Taking your chances - Chances don't approach you, it's you who approach chances.

“Chances are anywhere else, all you need to do is to grab them because they don’t always show up.” Carl Lomer Abia  

13 mins read

That first Job is 90% career-defining.

I was only 25 years old when I started work at this engineering consulting firm in Lagos and I was transferred to work on an urban water revamp project in Abeokuta, Ogun State. 

 

The project itself was massive in all ramifications, its reach, scope and social impact would change the face of all the major and budding towns in Ogun State and it was co-sponsored by the world bank. For me, it was perhaps the best place to start work as a fresh-faced graduate of civil engineering. It was a consulting firm, its services were in core engineering and I had the pleasure of working with sound professionals.

It is my firm belief that the very first job for any graduate would 90% of the time determine his career direction. Sadly, the choice of where to work is in the slippery hands of fate. 

It tosses where it wills!

The project practically thrust me into the depths of engineering design and consulting affording me the opportunity to learn in particular from expatriates that I had the good fortune of working with.

The pay wasn’t so great, but the perks weren’t so bad either.  We had lunch every day like one big family at the dinner table. Everyone including the project managers, expatriates, and young engineers had to sit together by 1:00 p.m. at the table where all kinds of home-cooked meals were served at their behest. 

Nothing excited me more than seeing the in-house cook in the morning when I arrived at work every day. Her presence was a subtle assurance that food was secured for lunch for that day.

Now, the office was a residential house converted into a project office. One part of the house was the office while another part had the rooms where most of the expats lodged. 

The office area had a pretty large living area that served as the reception and hosted our daily lunch parlay. A highly temperamental and uncouth lady manned the entrance doorway sitting in as the receptionist. LOL. At least this one wasn’t the brash looking middle-aged man in my earlier story. Not one day passed without her getting into a shouting fit with the drivers or cleaners. She always had an axe to grind. I still remember her as the feisty lady with a bad mouth. 

Did you say television? Don’t even ask.

The rooms on the side of the office area were a bit smaller and served as offices where two engineers had the pleasure of sharing. The walls were painted white and not one artwork adorned the walls anywhere in the office. It was an engineering project office and it looked the part!

What did you expect?

The kitchen was palatial. Two sets of teams could play table tennis comfortably in that kitchen. You would have thought it served a 4-star hotel.

The larger rooms were reserved for the expats. It saved the company tons of money paying for hotel rooms. The expats would stay for long periods at a stretch and the project was on a strict budget.

To make work even more interesting, the only fridge in the office area was always stocked with all kinds of beer. Making after-work hours much more fun.

If you ever had to work with Germans you would quickly notice that they were pretty heavy drinkers and they hit the bottle as soon as it was 5 pm. They worked just as hard as they drank.

We- the young engineers in training, also got to join them every now and then and those sessions were perhaps the most interesting. They had fond stories to share and we lapped up every word they spoke.

Pretty interesting times, I dare say!

Some of the personal values that I brandished years later were formed during this period of crude learning.

Where did all the water go?

The year was 2006 and the sleepy and rocky town of Abeokuta was struggling to get water for its basic domestic use. Sadly 13years after, Abeokuta is still struggling for public water supply to its citizens! 

Most mornings you would see young people with plastic buckets of all colours and sizes thronging the streets in search of clean water to fetch or even buy. The hand-dug wells would typically run dry of water and you would have to decant and filter to sieve off mud and sand particles to get some water for domestic use. It was a prevalent problem and it had to be addressed holistically.

The challenge with water in Abeokuta is inherent and nature induced. While the famed rocky outcrops which are a distinct feature on the entire terrain within the town, covered the residents in glory during the war-torn moments in history, the rocks also became their albatross. The rocks inadvertently locked in surface water, and was practically impenetrable, starving the citizenry of the most critical resource required for survival.

While this situation posed a huge challenge because burrowing through the rocks is often an effort in futility, Abeokuta is blessed with a large body of surface water on its east bank from the Ogun river. This river will become the major source of surface water for the town.

Our world bank sponsored project was to redesign the existing water distribution pipelines which were old, undersized and abandoned, ascertain the functionality of the primary and booster pumps along with scores of abandoned overhead storage facilities, and improve water supply to match the increasing population of the town and its environs.

