Dan McQuade | Crain's Silicon Valley

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Dan McQuade

Background:  

AECOM is a design, engineering, construction and management firm that works with clients in 150 countries. Headquartered in Los Angeles, AECOM has 600 offices and more than 87,000 employees. Last fiscal year, the company made $17.4 billion in revenue. Fortune magazine named it one of the "World's Most Admired Companies" for the third consecutive year in February. 

Dan McQuade has been with AECOM for 30 years. He started working there shortly after he graduated from Cornell University with a degree in civil engineering.   

The Mistake:  

I got a job at a well-regarded civil engineering design firm and I hated the job. It was so boring. It was a very technical position doing calculus all day long.  

The way it worked was every single little piece of a bridge had to be engineered and have calculations done. It sounds ancient, but it was pre-computer. People with more experience than I did would do those calculations and make decisions about the structure of the bridge. Then, what I did was check those calculations on these extra-large sheets of graph paper. 

I only did it for eight months, but I never found a mistake. The guys that did it were brilliant. You did have to do it to make sure there was no mistake. This all made perfect sense. It was just that for me, every hour was four hours. You were inside all day and there was no personal interaction.  

The people who sat around me were a lot older. If you said, "Did you see the Mets last night?" they would look at you like you had two heads. There was no sort of small talk.  

You basically just sat there and did these calculations all day long. You'd get through a whole bunch of them, which would take a few days. Then, you'd get a whole bunch more to do.  

I remember I used to think, "Who cares?" Obviously, it is important to know if you have the right number of bolts or not, but it was like, why am I doing this?  

I was there just about a year when this really nice guy that I worked for said, "Well, you don't seem to like this." So I came clean like, "Boy, this isn't really what I expected. I hate every day. It's just brutally boring." I felt like my head was going to explode every day.  

So they sent me out to a project that they had designed which was the rehabilitation of an older bridge. I would have done anything at that point to get out of the office. ... I liked the pace of the construction. Then, it got to be fall, so the project was shut down for the winter. I got my resume and I was like, "I am not going back there." So I landed in the construction business and never left. 

You can't force yourself to do something you don't want to do. 

The Lesson:  

I've certainly learned that it is hard or impossible to do something you don't want to do for a living.  

I always tell people, it is hard enough working every day when you are doing something that you really love. I love the construction business, but it's still hard. I tell my kids or people who work here or people my kid's age, you can't force yourself to do something you don't want to do. 

Some people are just better suited for some industries than others. If you took somebody that was a great architect, they wouldn't necessarily be a great lawyer or investment banker. Some people's combination of personalities and skill sets drive them to be successful in certain industries where if they were doing something totally different they might be nowhere near as successful. 

In the end, you've got to really enjoy it. You've got to get satisfaction out of it beyond getting paid. I think that drives people to continue to work and continue to get up enthusiastically. I think if you are doing something you are not well suited for and you just don't like it, how can you overcome that?    

Follow AECOM on Twitter at @AECOM

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