I grew up in Austin with two passions that have evolved over my lifetime; the built environment and the German culture. I had, however, one defining characteristic that didn’t seem to jive with what I perceived as a skill required to be an engineer: I loved being around people and talking with them.
When I got to the “Forty Acres” (The University of Texas at Austin campus) as a Civil Engineering major, I convinced myself that studying engineering on its own would lead to fulfilment and a sustainable career, which it absolutely can and does. But I still found myself craving social and artistic stimulation, so I threw myself into student life at The University of Texas at Austin, allowing me to sample all that interested me outside of engineering.
I tried my hand at officer positions in German Club and even started up a folk dancing group and German choir that performed around Austin. I went out for social organizations and honor societies, but nothing gave me the sense of connectedness that I yearned for.
Finally, I turned my attention to the major-specific organization that had been announced in the introductory civil engineering course, the American Society of Civil Engineers. My expectations were metered, anticipating a collective of intelligent but less than engaging students – and I couldn’t have been more wrong. Within the first meeting, I identified several officers and members that, like me, didn’t fit the mold of the engineering stereotype. They were charismatic, talkative, energetic. They were my people.
I immersed myself in ASCE and took on leadership roles to contribute to this organization that I had so quickly fallen in love with. Over the years I served as Concrete Canoe Theme Coordinator, Chapter Manager, Concrete Canoe Co-Captain, and eventually Student Chapter President.
It is directly because of my leadership experience in ASCE that I received a phone call that changed my entire life.
The summer before my final year at UT-Austin and as the incoming ASCE President, an unknown number showed on my phone. The woman who called was recruiting for a manufacturer and direct sales company I had never heard of. Hilty? Hiltie? I had no idea. What did they want with an engineering student? Sure, they made products that were technical and specifically for buildings and infrastructure, but what kind of career path could someone like me have in a sales organization?
Even today, the sales industry conjures images of polyester suit-wearing salesmen pushing customers into bad purchases. Although the people I met from Hilti seemed to be down-to-earth, relatable people, my prejudice against sales roles misled me to believe that a career outside of design would tarnish my reputation as an engineer or would result in pigeon-holing myself into a niche development track and limit my career opportunities.
In all honesty, my judgment was clouded as a 22-year old engineering student. Even through the network of professional industries UT-Austin and ASCE had, as a civil engineering student I felt my degree and skills most strongly correlated with design, construction, or field work. I couldn’t piece together what a German manufacturer of innovative construction products wanted with a Civil Engineering and German double-major student leader from Texas. Fortunately, my closest circle of friends and family helped me see the light, so I gave something vast and unfamiliar a fair shake.
Unlike the internships I held in college – in transportation systems, environmental consulting, and structural design – my first position as a Field Engineer wasn’t in an office. I was entrusted as a fresh 23 year old graduate to self-teach from resources provided to me, manage my time, proactively ask questions of my various mentors and teammates, present technical seminars for design engineers with thirty more years of experience than myself, and make business purchases with a company credit card.
It was intimidating, to say the least. But my experience as a Field Engineer was instrumental to understanding exactly how engineers bring integrity and expertise to influence the built environment from a manufacturer’s position. Across Northwest Texas and Oklahoma, my objective every day was to build a better future, helping practicing engineers design more reliable fastening connections.
As an intern, the greatest part of my workday was swiveling my desk chair away from my workstation and towards my colleagues to discuss the work we were doing. Whether diving into the technical nitty gritty or theorizing better ways to design something to make construction simpler and more reliable on the jobsite, I felt most energized thinking through ideas out loud with collaborators. As a Field Engineer, that was my primary function. But as I developed myself outside of my role my taking on cross-functional projects and learning about the wide variety of roles across Hilti and the world, the horizon of opportunity expanded, and I was eager to try more.
The most challenging task many of us face as engineers is simplifying complex ideas for non-technical audiences. Four years as a Field Engineer and I had finally understood the value of effective communication. In 2018, I took a leap into yet another unfamiliar land where I could better hone my communication skills: marketing – almost as foreign as sales!
