Interview with the Laurentian University 2016 OEC Consulting team

The Laurentian University Bharti School of Engineering 2016 Consulting Team (L-R): Jasmina Omri, Joey Fyfe, Tyler Provencal, Frédérique Bélanger.

The Laurentian University Bharti School of Engineering 2016 Consulting Team (L-R): Jasmina Omri, Joey Fyfe, Tyler Provencal, Frédérique Bélanger.

I had the opportunity to sit down with the four chemical engineering students (Jasmina Omri, Frédérique Bélanger, Tyler Provencal, and Joey Fyfe) who made up the Bharti School of Engineering’s Consulting Engineering team to ask them about their experiences. The group came in first at the 2016 Ontario Engineering Competition (OEC) in Waterloo and then fourth at the 2016 Canadian Engineering Competition (CEC) in Montreal.

For those that might not know what OEC or CEC is, can you explain the nature of the competition?

JO: OEC is a where all Ontario teams come together and compete in various competitions. Consulting, in particular, is where you have to write a report to propose a solution to a given problem and analyze different things such as schedule, economic and technical aspects, and work all together while maintaining the environment and society as an aspect of your report.

How long are you given?

FB: At OEC you are given six hours to complete your report and presentation. They have to be submitted at the same time. Then you have a ten minute presentation behind closed doors. You don’t know what the other teams are doing, you don’t know what their ideas are, or what kind of route they decided to take. So its you and the judges.

JO: You finish your report and presentation at night, around two, and then you could present the next day at eight depending on the schedule.

JF: For OEC we were given six hours, we started at around 8 and then ended somewhere around two. After we ended at two, we submitted our stuff and then we spent a good hour, maybe an hour and half, practising our presentation that night before we had to present the next morning.

So it makes for a very hectic night?

JF: Yes, it was very hectic. You don’t really get much sleep and it’s a little stressful. CEC was better. Because it was scheduled over more days, we didn’t have to do that time crunch that we had for OEC. But it was still stressful.

Can you walk me through the problem that you were given for OEC?

TP: The problem we were given was finding a better way to collect garbage and generate money off of it. There were three options: to charge a collection fee, not charge a fee but make money from it, or a combination of both.

JF: To expand on that, they gave us a very general statement at OEC: “Canada has a large issue with waste generation. We give you three million dollars. Solve this issue.”

A theoretical three million dollars.

JF: Yeah, I wish they gave us three million dollars! My solution would have been to leave!

TP: We were pretty well suited to the problem.

JF: In terms of problems that we could have been given, being chemical engineers, a waste problem was more suited to us. It was a good problem, for us at least.

What was your pitch to the judges?

TP: Collecting rare earth and precious metals from electronic waste, specifically computers and any sort of circuit boards that would have gold or precious metals for conductivity. Gathering those as well, as removing any hazardous materials, but recovering and recycling rare earth metals.

FB: We were also providing people with a service. “Hey, you’re pretty lazy, and you don’t bring your electronics to recycling, so we’ll come get it!”

JF: That was our thing. Because we were only given three million dollars, we decided that we would rather use it as a testing phase to see if it would work. We made this program for e-waste collection in the Waterloo area because that is where the competition was held. We said that we would go around a collect people’s e-waste and see how it goes.

JO: Going really specific on the problem statement allowed us to narrow down our cost, our project scope, and made it easier than tackling every type of waste across Canada.

TP: I think what really contributed to our success was that we spent an hour troubleshooting, coming up with ideas and shooting them down until we found one that was suitable, one that we couldn’t immediately reject. Because that is what the judges are going to do: try to shoot it down right away and find a hole in it. So we found a good course of action and stuck with it.

So you had a very specific type of waste you were targeting. In terms of the proposal, how specific did you get?

FB: Very specific.

JF: In terms of the actual specifics of the proposal, we spent a lot of time researching how much money we could make off of our e-waste, what kind of e-waste it makes sense to collect. E-waste is a big group that considers anything that runs on electricity, so that could include fridges and stuff too. We decided to go with just consumer electronics because they would be the ones that have all the metals that we really want. We researched what we could sell them for. Stuff like that.

TP: We had a pie graph from Stats Can showing how much electronic waste gets produced annually. It wasn’t too much, but then you look at how it is broken down by what they do with it. A large fraction of it gets stored in people’s houses. Hardly anyone re-used it or dropped it off at recycling depots. When was the last time you took your e-waste to the Frobisher [Street] Recycling Depot? Probably not this year. That’s a problem right there.

