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Building the Future: A Conversation with Daniel Akerele, Civil Engineering Expert

Daniel Akerele

Daniel Akerele

civil engineer

  • I would describe the life of a civil engineer as a rollercoaster of challenges, rewards, and the occasional adrenaline rush. If you love challenges and solving problems, you can never be bored.
  • Civil engineering isn’t your typical nine-to-five gig with a corner office and a fancy suit. It’s more of a “roll up your sleeves and dive headfirst into the trenches” kind of profession. But therein lies the beauty of it all.
  • One of the greatest perks of this profession is the opportunity for professional growth. With dedication and a commitment to self-improvement, the sky is the limit. 
  • The quintessential qualities that separate the wheat from the chaff in the world of civil engineering – Communication, Competence, Character, Networking (collaboration), and Self-Development.
  • Civil engineering is a team sport, requiring seamless coordination and communication with a diverse array of professionals.
  • Despite the inherent stress and pressure, civil engineers are some of the happiest folks you’ll ever meet.

When did you know you wanted to be a civil engineer and what sparked your interest in this field?

“Since childhood, I’ve possessed an insatiable curiosity and a profound passion for understanding the intricacies of the world around me. This innate curiosity, coupled with my affinity for science and mathematics, naturally drew me towards the field of engineering. During my high school years, I eagerly immersed myself in engineering and science courses, excelling in both areas. While I had already set my sights on pursuing a career in engineering (ruling out medicine due to a slight aversion to blood, I must admit!), the specific discipline remained undecided.

Upon applying to university, I listed electrical & electronics engineering as my primary choice, with civil engineering as my secondary option. However, fate had different plans when the acceptance letter arrived, revealing that I had been admitted into the civil engineering program. Embracing this unexpected twist, I embarked on what would prove to be a fascinating journey.

It was during my inaugural lecture that my passion for civil engineering truly ignited. Learning about the historical significance and boundless versatility of the field immediately captured my imagination. From the ancient marvels to the modern infrastructure shaping our world, I realized the profound impact civil engineering has on society. Needless to say, I eagerly embraced the opportunity to delve deeper into this captivating discipline.”

How did your experiences as a civil engineering intern influence your career trajectory and professional philosophy?

“During my undergraduate journey, I embarked on three internships that proved pivotal in shaping my career trajectory and professional philosophy. The first of these adventures took me to the Geotechnical department of the Oyo State Ministry of Works, where I found myself knee-deep (quite literally) in laboratory testing and field sampling. As someone who’s always been intrigued by the inner workings of things, I reveled in the opportunity to conduct experiments and unravel the mysteries of soil engineering. Needless to say, my performance in soil engineering courses soared to new heights thanks to this hands-on experience.

Next on the internship agenda was an escapade to an underpass project in Ogbomoso, Oyo state, where I rubbed shoulders with a GC (General Contractor) overseeing the project. It was here that I truly grasped the complexities of on-site project management, complete with its unique blend of challenges and triumphs.

However, it was my final internship stint that truly sealed the deal for me. Joining forces with Adold Engineering in the bustling metropolis of Lagos state, I found myself thrust into the realm of high-rise office complex construction, complete with a design so avant-garde it could make an architect blush. Under the tutelage of seasoned professionals like Engineer Ibrahim (resident structural engineer) and Yiannis Theodosis (the project manager), I was immersed in the intricacies of structural engineering. Their mentorship transcended classroom theories, equipping me with practical skills essential for navigating the complexities of real-world projects.

With a newfound passion for structures and design, I found myself gravitating towards the path of a structural engineer. This inclination was further reinforced by my undergraduate thesis on the “Effect of Geotextiles on Lime Stabilized Soils,” a challenging research endeavor that broadened my horizons within the realms of soil and transportation engineering.

In retrospect, I realize that each internship experience played a crucial role in sculpting me into the well-rounded professional I am today. While deciding on a specific area of expertise wasn’t exactly a walk in the park for this young lad, the diverse experiences I garnered along the way laid the groundwork for a rewarding career journey in civil engineering.”

