Scott Wertel has a lot going on. He works full time as a configuration manager for a small defense contractor, and he runs a successful engineering-consulting business—Wertel Enterprises, LLC—on the side. Is he busy? Sure. Does he have to sacrifice being creative for sitting at a desk? No way.
Wertel credits his love of space for drawing him to a career in mechanical engineering. Being an astronaut was out of the question (due to his imperfect vision), so engineering was the next best way to get a foothold in the industry. While still in college, Wertel secured a Boeing internship in Houston working on the International Space Station, and he’s been in the aerospace and defense industry ever since.
Here, Wertel describes the real life of a mechanical engineer as consultant, including the creative highs, the accounting lows, and the burning questions that motivate him to be his best.
What’s the best part about being a mechanical engineer?
Being creative, and one reason why I have the side job is because I miss doing design. I don’t do design work in my full-time employment, and I just love being creative. I love coming up with new ideas. I love solving problems for the customer. I love discovering and learning new things, and the only way to do that is to have new and difficult problems sent my way that I have to go do some research on.
Constantly learning is the best part of my day. I don’t care if it’s as simple as discovering a new way to model something in CAD that I go, “Wow, that’s going to save me some time,” or doing a bunch of research on some higher-level math that I haven’t done before.
How do you ensure that you are on the same page designwise with your clients?
What my customers in the end want to know is: Is this going to work, and is this what I asked for? They don’t exactly know what they’re looking at when it’s on the screen. Simulation results, unless there’s another engineer in the room, don’t matter. That’s something that I do on my own. I don’t even present simulation results to a customer, typically, because most of the time it goes over their head and they don’t care. They just want to know, is it going to work or not? Of course, I’m going to do the math in the background and verify that it’s going to work.
What makes for a wildly successful—or unsuccessful—design presentation with a client?
Obviously, I win some, I lose some, and I get some feedback. The ones that were wildly unsuccessful always came down to, I didn’t do my due diligence ahead of time and actually capture the customer’s requirements. And it’s one of those situations where the customer doesn’t know what they want. They know they need something, but they don’t know what they need. You throw out some concepts and then they go, “Whoa, I wasn’t expecting anything like that.” And with my experience now, I ask, “Well, what are you expecting?” ahead of time.
After you’ve worked out what the client is looking for, what is your day-to-day like on a project?
It’s a lot of computer time. Because I work after hours, because I work remotely, I document everything I’m doing for the customer so they have an actual account of hours and things like that. And it really depends on the project that I’m working on. If I’m doing just a basic tooling or fixture design, obviously, it’s the standard design process that goes into that bottom-up design: I do a bunch of parts, assemble them together, take some snapshots along the way, and email it to the customer to show them that I am making progress and I haven’t forgotten about them—those types of things.
When you’re in the middle of a project, what do you worry about?
If I’m deep into the creative process, I am constantly thinking about how the next piece goes together, how it’s going to function, and everything else, and I cannot stop dreaming about it: Did I get that right? What about this? Did I forget an interference? Oh, crap, I have to remember that I need to resize that motor because I changed something else over here.
What still gets me the most—and this is on both sides of the job that I work on, my full-time employer, as well: Creating the geometry and doing the design is not what takes a long time anymore; it’s managing links if you’re doing a master model approach. It’s taking care of all the metadata so all the file properties are right. It’s the file management that takes a long time now. I’m up at night worrying that I broke a link or I have a bad reference or I’m looking at the wrong revision.
Are there any specific tasks that you absolutely dread?
I hate accounting. It’s a necessary evil; it has to be done, but I don’t make money on it. If I’m not making any progress in getting a job done, it’s overhead. It hurts. It ends up taking just as long, sometimes, keeping track of all that stuff as it does to actually get the job done.
How do you choose what CAD tool to use on any given project?
I use whatever my customer tells me I need to use. I am trying to get proficient in Autodesk Fusion 360. That’s going to be my new go-to one as soon as I get up to speed on that. One of the reasons why I’m going to it is cloud storage, collaboration. I can work on my desktop when I’m at home; it’s easy on my laptop when I go on the road, because it’s not a node-locked license, so I can bring it up on whatever terminal I’m at.
What motivates you to do well in your job?
If there was something else that would keep me awake at night, it would be, did I do a good job today? Did I make a difference today? So that’s what motivates me and keeps me going. I hold myself to a high standard, and I expect to keep myself to it.
Redshift’s “The Real Life” series reveals the trials, triumphs, and truths of being an architect, engineer, contractor, designer, or other creator/maker.