. It felt like the questions were leaned towards what I knew. And there was a particular question on there that I'd seen on previous exams that, man, I just couldn't figure how to do it.
James Johnson: Last fall it was on there and I'm like, "I've got to figure out how to do this problem. I've seen it too many times to be missing this problem. If it keeps showing up, I've got to pass it". So I found a video on YouTube on how to do it, and it's like, "Well, this is simple". I got to that question on the exam and I'm like, "I know how to do this". And it was just like my mindset -- It was just like a switch flipped. And I just was able to work right through the exam, and I feel like I got probably a 35 or 38 in the morning and in the afternoon I probably got 30 or 32 in the afternoon. So when I got done, I knew I'd passed. Like, it was no question. As soon as I got done, I'm like, "I've passed this exam. I finally have done this".
James Johnson: But you know, until you get the results, you don't know that. But that's what my gut was telling me. I know walking out of there there's people like, "How do you think he did?". I said, "I think I passed". They're like, "Really? I though the exam was really hard". I'm like, "It was hard. But it was geared towards me". And it was one of those things it just -- I just had to wait for the results, and then I got very excited. I scared my coworkers when I cheered and jumped up and down [inaudible]. I looked like a lunatic, but it's okay. I was pretty happy.
Isaac Oakeson: Hey, that's okay. You can do that when you're passing these exams. I mean, they're a big deal. So man, that's exciting. That's a long journey that you took. I really like hearing about your wife and how, you know, it got to a point where she said it was affecting her too. And I think that's true. I mean, you have a spouse or whatnot and things -- You know, you're not passing this over and over again. It starts wearing on the whole family because everyone's making a sacrifice for you to put in so much time to prepare for this thing. So that's good. Good points. So I'm just curious, how did you -- You know, taking it six times, there's a lot of mental hurdles there. And I have in my inbox emails from other people that have failed multiple times, and they're just beat up over it, you know? Mentally, financially crushing their spirits. So how did you keep going? What was the drive to do that?
James Johnson: I've been very fortunate. I had a lot of cheerleaders in my corner. My grandfather still being one of them. It was one of my dad's last wishes for me to do was to get it passed. He had hoped to get to see me and it didn't happen, unfortunately. But so there's those kinds of things. But I had a lot of cheerleaders work. Like, there were --- And today was the first day of the district kind of being opened back up since COVID. So we started having people come in and working. It started our going back to work program. And so there's people there and they were about as excited as I was that I finally passed it. Like, I've got a lot of congratulation emails from coworkers that reached out and said, "Hey, great job!". You know, "We know this was really wearing on you". But they'd always kind of been in my corner.
James Johnson: So having that support and knowing that it's like, "Okay, I still got my job. Even if I don't pass this, I still got a job". So I've got work to at least keep my mind off of it. You know, it's always okay. I always tried to learn. It doesn't matter if I passed it, like, what did I learn differently? I mean, every time I learned something new. But really the last two times, I think, the fall of 2020 and now the spring of 21, were the biggest kind of learning curves. Like, "Okay, what works for me and what doesn't?". And that's for everybody, it's a little different. But I mean, to everyone out there still wanting to take it, even if it's your first time or your 50th time, you know, go for it. You can do this.
James Johnson: I'm proof that it can be done. It takes time, but you have to have cheerleaders. In the Facebook group, there's a lot of great cheerleaders out there. I know when I failed it in the fall, there was a gentleman named John Day. He said, "When you take it and pass it", he said, "that just felt like the test is geared towards me". And I totally understand where he's coming from, because that's the way I felt this spring was that the morning session was geared towards me. If you can crush that, that really helps because it just sets the tone for you for the rest of the day. It really does.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great. And the Facebook group you were referring to is the Civil Engineering Academy one?
James Johnson: Yes. Yes.