Again, I undervalued my abilities as a technical communicator and incorrectly envisioned what marketing to engineers was. And again, I was amazed at the variety of ways my engineering knowledge and problem-solving skills allowed me to contribute. I composed technical articles, developed continuing education for practicing engineers, presented at national industry conferences, and traveled across the United States and Canada to learn from engineers what they needed from the next generation of fastening products.
I was intimidated to be responsible for all of Hilti North America. I didn’t have any experience with seismic design on the West Coast, centuries-old base materials on the East Coast, nor Canadian building codes. But the purpose of an engineering degree isn’t to declare you know everything; it’s a testament to your learning agility and vigor.
Now in my seventh year with Hilti, I’m in my third role as a Product Manager for adhesive anchoring systems. The product line I manage is highly innovated through the scrutiny and precision of German engineering, requiring me to use my degree every single today to contextualize product applications and value. My position may be a part of the marketing division of my company, but I still introduce myself as an engineer when asked what I do. When I’m not considering the technical aspects of a product, I’m focused on communicating value… which is, effectively, engineering with words.
Today, a little wiser than at 22, I can’t imagine a more suitable place for my engineering career. There’s something special about an engineer who can lead; not only can they demonstrate technical competency and integrity in a demanding industry, but also initiative, commitment, and communication skills – all qualities that are imperative to an exceptional problem solver, the backbone of business leadership.
I often meet professionals who exhibit those clear characteristics of an engineering leader: eyes lit up with stimulating conversation, volunteering to join task forces and committees to drive the evolution of outdated standards, or conscientiously taking the perspective of the installer, the owner, or the end user. When I feel it’s appropriate, I extend an open invitation to talk freely about what it’s like to work for a manufacturer in hopes that their curiosity will lead to a discussion. If you ever find yourself intrigued by opportunities on the other side, my proverbial door is always open.
There are a few myths I’d like to dispel about engineering careers in non-traditional paths, like in sales, manufacturing, and marketing:
- I can’t obtain Professional Engineering licensure without design experience and project work.Many prospective recruits I mentor express concern that earning their P.E. license will be hindered without Supplemental Experience Records (SER’s) teeming with project design work. I’m personal proof that the technical facets of an engineering role in marketing or sales is valuable and can qualify your competency as an engineer. One of the more intimidating aspects of my roles has been presenting technical seminars to technical and non-technical audiences alike. That level of engineering knowledge behind preparation, delivery and mastery of a technical seminar shows that not only can you understand and apply a technical concept, but also communicate it so that others may learn and apply it as well.
- Sales organizations are ruthless about hitting sales numbers.
All businesses, design consulting included, do require to bring in a given amount of revenue to sustain salaries, overhead expenses, and operations. Sales is no different. However, manufacturers, especially large multinational organizations, often enjoy a large pool of resources they can leverage to sustain the business, both financially and in human capital. In every role I’ve held, my total compensation was linked to growth and hitting targets – it’s no different or more stressful than managing multiple projects, billable hours, or deadlines. What makes it more of an exciting challenge, from my perspective, is the access to resources and creatively employing them to reach an objective.
- I won’t feel the same level of community with the engineering industry from a sales organization.Remember that large pool of resources I mentioned? That, in addition to the freedom to creatively grow business, allows for huge opportunities to be involved in and influence industry. In my time at Hilti, I have been supported in every aspect of my industry involvement, including as a Younger Member Chair at Branch and Section level, as a panel host for symposia, as a member of National ASCE-SEI committees, as a delegate for various industry events, and as a Judge for the Texas-Mexico Regional student competitions for seven years running.
In conclusion, an engineer’s value isn’t limited to design or field work. My hope is that current engineers looking for a healthy change of pace and future graduates will have greater exposure to and consideration of non-traditional paths. At the end of the day, when I asked what my job is, I still say “engineering”. Being an engineer means you can solve a puzzle without all the pieces, which is exactly what I do at Hilti every day.