An Interview with Cap Pearson, P.E.
After years of accompanying his father to the Washington State University Engineering Advisory Board meetings, interacting with prominent engineers at the university plus keeping with family tradition of attending WSU, Charles A. Pearson (Cap), P.E., S.E. pursued an engineering degree. He graduated with a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering from the university in 1967, joining his grandmother, mother, and four aunts as an alumnus. Upon graduation, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force serving in the role of site development, then after discharge in 1969 he began a 42-year career at City of Tacoma in the Public Works Department, Building Division.
While at the City of Tacoma, Cap earned his Professional Engineering license in 1973 and Structural Engineering license in 1975. He purchased his first calculator for the PE exam, prior to that all work was performed using a slide rule. For years, he did his own programming on calculators and computers. He says it is important for engineers to understand the computations that go into their designs. He was involved in the computerization of the City's permitting process.
Early in Cap's career he got to do the plan review for a 12-story condo and full plan review of Saint Joseph's Hospital. Later on, he was placed on special assignment as manager of the agency reviews for the Tacoma Dome. This meant full plan review and coordination of all agency reviewers for the massive public works project. It was a major learning experience being involved in the Tacoma Dome, the highlight of Cap's career.
With a 42-year career, Cap has seen many changes in engineering and in the structural engineering field. The switch from manual calculations to computerized calculations has changed the expectation of precision. With the slide rule, an engineer knew his/her calculation had a safety factor and was typically rounded to a whole number. With computers, Cap has seen calculations shown to a precision of 1/1000th and safety factors reduced because the properties of the materials are better known and more complicated calculations have become building code requirements. Since computers are available, building codes have gotten more complicated. Cap thinks these more complicated calculations are often unwarranted and may lead to mistakes, especially for small offices which cannot afford the computer programs. Additionally, mistakes can be made on computers when the engineer does not understand the theories behind the programming, and of course bad data entry. Other changes to building codes now account for social responsibility of engineers such as addressing climate change. Construction codes now require a constantly increasing number of books to detail all the requirements; when Cap started with the City of Tacoma, there were a lot less books.
Retired since 2011, Cap remains involved in the Structural Engineering Association of Washington and the Washington Society of Professional Engineers, two societies he joined in the 1970s. He believes it is important for engineering groups to be locally driven to meet the needs of our engineers and being informed of the happenings of the Board of Registration of Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors which oversees licensed engineers in Washington State. Our local WSPE chapters keep local issues circulated among our engineers. Sage advice from an experienced engineer: much of what new hires will learn, such as professionalism and actual engineering decision making comes from working on the job.