The Civil Engineer and The Secretary: A Secret Ranking
B’s bright red lipstick had my attention, till she said “I quit.” Why would she leave her high flaunt-worthy job, I wondered. She’s talkative. Logical. Knows all about software engineering. “My new manager was treating me like a secretary!”, she added. Her dark hair and an infrequent pop of a middle-eastern accent, were clues hidden under her predominant American accent and life of decades in the neighbourhood, that she wasn’t originally from around there. She finished up with “He ordered me to print paper. I didn't join his team to be a secretary.”
Secretaries— what do they do? Prepare paperwork, plan events, order tickets. They book flights, book hotels and book slots in the bosses calendar. B’s story of doing “a secretary’s job” is a missiled destruction of diplomatic talk. Watch it! Not in 'merica, you can’t be sayin’ that! You can feel like a secretary, but eyeballs will glare if you are to socially voice such an analogy. For there is dignity in every job and a secretary might get offended.
And secretaries should, because no job is easy-- even the secretaries job. In fact, no job is easy--especially the secretaries job. And I discovered that through my own office secretary (whose title was renamed to 'administrative business partner'). I was confused over the instructions by an important skip level manager. He told me something like, ‘Email it to me in a bit ’. Did he mean email him in a few seconds? or in a few days? or when I’m done with the project or what? I'd have looked like a nutcase if I walked back in and mouthed 'sorry, but what's "in a bit"?'. So I bounced over to his secretary and she told me in a jolly second what I should really do. She was a true diplomat— a translator for a language I struggled to understand. You need confidence and clarity to be a good secretary and that she was.
But I still acknowledge B’s feelings. B studied at an Ivy league university. Got a masters in a technical field. Got promoted three times in my company— yet, fingers were being raised to direct her to the printer, adding her into emails merely to set up meetings, and polite but poorly targeted requests to take notes during discussions. I agreed with her— she doesn’t deserve to be treated as a secretary. It wasn’t her expertise. Her value was in her technical thinking.
You’d think technical fields are treated with respect. But No. There is a ranking system there. Look at Civil engineering— Civil engineering is interesting, practical, and important. It is one of the core engineering fields (— Mechanical, Electrical being the other two). In the 1950’s, these engineers were called Engineer Saheb, or ‘Sir’. Today, no one takes Civil students seriously. This is a hidden hierarchy that no one will dare voice, but will advantageously roast their ego-marsh-mellows over this hierarchy fire.
In my undergraduate college, Civil engineering, whose building was on the boring side of campus, was a course choice for the lower graders. It was assumed, they were studying a course, for the sake of a college name or degree, without real interest in the subject itself. These lower graders, were treated differently. Almost pitifully. Many moved on to open their own companies. But at that young age, the oppressors never thought about human capability being separate from circumstance. One might see instances where a student really wanted to study civil engineering, but for the most part— the college was more important than the degree. It is sad, but it is reality. Sad, because you want people to be happy with what they’re studying. Reality, because it isn’t where the money lingers. Somehow, computer science demands more logic than bridge building. And computer science brings in the money today.
It shouldn't have gotten that way. If the world blows up, internet ain’t gonna save me— the bridge over that dark river, is going to save me-- a landing for my feet when I run to safety or food or water. I re-faith my faith in civil engineers when I walk under a bridge with railway tracks, stand in the balcony of a fire-escape-less building, or whiten my knuckles on the protective bar of a roller coaster. I hope they scored well at college.
In my sophomore year, I studied a course called “Strength of Materials”, a common course between Mechanical and Civil engineering syllabus. It would explain how a bar (not alcoholic) can sheer, bend or twist. I learnt (and soon forgot), to calculate the weight a bar of steel could carry without the bar failing. Why on earth would you want to know that? Well, If you’re seated on a balcony, will it crumble under your weight? Could you have a party there? What about a 5 tonne piano? Strength of Materials was practical and practical subjects are curiosity triggering and curiosity makes it interesting. It came to practice when I was designing (on paper) with the help of my industry mentor, “the spindle of a honing machine”, which in plain words is a stick that moves vertically and turns round at the same time, inside a machine.
I heard, a year later, about the stick (or ‘shaft’ as they call it). It broke. It broke! The machine got defunct. Sent into repairs. I felt multiple emotions— laughter first, and then shock. It was my responsibility. Our responsibility. I had done the calculations well, and then we brushed off a 0.5mm to make it fit inside the shafts casing to measure well within the dimensions of the machine. Just 0.5 mm. That’s thinner than a small ant. If you bunch five strands of your hair together, that could be 0.5mm. And that 0.5mm broke my machine.
