John DeBell, P.E.
President of Burgess & Niple Inc.
NSPE Member Since: 1961
When did you know that you wanted to be an engineer? During high school, I worked several summers on construction and got an interest in seeing things built. My last summer, I worked on a survey crew for a civil engineering firm. Being good in math and science and liking my work experience influenced me towards an engineering career
What is your favorite book? I don't know if I have one favorite book. I like American history and tend to read many books about it. Several recently read include David McCullough's 1776 and John Adams, Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamiliton, and Gordon Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution. Being the fourth great-grandson of Declaration of Independence signer Richard Henry Lee, I've read a lot about the Lees of Virginia.
When did you get your PE license? 1975.
What is your proudest engineering accomplishment? Starting my own consulting firm at the age of 28 with my partner Paul Bengtson, P.E., watching it grow and prosper, and managing all the ups and downs of the business.
Who was your biggest professional role model? There have been several along the way. Initially it was Paul Bengtson, P.E. He gave me my first job, mentored me for four years, and then we became business partners for many years. Former NSPE Treasurer Louis Guy, P.E., and former NSPE President Bob Gibson, P.E., were also great role models and mentors who got me deeply involved in NSPE and helped me up through the ranks, from chapter to state to national leadership positions.
What do you think about changes over the years in the requirements for becoming a licensed engineer? I don't think we've made progress, unfortunately. The fact that we have to get a license in each state to practice is a waste of time, energy, and money. We need a license to practice globally, and we can't even get one to practice on a national level. The continuing education requirements have grown, but I don't think they really do anything for the profession because of all the documentation along with it. No engineer is going to be successful without a lifetime of learning. I don't think it needs to be legislated.
The National Academy of Engineering has produced a list of its top 20 engineering achievements of the century. What would you say was the top engineering achievement of your lifetime? Certainly the development of the computer has changed the world. I started out using the slide rule. To go from that level of technology to where we are today is truly amazing.
If you had an opportunity to speak to a room full of young engineers, what advice would you give them? I would advise them to co-op or work as interns early on, so they could decide if they truly liked the profession. I would let them know how rewarding the profession has been to me. And, I would encourage them to get involved early and stay involved in professional associations like NSPE and ASCE to develop leadership skills, communication skills, and to begin to network.
If you had it to do all over again, what would you change? Really nothing major. My career in engineering has really provided everything important to me in life. On second thought, let's get rid of recessions!