Isaac Oakeson: So we've got a private Facebook group for course members. Go check out the Ultimate Civil PE Review Course. And as part of that, you get access to our private Facebook community. And that community is awesome. There's a lot of good people in there. A lot of people that have struggled as well, and they're there to help you. And I've tried to really create that as a safe place for people. A lot of people don't want to post that they've repeated the exam, but I've really tried to bring that out. I repeated the exam too. So as the course creator, I'm pretty open about it. And I don't think you're a failure as an engineer if you have to repeat this thing. It's really just kind of learning how they do it, you know, the questions they ask, the look and the feel, and how things are going.
Isaac Oakeson: I had a question for you as you kept preparing for this. Because you took it multiple times, were you buying additional resources every time that you took the exam? Were you staying with the same resources? This is a common question that comes up with people that repeat the exam of whether they should just study the same thing over again, or whether they should get new problems and find them and create kind of a new schedule. What are your thoughts around that?
James Johnson: For me, actually, some of the problems I'd done before. I'd had some books, the two CEA exams you produce for the morning, the breath exams. I had some older editions of those, and I bought another addition of that. Same way with the depth. I had the PPI material that [inaudible] from the fall. But I also added Goswami. I ordered it from Shannon. She was on your podcast here a couple months ago from Champaign. And she sold it to me. She's like, "Hey, this really helped me on the exam".
Isaac Oakeson: She's great. Yes.
James Johnson: So I'm like, "All right. Okay, I'll try this". And it seemed like the Goswami -- I ended up buying the book that was up-to-date materials for it. And kind of with that and the CERM, the latest edition of CERM, and kind of exams. The exams were harder in my opinion in the PE. But like, I felt it was very geared towards me. I'd done the NCEES test. For me, like, about a month out, I took the NCEES exam as a timed exam. You've got four hours in the morning, four hours in the afternoon. And I did well on it. I got, you know, 28, 30 questions, right? I'm like, "Okay, I need to bring this up. What can I do differently?" It's like, okay. So I studied little areas that I felt like I needed to study harder. But I added material. Get the reference material. Don't skimp -- I know it's a cost and I understand it's a lot of money. But don't skimp on the afternoon references. That one question that comes up off that one book, may be the difference between you passing and failing. And I totally understand the cost. I get it. I've questioned same thing. But the definition of insanity is doing the same thing, expecting different results.
James Johnson: So try different things. Something may work better for you. For me, it was read a problem, write the problem, do it, then read it again. Like, that's just how I worked. And that was one of the big things I did. Like, when I wrote my exams or questions, I wrote out every question, word for word, then wrote out my solution. It's like, for whatever reason, that works for me. Other people, let's say, read it out loud, write it. You know, everybody's got their own different learning. The best thing you can do is try to learn your learning style. Like I said, I never knew how to study. I had to teach myself how to study. So that's what I discovered. "Oh, I'm a read it, write it, read it person".
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. Well, that's awesome. You discovered something, I guess, new in this process. Yeah. I remember, you know, when I took it as well, I always tell people this now, but you have to get back into homework mode, you know? And that's hard to do when you've been out of school for a long time to get back into that mode. But that's kind of where your mindset has to go. And I actually found that as I was studying for the exam, you know, closer to the exam, I actually, you start -- I don't know if you want to say "enjoy it", but you start enjoy learning, I think, again. Like, when things start clicking, it's like, "Okay, yeah. We can do this".
James Johnson: Well, I think to me, my mindset was "Okay, I've been pushing the snowball up a hill". But then all of a sudden you get to the top of the hill and it's like, "Okay. Yeah, my snowball is big", but all of a sudden you start getting things, and it starts "Oh, the snowball rolling down the hill now". It's clicking. I know exactly what you mean. When I hit that mindset about three weeks out for the exam, it's like, "I'm going to do this. I can do this". And even my boss. Man, the Monday before the exam, he's like "Well, are you ready? I said, "Yes, I am". I said, "I really am". I said, "I think I'm going to go pass it". I said, "I really believe I'm going to pass it". I said, "I've done all the prep work".
