Looking back at my 43-year long engineering career
October 28, 2020
October 28, 2020
An indescribable professional experience, an extraordinary company culture, and the legacy of our essential work
I was fresh out of college in 1977 when I joined a company called Harza Engineering. Little did I know that I was about to embark on a career that would give me amazing professional opportunities and worldwide cultural experiences. Most importantly, my career has allowed me to have a positive influence on the quality of life of millions of people.
What a difference a few decades can make—the business world of 1977 looked quite different. Ashtrays were considered standard supplies issued to all new employees, and manual typewriters were used for all written communication. Environmental protection was not the essential element that it is today regarding our work and the science behind climate change was barely recognized.
The technologies and tools of the engineering trade have changed radically over my career, and the ways in which we provide engineering services and execute projects have followed suit. Through all that time and change, three important aspects about my career stand out: My almost indescribable experience, an extraordinary company culture, and the legacy of our essential work.
My time at Harza Engineering (now Stantec) has been nothing short of amazing. Harza was founded in Chicago, Illinois, in 1920—a full century ago. By 2001, our firm had merged with Montgomery Watson to become MWH, a global design firm that would later be acquired by Stantec in 2016. Together, these companies brought some of the world’s top engineering experts to the same team. And it shows.
So far, I have had the opportunity to work on more than 100 hydropower & dams projects across the US and four continents, including South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. The “mega” projects I outline below built a foundation for my technical development and growth, even at this point in my career. Why? Because I was afforded the time and budget to really dive into all the technical details.
When I first started out, phrases like “brand management,” “corporate vision,” and “mission statements” weren’t around. Yet, everyone in the organization knew and deeply felt that common vision and mission.
Within my first week of working at Harza, I was assigned to the 10,000-megawatt (MW) Guri Hydroelectric project in Venezuela, one of the largest generating complexes in the world. My very next assignment was working on the 3,000-MW Bath County pumped storage project in Virginia, which is still the world’s largest pumped storage project. Soon after, I worked on the Tunnel and Reservoir Project in the greater Chicago area, one of the largest scale public works projects—and it’s still being expanded today! These days, I spend much of my time on the Grand Coulee project, which at 6,800 MW is the largest generating station in North America.
I’ve worked and spent time in 20 countries across the globe for highly diverse clients and corporate cultures. These include US federal agencies, international agencies and utilities, public and municipal utilities, private utilities, independent power producers, and investment agencies and banks. That depth and diversity of experience, combined with exposure to all those cultures, notably broadened my perspectives and my approaches towards work and life. It has made me a more knowledgeable engineer, a better client-focused manager, and, frankly, a more empathetic person.
Fundamental to my experience and growth was the professional culture I have been fortunate to experience. First and foremost, Harza was a professional engineering practice. The culture infused throughout the organization was that we were doing important work for significant clients, and that work required the best of our abilities every single day. Much of that culture has carried through the organizational changes I have experienced, and currently lives in Stantec.
When I first started out, phrases like “brand management,” “corporate vision,” and “mission statements” weren’t around. Yet, everyone in the organization knew and deeply felt that common vision and mission. As a traveling representative for the firm, it became obvious that our Company name meant technical excellence and quality to the clients and industries we served. That provided a personal feedback loop that has served me well. I felt personally obligated to uphold and exhibit the high standards that the Harza name evoked. And the same is true today with Stantec.
Engineers are driven by interesting and challenging technical work that leaves the world a better place. I believe my work with our company has contributed to improving and transforming the quality of life for populations of regions and countries around the world. From providing large-scale, reliable, and low-cost electrical power in Venezuela to ensuring renewable energy capabilities in El Salvador—which provided over half the electricity for the entire country—I look back at the projects and people I’ve worked with in awe.
In the US, my work has also contributed to the energy storage, energy supply, and quality of water in large cities like Chicago, San Diego, and Los Angeles. However, one of the projects most meaningful to me was much smaller scale—a 3.5 MW small hydro project we engineered in the late 1980s. I was the project engineer for a hydro project in a small town in upstate New York with only 600 residents. Ice storms would frequently hit the region, bringing down transmission lines and cutting off power to the town—sometimes for over a week each time! Even worse, cold fronts would immediately follow the storms, dropping temperatures well below zero degrees. Even though this hydro project was not designed for it, we stepped up to the challenge, adjusting the project to provide electricity to the town until the main transmission lines could be restored. Being able to provide light and heat to 600 people under life-threatening circumstances—that’s a great legacy.