Calling all international students and professionals out there! Today’s episode features Luis Felipe Duque, an engineer in the US from Colombia, who has recently become a Professional Engineer after passing his PE exam.
Luis is currently a bridge engineer working on the erection, retrofitting, and dismantling of bridges at Foothills Bridge Co. in Boulder, Colorado. His passion for construction started out while watching his father’s work as an architect, but he soon realized he wasn’t that interested in this side of the job to follow in his footsteps. However, since he’s always liked the hands-on approach of the industry, he then decided to go for civil engineering.
Being born in Colombia, Luis discusses the process of being accepted in an American university, how playing tennis has helped in and outside the court, his decision to pursue a career in structural engineering while still a freshman, as well as how those interested in bridge engineering can prepare for a career in the field. As an advocate of integrating innovation to help us with our work, Luis goes on to discuss how AI and other technology may change the future of the industry—and how we can benefit from that.
Luis Duque (LinkedIn) – https://www.linkedin.com/in/luisduqueeit
Luis Duque’s Twitter (@LuisDuquePE ) – https://twitter.com/LuisDuqueEIT
Engineering Our Future Contact Form – https://www.luisfelipeduque.com/home/contact
Engineering Our Future Website – https://www.luisfelipeduque.com
Engineering Our Future Podcast – https://www.luisfelipeduque.com/home/engineering-our-future-podcast
Luis Duque’s Reading List – https://www.luisfelipeduque.com/books
South Dakota State University – https://www.sdstate.edu
University of Utah – https://www.utah.edu
American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) – https://www.asce.org
Structural Engineering Institute (SEI) – https://www.asce.org/structural-engineering/structural-engineering-institute
America’s Infrastructure Report Card – https://infrastructurereportcard.org
The Miracle Morning, by Hal Elrod – Click here
I Will Teach You to Be Rich, by Ramit Sethi – Click here
Think And Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill – Click here
She Engineers, by Stephanie Slocum – Click here
Built Bar (Use the code CIVAC and get 10% off!) – https://civilengineeringacademy.com/built
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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, Luis! How's it going? Excited to have you on the podcast today.
Luis Duque: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah, I'm excited. So we've connected kind of over this space. Tell me a little bit about -- I'll probably read your bio before all of this, but I want you to tell us a little bit more about how you got yourself into civil engineering, into this crazy world of civil engineering.
Luis Duque: Yeah, I think I always, as many engineers, just kind of liked math and physics from an early age, I feel like. I have a dad that is an architect. So I was always kind of around the construction industry, I always going to projects, always liked that kind of hands-on feel of just being an engineer. Even though he's an architect, I was able to kind of go to all these job sites and everything. I knew I didn't have the skills to be an architect. [inaudible] was very crafty or very interested in that side. So I decided just to go for civil engineering. It was going to be closest thing related to what he was doing. And kind of from there, just went to college, really enjoyed civil engineers [inaudible]. And then I kind of knew I wanted to do structural engineering.
Luis Duque: This decision, I decided in my freshman year, which I don't think it's very common for people to know right away what they want, but I was very sure I wanted to be a structural engineer. As soon as I finished my undergrad, I looked for a master's degree focusing on structural engineering. And just kind of from there, I found various jobs that I'm sure we'll be talking about later on in the episode. But I've always enjoyed engineering, I've always enjoyed kind of being around construction and doing the work we do. So that's kind of how I got involved in civil engineering.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome. So correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe you're from Colombia. Is that right?
Luis Duque: Yep.
Isaac Oakeson: Awesome. So how did you get from Colombia to -- Let's see, you went to college in North Dakota?
Luis Duque: South Dakota.
Isaac Oakeson: South Dakota. Okay. So how did that happen?
Luis Duque: The short story is I played division one tennis for South Dakota State University. I was looking for various schools in the US, and obviously with tennis you sometimes get scholarships. For many, it's kind of hard to get full-ride scholarships. But I found a great balance between a great engineering school at South Dakota State and a great tennis program [inaudible] when I got there. So that was kind of the short, brief story of how I ended up in the US playing tennis.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome. So funny story is my wife actually plays tennis and she played for the University of Utah. Her knees kind of couldn't take it. She's had some surgery on her knees, but it kind of ended the tennis career. But she was on track to go pretty far, I bet. She was really good. And now we have our kids in tennis because she saw the value of what tennis taught her and wanted our kids to learn kind of those same skills. So now we've got the kids go into tennis too. Did tennis teach you stuff that helped you in civil engineering?