Can you share a pivotal project or milestone that significantly shaped your approach to construction and design management?

“Ah, the Dangote refinery 44k housing project—a tale that’s etched in the annals of my career as a civil engineer. Picture this: I’m in my second year at Sparklight Engineering when Chief Toyin Adeyinka, our MD extraordinaire, summons me to his abode for a tête-à-tête. Little did I know this rendezvous would catapult me into the heart of one of the most ambitious undertakings—the construction of the second-largest refinery in the world. And to add a cherry on top, I was handed the reins as the person in charge. Talk about a challenge that’s larger than life itself!

Now, let’s be honest, managing a behemoth project of such proportions seemed akin to scaling Mount Everest with a toothpick for equipment. But as they say, challenges are my daily bread, and I wasn’t about to shy away from this Herculean task. Fresh-faced and armed with my professional practicing license freshly minted from the halls of Nigeria, I dove headfirst into the abyss of project management.

Managing such a huge project looked like winning an impossible lottery. I had to work with the most sophisticated tools and equipment that I had ever encountered and of course expatriates from different countries. The experience shaped my management skills most of all. I was able to manage older people, more skillful professionals, and diverse workmen, and most importantly held meetings with the top management of the Dangote Group, which brought me to maturity fast. I was also exposed to different types of construction practices, as we had contractors and workers from almost all continents represented on the project. 

The project had several financial and contractual challenges, which exposed me to decision-making, diplomacy in business, and most importantly the business side of construction. The project I would say had the biggest impact on my career and I am always grateful for the opportunity and relationships I made.”

What role has continuous learning and pursuing advanced degrees played in your career development, particularly your PhD in Construction Management?

“I’ve always subscribed to the notion that personal development is the cornerstone of professional growth—after all, “no matter how high one rises, one will always fall back to the level of his personal development.” As John L. Mason aptly puts it, “the biggest room in our house should be the room for self-development.” And let me tell you, I’ve furnished that room quite lavishly with the treasures of knowledge.

My love affair with learning has been a constant companion throughout my career journey. It’s not just about the accolades that come with advanced degrees (though they do make for a pretty impressive ego boost), but rather the profound impact they have on expanding one’s horizons. Take, for instance, my master’s program at the esteemed University of Ibadan. Armed with a newfound mastery in water treatment and water plant design, I emerged with a holistic understanding that transcended mere professional experience. Suddenly, estate projects became puzzles to solve with a more integrated approach, and my prowess in construction management reached new heights.

But the journey didn’t stop there. I’ve made it a personal mission to embark on a continuous cycle of learning, devouring new knowledge like a starved scholar every chance I get. From project management courses to specialized workshops, I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to stay abreast of the latest trends in my field. And let me tell you, the dividends are undeniable. Whether it’s commanding attention at meetings or standing out amidst a sea of professionals, my commitment to lifelong learning sets me apart in the competitive landscape of construction management.

And then there’s my ongoing odyssey toward a PhD in Construction Management—an endeavor that’s reshaping my perspective with each passing day. Stepping into the hallowed halls of academia in an advanced country has opened doors to a realm of possibilities I never knew existed. My horizons have broadened, my insights have deepened, and I’m steadily charting a course toward becoming a bona fide authority in my field.

In a world where construction practices evolve at breakneck speed, staying stagnant is simply not an option. If you’re not constantly learning and evolving, you’re bound to fade into obscurity. So, here’s to embracing the exhilarating journey of lifelong learning—one course, one degree, and one epiphany at a time.”

What’s Life as a Civil Engineer?

What does a typical day look like as a civil engineer?

“Well, this is a tricky question, but I will try to answer it. I mean the industry and profession are very fragmented and it depends on which side of the industry you are practicing. One thing I would say is that it is very prestigious and rewarding. If you love challenges and solving problems, you can never be bored. I would describe the life of a civil engineer as a rollercoaster of challenges, rewards, and the occasional adrenaline rush. Trying to encapsulate a “typical” day in this profession is like trying to lasso a tornado—it’s unpredictable, exhilarating, and at times, downright hair-raising. But hey, that’s what makes it so darn fun!

