With Engineers Week upon us, Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) Deputy Secretary R. Earl Lewis Jr. sat down to discuss the importance of engineering in transportation. Deputy Secretary Lewis holds a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Virginia and has nearly four decades of experience in the transportation and energy fields.
What does Engineers Week mean to you?
What Engineering Week means to me is it’s a time to celebrate everything engineers do to contribute to organizations across the country. We make things happen. Engineers basically apply science to the real world, whether that is in a business like a factory that’s making some widget or an electric utility or transportation.
Why did you get into engineering in the first place?
Actually, my first interest when I was in junior high school that was related to engineering was astronomy. Then as I got older and got into high school, I learned that where you apply science is really engineering. Whether it’s a mechanical engineer like myself or a civil engineer like a lot of engineers who work here at MDOT, it really takes science and applies it to the real world to make our lives better, and to actually continue to improve things in the future.
Can you talk about the importance of engineering in transportation and what engineers in transportation do?
That’s a big question. Actually, across the entire MDOT organization, engineers make a big difference. Whether you need to be a PE for certain work, which is a professional engineering license, that’s required to sign off on design drawings. Or whether you’re out overseeing work in the field to make sure things are being installed as they were designed to be installed. A lot of what has to be prepared to consider with engineering is the things you don’t anticipate. So, you’re out there and the drawings say one thing, but the physical world you’re dealing with says something else, and you have to figure out how am I going to reorient how we’re going to get this project done. Sometimes that involves things you can do out in the field at the time. Sometimes you have to go back and check with the design engineers to make sure that the redesign is going to be within scope and meet the requirements of that job. A lot of what engineers do ties back to what requirements are when you’re doing that particular project. Now, as you spend more time in a career, you can move up the ranks into management and get a little bit less technical and more management oriented. But all of those same critical thinking skills that you develop as an engineer and the understanding you have and learn at whatever business you’re in inside of MDOT – whether you’re with the transit agency or state highway agency or the transportation authority related to bridges and tunnels – all that knowledge and experience helps you make better business decisions as you’re looking at the big picture of how we get the work done and how we manage our transportation network.
As Deputy Secretary, what are your main duties here and how much does your engineering background affect how you do your job?
My main duties here (include) overseeing several offices here at The Secretary’s Office at MDOT headquarters in Hanover. Many of those offices require an understanding, if not a direct application, of engineering on a day-to-day basis. The engineering experience I’ve had over the last several decades has actually helped me understand a lot of issues tied to a lot of the work we do here at MDOT – and being able to apply that in working as a partner and in support of the Transportation Business Units as they work to operate, maintain and enhance the various parts of the state’s transportation network.
How much has engineering changed since you first started decades ago?
I think the basic philosophy of engineering, the critical thinking part of engineering, has not changed a lot. Obviously, the technology has changed a lot over the years, but the various principles of how you approach your work really haven’t changed a whole lot. I worked in power plants when I first started my career, and you’re basically a machine detective. You know, sort of figuring out why things aren’t working the way they’re supposed to work and then going back and looking at engineering drawings, looking at the history of various systems, traveling out to the field and critically observing and comparing the real world to the design of how things are supposed to work. Where in my career today, we look at highways and tunnels or mechanical and electrical and IT systems related to buses and try to figure out how to fix problems so we can get those machines or that road or that bridge back in service as quickly as possible after some type of issue presents itself. That’s the constant job of an engineer. There will always be work for engineers because it takes a lot of effort to maintain our systems, operate our systems, as well as implement new technology and infrastructure across the transportation network. Engineers are a critical part of that.
What advice would you give to aspiring engineers?
The advice I’d give to an aspiring engineer is be open-minded. Obviously, you have an interest when you get out of engineering school, no matter what type of engineering you’ve studied and gotten your degree in, but be a little bit open to where you start. It could surprise you what you’ll learn. When I was first getting out of the University of Virginia a long time ago – back in 1983 – I actually was supposed to start doing planning work. When I showed up my first day there was a change. They said: ‘Instead of in planning, we’re going to put you in a plant.’ I have to say, that was probably the best thing that happened to me in my career because I had so much responsibility leading projects, working with craft folks, and that wouldn’t have happened working in the office. I learned a lot really quickly that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise. So, be open as to where you start. Obviously do your best to do well in school. Learn as much as you can, but realize that once you get out of school, really what’s going to determine whether you’re successful or not is, basically, when you get to work, you have to add value and you have to produce results. That’s what I like about engineering also. It’s results focused. People know if you’re not getting it or if you are taking care of business. That’s one of the great things about being in engineering. You get to really experience the positive outcomes of doing a good job and doing good work, whether that is technical or the people part of it.
Lastly, to what do you attribute your rise to getting where you are today?
I appreciate being a valuable part of the Maryland Department of Transportation. I’m really proud to work for Secretary Slater. He’s a great leader who really values people. When you have that support from the top, it really gives you a lot of confidence in working to address the problems we have to tackle to make MDOT a better organization. In terms of rising to the top, I’ve always been flexible. Whatever the organization needs me to do to help them be successful, I’ve been willing to do by moving into various roles. I really am proud that I’ve been with MDOT for nearly 18 years. The time really flies by. I’ve probably had at least a half a dozen different jobs in those 18 years and I can’t say I regret having the opportunity to work in any of them. So, I’d say flexibility is important to being successful in engineering, and recognizing you’re always learning, every day, no matter where you are in the organization as you rise, in terms of your responsibilities over the years. You still are learning. If you remember that, that will keep you humble. And recognize that you can get a lot of good information from folks. Really, it’s the people who work for you that make you look good. You have to remember that. You value all the people in the organization, all the hard work they do every day, to keep things rolling or flying or keeping the records up to-date. And there are always new challenges that come along. Just be looking at those challenges as an opportunity to excel.
Is there anything else you want to add?
I would just say we’re blessed to have all the employees that we have. In terms of engineering, it’s really a vital part of making MDOT go and we’re really proud of all the engineers that work throughout the organization. Thank you all.
Note: This interview was edited for clarity.