Lisa Howard (Tenbrink), P.E.
California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo
BS BioResource & Agricultural Engineering (BRAE)
Project Engineer, George Cairo Engineering, Inc.
I have been working as an engineer at George Cairo Engineering, Inc (GCE), directly out of finishing my classes at Cal Poly, in March of 2004. It has been a fulfilling and ever changing experience. Being an employee of a smaller private consulting firm, such as GCE, you tend to wear many hats. You are continually pushed to work outside your comfort zone and master new skills. It is the perfect job for engineers who enjoy a good challenge and love change. The advantages of being part of a small company (30 employees) are that I have become very close with my fellow staff. We are like a family and enjoy or time at work together. We share potluck lunches, celebrate holidays, and make our lunch breaks special by trying out the latest restaurants in the area. Our principal engineer/owner, George Cairo, treats us like family, he is understands of the needs of our outside lives and creates a work environment that fosters flexibility, but demands the highest quality work product. It is great environment for students that come from a small department like BRAE, but enjoy big projects, and big challenges. I am provided with problems to solve that incorporate all the skills I learned while at Cal Poly. In short I manage projects that come into our office that are focused on agricultural water and impacts to irrigation districts. Even though it is focused on water, my electrical, mechanical, and civil classes all come together to provide the tools I need. Some days are spent preparing and reviewing engineering drawings in the office, other days are spent out of the office “in the field” as we call it gathering data and discussing options with our clients. I love that my job helps irrigation districts combat the ever expanding urban sprawl and I am able to participate in projects that help protect their water rights and the facilities of irrigation districts in order to provide water to farmers.
I am currently a Project Manager at GCE. I joined GCE just under eight years ago, right from being a student at Cal Poly. My team is responsible for the projects that affect four major irrigation districts in Central Arizona. As the Project Manager I am the client contact or “go to person” when new projects affect these districts. Part of my typical day as a leader and a manager is to help the team to prioritize their tasks, to provide strategy and scope to the project, mentor younger engineers and design staff, and to collaborate across different agencies to reach a goal. I also have to manage the financial side of the project to ensure we stay within our scope, on time, and within budget. I also spend a fair amount of time digging into the details of the technical issues, checking hydraulic calculations, survey data, and applying the “common sense” factor us Cal Poly students are so great at. Another interesting task is working with federal regulation departments and other consulting firms on larger projects. It takes patience, persistence, and excellent relationship skills to work in large groups like these especially on multiyear, federally funded projects. This area of my job is not something you will learn in a class or read about in a book, it takes experience on the job and requires you to be humble yet firm, knowledgeable yet flexible, and persistent yet respectful. It really unites my passion of working with people and my tenacity to get the job done.
When I first graduated, the challenges I faced in this job were not necessarily what I expected. Coming from Cal Poly, and being on the “quarter’s system”, I was very used to a fast paced way of life with high workload demands and rigorous deadlines. I was used to being provided defined “scopes” or problem sets, I knew what to study for, and how to go about getting my work done, fairly independent from my fellow students and professors. This was a good and bad thing. As a new employee I expected to be handed a “problem” that I could go get an answer for and move on to the next problem/project. I expected to be taken seriously from day one and I thought I knew it all. I was not prepared to rely on others (my manager, the client, or outside data) to solve my task at hand. At first I felt frustrated and helpless, but as you grow and mature you realize you need to rely on others and your project is not the only project your firm or company is working on. You learn that there is a lot more to learn after you graduate and you are thankful for all the resources you were exposed to so that you know where to go and who to turn to when you are handed something you never worked on before. Instead, you evaluate the project or problem and remember that you “heard about that somewhere” or maybe recall that someone you graduated with works closely in that line of work and you can call upon them for some information. It is critical to never find yourself saying I can’t do this I have never done this before, or how I am going to get this done “this is not in my job description”. You must embrace the challenge and know your supervisor believes in you enough to give you something different, something you have never done before. Now, eight years later, I look back on my college years and realize the true value from my education came from the wide variety I was exposed to: All different types of solutions and the validity to other peoples outlooks; the ability to search out answers even if you have never done something before and not being scared to learn; the networking and relationships you form while in college are priceless; and the leadership skills I gained being part of clubs and out of school activities might have been by far one of my most important skills I gained.
A typical day in the life of a Project Engineer at GCE is spent at a computer replying to emails, drafting memo’s, reviewing or preparing project plans (engineering drawings), meetings with clients, conference calls with agencies and other firms, preparation of exhibits, coordination with field support (surveyors construction inspectors), and review of financials associated with your projects. It is very similar to the days spent in the library or the computer lab in school; putting together your lab reports, studying for midterms, visiting with your school mates, and every once in a while getting to go out and build something or spend time in the shop working with your hands. The biggest difference is you are no longer sustaining on top ramen, with 5 roommates, having a professor tell you every move to make. You will move on from being a “poor college student” to an independent adult making decisions that are real, that effect the livelihood of others. Your “problem sets” are not just fictitious experiments, the solutions you propose will be implemented in the real world and someone is paying you for the time you spent on the project. They expect your answers to be right all of the time, not just 80% of the time. It is frightening and gratifying all at the same time. You will learn to look at the work different and realize you are capable of more than you ever dreamed.
I have had the privilege of working on many different types of projects. In my first few years out of school I design many pipelines that were replacing open canals. The canals were being replaced because housing developments were coming into areas where land was primarily agricultural use before. The canals were either in an alignment that was not feasible for the planned housing development or road widening, or they were concerned with safety and potential drownings from the open canals. I learned quickly that the water hydraulic background I came with from Cal Poly was outstanding and I was able to think through the design process quickly, however I also learned there is a lot more to putting a set of engineering plans together than the hydraulic grade line. There are details and specifications that we just do not have time to learn about in school. As I proved myself with my pipeline projects I was able to take on larger projects that involved management of my own data (surveys, geotechnical, etc.), contact with the clients, and exposer to financial management. I am now the project lead from our office working on a 110 million dollar, 10 year, multi agency, rehabilitation project on an irrigation district constructed in the early 1900’s. The irrigation district was awarded this large sum of money from the federal government to rehabilitate their system in trade for sending some of their water to an Indian Reservation here in Central Arizona. This project consists of every type of irrigation facility imaginable. From a large dam, nine gate bay headworks, pipelines, open canals, turnouts, check structures, pumps, weirs, flumes, siphons, culverts, headwalls and more. I work am working with the land owners/famers in the area to determine current problem areas, historical land use, and crop patterning. I am in charge of evaluating the 60+delivery points along this main canal, the flow measurement requirements, the land acquisition required to build the facilities, along with the coordination with the federal agencies for the environmental and archeological impacts. It is a project that changes every day and has lots of challenges both on the engineering side and the political side.
The consulting world and jobs like this large rehabilitation project are a perfect fit for me, I love the challenge, I love the work load, and I love the ability to make a difference in the population around me. I take pride in what I do every day and know that the passion I have for my job shines through when a project is built correctly, on time, within budget, and the client says “what did we do before we had… this canal, or structure, or bridge…?”
I will leave you with a challenge: Find what part inside of you brings you joy. Is it working with people? / Is it working alone? Is it only working outside / Or is it a balance between office and field? Is it all about making money or does making a difference make up for less pay? Are you ok working 60 hours a week or is 40+/- your maximum? These are the items you need to ask yourself when looking for a job. With the training you received in the BioResources and Agricultural Engineering Department you can truly do any job, you just need to decide if it provides the LIFE you want. Your job will be such a huge part of your everyday life that it needs to bring you joy and fulfillment, it cannot just be a job otherwise you will not find the success you are destined to have.