Exchanging expert hats: An interview with Jeong Seong-ung

In his 2008 book “Outliers,” author Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that 10,000 hours of practice in any area of expertise is the “magical number of greatness” that will turn a novice in a field into an expert. In this rule, what’s more important than just the number “10,000” is that in order to gain mastery of something it’s necessary to invest a lot of time and effort over a sustained period. Given that, it’s not easy to be an expert in two fields or to change from one field to another.

Jeong Seong-ung, leader of the Mechanical and Electrical (M&E) team on the Petronas Podium construction site in Malaysia, is one such rare case who has traded in his design expert’s hat for a construction worker’s helmet.

Striving to become a near-perfect technician

For eleven years, Jeong Seong-ung worked at an architectural firm in facilities design. But when he visited construction sites, he found that what was needed to overcome obstacles was not design theory, but an accumulation of construction experience. He realized his lack of on-site expertise and wanted to improve things.

And so, ten years ago, Jeong Seong-ung joined Samsung C&T Engineering and Construction (E&C) Group, challenging himself to do better. Explaining this transition, he said, “I always thought of myself as a semi-technician who knew only design. I thought that if I could harmonize design knowledge with construction experience, I would be more complete.”

An opportunity presented itself on the site of Singapore’s UIC Project: there was an opening in facilities construction management. At the suggestion of the site manager, and with the promised support of the experienced leader of the electrical team, Jeong boldly threw himself into the world of construction.

Currently, Jeong is in Kuala Lumpur as leader of the M&E team for Samsung C&T E&C Group on the site of the construction of Petronas Podium.

From drawing up the blueprints to building maintenance, this project utilizes building information modeling (BIM), famously put to use in the construction of Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul. Globally, the application of BIM in construction is still in its infancy, but the trend is growing. As a pioneer, Jeong Seong-ung is convinced that this experience builds not only his own capacity in this area, but that of the company as a whole.

Challenge after challenge, and the effort needed to master them

To transform from a design expert into a construction expert, Jeong Seong-ung has continuously worked hard. For example, he has made data, designs and plans easy for the client to understand, which required constant practice at giving presentations. This helped him overcome communication problems with the client and obtain special approval for several suggested designs. To accumulate as much knowhow as possible, he asked questions of colleagues, asked partner firms for reference materials, and studied examples from other worksites. All this enabled Jeong to make up for his lack of on-site work experience and put down roots in the field of construction.

Describing that initial period, Jeong Seong-ung reflects, “In the beginning, I thought about how to look ahead at what will happen at least a week in advance. So I got the partner firms to give me a three-month work schedule, reviewed it and compared what was needed for things to go smoothly. It was clear that we were really short on time.”

Now, as M&E team leader, Jeong Seong-ung is carrying out the joint tasks of operations and management. With this experience as an expert in two work areas, Jeong’s mind is constantly racing, looking for the best solutions to challenges that the construction world throws at him.

A leader who stresses fundamentals and principles

Even after ten years, Jeong Seong-ung sees the value in putting emphasis on fundamentals and principles. He explains, “In a construction site where various tasks are going on at the same time, cooperation is essential and smooth communication is crucial.”

Jeong stresses a mindset of being fully familiar with a project’s blueprint and keeping promises because this will generate trust and make his team stronger internally.

It is thanks to colleagues’ help and support that Jeong Seong-ung has been able to reach where he is today, he explains. As an example, he cites the Singapore UIC site manager, who taught the truth that problems can be solved when everyone communicates openly and sincerely, as well as the leader of the electrical team on that same project who supported him practically and mentally when Jeong was still new to the on-site world.

He explains, “When I had just started construction, the leader of the electrical team encouraged me, saying let’s do this together, and you can do it,” adding, “I experienced lots of trial and error in the beginning, but I’m able to stand here today because my colleagues waited for me, helped me and believed in me.”

After a decade of pushing himself to master a new field, Jeong Seong-ung explains, “The sense of achievement that you feel from a process where you’re doing something that looks hard to accomplish or trying something for the first time is what keeps me in the game. When I’m standing on a construction site admiring a great result achieved only after passing through various tough stages and after a lot of sweat and hard work, and feeling a kind of happiness that’s not easy to express, I think at last I have become one of the on-site team.”

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