FB: Our opening statement was: “How many of us have a laptop at home that we don’t use? Or a cell phone that is just laying in a drawer? Or some form of electronic device that, you’ve used, but set aside because you didn’t want to bring it because you only have one piece? `I’m not going to drive all the way out there for one piece.’ ” Then you saw all the judges, and even the people who were keeping time, were all lifting their hands. It was something that you can relate to.

TP: One thing that really worked out in the questioning phase was that, as consultants, we gave them options. You don’t want to say: “You’re doing this or that.” You’ve got to be flexible. So we had two options for facilities: we were either going to one or build one. That was one of their questions: “Is it better to rent or build, particularly if it is a trial period?” We said, “Look at our report we did a full cost analysis and list the pros and cons. If we had more details we could narrow it down to one option and go with it.”

JO: One thing we weren’t limited by at OEC was page length so we went really into depth, where at CEC they put a cap on length. The whole thing had to be within 12 pages so that kind of limited the amount of information we could put. So we really had to narrow down what we want them to know.

TP: All in all, we knew what we were doing when it came to a proposal. I think a lot of the other groups –well, we don’t really know– didn’t touch on a lot of things, like sensitivity analysis. Jasmina was doing a lot of risk analysis and some of the other groups didn’t even say that they did risk analysis.

JF: That was one of the things that the judges were impressed by, that we did a risk analysis of our system.

JO: We can only assume others didn’t because we have no idea, to this day, what they did or what their topic was.

FB: We also spent a lot of time on making sure that the numbers we were using were reasonable, feasible, numbers. You’re looking at it and you say: “Yeah, that make sense.” And you could back it up with the math that goes behind it with your estimations and your assumptions.

So that was OEC, which you won, and then you moved on to CEC. Obviously, it was the same idea but a very different problem. What did you have to do at CEC?

JO: They sent us an email a few weeks before saying that you will have an advantage if you have knowledge on civil engineering, transportation, or logistics. It was very broad. If you have some knowledge in this it will be useful.

JF: And none of us did! [laughter] For CEC, the problem were were given, was that we had to revamp a building in Quebec called —

JO: Centre de Cyclisme Nationale de Bromont

JF: the National Cycling Centre, the velodrome in Bromont. The big thing is it doesn’t have a roof on it and they wanted us to come up with an idea that would enable the velodrome to be used between three to four seasons of the year. Which basically means put a roof on the velodrome. And the other thing was they wanted it to be ready for the 2021 Francophone games. So also, on top of the logistics of the roof, we had to plan the logistics of the 2021 Francophone games. Not necessarily the whole games, but those events that would be occurring at the Centre.

JO: So that is what we understood from the problem statement. But after talking with the directors of the competition they said that everyone interpreted it differently. Some people just tackled the roof and we did the whole thing. It was very vague.

FB: You also had to use multiple activities in order to expand it from cycling.

TP: A multi-sport complex. In the winter we wanted to utilize it, so we put a skating rink or a multi-purpose pad. Our roof –we didn’t have enough money to completely close it– was partially closed. The people that came in first just built a roof and went way over budget. They built a bubble roof, at least from what I know, and that’s what the guy wanted. So they ended up doing really well; they came in first. So appealing to what the judges might want.

So having done this twice, for people who might be interested in doing Consulting next year, what advice to do you have for them in terms of the make-up of a group or the way that you approach a problem?

JF: It’s hard to say because we are four chemical engineers. It might be good to have a consulting group with a variety of different backgrounds. It depends on the problem a lot. For OEC, the problem fit us really well but for CEC it didn’t. So maybe having someone with a background in civil engineering would have helped us–

FB: –we don’t have civil engineering at Laurentian–

JF: –or even mechanical engineering or something more materials-based.

TP: One thing that really benefited us was that we already had our positions decided. When we got into the work Freddy was doing the econ, Jasmina did all the risk analysis and all the fancy looking stuff, Joey made sure our stuff made sense–

JO: –and the writing portion.

TP: This proposal has to look good, because they are not going to have time to read it over. And you have to be able to work efficiently and effectively together. So maybe people that don’t clash, and excel in those areas, might be more successful.

Did you work together a lot beforehand on school projects?

JO: We’ve never been on a group project together, surprisingly.

TP: We spend a lot of time together. We are all in the same area.

