Home Editors' Picks Looking at the big picture: success in engineering

Looking at the big picture: success in engineering

by The 100 Companies

We’ve talked to lots of engineers and lots of leaders whose work supports the profession. From them, we’ve learned volumes about how to achieve success in this demanding and diverse field. From the aerospace industry to energy, cybersecurity and construction, to software development, the U.S. government and even higher education, there’s no shortage of career options that relate to engineering.

The leaders we’ve interviewed all share an enthusiasm for innovation and their boundless creativity is inspiring.

Those common traits got us wondering: What does the big picture reveal when we look at their careers and choices? Here’s what we found.

What drives people to take that first step on the engineering path, and where can it lead?

Vice President of Portland-based Hoffman Construction Company Brenda Alexander, like many engineers, is carrying on a family tradition. She said: “I grew up in a construction family. Early on, my father would share stories and sometimes take me on tours of the construction sites that he was working on. I started college with a desire to be an architect, but as my exposure to the engineering field expanded, I realized that I was more interested in how the building was constructed than the visual aesthetics of the building. I was able to complete an internship for a large general contractor, and this is where I learned that there was a degree in construction engineering management. This was a natural fit for me. I am a planner at heart, and I love to lead project teams. My background in architecture has enhanced my ability to work collaboratively with my clients and their design teams.”

One example of engineering in unexpected places comes to us from the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and Assistant Director for the Countermeasures Directorate of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. John Fitzsimmons is the Department’s senior-most engineer, responsible for all technical security and countermeasures programs. He told us: “When I graduated from college in 1985, my hometown of Minneapolis was experiencing a severe downturn in one of its prime industries — mainframe computers. Univac, Honeywell, Control Data and others were laying off engineers, and the prospects locally were not good. My parents were avid international travelers, and I had a desire for adventure coupled with an interest in radio technology. This led me to apply for the security engineering officer position when I saw the State Department’s ‘Help Wanted’ ad in the Washington Post in 1986. After traveling to Kansas City for the examination and countless delays, I finally began my career at the Department in September 1988. Every day since has been great, and I honestly cannot think of a more challenging, interesting and rewarding career as an engineer. I’m grateful now for all of those rejected resumes I sent out locally!”

Bristow Vice President of Health, Safety, and Environment James Stottlemyer talked about how 

starting his career as a U.S. Army company commander and helicopter maintenance test pilot informs his commitment to safety today. He shared this: “We all work safely for different reasons. My personal, ‘why,’ or reason I work safely, has not changed throughout my career but has only been reinforced by my experiences and the opportunities I have been given. My faith and family have continually served as the source of motivation to keep me working safely and drives my decision-making and actions.

“I credit my military service with helping me to identify two passions that I potentially would have never discovered: a passion for helping others overcome challenges and a passion for aviation. These are my professional ‘why.’ On my second deployment as a commander, I was asked to lead a unit whose motto was ‘The Misfits: You don’t want us, till you need us.’ Over the next 18 months, my leadership team, comprising some of the best non-commissioned officers I have ever worked with, helped the team achieve progressive small victories – from personal achievements with family relationships, finance or fitness, to professional achievements by completing new and complex tasks and challenging training scenarios. These small wins built momentum and excitement allowing for an individual and collective sense of pride. By the time our unit deployed we were no longer the ‘Misfits’ but instead had transformed into the resilient and tenacious ‘honey badgers’ because ‘honey badgers don’t care,’ a motto that reflected our willingness to accept and excel at all tasks. The past year has shown the power and importance of individual and corporate resiliency.

“Becoming a maintenance test pilot (MTP) for the U.S. Army, my own personal challenge, served as a capstone to my personal career as a pilot, and I feel was achieved by committing to taking challenges head-on, demanding personal excellence, and not limiting my own potential.”

How do ethics and diversity, equity and inclusion fit into engineering?

Lockheed Martin’s Senior Vice President for Ethics and Enterprise Assurance Leo S. Mackay, Jr. talked about the importance of ethics for aspiring engineers and how Lockheed Martin reaches engineering students: “Engineering students are often focused on the technical aspects of their career. They may not be introduced to the complex business decisions or full scope of problems they will face once on the job. We want engineering and business students to start thinking about the ethical implications of their decisions before they are faced with real-life situations that challenge their integrity and put their work, end-users, or society at risk.

“Lockheed Martin’s Ethics in Engineering Case Competition allows undergraduate students to explore different ethical situations that they might encounter in the complex world of technology. The competition also teaches them the importance of voicing their values. This year, teams from 21 colleges and universities participated. They were asked to assume the role of a fictitious consulting firm hired to provide a plan of action to a business struggling with some difficult decisions. Their case revolved around artificial intelligence – a hot button topic in ethics today.”

Diversity is a persistent challenge across engineering disciplines and industries, but nowhere is the challenge more prominent than in tech. Years after tech giants promised to solve their diversity problems, there have been only incremental signs of progress for women and people of color.

Masha Sedova, co-founder and president of Elevate Security, is among the women in tech tackling diversity head-on. She told us this about making the business case for more diversity among company founders: “I think about this question with three dimensions. First, studies have shown that women make more calculated risk decisions than men and lead to better outcomes. So diverse founding teams have better returns. Second, diversity in company founders means you can attract a wider pool of talent who are attracted to people like them in leadership positions. Great talent on a cohesive team can tackle the toughest of problems. Lastly, whether you build for consumer or enterprise, building with diversity in mind ensures a wider adoption of your products across a larger population. The more diversity you have in the team building the products, the more thoughtful you’ll be in your design.”

Rohini Anand, former SVP and global chief diversity officer for Sodexo Group turned DEI consultant helps break down what diversity, equity and inclusion mean in business. She explained it this way: “The simplest way I can describe this is that diversity is a fact – it is a given and what makes us unique. It is the mix.

“Equity is creating a level playing field. Ensuring you have initiatives to create a level playing field for everyone to succeed and contribute fully to the organization’s outcomes.

“Inclusion is making the mix work, and that is a choice. A choice to create a culture where everyone can succeed and belong. Just having the mix is not enough; you also have to have an environment that embraces the mix and allows the combination to work toward the outcomes of the business. Diversity + equity = inclusion.”

– Katherine Brennecke, The Engineering 100

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