Picture this: I roll out of bed in the morning, fueled by a potent concoction of coffee and enthusiasm, ready to tackle whatever curveballs the day throws my way. And trust me, there’s never a shortage of curveballs in this line of work.

From the moment I set foot in the office (or trudge onto the construction site, depending on the day), it’s all systems go. Brainstorming sessions become my bread and butter—except instead of pondering the meaning of life, we’re grappling with challenges that could make or break a project. Think along the lines of “if we don’t get this right, it could cost us our license, our livelihood, or even worse, people’s lives.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking—this doesn’t exactly sound like a walk in the park. And you’d be right. Civil engineering isn’t your typical nine-to-five gig with a corner office and a fancy suit. It’s more of a “roll up your sleeves and dive headfirst into the trenches” kind of profession. But therein lies the beauty of it all. The stakes are high, the challenges are real, and the satisfaction of overcoming obstacles is unparalleled.

And here’s a little secret I’ll let you in on—despite the inherent stress and pressure, civil engineers are some of the happiest folks you’ll ever meet. None of that “waiting-for-5pm-to-be-yourself” nonsense here. Whether we’re crunching numbers in the design office or getting our hands dirty out in the field, there’s always a sense of camaraderie and cheer that permeates the air. So, while a “typical” day in the life of a civil engineer may be as elusive as a unicorn, one thing is for certain—it is one heck of a ride, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

What are the most rewarding aspects of working as a civil engineer? Conversely, what are the most challenging ones?

“Starting with the most rewarding, Picture this: you start out as a novice, wide-eyed and eager to soak up every nugget of knowledge like a sponge. Fast forward a few years, and suddenly you’re spouting off foundation types and structural reinforcement quantities with the confidence of a seasoned pro. It’s like witnessing your own metamorphosis from a clueless newbie to a bona fide expert, and let me tell you, there’s nothing quite like it. But it doesn’t stop there. One of the greatest perks of this profession is the opportunity for professional growth. Sure, civil engineers might not rake in the big bucks right out of the gate, but with dedication and a commitment to self-improvement, the sky is the limit. It is a slow burn, for sure, but trust me when I say that the payoff is worth the wait.

Now, onto the flip side—the challenges. Brace yourselves, folks, because this ride isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Civil engineering is like a high-stakes game of chess, where every move carries the weight of the world (quite literally, in some cases). The risks are high, the rewards are modest, and only those with a true passion for problem-solving need to apply. And let us not forget about the ever-changing landscape of codes and specifications. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, along comes a new set of regulations to throw a wrench in your plans. It is a constant game of cat and mouse, requiring a never-ending cycle of studying, training, and attending conferences to stay one step ahead of the curve.

Last but not least, collaboration is the name of the game in civil engineering. Your success hinges on the collective efforts of a team, which means there is often a fair amount of back-and-forth involved in most projects. It is a delicate dance of coordination and communication, but hey, that is all part of the adventure. So, there you have it—the most rewarding and challenging aspects of life as a civil engineer. It is a wild ride, to be sure, but for those with a thirst for knowledge and a knack for problem-solving, there is no greater thrill than conquering the world, one engineering marvel at a time.”

From your experience, what personal and professional qualities define a successful civil engineer?

“The quintessential qualities that separate the wheat from the chaff in the world of civil engineering. Let’s break it down, shall we? Communication, Competence, Character, Networking (collaboration), and Self-Development. Lest I forget, someone with a collaborative mindset will perform better and will be preferred to someone with an expertise mindset. 

So, let’s get at it, we have communication—a cornerstone of success in any profession, but especially crucial in the realm of civil engineering. Whether it’s conveying complex ideas through emails, drafting meticulous specifications, or engaging in face-to-face interactions, effective communication is non-negotiable. After all, there’s no room for ambiguity when the stakes are as high as they are in our line of work.

Next on the list is competence—the bedrock upon which trust is built. As civil engineers, we’re entrusted with designing structures that stand the test of time, and any hint of doubt in our abilities can have serious consequences. That’s why it’s imperative to own our designs and knowledge, leaving no room for uncertainty or second-guessing.