JF: The four of us together, probably not. But at some point in time we’ve all been together in different circumstances so we know how to work with each other. I think we know what our strengths are and what everyone else’s strengths are so it definitely helped us to assign roles to people, like Tyler said.

TP: Its very stressful, so maybe they have to be good under pressure. We were all pretty good with presenting –I mean, I don’t watch us present cause you’re kinda in the moment– but your presentations skills have to be there. You’ve got to be able to change and react to the moment.

JF: Like we said, the proposal was a big part of it, but they only have a certain amount of time to read your proposal. We had a 14 page proposal and I guarantee you they didn’t read the whole thing. They only had five or ten minutes. So they basically flip through it, “It looks nice, you have everything that we want…” and then they listen to your presentation. So your presentation is really where you are selling your idea.

JO: What they did was, the people before us, after they presented, they graded them and then had a few minutes and then we came in. And as we were presenting they were going through our report as they’re listening to us. So that kinds helped. So if you really try to stick to your report and have all the key elements in your presentation and focus on that. But also, don’t go too specific in your presentation.

FB: You only have ten minutes and you have to cover everything you have in your proposal.

JO: So keep the introduction and project scope vague so that you can go more into detail. That was our thing. Because you’re half asleep when you are doing the presentation… or, we were.

TP: We used cue cards for ours, subtle cue cards.

JF: They are not going to care if you are checking your cues. Obviously, for good presenting skills, don’t read your cue cards. One of the things that I find that helps me, and one of the things that we did, was that we made the presentation and then we all wrote down exactly what we were going to say. We were reading it off our papers while we were practicing. Then gradually you make your way to those small cue cards and then basically you are memorizing it. By the point you’re presenting it in front of the judges you basically have it memorized and your cue cards are just there in an emergency if you needed something.

FB: Memorize, but at the same time it isn’t–

JO: Robotic. You kinda need to memorize it because when you are that tired certain words, especially in English, so it doesn’t go as fast. [laughter]

FB: That was an issue.

How much time was there for questions?

TP: Five or ten minutes. They asked a lot of questions

FB: At OEC it was less strict. It was strict in terms of how much time you had to present, but the questions went as long as they had questions or as long as they wanted to ask questions.

What sort of things are they asking?

JO: One thing that was a suggestion at OEC, and they noticed it at CEC, was that, in our budget, we didn’t account for how much we were getting paid for the project. So having a technical services fee, or some sort of consulting fee, is something that everyone can add in their budget really easily. Most of the questions were general, technical questions. How is your program going to work? Why do we need an extra yellow bin in front of our door once a month when we already have recycling and compost? It was more that they wanted to know more about our technical solution.

TP: They really questioned our practicality and a bit of our budget, in terms of how money was distributed. They were like, “I don’t want another green bin, this yellow box you’ve got, I don’t want another one of these.” We explained, “No, this isn’t going to be something we come pick up every week. It will only be every so often, especially after influxes of new equipment, like after Christmas.”

JF: One of the things you have to realize is that the judges are not knowledgeable in everything. So we’re presenting and it seemed novel to them because it wasn’t something they had necessarily thought of, so it wasn’t necessarily something that they had background in. They couldn’t really ask us too specific questions. So they asked very general questions about our ideas.

JO: There was one judge who was a business guy. So when we introduced our marketing and advertising plan he really loved it. So I guess it depends what kind of judges you get. At CEC we had a construction judge who loved our schedule and we had a cyclist who really didn’t like our solution or ideas.

So one of the challenges of Consulting is that you don’t get to see the other groups, where in the the Junior or Senior Design you can see their prototypes and how they perform, you can sit in on their presentations. But for consulting presentations are closed. There’s no one else there. No one knows how you did. You don’t know how anyone else did. What do you get in terms of feedback afterward from the judges? Do you get written feedback?

FB: You get written feedback. You get your score sheet back and some jot down a few hints here and there. You can see that sometimes they wrote down something at the beginning of the presentation, because they didn’t like something, but then they scratch it out and put something else because they’ve changed their mind… or we touched on it later.

JO: Something that was really useful for us was at OEC we had the actual rubric that judges were going to have when we were presenting. So we kind of knew what they were looking for in terms of presentation and report. We knew what to focus on. Where at CEC it was very vague. We didn’t know specifically that, say, feasibility is ten points.

FB: You knew what you were being evaluated on.

Was there anything that you learned at OEC, or feedback you received, that you tried to apply at CEC?

JO: The consulting fee. What else did they say? They said we went above and beyond with the risk, with the schedule. I think that is what really set us apart and, compared to other schools, we were specific.