Luis Duque: Oh, all the time. I mean, there's so many things that I learned just playing tennis, working in teams, being resilient. All the challenges kind of come into a different country, come into a new profession, new language, new culture, and everything. And knowing that I was here basically by myself, when I got here. I got to the US in 2012 with two suitcases full of clothes. And that's all I had when I came to the US. So being resilient -- I mean, tennis is a sport that is very analytical. It's a sport that requires a lot of thought, and really quick thought. And I think, as engineers, we tend to be also very analytical. We have to solve a lot of problems a lot of times quickly on the job site or when we're at the office kind of trying to solve problems. But yeah, there's a lot of similarities between -- I think many sports in general, but I think tennis just because it's kind of a chess match, but like a hundred times faster. Because we have, like, milliseconds to react when the ball is coming, and you always have to be on your feet, and kind of thinking and processing all the information really fast.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome. So I know there's a lot of details with tennis and that definitely translate to civil engineering too.
Luis Duque: Yeah.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome. All right! So man, that's a tough -- I know that's very hard to do coming from another country, and here you are. So what do you do now, and are you enjoying it?
Luis Duque: So right now I work as a bridge engineer in a very unique industry. We don't really do new design. We do mainly, I'll say deconstruction, like demolition. We do a lot of retrofitting, we do a lot of just temporary structures around bridges. There's just a wide variety of things we do that when I was in school, I didn't really realize an engineer, or a civil engineer, does that kind of work. I've been in this position for about a year and a half and I absolutely love it. There is a lot of new things, kind of every single day we have work on really remarkable bridges around the US, like the Golden Gate Bridge, Tappan Zee Bridge in New York. We worked on just a lot of really amazing structures. None necessarily like demolition. Obviously the Golden Gate is a bridge that is not going anywhere [inaudible].
Luis Duque: So yeah. We work on some of the most unique bridges kind of around the US, the Golden Gate Bridge, Tappan Zee, and all of those. And it's really unique because we do a lot of temporary structures, kind of aiding construction of some elements, or like retrofitting some elements of the bridge. But our main main service is demolition of existing bridges to be places for new bridges. And I'm sure as you know, there are hundreds of thousands of bridges in the US that need to be replaced or repaired. So there's a big need for kind of the work we do around the US.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. They always produce the -- What is it? The ASCE Infrastructure Report. And they always detail how we're doing as a country. And bridges are always on there, that we've got to replace, like, thousands of them or whatnot out there. So that's such a unique position. I really like it. It sounds like you enjoy it. Just talking about what you do as a career in civil engineering in general, what do you love about it and what are some things that you've noticed or a challenge that maybe you don't love so much about it? Just to throw it out there.
Luis Duque: I think some of the things I like the most is just being able to kind of be assigned something and then go there and see it kind of come into life. Like, you've already designing a new building or a new bridge, you cannot design something, then you see it constructed. In my case, we design, I don't know, a temporary bridge, or we design a mechanism to remove certain parts of a bridge, and kind of go out there to the site and see how everything works and being just present on the job site. I think that's one of my favorite things about civil engineering and knowing that the structures that we design and we kind of -- Like, from our minds into paper, a lot of millions of people using every single day. So I think that's one of the things that I liked the most. I haven't really found anything that I dislike a lot. But I know it just kind of depends. Maybe if you're in a company that requires you to work 60, 70 hours a week, that could be very taxing. And I'll say that's fairly common in our industry. And there's definitely a lot of companies not doing that, but I've worked for companies that you work 50, 60 hours a week, and you kind of get tired with family and trying to balance maybe other things outside of work.
Isaac Oakeson: That's very true. That's very true. That kind of rolls up into that company culture thing. So maybe, you know, if that's a value to you, or if you -- I mean, if you get paid for that time, then great. If you don't, maybe you want to really vet what that culture is like as you're looking for stuff.
