Find out what Andrew Happer (BASc ’96) does in his spare time and how leaving BC and moving to Edmonton expanded his career. He is currently a Senior Forensic Engineer and Part-owner at Sintra Engineering Inc.
Can you tell us a little bit about the kind of work that you do?
I’ve been a consulting forensic engineer for the past 20 years. In this role, I manage investigations that require me to technically evaluate the circumstances leading to the cause of motor vehicle collisions, fires and other incidents involving property damage and/or bodily injuries. My clients include insurance companies, independent adjusting firms, lawyers, risk managers, fleet safety officers, governments, and private companies. My specialization is in reconstructing motor vehicle collisions in which I evaluate and analyze vehicle dynamics, vehicle speeds, impact locations, driver responses, evasion potential, visibility issues, mechanical defects, occupant seat belt use, restraint system effectiveness, and other contributing factors. My role has been multi-faceted over the years and, in addition to managing my own investigations, I also assist in managing company operations, developing new business, and planning corporate strategic goals.
What have been the turning points and milestones in your career?
The biggest turning point was in 2001 when I left the small B.C. consulting firm I had started my career with and moved to Alberta to start with Sintra Engineering. I’m still with the same company to this day and, in the past 15 years, I have been continuously challenged as my role has evolved and the company has grown. I was the tenth employee at the time and one of a handful of mechanical engineers working out of our single office in Edmonton. I’m now part-owner of the firm and we have grown to three offices in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver with a multi-disciplined complement of electrical, materials, mechanical and structural engineers. A milestone in my career has been testifying in court as an expert witness. This has been very rewarding and, in my area of practice, is the ultimate opportunity to showcase your work and opine on the aspects of an incident that you have analyzed.
What is a fact about your work that people might find surprising?
I see a lot of blood and can be exposed to biohazardous materials during routine vehicle inspections. As part of a crash investigation, I examine the interiors of involved vehicles. A lot of the time, there is significant crush damage that has resulted in deformation, fractured glass and displaced components. Although the occupants are no longer in the vehicle during my inspection, there can be a lot of evidence remaining from when the occupants interacted with the vehicle interior during the collision. I see skin tissue, blood and hair frequently on vehicle interior surfaces (mostly the windshield). Also, I can be exposed to graphic images taken by the police as they will photograph the scenes of fatal collisions, which can include human remains.
What do you consider your greatest achievement in life so far (personal, professional, or both)?
I’m proud of several volunteer achievements I have made. On the professional side, I chaired the Accident Reconstruction session at the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International Congress in Detroit. More recently, I reactivated the SAE Alberta Section after being dormant for more than 15 years. I am currently the Chair of the Section and we have formed a small board that has organized technical dinner meetings and training throughout Alberta. On the personal side, a few years back, I was President of three boards simultaneously over a two-year period: the parents’ fundraising society at my children’s school, our local community league and an insurance-based fraternal organization. I juggled all of this while married with two growing boys!
What would you do if you weren’t an Engineer… in alternate universe?
I would live a carefree life mixing my two long time hobbies. I would tour the country spending my days skateboarding at various local skate parks and my evenings in the casino with sessions at the poker table. I got my first skateboard during the summer of Expo ’86 and I have been skateboarding since. I still get out whenever I have the opportunity, particularly on family road trips. I have also been playing poker since joining the fraternity in university and continue to play online, in the casino and in poker leagues.
What was your favourite class at UBC, and why?
That was a long time ago…I really have to think back to answer this one. My favourite class was a fourth year elective, Dynamic System Modelling. At the time, I was leaning toward a career in process control and electro-mechanical control systems. I enjoyed this particular course because it drew upon general mechanical and electrical engineering concepts I had already learned and combined it with linear algebra and calculus to model “real world” physical systems.
What do you feel are three habits necessary for highly successful engineers?
I think perseverance is important to ensure success when problem solving. When you encounter a problem and have trouble finding a solution, it’s important not to give up. I find that taking a break and sleeping on it can help rejuvenate your thoughts and provide an opportunity to look at it from a different perspective. It’s also important to talk through problems with peers as they can offer different insight and viewpoints that can lead to a solution.
Networking is a second habit that helps ensure success as you increase your network of contacts. This will provide a healthy resource for mentoring opportunities, learning about your competitors, finding out about better ways of doing things, enhancing your professional development and identifying career opportunities when it’s time for a change.
A third habit is to always be an advocate for yourself. This means to take responsibility for your own actions, give credit where credit is due, stand up for what you believe, and don’t be afraid to take risks.
What was your favourite thing to do on campus as a UBC student?
I got involved on campus and volunteered with various groups. I met many other students that enriched my life and gave me different perspectives. I was a residence floor rep, club executive, newspaper editor, newsletter printer, and a fraternity member. I also volunteered with Class Act (alumni fundraising) and was a student representative on a Faculty of Applied Science computing ad-hoc committee. One of the most entertaining and fun things to do on campus was volunteer as part of the AMS Function Security team, working security for various campus events. One of the highlights was working security for the 1st Annual Arts County Fair at Thunderbird Stadium when the Barenaked Ladies and Spirit of the West performed.
What talent do you most wish you had?
I wish I had the “gift of the gab” to make me entertain the audience with comedic relief during my public speaking engagements as opposed to being structured and to the point as most engineers are.
What are the top three things that you would recommend current engineering students do before they graduate?
I recommend that students try their best to get work experience at a company in an engineering role. This experience will help them understand how to apply what they are learning and make their final year(s) of study more meaningful. It will also give them an edge when looking for permanent employment. Students should keep in mind that they can get this experience through the co-op program or by independently conducting their own search. They should also be willing to volunteer if that is required to get a foot in the door.
I also recommend that students volunteer their time while in school. This will help students gain important skills for succeeding in the workforce. They will learn and understand other people’s perspectives and how to communicate considering different viewpoints. Volunteering can also provide opportunities for business writing, reviewing financials, working in a team environment, committing to a project and working to deadlines.
My final recommendation is for students to keep their options open and try many different courses. This, again, provides the benefit of encountering different perspectives and viewpoints. In addition, it will expose students to different subjects and give them a better idea as to where their interests lie and prepare them more universally for a career along a specific path.