Tiffany Ann Clute is a 27-year-old licensed electrical engineer. She has been an electrical designer and project manager at Sparling, a Seattle-based electrical engineering and technology consulting firm, for five and a half years.
Check out a structure that Tiffany is working on: the United States Courthouse, Seattle, Washington
What kind of projects are you working on right now?
What is your involvement with the project?
What does that entail in terms of your responsibilities?
What is your involvement as an electrical engineer, in particular?
Since this building is so tall (about 427 feet tall ... equivalent to the length of almost one and a half football fields!) we use equipment called bus risers, which distribute power through the core of the building, from the basement to the roof. The bus risers are essentially very large beams of conductive copper metal, which conduct current from end to end. Conceptually, this is similar to when you use a straw in your drink: it gets something from the bottom of your drinking glass into your mouth. Using this example in terms of building construction, the drinking glass would represent the building, your mouth would be the roof, and the straw would be the bus riser. However, instead of using suction, like with a straw, the riser exercises a concept called electrical conductivity -- which is only a fancy term for material that can transfer or "draw" an electrical current from one end to another. If you've ever stuck your finger in an electrical outlet -- and I don't recommend that you try it -- you will quickly learn first-hand (no pun intended) the concept of "conductivity."
Electrical connections are made to this bus on each floor and distributed to what are called "electrical rooms," which house the panel boards. The panel boards are similar to what you might find in your own home, and contain devices called "circuit breakers." The circuit breakers are the "safety switch" that will protect the building in the case of a power overload.
I also meet with the client to discuss how they plan to use all the rooms in the building, to help me determine what kind of power outlets (called "receptacles"), data ports, or other "special" electrical connections are required in each place. Sometimes there is special equipment, such as x-ray machines and metal detectors, that requires something other than a receptacle to plug into, or requires a connection to the emergency power system.
Are there special challenges you face in doing this work on a 20-story building?
Coordination of space for our gear, with the architect and other consultants, is a challenge common to all high-rise buildings, not just courthouses. Much of the gear we use to distribute power is physically very large and requires adequate space. The architect must be aware of these requirements so that room can be designed for electrical equipment only.
Coordination among disciplines (mechanical engineer, structural engineer, electrical engineer, lighting designer, and architect) is another large challenge for a building this tall. Teamwork is the essential ingredient in a successful building design. Before the building even begins construction, as a team, the routing of every duct, structural beam, light fixture, and conduit run must be coordinated to ensure that they do not run into each other, that there is enough space above the ceiling or below the floor for them to go, that conduits and mechanical duct work do not intersect large structural bracing components, etc.
What's a typical day like for you?
I work right in downtown Seattle. I live downtown as well, which allows me to conveniently walk to work. First thing in the morning, I will check my e-mail and voice mail, respond to any issues that need my immediate attention, and finish any tasks from the night before in order to meet any deadlines.
Depending on the week, I may have a meeting, or perhaps an appointment to observe progress at a construction site. With three to four projects running all at the same time, my focus constantly shifts to the next task with the most immediate deadline. This is similar to being in school, where you have many different classes or subjects you are studying at the same time. Some classes have deadlines sooner than others. The challenge is yours to prioritize your time and determine when you need to start each task to meet your deadlines.
I spend a great deal of my day on the phone with clients, vendors, and other engineers, mostly to gather or share information. My job is completely dependent on learning to effectively communicate with other people.
I also spend a great deal of my time designing -- that is, putting my ideas onto paper. After many drafts, that idea eventually evolves into a real, three-dimensional building. I may either draw these ideas onto paper, which gets sent to the drafters to commit to "AutoCAD" -- I'll explain this in a minute -- or I may just put it into AutoCAD myself. When I was younger, I used to hate to have to write multiple drafts of papers. Working in this field, I now realize that your "masterpiece" can never be complete the first time around; there are always oversights or better ideas that you don't come up with initially.
As I mentioned before, the ideas that go onto paper to serve as the contractor's "road map" on how to build the building are called construction documents. A long time ago, these were drawn by hand. That was an extremely time-consuming way of doing things, especially if you had to make a change! Can you imagine having to redraw something you've worked so hard on, each time there is a revision?
