What’s it like to be a civil engineer? We sat down with #SCJSeattle’s Susann Babaei, PE to gain some insight into her journey to become a transportation-focused engineer. As a project engineer with 10 years of roadway design experience, she hopes that her thoughts below encourage students to consider careers as civil engineers and possibly even navigate that career path a little more easily.
Is there anything about your engineering journey that you wish younger you had known about?
I wish I had been aware of how many different opportunities there are in the field of transportation engineering. I wish I had spent more time exploring all of them instead of narrowing down on something right of way. I think it’s important for young engineers to keep an open mind and take as many opportunities as they can to explore different paths and types of projects.
Talk about the first project you ever worked on as an engineer. Was it what you expected?
My first project was a bundle of small sidewalk jobs. It wasn’t quite what I expected when I became a roadway engineer, but I really liked it. I got to work on every aspect of the project and go out on frequent site visits. I thought it was a really great way to learn.
What about the first project you took a leadership role in. How was it different from your first project ever and how was it the same? What did you appreciate the most about it?
Ironically it was the same project as the first one I had worked on. After I left my first company, I went to work for another company that interviewed for the same Task Order Contract when it was advertised for the next term. We won, and I worked as the Project Manager on the project. Having had experience working on those projects really helped me lead them. When I had to work plan, I knew exactly how many hours I would need from the engineers working on it. I also knew where I could find efficiencies and help my projects have healthy multipliers. I really enjoyed the opportunity. It taught me a lot and that experience was one of the most important and formative ones in my career.
Did you have anyone to mentor/guide you through the process of becoming an engineer?
My dad is a structural engineer so he was always around to provide guidance. My first boss at my internship, which became my first job out of college, also provided me with career guidance. He introduced me to the American Society of Highway Engineers and helped me win their scholarship. He also provided me with a lot of opportunities as an intern to learn about my chosen field and pick a path to go down.
How did you decide between all the different engineering disciplines?
I always knew I wanted to do civil, but I originally wanted to do environmental. It wasn’t until I got into the coursework that I realized transportation is a lot more interesting to me. I really enjoyed those classes and I had an internship that really helped me decide as well.
What is the most unexpected part of your job?
One pleasant surprise is how much time I get to spend outside. There are site visits at the start of the design phase, during the design phase, and during construction. It’s great! I love getting to step away from my desk and go see the projects in the real world. It’s also a lot more collaborative and social than the stereotype of engineering would suggest.
What’s the best and worst thing about going to college for a degree in civil engineering?
(Note: Susann has a BS in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the University of Virginia)
The first two years were awful. They were purposely trying to weed us out. Once the classes became more focused on our major they became really interesting. The department offered a variety of classes in all of the concentrations and even cross-listed grad school classes for undergrads so we could get more in-depth into the fields we were interested in. I also loved the collaboration in our department. We formed really good study groups and helped each other out. You get to know your classmates really well when you take all of the same classes together.
Being an engineer requires a lot of continuing education. Was it hard to go back to studying again?
The hardest part was studying for the PE. I always knew that this was a hurdle I’d have to jump through. The fact that everyone does it and makes it out ok helps during those difficult months. But other than that, continuing education is kind of fun. I like learning.
A cliche, but what’s your favorite part about being a civil engineer?
The pride of getting to see something I designed after it’s done in the real world. I like driving or walking on something I designed and that feeling of “This is mine. I made this.”