James Johnson: You know, I've done over 600 problems, which is a lot. It sounds insane. When I get to looking through my notes, It's like, the list is insane how many questions I really did. But I really feel like that was the difference. And there are so many different problems written by so many different people. And that's to me is the big thing. The NCEES test is really good for showing you kind of how it's going to be worded for the exams. But the other exams give you other avenues on how to look up information. You need to know how to use your references. Like, that to me was the other big key, is having your references tabbed and knowing where stuff was at in the reference, where you don't have to flip to the index. "Oh, there's 10 different check things on this. Now I've got to look through this". It's like, "Okay, I've got this tab. This is somewhere right in here. I'm going to start right here and I can find it pretty quickly".
Isaac Oakeson: You hit on something I think was important and I just want to talk about it a little bit. But that was that -- You mentioned your mindset and that you were confident when somebody asked you if you were going to take the exam. And I teach people this going through our course. But, like, having the right mindset, I feel like is a huge deal when going into the exam. Because if you are a repeat taker, you know the statistics aren't great, you know? They're kind of against you. But if you're going in every exam and you are just bitter and you're mad about the whole process, your chances of passing are pretty much -- You're not going to make it. So I really like that you brought up that you went in with confidence and that you had that right mental mindset.
Isaac Oakeson: And I think if people do that, their percentage actually goes up because of their confidence. You know, and you might take a blow if you don't pass, but if you can keep going at it, don't let the test beat you up and keep going. So I really liked that you brought that up. You also talked about some resources. So the Goswami book and the reference material, typically PPI's book. Are there any other resources that you would recommend to people studying for this? And you did the transportation depth exam. Is that right?
James Johnson: I did the construction depth exam. Okay. Let's see. We were talking about resources, I think. Is there any other resources on your mind to recommend for the depth exam or the breadth exam for construction?
James Johnson: Get all the recommended ones. I will admit both times, the fall and spring, I didn't use all the references that were recommended. But all it takes is one question. And if that's the difference between passing and failing, then do it. You've got some expense. I can't argue that. But the difference, if that's what helps you pass, if that's that one question, how bad would you feel if, let's say, I got a 55 and I felt like a 56 might have passed. You know, how bad would you feel knowing that that might've been the difference between you passing and failing? You know, you're going to feel worse over that than spending 200 bucks. It'll make up for it once you have your license.
Isaac Oakeson: I agree. I agree. Get good resources. You'll need them. Well, let's dive into this. So you were a student of one of the Civil Engineering Academy resources and courses that we have. How did that help you on your journey?
James Johnson: I was kind of one of those people -- I follow along with how to do the questions, and that's what I've mainly paid attention to. "Okay. How do I do these problems?". Then I just sat down and learned how to -- "Okay, where's this in my books? Where's this said in the references? Where can I find this material?" And I just started working the problems and then it's like, "Okay". I've seen all these problems through your depth kind of seminars you had on YouTube, you know? Or I would do the question to pan out. "Okay. Here's how to do the question". I'd write down the question, I'd try to do it myself before I actually saw the explanation on doing it. It's like, "Okay, check my work". Those are the big things that kind of helped me. Kind of following along with Andy on some things was definitely -- You know, trying to listen to a recording, you know? Trying to pick things out. But your brother and you doing your guys's live, kind of YouTube live streams, were beneficial for me.
Isaac Oakeson: Oh, good. Hey, we try to do stuff that's beneficial for people. And yeah, as part of the course we're trying to do more and more of these live sessions where people can submit questions and then we jump on and solve them for everybody, kind of do a live problem solving session. So I mean, that's all part of the coursework that we provide now. So I'm glad that those were helpful to you. That's good to know. So what are your plans now that you've passed the PE. What's the next steps?
James Johnson: Well, at INDOT, you get an automatic promotion. You go from a construction engineer four to a three. So you get a promotion and you get a pay bump. So I ended up with a 9% raise, which was really nice knowing that -- I mean just says it [inaudible]. So that's kind of automatic. Now, I've kind of got avenues where I want to go. There were, like I said previously, some positions I couldn't get into because I didn't have my license. And now that glass ceiling has been broken and I've leveled the playing field against other applicants. Now it's like, "Okay, we both have our license now. Now you're going have to beat me in an interview instead of just being able [inaudible]. Sorry". I know I talked to some people that I interviewed with and they're like, "Your interview is really good, but we can't hire you because you don't have your license".
