Last week I attended the 11th annual ASCE Younger Member CEO forum at Columbia University in New York City. The topic for the evening was: Selecting an Engineering Company: Does Size Matter? There was a panel consisting of high-level executives from some of the largest companies in the world as well as some smaller engineering companies. The panel included: Jack Buchsbaum, Assistant Chief engineer at the Port Authority of NY/NJ (PANYNJ), Neal Forshner. Sr. Vice President at AECOM, Neil Lucy, Senior Vice President at Parsons Brinckerhoff, Joseph Tortorella, Vice President at Robert Silman Associates, and Theodore von Rosenvinge, President at GeoDesign.
The president of the lower Hudson Valley ASCE Chase De Rose started out the night by stressing the importance of finding a mentor in your engineering career. In fact, the word mentor seemed to be a recurring theme throughout the evening in the panel members’ responses. Once the panel began, younger engineers had the opportunity to ask these executives questions about working in big or small engineering companies. Deciding between a big or small engineering company can be a critical decision in your engineering career development.
One engineer asked the executives to give their opinion on how much harder it may be to stand out in a larger company. Most of the panel members responded by saying it was up to the individual to engineer their own success in their career. They’re general response was that regardless of the size of the firm, it’s your career and it’s up to you to take ownership of it and develop it. They did not think that the size of the firm would greatly affect how much you stood out. In fact, some of the executives of the larger companies even said that it might be easier to stand out at a larger company because of the magnitude of the projects that you’re going to work on. This makes sense because while at a smaller engineering company, you may work on a project that’s the biggest project that company has ever seen, however at a larger company you may work on a revolutionary project that may be one of the biggest in the world. In both cases you have a great opportunity to stand out and build a strong reputation in the engineering industry.
When asked how they decided between a smaller or larger engineering firm in their engineering career, many of them said that they didn’t select, they just let their career path take them to whatever opportunity felt right. A few of them said they fell into their opportunities. Jack from the PANYNJ said that in most instances he left a job after being called by a headhunter who was looking for his specific skill set. This point prompted the panelists to remind the audience that having expertise in a very specific niche can really help your development tremendously and open up a lot of doors for you. Continuing along the lines of the job selection topic, Jack also talked specifically about his interview with the PANYNJ a few years ago. Jack interviewed with the PANYNJ for a chief engineer position to oversee the 86 electrical engineers in their department. Jack was shocked that they were hiring someone to manage their 86 electrical engineers rather than promoting one of the 86. However, the interviewer told Jack that they had 86 good engineers but they needed a leader. This response coupled with some other responses made it very clear that your leadership abilities will go a very long way in opening up opportunities for you in your engineering career.
Culture was also another big topic of the evening regardless of the size of the companies. All of the executives preached about how much attention they pay to the culture of their company whether it was Ted from Geo Design a firm with 30 employees or Neil from AECOM with 48,000 employees. Neil discussed the challenge AECOM faced when merging the cultures of 26 different engineering companies that AECOM purchased over the past few years. They all summed it up by saying that when you’re looking for a company, you should definitely investigate the culture of the company. I found it interesting that Mr. Tortorella said that he now spends 90% of his time going from office to office ensuring that there’s a good culture throughout his company.
Ted, founder of Geo Design talked briefly about his decision to start his own engineering company. He talked about how your risk tolerance must be extremely high when starting an engineering company in this economy. I thought it was interesting that he talked about how your tolerance for risk in your career will have a big impact on the decisions you will make. I thought that his mention of risk tolerance was an interesting point that I had never before heard discussed in regards to engineering career development.
Overall, I thought it was a great event and I took a lot out of it and hopefully you can take something out of this summary and use it in your engineering career!
To your success,
Anthony Fasano, PE, LEED AP
Engineering Management Institute
Author of Engineer Your Own Success