Putting the pieces together: How one civil engineer approaches projects and problems like a puzzle

A young man with short dark hair and blue eyes is smiling slightly. He is wearing a blue and white checkered shirt and is outdoors with greenery and palm trees in the background. The weather appears to be sunny and clear, perfect for a civil engineer planning new projects.

By: Griffin Furlong

My passion for engineering was inspired by the many “puzzles” I had to solve in my early years. I failed my multiplication table test five times in third grade which isn’t what I consider a good start to my future career. I had to map out the metro bus routes and frequently walk great distances because I didn’t have a car growing up. Those lengthy journeys included multiple trips to and from the grocery store along railroad tracks, walking miles each way. Most difficult of all, I lost my mother to cancer, so I grew up with a single parent. I was homeless for nearly four years after her passing.

Despite the struggles and loss in my childhood, I was always curious and investigative. To me, no problem was too big. I learned that mindset itself determines if a problem remains a problem or transforms into a puzzle. I never liked hearing “just because” or “that’s impossible” as the answer to any question I raised. I always wanted to prove that there was some concrete how or why to anything. Also, I didn’t like running away from a problem because I knew the problem would never disappear on its own. Instead of running away from the fire, I ran towards it. Now, maybe I was just doing the things needed to survive, but that mentality made me who I am, today, as a young adult.

Two of my favorite medicines in life are mentoring and laughter. Civil engineering, and our Tampa office, provide both of the medicines that I yearn for. Every day there’s a new problem to be solved, something new to learn, an opportunity to grow, and wonderful people that make me look forward to waking up each morning.

As a senior project coordinator in Atwell’s Tampa office, I’ve approached every project as an opportunity to solve a puzzle. Whether it was a regional stormwater model that I had to take over, designing miles of utility infrastructure within a busy corridor, or taking the lead on both the CAD and design production, I framed the problem as a puzzle to assist our clients and deliver results. Instead of being nervous and fearful, I chose to focus on putting the puzzle pieces together, one at a time.

I have failed so many times throughout my career too. Those failures have simply created a new foundation to build upon. There are things that I’ll never forget, like making sure my Curve Number values are 100%, that I’m triple checking each input in the stormwater programs, and making sure I’m having the proper check-ins with the project managers.

If I can share anything I’ve learned, my biggest piece of advice is to develop a simple game plan for each day.  Write down the three most important items you need to complete and exhaust all opportunities to get them done. It sounds too simple to be effective, but you’ll soon realize that difficult problems become easier when they are broken into smaller pieces. Without a game plan, you have no direction and problems seem overwhelming. You’ll find that preparation will also lead to more confidence. Kobe Bryant said it best: “Confidence comes from preparation. When the game is on the line, I’m not asking myself to do something I haven’t done a thousand times before.”

Today, I’m still the same curious little kid that investigates and never gives up until I find the solutions. The same kid that enjoys being a sponge to learn anything I can, so I’ll be better the next day. The same kid who loves to share knowledge and teach what I’ve learned along the way. To me, life is a little bit more fun when there’s a problem to investigate or a puzzle to solve.

Griffin Furlong published his first book titled Boundless: Choosing a Mindset for Lifelong Growth in August of 2022. For more information on his story, book, and scholarship fund you can visit his website at www.griffinfurlong.com.