James Johnson: You know, "You can be the greatest interviewee we had and be a great applicant, but if you don't have that, we're sorry. We just can't hire you. For that position, that's a requirement". And that was understandable. And that was kind of the other drive. It's like, "This stinks. I know I'm missing out on promotions because I don't have a license". So that was kind of that instinct. You know, kind of like, "Okay, now I've got options". Fortunately INDOT, there's always options out there. I'm very blessed with what I do. And there's -- You know, if you wait around long enough, things will change and there will be openings. And there's a lot of folks that are close to retirement. And I know that in this post COVID world, things are going to change again. And there's been some people leave because of it. So I think you're going to continue seeing things change. You just got to keep those opportunities open and be willing to try new things. Don't be set, "Well, I'm happy for where I'm at. I'm just going to settle". There might be better things out there for you. And may be worse. Just don't burn bridges when you leave and make the best of any situation you can be in.
Isaac Oakeson: I think that's great advice. Definitely don't burn bridges. And once you get the license, you know, that's the springboard for the rest of your career. I mean, you can kind of go where you want to. And I love that you said that now they have to beat you in the interview because it was automatically disqualifying you from other positions. So yeah. I mean, if people are in that same boat and still struggling, you know, our whole website is built to try to help people get through these exams. So definitely check out things at civilengineeringacademy.com, so we can help you out there. But man, I appreciate you coming on and sharing your journey. It's been fun to hear. If people wanted to reach out to you, what's the best way to do that if they had maybe questions or just wanted to talk to you?
James Johnson: They can message me through Facebook. If you're on the Civil Engineering Academy site, I'm on there. Or you can reach through messenger on Facebook. I can give Isaac my emailing posts. That's fine, you know? Send your emails and ask questions. I'm open to help anyone because I want to see everybody pass. I had a lot of cheerleaders in my corner and I would love to help cheerlead other folks because that was very beneficial knowing that, "Yeah, I may have failed", but I was getting a lot of advice. "Hey, don't, don't quit". You know, "You got this. You can do this". And sometimes all it took was just -- Because there's times I'll say it's like, "Ugh. I want to be done. I don't want to study anymore". And it's like, I'd either talk to my wife an she's like, "Hey, this is important". You know, "You can do this. Don't quit". You know, "take a break. Take a day". You know, just reset yourself. So just having that just support was huge.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, I think one of the beauties also of our private Facebook community for those that join our course for the PE is that you do get people in there that have taken the exam and are coming back to help people that are taking it again. So you should do that too, because it'll help other people that are in there. And if you want to join our free Facebook community, we do have a free one. If you just go to ceacommunity.com, that's our free community. And it sounds like we can find you somewhere in one of our communities. So that's really good. All right. Well, is there any last parting wisdom you have for us? I think people are going to love this. They're going to love hearing your experience, the mindset that you had and just all the general tips you have for taking this exam even as a repeat taker. So anything else?
James Johnson: The biggest thing to me is [inaudible] Jim Valvano had quote when he gave a speech to 1993 ESPY. And sometimes hearing someone's coach, that's kind of crazy, but that really is the mindset. Don't give up. Don't ever give up on it. If you truly want to get it, then don't stop. You can do this. Don't be afraid of failure. Guess what? It took Thomas Edison however many times to invent the light bulb. I mean, failure is going to happen. It's okay. It's how we learn. If we didn't fail, we wouldn't know -- If we were always right, we'd never learn anything. So take everything is a learning experience and do the best you can. It's all anybody can ask. Just do it the best you can.
Isaac Oakeson: Perfect. Well, I appreciate you jumping on sharing your wisdom. I hope everybody's listening to this that are going to take the PE exam that you're taking some notes on this episode. I really do appreciate you jumping on with me, James. And hope you have a good day.
James Johnson: Thanks. Thanks for inviting me. Good luck, everybody.
Isaac Oakeson: See you later!
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