But let’s not forget about character—the secret sauce that sets successful civil engineers apart from the rest. It’s not just about delivering top-notch work; it’s about serving it up with a side of integrity, professionalism, and empathy. After all, no matter how sumptuous the meal, it’s the presentation that leaves a lasting impression.

And then there’s collaboration—a cornerstone of our profession. Civil engineering is a team sport, requiring seamless coordination and communication with a diverse array of professionals. Whether we are bouncing ideas off each other or tackling challenges head-on, collaboration is what fuels our collective success.

Last but certainly not least, we have self-development—the lifeblood of professional growth. Like a fashionista staying ahead of the latest trends, we must constantly evolve and adapt to stay relevant in a rapidly changing industry. Continuous learning isn’t just a suggestion; it is a mandate for survival in the competitive landscape of civil engineering.

So, there you have it—the personal and professional qualities that define a successful civil engineer. From communication to competence, character to collaboration, and self-development to staying trendy, it is a delicate balance that separates the ordinary from the extraordinary in our field. Finally, develop yourself, or die professionally.”

How important are certifications like the LEED Green Associate for professionals in the civil engineering field, and what impact do they have on career advancement?

“Picture this scenario: You’re tasked with overseeing a project with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) goals. Now, ask yourself: would you entrust this project to an engineer without any LEED certification, or would you prefer someone who’s armed with the knowledge and expertise that comes with LEED accreditation? The answer is clear—certifications like LEED Green Associate are more than just badges of honor; they are essential tools in a civil engineer’s arsenal. In a profession where staying ahead of the curve is paramount, these certifications offer a competitive edge that simply can’t be ignored. But it is not just about gaining a leg up in the job market. Becoming LEED certified opens doors to a world of sustainable design and management practices, equipping engineers with the skills needed to navigate the ever-evolving landscape of environmentally conscious projects. From integrating renewable energy sources to minimizing waste and maximizing efficiency, LEED certification empowers professionals to design and execute projects that are as sustainable as they are successful.

Of course, LEED isn’t the only game in town. There are myriad other certifications available, each tailored to different aspects of the civil engineering profession. Whether it is the Design-Build Institute or the Project Management Institute, obtaining these certifications isn’t just about padding your resume—it’s about honing your skills, expanding your knowledge base, and positioning yourself for success in an increasingly competitive industry.

So, to answer the question of how important certifications like LEED Green Associate are for professionals in the civil engineering field? They’re not just important; they’re essential. In a world where sustainability isn’t just a buzzword but a guiding principle, these certifications aren’t just a nice-to-have—they’re a must-have for anyone looking to thrive in the dynamic world of civil engineering.”

Advice for Aspiring Civil Engineers

For those just starting their career in civil engineering, what key skills and attitudes do you believe are crucial for success?

“”The best way to learn anything is to doubt it.” First and foremost, embrace your inner skeptic. Curiosity isn’t just a virtue; it’s your secret weapon in the world of civil engineering. Don’t be afraid to question the status quo, challenge assumptions, and dive deep into the mysteries of your chosen field. Remember, there’s no such thing as a stupid question—only opportunities to learn and grow. And speaking of growth, here is a little nugget of advice that has served me well over the years: patience is key. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a successful career in civil engineering. Don’t be in such a hurry to chase the almighty dollar; instead, focus on gaining valuable experience and expertise. Trust me, the money will follow.

Now, let’s talk skills. Technical prowess is obviously crucial, but don’t neglect the softer side of things. Problem-solving, multitasking, creativity—these are the bread and butter of a successful civil engineer. And let’s not forget about networking. Building relationships isn’t just about schmoozing at cocktail parties; it’s about forging connections that can open doors and pave the way for future opportunities.

Last but certainly not least, let’s talk about leadership. It might seem like a distant dream when you’re just starting out, but trust me, managerial and leadership skills are non-negotiable if you want to reach the pinnacle of success in this field. And here’s the thing—they’re skills that can be developed over time. So don’t be afraid to step up, take charge, and lead by example.