Civil engineering is no joke and yet, everyone who took it up in my college, was. I realised soon after I took that flight out of my city, met graduates from other colleges across India, and became aware of my own biases— that the feeling of putting down a lower-grade branch, was mutual in other universities too. Lower graders didn’t just study Civil— They spread out from Civil to other branches. Metallurgy, Polymer technology, Naval engineering, Production engineering, Pulp and Paper technology (is Pulp even a real degree?) were the pity degrees. Even Electrical was not spared. Though Mechanical was given special treatment and it did draw a “decent”crowd. I mean, I studied Mechanical, right?
The ranking system, of me being better than you, is fractal in its attribute. There’s a ranking within the class. A ranking between departments. A ranking between universities, between types, between careers. Within cities, between cities, between countries.
The ranking is subtle— hard to see. Mostly felt. The rich students, in their nike shoes and neon string hoodies, politely acknowledging the high waisted trouser classmate, whose name they’ll never know. The academic strugglers in class trying to mingle with the never-available top in class. The computer engineers hunched together at canteen, seen smiling and laughing inside their bubble and the electrical engineers quieting as they walk past the CS bubble they are wanting to get into. The IIT’s smirking at NIT’s, at inter-college fests (and shocked if they didn’t win a contest). COEPians (my college) smirking at local engineering colleges (and shocked if they didn’t win a contest). The engineers, NIT or not, with sparkling eyes, looking over the commerce degree graduates, powered by a belief of their superior analytical intelligence and harder work that got them to be enlightened engineers. The working women at a party, with a thin champagne glass in her hand, smiling over the housewives, proud of her choices. The McKinsey badged man in the elevator, secretly confident of his achievement, when the elevator door opens on the E&Y floor of his office building.
At work, the hierarchy is between Product Managers and Project Managers. Software engineer and Software engineer in Test. And almost everyone and the Secretary (whom all adore, but only to get to the boss.)
In Government services, there is a difference between IAS, IES, IPS, IFS, IXS, where X is Admin, Economic, Police, Foreign, Railways, Forestry, Revenue, Trade. This has a ranking too- The IAS at the top of the ranking— top of an elite list. You can guess that Forestry or Trade might be at the bottom of the ranking— who wants to stay in a forest?
Last summer, I met a family, whose son ‘cracked’ the Government services exam and were arranging a catered dinner party, for his achievement. The meritorious man, in his high waist jeans, avoided eye contact and seemed to be either socially shy or socially superior. The mother, and her I've-finally-arrived hair throwback with her gold-diamond bangled hand, recalled the telephone call about the results and how the news rapidly spread-- This news placed her in the high society of her lady friends. I soon acquired the information on what he’s going to be doing. He got through on his fourth attempt and he got through to Trade services. I gave myself time to digest the information. Trade, and Fourth attempt. I didn’t verbalise “You’re kidding right?”. He took the test, failed, took the test, failed, took the test, failed, took the test and got a least desirable position. It felt like Trade is the Civil engineering ranking of UPSC. But the man. The man looked content. It was his moment of glory and who are we to judge?
And over time we understand— every one is necessary. The graduating engineer, in a decades time, will hire a commerce graduate for her taxes. The Civil or Metallurgy engineer will build us the next beautiful building. The street smart Production girl will switch into consulting and is your boss tomorrow. Maturity with age, family responsibilities or the promise of a better life changes 'lower graders' to rise and shine in the workplace. The housewife’s job is more difficult— it is easier to be working. The NIT’s will work in the same company as the IIT's ended up in. The poor will work her way to wear the richness of a nike shoe.
Everything has its place in the world and a fourth attempt at an exam is either a failure or an act of perseverance. It took me a decade of working, failures of my own, and meeting the academically flop but super smart— to understand that Civil engineering is actually gold and we’re the rotter’s here-- turning others’ achievements into dust and looking down on them.
Like a lady with an original Chanel handbag, swears to never befriend a woman with a fake handbag. Even a fake Chanel handbag, looks real to those who don’t know. Even the fake Chanel handbag holds things. Which is what handbags are meant to do. The fake Chanel cost a lot less to that lady, who might have given the saved money to an orphan child.
But hey, I would still buy the original Chanel handbag though.