It was an exciting project and I was the assistant project engineer. 

Fancy title. Small Pay!

Naija!. I will take it. I had free lunch every weekday and booze at the close of business and I also got to move around project sites in chauffeur driven company pool car.

Chance favours only those who court her.  

My uncle was magnanimous enough to allow me to stay in his rented apartment indefinitely and the apartment was located smack at the heart of the town where it served as his country home. It was a 3-bedroom apartment and I lived alone for the first few months.

15mins walk to the office every morning was the only other cost I had to bear aside buying recharge cards for my phone most days. I had few friends and I had to keep in touch with my old friends back in Lagos.

I enjoyed working with the expats. They understood that I had to learn on the job and took great patience in clarifying grey areas whenever I asked. 

Then a certain Mr Lucas Wolf arrived at the Project Office. He was a hunk of a German, he looked pretty young but very amiable. I was probably half his height and I certainly wasn’t a short guy at 26!

He was to be the Head of the project design.

His English was good and basic enough to communicate whenever he needed to and he was pretty much an ardent unrepentant workaholic. He appeared to always be in a haste to get his bit done and he spent countless hours on his desktop computer working on a particular software.

I piqued interest in his work. I would often start with small talk and then peer into his computer screen asking pressing questions about what he was working on. He was slightly older but young enough to relate with.

Then I found out that he was a certified expert at using a particular design software that was extremely expensive and was the primary tool to use for the complex designs that the project required. 

At that time, the software could only be purchased by government or its agencies or accredited consulting firms with the right competencies and its sale was therefore highly restricted.

All the software required was an excellent knowledge of environmental engineering and fluid mechanics.

Only a handful of experts were trained in its use and they represented a pool from which any environmental projects in sub-Saharan Africa were obliged to select from. This made whoever had the training or competency hot cake in the industry.

Mr Lucas Wolf was one of the chosen few.

During my idle times, and there were quite a few, by the way, I spent time watching Lucas work on the software, setting scenarios and analyzing the proposed distribution network design that would bring succour to the residents of Abeokuta. 

I vividly remember one time I asked Lucas one particular question on the parameters he’d set during one of those times he let me stand behind him while he worked. His response was as cold as ice. He literally opined that I had to go to school to learn about it. 

I was a bit shocked to be brutally honest. 

On the contrary, I had watched how the many formulae were being put to use and it was a delight seeing the results of the analysis almost instantaneously. There was nothing he was doing that I hadn’t learnt in school.

I understood a lot of the decisions he was taking on the software, but it appeared to me that he had assumed that I didn’t have a University degree.

Then I explained to him why I had asked the question and then I spewed a lot of some technical gibberish that my fresh university brain could muster at that moment.

Lucas paused and then turns to face me.

He asks if I had a university degree, and I answered in the affirmative. Impressed, he offers to teach me more about the software.

But there was one big problem!

we both could barely find time during work hours and Lucas never joked with his after-work hours.

So, for weeks on end and at a painfully slow pace, I hunched next to Lucas while we set the parameters together, analyzed several scenarios on the software and repeated this cycle.

Truly, knowledge is light!

Those times, the interface for design software looked gothic and totally unattractive to an untrained eye. But the moment the knowledge of it sets in, everything suddenly picks up a life of its own. The Colors came alive and it became an interesting learning experience.

When Lucas closed work at 6 pm, I sat on his chair and re-learned every step he took on the software. It was perhaps the crudest way to learn. But I was determined to join the elites- howbeit from the backdoor.

When he found me working on his desktop computer one late evening, he returned with a 1000+ paged manual for the software and handed it over to me. 

He was clearly encouraged by the enthusiasm I had shown which was invariably fueled my quest for knowledge and my relentless attitude to hone my skills on the software. 

That evening it felt as though I had won a lottery. He didn’t ask me to return the manual, he simply offered them to me and asked me to study it.

Now every night I would spend hours flipping through the pages of the manual in the dark – NEPA, as they were called back then, were at their notorious best. I would write down steps for performing a solution and then practise at the office the next day.

It was too damn tedious.

I probably gave up trying many times after several iterations appeared to have yielded poor model or designs. It was a good thing I could chat Lucas up and he was great at clarifying things up. He was an epitome of a patient boss.