In short, aspiring civil engineers, remember this: success isn’t just about what you know—it’s about who you are, how you approach challenges, and the relationships you build along the way. So, stay curious, stay patient, and above all, stay hungry for knowledge and experience. The world of civil engineering is yours for the taking—now go out there and make your mark.”

Could you recommend any resources—books, courses, or networks—that you found invaluable in your journey as a civil engineer?

“Yes, one thing that helped me so much and what I call my little secret is that I know where to find the solution. To be more specific, if you need a plumber in any region of the world, I will give you a contact immediately or I know who to call. I don’t know everything, but I always keep all the resources both people and non-human in my bank. First and foremost, let’s talk about the power of networking. In this field, knowing where to find the solution is often just as important as having the solution itself; having a robust network of contacts can be a game-changer. So, my advice? Cultivate relationships, join professional networks, and don’t underestimate the power of WhatsApp and Telegram groups—they’re like gold mines of knowledge and expertise.

But networking is just the tip of the iceberg. Continuous learning is the name of the game in civil engineering, and that means immersing yourself in a sea of resources on a daily basis. Whether it’s devouring articles, newsletters, blog posts, or textbooks, make it a habit to feed your mind with new ideas and insights every single day. And don’t just stop at technical knowledge—branch out into project risk management, personal branding, and anything else that piques your interest.

Speaking of textbooks, here’s a pro tip: don’t read them like you’re cramming for a college exam. Instead, focus on practical applications—find something you can apply immediately, even if it means skipping straight to page 217 and starting from paragraph three. Trust me, the real-world knowledge you gain from this approach is worth its weight in gold. And let’s not forget about the power of online resources. From YouTube channels dedicated to civil engineering to TED talks on a wide range of topics, the internet is a treasure trove of inspiration and education. Personally, I’m a sucker for philosophical books, historical accounts, and thought-provoking TED talks—they provide a fresh perspective that often sparks new ideas and insights.

So, there you have it—a glimpse into the arsenal of resources that have shaped my journey as a civil engineer. Remember, investing in yourself is the ultimate key to success in this field. So, keep learning, keep growing, and above all, keep pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.”

Reflecting on your transition from an intern to a project engineer and now a Ph.D. candidate, what advice would you give to graduates aspiring to follow a similar path?

“Reflecting on my own journey—I’ve learned a thing or two about navigating the winding road of career development. But here’s the thing: there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for success. Each of us will chart our own course, forging our own path in pursuit of our unique career goals.

It is also worth mentioning Brian Tracy’s reflection,

“Success is goals and all else is commentary.”

That being said, here’s a piece of advice that’s served me well: set your sights on your own North Star and take deliberate steps toward it every single day. Whether your aspirations lead you down the path of academia, industry, or a blend of both, the key is to define your goals and take action to bring them to fruition. For those considering the path of a Ph.D. candidate, I say go for it—but with a caveat. Academia isn’t for everyone, and it’s crucial to ensure that your heart is truly in research before taking the plunge. In my own experience, the intersection of industry experience and academic pursuit has been a game-changer. My time spent in the trenches of the engineering world has provided invaluable insights that enhance my research endeavors, allowing me to bridge the gap between theory and real-world application with ease.

So, to all the graduates out there aspiring to follow a similar path, I offer this advice: dare to dream big, define your own trajectory, and don’t be afraid to embrace the unique blend of experiences that shape your journey. Whether you’re destined for academia, industry, or a bit of both, the world is your oyster—so go forth and make your mark on it.”

With rapid technological advancements and increasing sustainability awareness, how do you see the future of the civil engineering profession evolving in the next decade?

