These lessons in infrastructure are empowering women and shaping success in the field
By Allison Blake
Working on water and wastewater treatment plant design and construction projects taught me quickly what kinds of skills are required to succeed in a highly technical field. The engineering knowledge is essential, but principles like ownership and communication are just as important.
Understand Your Customers: As a young professional and engineer, you will serve many different customers during your first few years of experience. Your project managers, peers, project disciplines, project team members, manufacturers, and clients will all have varying expectations, goals, and outlooks on a project or task. It’s crucial to understand and adapt to each of these customers.
Working in a field where I’m sometimes the only woman in the room, I have learned the value of getting to know treatment plant operators in order to understand the process from their perspective. Doing this also builds their trust in my work. Understanding the outlooks of the contractor, plant manager, and client stakeholders likewise helps improve the quality of the project and the confidence of your customers. And, of course, your understanding of your role — and why it’s important — is essential to the project success.
Take responsibility: Take ownership of your assignments, however insignificant they may seem at the time, because your approach reflects upon you, your attitude, and your work ethic. One of my first projects included designing a 104” peak flow storage diversion pipe at a wastewater treatment plant. It was not until the project was in construction that I really understood how large a 104” pipe is when you are walking inside of it. Also, find your opportunities to go out in the field and get hands-on experience to see how design elements you are working on fit into the project.
Communicate effectively with individuals and groups: Communication comes in both the form of one-on-one skills with peers and clients, and as informal or formal presentation skills. Failure to communicate can undermine your efforts or add unnecessary complications to a project.
Communicate your schedule, your status with assignments, your upcoming vacation. Also take the time to understand how your peers like to communicate. Do they not respond well to emails — or do they need emails to keep track of a task? Recognize when you’ll need to pick up the phone or have a face-to-face conversation.
To enhance your credibility, develop your presentation skills, whether for a formal presentation, a client meeting or a conference call. Figure out what your filler words are (um, so, like). Don’t just read from the presentation or paper handouts. And practice, practice, practice. Instilling your own confidence builds your presence, your experience and your reputation as a good public speaker.
Project confidence: Practice speaking up to build confidence when voicing your opinions, comments, or ideas on your projects. By making yourself heard, you strengthen your own confidence and demonstrate to others your ability to do the job.
Don’t get caught up in stereotypes about who should be at the table or who is worth listening to. By speaking up on my projects, I’ve developed strong relationships with my team members and clients. I’ve been able to help clarify a conversation, track an action or decision item, or bring up a point that had not been considered during the conversation.
Learn continuously: Each project presents different challenges, and no projects are the same in the lessons they teach. Adapting a mindset to learn continuously equips you to take something from each project that can improve your work on the next one.
I recently became involved in leading asset management projects within plant facilities. This emerging field in water and wastewater treatment and construction facilities is quickly growing, using survey and mapping software to not only help clients track asset locations within their facilities but also to track maintenance of those assets within their work order systems. As plant staff with years of knowledge retire, this new industry helps train new staff on the treatment plant process and enhances the preventative and corrective maintenance within their facilities.
Taking on a new area has allowed me to grow my leadership and project management skills to address developing client needs. In our industry, it’s essential to explore new tools for improving the ways we deliver projects for the communities we serve.
These lessons and skills that I’ve learned over my first years in the water/wastewater industry have been conveyed and reinforced by mentors, leaders, and other women professionals who have shared their guidance and insights with me. Absorbing them and putting them into practice has laid the groundwork for my success.
Allison Blake, PE, is a Project Engineer in the Water Purification and Resource Recovery Group of Freese and Nichols, Inc. She is based in Freese and Nichols’ Dallas, Texas, office. She received her M.S. and B.S. in Environmental Engineering from Southern Methodist University. Empowering Women in Industry named her Emerging Leader of the Year for 2019.