Luis Duque: Right.
Isaac Oakeson: Luis, what tips would you have for someone who wants to become a bridge engineer or maybe even be looking to make a career shift into that world?
Luis Duque: Yeah. I mean, as students, I don't believe many universities really teach you bridge engineering when you're an undergrad. So it's definitely a very specialized field of civil engineering. In my case, I took, I believe, one class related to bridges when I was in school doing my Master's degree. And I didn't start in bridges. I started in industrial buildings, and then I moved to residential buildings, and then after about two years of doing that, that's when I moved into bridges. And obviously transition wasn't easy because the design is a little different, but at the end of the day -- I mean, beam stresses, and flexure, and shear is the same in a bridge as it is in a building. It's just a little different size and magnitude. You have different codes, you have different requirements, but a lot of the concepts, the basic concepts of engineering, still apply even if you work in bridges or buildings.
Luis Duque: It's just kind of figuring out how the system as a whole works. Because a building obviously works a lot different than a bridge does. But I think there is always room for improvement if you're willing to put in the work to study the code, learn from your peers, your mentors at work, or even outside of work. But I think my biggest advice is, if you want to go to bridges and that's what you want to do, don't really worry about not having any classes in school, because most of us did not have any classes about bridges. Most of the things you're going to learn and most of the really important things you're going to be learning about bridges, how to design bridges, you're going to be learning at work. You already have the basics, you have the Statics, you have the Dynamics, you have your Analysis of Structures, all of those basic classes that are really important for engineering, you have that from school. When you come to the job, you're going to be able to use those basic fundamentals and apply them to real-world engineering in terms of bridges.
Isaac Oakeson: Perfect. I would preach the same thing. I am in the transmission world, and it's virtually the same thing. You know, no one's going to teach you how to be a transmission engineer. But, you know, once you start the work, you'll start learning how those engineering principles are applied, and you'll learn some new things along the way. So it's just all kind of part of that journey. Luis, walk me through this. You recently passed the PE exam, if I'm right. Is there any tips that you would have for people studying for that, and is the SE on the radar? Is that what's next?
Luis Duque: So I think my biggest tip is don't really worry about passing the exam. Because I think what's important---I made a video a little while ago on a podcast episode---is the process of studying. And basically refreshing your memory on all these concepts and maybe learning new concepts while you're studying for this exam is already a benefit for your career. The license itself is great and you probably will need that in the future, but if you worry about passing the exam from day one, you are going to be focusing too much on the result than learn actually the things you need to learn to become a better engineer. And the result of that is passing the exam. So focus on studying, create a solid plan beforehand, find mentors, find people that are taking the exam so you can study with them, share knowledge or concepts or everything. But don't worry too much about the final result without putting the work.
Luis Duque: I think I studied 300, 400 hours over three or four months. It's a lot of work and you're not going to be able to do yourself. So find people around you. It can be your spouse, your family, your friends that are both supporting you mentally, because it's going to take a lot of mental work, as well as finding people that can study with you, teach you things that you may not remember, or find friends in other industries. Just like for me, I'm a structure engineer, so finding people in water resources, finding people in transportation that can feel in the cabs of knowledge that I was lacking, I think it's super important.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome.
Luis Duque: I guess, in terms of the SE, the company I work for right now doesn't really require at this point. But I have it in my radar, kind of maybe down the line. But for what we do, it's not really required on a daily basis. So we'll see where my career goes, but it's something that I definitely have in the radar.
Isaac Oakeson: Perfect. Well, you'll have to let me know how that one goes. I know that one's a little more challenging, but it's good. Okay. Well, let's jump into -- Today, I know you've also started---and this is one way we've connected---you've started a site called Engineering Our Future, started a podcast around that as well. Tell me maybe why you started that and what what's it all about.
Luis Duque: So one of the main reasons I started Engineering Our Future, and it started from the podcast and I had a few blogs kind of at the beginning. But the main thing is just the podcast and creating a place where I can talk to people like you, you'll be on the podcast here in a few weeks, and learn from engineers that have done great things, learn from students, learn from young engineers that are also doing great things, having conversations that are not too much on the technical side of engineering, but creating a more holistic approach of how we face our careers. We have had podcasts on finance, we have had podcasts on how to find in grad school, the different between grad school and PhD, if it's the best option to go to grad school or just start working. Things like that that, when I was a student, I had a lot of questions about these, and it was kind of hard to find the resources online to answer a lot of these questions.
