During National Engineers Week 2019, Bonnie Lee, VP of Design and Construction at Industrious, discussed her career with The Big Room, including lessons learned and the future of the AEC industry.
When did you know you wanted to become an engineer and what path did you take to make it happen?
During my freshman year at Penn State. I intended to graduate in the architecture department, but found myself in an architectural engineering class, being more drawn to the science of buildings rather than the design aesthetic of buildings. Once I came to that conclusion in my second semester and given the myriad of classes and prerequisites, I quickly realized that I was already behind in being able to complete the course work in five years. So, I enrolled in summer courses and stacked my sophomore year with 20-plus-credit semesters to attempt to catch up. I needed that possibility of not completing in five years and missing the end-of-sophomore-year cutoff to really motivate me to get placement into the architectural engineering department. Failure was not an option. Luckily, I landed the placement and was placed to graduate within five years.
What is your passion — what drives you — as an engineer and what is the most gratifying thing about the work you do every day?
I am most passionate about challenging and uncovering how things can be done in progressive and innovative ways. In the engineering and construction industry, there are formulaic ways to approach everything from schematic design (SD) to design development (DD) to construction document (CD) design processes, to HVAC basis of designs to guidelines to specifications, and even evaluating construction bids of contractors. The design and construction industry is stuck in doing things the way they’ve always done things, and it doesn’t always have to be this way. We can figure out how to stack CDs to start before DDs and we can engage with the building department earlier than our permit submission. Finding ways to do things differently through collaboration and with goal of a better outcome that makes all stakeholders happy is a passion of mine.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned and how has it proven invaluable?
I have always found it successful to treat all stakeholders, no matter if they are clients, vendors, or team members, as clients. Asking what others around me need helps identify issues that would otherwise go unnoticed. As an owner’s rep, I find that contractors and architects who work for me are more receptive to feedback when I ask for it on my own. Partnerships are always best when it is a two-way street.
What advice would you give to students who are considering a career in engineering?
There are opportunities, if you are willing to look beyond normal career paths. I left an innovative design-build contractor to test my skills working at a startup called Tough Mudder. I utilitized my fundamental engineering and construction knowledge to build a team, grow the company and manage designers and contractors to build obstacles that hundreds of thousands of people would eventually enjoy. Though the education and the early experiences in my career were traditional, there are many nontraditional opportunities out there!
What do you wish you’d known before you became an engineer?
To engage in as many industry and social organizations related to my field, starting with college groups. Then, as you start your career, continue to engage in those industry organizations to grow your network and immerse yourself in new ideas. I found that, as I continued to move throughout my career, some of the most valuable advice has come from that network.
In what ways has your field changed since you entered it? In what ways do you anticipate it changing in the future?
The AEC (Architectural, Engineering and Construction) industry has largely remained unchanged with pockets of innovation starting to change how traditional stick built and design-bid-build projects are completed. These traditional models have continued to operate a vast majority of projects I have seen nationally, but there are great pockets of industry innovators who continue to see the benefits of design-build in a lean and collaborative mentality.
As continued labor shortages increase, the demand to do things in a more efficient and less wasteful way will then increase as well. It will, however, take more owners and subcontractors to drive lean construction principles and expose more individuals and companies to innovative ways of thinking.
What has been your most exciting or rewarding project and why?
The most exciting and rewarding project has been the chance to develop and grow the various teams and team members with whom I have worked. Managing and developing team members is often the most gratifying and challenging part of my job. I have continued to keep in touch with my people who have been direct reports of mine over the years, and it is always exciting to hear about how they have continued to grow and develop from some of the foundation they were able to build from my guidance.