JF: We didn’t get direct feedback from the judges, they didn’t talk to us. But we went up to the judges after we had received our awards and we talked to them about it. That was one of the things they said, that they really liked our project and the team that came second place, because we were the only two teams out of all the universities that chose to narrow down the scope of the project — which was a big thing to them. It made the project more feasible that we were going to be narrowing down to just e-waste as opposed to doing waste in general.

JO: The second place team did construction waste. So I guess choosing something specific helped.

At the competition you have a limited amount of time, can you give me an idea of how you used your six hours?

FB: The first hour was just brainstorming and shooting people down. “No, your idea is stupid. We can’t do that. This doesn’t make sense. Don’t do that.”

Is one of you particularly good at shooting people down? Do you need a really negative person on your team?

JO: Well, we have Tyler! [laughter] He’s very realistic and technical.

TP: If it fundamentally doesn’t make sense you have to speak up. A lot of people were generating ideas but you’ve got to narrow it somehow.

JF: I think one of the things that we noticed at OEC versus CEC is that, at OEC, we spent a lot of time on our proposal. Probably too much time. We spent a lot of time on our proposal and we didn’t spend enough time on our presentation. That was one of the things we tried to fix for CEC. So we did an hour of brainstorming, as we’ve already said, and then we did four –maybe four and a half hours– on the proposal. We only scrambled at the end to do our presentation. It was not really the best way to do it. I think spending a little more time on your presentation would be a good thing. That is one of the things we did try to fix for CEC and we allotted more time for the presentation.

JO: Also, we were surprised when they said the you could bring any materials. For OEC it was the Friday night, and we were at school, we didn’t really have time so we were just going to show up and do it. For CEC we prepared a presentation template with everything. It was easier to piece together. So if you could have a basic template for any kind of problem statement and just fill it in, it saves a lot of time.

FB: We had the same order. This is the order you should present: you introduce, you present the problem, the need, then you go into the specifics of our solution. And then you get into the economics, the marketing, the risk and everything else. So we had the titles already set up and we had found some templates beforehand to get pictures in the background that could fit any sort of theme.

TP: Jasmina prepared some logos for us, and even slogans, because we were billed as consultants. I think they liked that. We were “E-Smart Consulting” and we had a logo that looked professional.

JF: “Technology for the future!”

TP: Having some fun with it too. These people are there all day.

JO: It makes you stand out too.

FB: We also made sure to introduce ourselves when we walked in. We shook hands and said `hi’ to all the judges. Just a brief hello, a smile, and then you set up for your presentation. It just gives it that extra formality and that extra connection.

TP: They see a lot of presentations so you have to stand out.

How do you think this experience has helped you with your schooling or prepared you for the workplace?

FB: I think it opened my eyes to consulting and what it is. I’ve worked with a consulting company but I was doing contract work so I didn’t get into the beginning part with the proposal. We see it in our project management course, in the Request for Proposal, but I didn’t really get involved. But here you really go involved and it was your project to set up and maintain. “This is going to work. This makes sense. Trash this idea and let’s replace it with this one.” Everybody got really involved and that made it feel like you were actually doing something that could be great.

JF: I think it helped me, per se, in working in stressful situations. That was probably the most stressful thing I’ve ever done in my life. You have this time limit. You have to do this presentation. It definitely helped with presentation skills too, I think.

TP: It really helped build your presentations skills, to be able to walk up to someone you don’t know and try to appeal to them and sell your ideas.

JO: Thinking on the spot, too

JF: It can even be an interview skill. They are going to be asking you questions and you have to think about what you are going to answer right away. You have to sell yourself.

TP: Being creative and realistic.

Any other pearls of wisdom that you want to pass along?

FB: If English is not your first language, you are most likely going to forget it under very stressful situations! That was an issue at one point.

JO: You need a team that is really eager and that is wanting to tackle the problem without it being a school assignment. It’s on the weekend. You’re not being graded on it–

FB: Well, technically you are.

JO: It’s not on your transcript. Someone who is going to go out there and do their own work. We went there kind of blinded. We didn’t know what we were getting into, but we were set to go and we wanted it. I think that’s the difference.

JF: Try to have fun with it.

TP: Especially afterwards! [laughter]

Anything else?

JO: Good luck!

FB: Don’t die out there!

JF: Drink lots of coffee!

JO: Bring snacks! Brings snacks and water and food. Cause you’ll need it to stay awake.


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