Luis Duque: I also believe, like, as Latinos, as an immigrant in the US, there's not a lot of people kind of doing the same things I'm doing. And I want to be that person that shows them that they're not alone. And something that we talk a lot on the podcast is representation. We have a lot of women that have come to the podcast, and just talking about showing all the people that they are not alone. No matter how you feel right now, no matter if you think you are the only person going through a tough situation, you are not alone in that process. So it's creating a space for the students and the young engineers to come ask questions. I usually kind of gather a question I get on social media. And that's kind of how the podcast has begun, through ASCE collaborate, a lot of questions from international students, from students, from young engineers wondering what to do with their careers, what they needed to pass the PE exam, what they needed to find a job in the US. And I just decided to put everything into a podcast form, into a website where people can find this information and hopefully it's helping them in their careers.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome. I think that's definitely a good space to be and that's kind of how we connected. So I think you're doing great stuff there. For anybody wanting to check that out, I think you can just go search Engineering Our Future, right? And you kind of pop up there.
Luis Duque: Yeah.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, you're busy. You're working, you got family. Do you have any tips to stay organized for other engineers that find themselves super busy as well?
Luis Duque: The main thing---and I also talk about this on the podcast---is finding a system that works for you. For me, I like to be very organized. So I use a platform called Notion, where I store all the podcast episodes, planning all the website items, to-do list, things going on at work, things going on with volunteering, with ASCE and SEI. So everything is kind of on one place where I can have a bird's eye view of everything going on a certain week and a certain month on all these activities that have at the same time. Obviously, it's great to have all of that, but if you have a system to attack the things you have going on, it's going to be really hard to find clarity. So understanding that you cannot do everything -- I've tried it. I've gone overboard volunteering and doing all the things that I wanted to do, but at some point you're going to get burned out.
Luis Duque: So finding the things that you really enjoy, finding the things that really bring value to you, as well as finding the places where you can give the most to, is really important. So take some time, look around at the options, analyze where you're volunteering on right now, maybe things you want to be doing in the future, and analyze all of these things together and figure out what you have time for. And obviously doing the podcast, volunteering, it takes a lot of time. So finding pockets of time here and there during the day, at night, it's really important and finding -- Again, I keep coming back to the system. So for example, when I do podcasts, I try to maybe record a podcast or two and have everything already set up, and just -- The concept of batching I think is really important. So, if I'm going to write something for the website, kind of try to create an outline for four or five articles, and then try to write them at the same time later on. Or just combining a lot of these, like, really tiny tasks that take a lot of time if you do it by themselves. But when combined together, you can kind of create a system that you can get a lot more done in that case.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great! I know you're wearing a shirt here. The ASCE Structural Engineering Institute shirt.
Luis Duque: Yep.
Isaac Oakeson: I believe at one point you were a New Faces of Engineering, is that right?
Luis Duque: Yeah. So, that was from ASCE. That was 2020. Yeah, New Faces of Civil Engineering.
Isaac Oakeson: Awesome! What was that like? Did you have to apply for that? Was that challenging? Would you recommend other people checking into that? What's your thoughts around that?
Luis Duque: Yeah, I'd recommend everyone checking it out. I mean, I think the program is mainly to highlight young engineers and students that are doing great things. And it's fine because I didn't really know about the program until basically last year when I applied. But I've started to see a lot of, like, familiar faces, either people I know directly and have talked to or people that I've just seen on social media or at events and everything be part of this New Faces of Civil Engineering. So, I think it's a program just to highlight kind of the great things a lot of engineers are doing. I think you get a really nice kind of diploma, you can see it right here.
Isaac Oakeson: Oh, nice! It's probably good for your resume.
Luis Duque: Yeah! Absolutely. Your employer appreciates that. I think more than anything, it shows that you are kind of invested in the profession and kind of sharing and participating in all these activities.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome. Throw it on the resume. That always looks good too. You know, I want to go back to a little bit about bridge engineering. Where do you see the future of that work, that position? How do you see computers or even AI trying to help and assist that industry?
