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Perils of self promotion


Celebrating French achievement is a bit out of fashion right now.

Ellen MacArthur's reply this week to Frenchman Francis Joyon's 'unbeatable' year old solo round the world record was not only an awe-inspiring achievement but a great fl ag-waving opportunity for all this side of the Channel.

Meanwhile, the Six Nation's Rugby tournament is underway.

Following the Scottish rugby team's defeat at the hands of the French last weekend, even the English, even the Welsh, would accept that the Scots deserved more.

Then, there's the 2012 Olympic bid. Cherie Blair is in trouble for bad-mouthing the Paris bid, while, at last, even the ICE - well ICE London region - has come out in favour of the supporting the UK bid over the other contenders.

As the International Olympic Committee begins its inspection tour this week, the bookies still have Paris as the one to beat.

Amid all this we have Michel Virlogeux, civil engineer, bridge designer and 'concepteur'. A talented but modest Frenchman who has been so instrumental on many outstanding structures.

Given the competitive climate described above I fi nd it amusing to hear so many UK engineering professionals wishing that he - a Frenchman - was more forthright about his achievements.

It is fair to say, judging by the continued fl w of letters and emails to this office following our article on Foster's role in the Millau Viaduct, that there remains considerable outrage at our deliberately provocative act of giving him cover space.

I am pleased that we started this debate and I am certain that the engineering profession has much to learn from this Frenchman.

In particular it is reassuring to note that, in contrast to so many in the UK engineering profession, Virlogeux does not down play Sir Norman Foster's role on the Millau Viaduct project. His own view is that he could not have made it the triumph it was without Foster.

'The engineer must not be reduced to the man who does only computations, ' he tells NCE this week. 'But nor must you reduce the architect to someone who just does the finishing touches.

Its something that must be more integrated.' Virlogeux is absolutely clear about how important the relationship between engineer and architect is and that each needs the other to deliver success. He has absolute belief in his engineering yet is not too proud to listen to and accommodate the architect's ideas.

Yet while he says it doesn't bother him that the media focused on the Foster name when reporting Millau, even he accepts that engineers are poor at communication and self-promotion.

Engineers must learn from this example.

However, be warned. Self-promotion is a difficult, time-consuming and dangerous process.

Take Ellen MacArthur's success this week. It was without doubt an outstanding achievement. But round the world sailing is an unlikely sport for global notoriety.

Certainly she demonstrated unbelievable guts, technique and stamina over the 72 day trip to beat the record. But blatant selfpromotion raised the interest and the stakes. As a result success was sweeter, but had she failed-?

MacArthur has at least one thing in common with Virlogeux and the civil engineering profession. Weighing and managing risk is part and parcel of what they do.

Engineers should pursue recognition for their achievements, but they should also beware. Get it right and you get glory. Get it wrong and you risk the opposite.

Antony Oliver is editor of NCE

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