“The future of civil engineering is on the cusp of a revolution, driven by rapid technological advancements and a growing awareness of sustainability imperatives. As professionals, it’s incumbent upon us to stay vigilant and adapt to these changes as they unfold. One of the most significant shifts on the horizon is the widespread adoption of cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and digital twins. These innovations are poised to revolutionize the way infrastructure projects are designed, executed, and managed. From AI-powered predictive analytics to real-time monitoring through digital twins, the possibilities are truly endless. But it’s not just about embracing new technologies; it’s about fundamentally reimagining our approach to civil engineering. Take, for example, the evolution of construction practices. Gone are the days of lengthy construction timelines and traditional methodologies. Today, we’re witnessing the rise of rapid construction techniques that allow for major highway repairs in mere hours and the erection of high-rise buildings in less than a day. And let’s not forget about the growing emphasis on sustainability and efficiency. LEAN practices are becoming the norm, with construction projects globally embracing principles of waste reduction and streamlined workflows. Moreover, codes and specifications are evolving at a breakneck pace, reflecting a heightened awareness of environmental considerations and social impact.

In the coming decade, I envision a seismic shift in the way we approach civil engineering. The conventional practices of yesteryear will give way to a new era of innovation, collaboration, and sustainability. The lines between disciplines will blur as we embrace interdisciplinary approaches and harness the power of emerging technologies to tackle complex challenges. Five years from now, the way we work will be unrecognizable from what we know today. And ten years from now? Well, the possibilities are limited only by our imagination. But one thing’s for certain: the future of civil engineering is bright, bold, and brimming with potential. And as professionals, it’s our responsibility to embrace change, stay ahead of the curve, and shape the future of our profession for generations to come.”

Readers Q & A with Daniel Akerele

“In a typical civil engineering role, both fieldwork and desk work play pivotal roles, each offering unique insights and challenges that contribute to a well-rounded professional skill set. While desk work provides the opportunity to delve into detailed analysis, design, and planning, fieldwork offers invaluable hands-on experience and real-world context. Desk work allows civil engineers to crunch numbers, analyze data, and develop intricate designs with precision and accuracy. It’s where theories are put into practice, and innovative solutions are born. However, without the practical knowledge gained from fieldwork, these designs risk being divorced from reality.

Fieldwork, on the other hand, immerses civil engineers in the tangible world of construction sites, infrastructure projects, and on-site inspections. It’s where theories are tested, challenges are overcome, and lessons are learned firsthand. Fieldwork provides invaluable insights into construction processes, materials, and project management, ensuring that desk-based designs are both feasible and practical.

In essence, both fieldwork and desk work are indispensable components of a successful civil engineering career. Balancing the two allows engineers to bridge the gap between theory and practice, ultimately leading to more informed decision-making and better outcomes for projects. So, for aspiring civil engineers, my advice is simple: embrace both field and desk work, as each offers valuable opportunities for growth and development in this dynamic profession.”

“Choosing a specialization within civil engineering is a pivotal decision that can shape the trajectory of your career. While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, there are several strategies you can employ to make an informed choice. First and foremost, take a deep dive into self-discovery. Conduct a thorough personality evaluation to identify your strengths, interests, and values. Consider what aspects of civil engineering ignite your passion and fuel your curiosity. Are you drawn to the intricacies of structural design, the challenges of environmental engineering, or the dynamics of transportation planning? By understanding your own preferences and aptitudes, you can narrow down your options and focus on areas that align with your aspirations.

Seeking guidance from a career coach or mentor can also be immensely beneficial. They can offer valuable insights, share their own experiences, and provide guidance as you explore different specializations within the field. A career coach can help you identify your unique talents and interests, uncover hidden opportunities, and navigate the complexities of decision-making. Additionally, don’t underestimate the power of real-world experience. Your first job in civil engineering can serve as a springboard for discovering your passion and honing your skills. Many professionals find their specialization organically through hands-on experience in the field. Pay attention to the projects that captivate your interest, the tasks that energize you, and the challenges that spark your creativity. These early experiences can provide valuable clues about where your true passions lie.

In the end, choosing a specialization within civil engineering is a deeply personal journey. It requires introspection, exploration, and a willingness to embrace new opportunities. By leveraging personality evaluations, seeking guidance from mentors, and embracing real-world experience, you can chart a course that aligns with your strengths, interests, and ambitions in this diverse and dynamic field.”

“Depends on who’s asking… lol!”

Daniel Akerele

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