Luis Duque: Yeah. It's kind of funny because my research was on the inspection of bridges using drones. And I think that's an area that there's still a lot of room to grow. So like, we talked about the Infrastructure Report Card where ASCE kind of releases how much backlog in infrastructure is spent. And bridges is definitely one of the largest ones. There's a lot of bridges that are crumbling, there's a lot of bridges that need repair. So I think by implementing kind of these new technologies, drones for example, or any other kind of robot, is really important with the assistance of AI. Kind of just imagine taking a drone, flying it around, using AI to analyze all this damage on the bridge in a couple of days, and it'll cost you, I don't know, $10,000, $20,000. On the other hand, you have to bring a crane, you have to bring five, six people, you have to pay for all of these maintenance, you may have to close the road. That will cost you five, ten times more than that.
Luis Duque: So using these new technology, you can -- In some cases, I don't think it's applicable for every single case, but there's opportunity to do it a lot faster, a lot more efficiently, and a lot more cost-efficient, which helps with that backlog of spending that we have with the infrastructure. So there's definitely a lot of room to grow in that case. And there's definitely maybe other technologies that are coming up and new systems and techniques that are helping with that. But I think it's going to be the way to go in the future if we want to kind of catch up with all the damage in the bridges.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. I've heard people say they're worried about their careers, possibly, with this AI stuff, but I only see that it's going to help and accelerate stuff and getting done. It's my opinion. And anything to do that would be good, especially when we see these report cards and they're always kind of crappy for our country's infrastructure.
Luis Duque: Yeah, I think for us, engineers, it's just helping us get our work done a lot faster and more efficiently. I don't think that computer's going to replace what we do. There's always challenges, there's always new things that we need to improve, and I think that's the beauty of engineering in general. There is just too much analytical work and teamwork that goes into that, that is really hard for a computer, at least I see it right now, is it really hard for a computer to kind of replace us and solve all the problems we face on a daily basis.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. And I've also talked about this before, but I said at the end of the day, who do you want -- I mean, who's going to stamp that, you know? You have someone, not the computer, to stamp for you. So another set of eyes that knows a little bit more about what's going on.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, good deal. As we wrap up, is there any resources, books, things that you might recommend to our audience to check out that have helped you on your journey?
Luis Duque: Yeah. There's definitely a lot of books that I've read, and not really related to civil engineering per se, but books that have helped me and kind of my career. Some of the ones that come to mind is The Miracle Morning, by Hal Elrod. Some finance books like, I Will Teach You To Be Rich, by Ramit Sethi, is a really great book. I've been into finance a little bit this past year. Just kind of learning more about it since I didn't really learn anything when I was in school. Another one is Think and Grow Rich, I believe is the name, by Napoleon Hill. Maybe saying it wrong. I also have a page on my website where I basically put all the books I kind of have read. So if you go to luisfelipeduque.com/books, you can find kind of my recommendations. And there's books from engineering, like She Engineers from Stephanie Slocum, it's a great book, through finance, through personal development. There's a lot of great books there.
Isaac Oakeson: Okay. We'll link that up in the show notes so people can go check out your reading list. That's great. And is that the best way to connect with you? What's the best way for someone to reach out to you if they had questions regarding being a bridge engineer, PE stuff, or just even your experience coming to the country and going to school and dealing with all of that? What's the best way for someone to connect with?
Luis Duque: Yeah. I think the best way is just social media. I'm pretty active on Twitter or LinkedIn. It's a great place as well. There's a contact form on the website where they can just reach out to me and I'm sure you can link down on your show notes. But yeah, overall, just social media is probably the best way to reach me quickly. On the website, there is a lot of resources and all the ways to contact me as well.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great. Luis, thanks for showing up. Thanks for joining me on the Civil Engineering Academy podcast. I really enjoyed talking with you, shared a lot of wisdom. I think you've got a lot of good stuff coming -- I mean, going and coming for you. So thanks for joining me today.
Luis Duque: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you and look forward to talk to you in the future.
Isaac Oakeson: All right. See you later.
Luis Duque: Bye.
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