Within weeks, I had learned just about enough to perform complex scenarios and model analysis on the software.

The project(its design phase) was now nearing completion and the expats had to leave. We bade Lucas and the crew an emotional farewell and turned to the sad reality that our sojourn in Abeokuta was coming to an end.

One chance is all you need. 

One fateful afternoon, the managing director for the company showed up at the Abeokuta project office. He was to lead a delegation of senior engineers to present the final designs to the state governor and the relevant agencies. Like professionals that they were, they showed up dressed in great looking suit and shoes that I swore to wear when I grow up. They had a scheduled session with the water corporation and it was a meeting that would cap all the efforts on the project and probably resolve the water quagmire that held Abeokuta captive for decades. Off they headed to Oke Mosan.

Hours later, they returned to the office with long faces, drooping shoulders and their body language spelling doom. The meeting had gone relatively well, but there was a significant change that was recommended to be made to the design. The proposed primary water pipeline route was to pass through sacred traditional courts and land area, this was considered sacrilegious and unacceptable. The team was advised to re-route the pipeline.

This was going to be a significant change. It would also require bringing back the expats and all the associated resources to keep them comfortable. This was going to be very expensive for the project budget and would ultimately depend on the availability of Lucas and the team.

The look on the MDs face was of abject despair!

One of the senior engineers who had observed with keen interest my continued parley with Lucas and my interest in the software while he was on the project, suggested that I worked on the redesign.

To put a little context, he had once engaged me on a design and analysis of the water supply pipeline network for his hometown in the east which had peculiar terrain with Abeokuta. 

It was a give-back project he had struggled with for years calculating manually without much headway. With the software, it only took a matter of hours to simulate the result and make some iterations.

I developed a model that was efficient for his intended objective using the software and it bought me his absolute friendship. 

I didn’t earn anything on this. It probably never occurred to me that I could quickly monetize the new competency. I just wanted to put my new found knowledge to use and was glad to be of help.

It was my first test of proficiency with the software and it was a successful one.

Back to the story.

When he mentioned to the MD that I could be of help, the MD looked at me quizzically. His doubt was emblazoned all over his face. His face contorted into all shades of disbelief and ended in a grin.

I imagined that he thought of how much he had spent getting experts to use the software for the design and there was no way a young school graduate was going to rescue his impending financial implosion.

He beckoned that I come towards him. I obliged.

First question he asked was derisive.

“I hear you can use the software”

I answered in the affirmative. 

“Where and how did you learn to use the software?”

When I explained that I had worked several hours learning to use the software with Lucas and that we set the parameters and scenario together, his face lit up like a box of lamp bulbs. He had seen the possibility. He smelled the coffee.

He asked that I showed him on the desktop computer. Afterall seeing is believing. He was accompanied by the other senior engineers and we marched to Lucas computer.

Nervously,  I turned the desktop on as I had done many times in the past and explained as much as I could how much I knew about the new designs and the scenarios set by Lucas on that project. 

Without doubt, he was impressed. He saw the many possibilities that having this knowledge could do to the business. Immediately, he asked that I worked directly with the senior engineer and revert with a new design as soon as we can pull it off.

Of course, it didn’t take long to get the design and models sorted. It took several iterations and improvements. I would refer to the manual in the quiet of the night and return to the office to continue the changes on the model.

The modified design was eventually suitable for use and the project reached the next phase.

This singular feat earned me an immediate transfer back to the head office in Lagos. The MD couldn’t hide his excitement and he rewarded me with an office and a new role. I was to work on all the designs. To start with, I was to verify all the earlier designs calculated manually by the team to ascertain and verify their correctness. 

Exciting times!

Did I mention it came with some good pay rise. 

My several nights on the computer and countless hours with Lucas had finally paid off.

There was no need to get the expats in anymore.  I was a far cheaper alternative and I joined in design meetings with new clients and review meeting with existing clients.

There is absolutely no shame in learning.

Learning has to be conscious, deliberate and sometimes painful.  The pain, maybe the time spent or energy depleted, but it must cost something.

There is nothing we learn that would go to nought. Everything we learn will be put to use sometime. It may take several months or even years, but it would surely come to use.

Never stop learning!