Now, with the help of computers and modern technology, our construction documents are generated by computer, with the help of computer-automated design programs. The program most typically used in this industry is called "AutoCAD." This is a very powerful tool that allows us to make changes very quickly and be much more precise in our design.
I also make every effort to go to the gym and exercise during my lunch hour. The company I work for allows me the flexibility to move my schedule around as I need to.
What do you like most about your work?
I like the fact that I'm being paid to think and can apply my experience and knowledge to a real-life problem. I'd much rather do that than be out selling something. I like to mentally manipulate ideas and possibilities in my head, then watch as they evolve into a real building that will remain part of our skyline for a long time. What a sense of accomplishment! I feel honored to have played a major role in the design of one of downtown Seattle's most beautiful skyscrapers, and have done it by the age of 27!
I also love having a job that allows me to integrate my affinity for math and science with my fascination for meeting people. Consultants are the more "social bunch" of the engineers in industry. I get to meet so many different kinds of people in my job, and find it exciting to know that I can learn something from every single one of them.
I enjoy the challenge of trying to customize my communication techniques to each person I work with. Most of my job is communicating with people to share information and to work together. A lot of mistakes can be avoided (in engineering as well as in life) if you only take the time to listen to what other people have to say.
What's a project you've really loved working on?
How did you get into your field? When did you know you wanted to be an engineer?
Did you have any role models in engineering? Are there engineers in your family?
As the first engineer in my family, I was sort of forging my own path. My parents were always my "cheerleading squad" and helped teach me to believe in myself. They were there every step of the way to encourage me, and I knew that if they believed I could do it, I could. I don't think I could have made it through school without their support.
My professors were also quite inspirational to me as well. They were brilliant, with the imagination and passion necessary to educate people. Because Gonzaga is a private Jesuit (Catholic) university, it afforded me the one-on-one interaction with the professors that I wouldn't have had at a larger public school. Most of my professors had a Ph.D. in engineering, math, or physics -- which, after working as hard as I did in engineering school, I have come to highly respect. And, with this closer relationship, I was able to get to know them as people instead of just as professors. I got to know their personalities really well and believe I gained an intense passion for my field because of them. It was nothing short of an honor to have been taught by people of that caliber.
Do you run into many other women engineers?
However, I am constantly encouraging younger women to get into engineering. Just because it has been a male-dominated field in the past doesn't mean that it always has to be. The girls can learn math and science just as well as the guys! But, in my opinion, we always need a balance of men and women in our industry. When you have only one gender working in a field, whether it be women or men, the skill set tends to be somewhat lopsided. Women have skills that men don't have and vice versa. These skills tend to complement each other and, in effect, create a more vibrant and dynamic work environment.
What kind of stuff you like to do in your free time?
What advice would you have for someone considering a career in engineering?
As cliché as it sounds, I truly believe that you can do anything that you want to. If you have the passion to do or learn something, you will; you just might have to work harder at it than other people if it is something that does not come "naturally" to you.
For example, even if math doesn't come easy to you or science is difficult for you, it may just be that it hasn't been taught to you in the right way, in the way that you understand it. It is up to you to learn your own learning style, and seek out ways and tools to help you accomplish your goal. Your parents and teachers can be an invaluable resource for suggestions and techniques to try.
And, most importantly, don't be shy! If you don't understand something, ask questions! There is never a dumb question, regardless of how "dumb" you might feel asking it. How else can you move on when you don't understand the fundamentals? Don't ever be ashamed to ask for clarification when you don't understand something; not understanding a concept does not make you "stupid" or "slow." You are in school for you, and only you, and the people who miss out are the ones who don't ask when they know they don't understand. The smartest folks are the ones who know themselves well enough to know that "the more you know, the more you realize that which you do not know"!
If you choose to go into engineering, however, be aware that you are going to work very hard in school. This is not a degree that most people can get through while on "cruise control." You will oftentimes be studying when your other non-engineering friends are out having a good time. You will still find time for plenty of fun; you just might have to concentrate your fun into less time than other people! Gaining experience through internships is also extremely valuable to both you and your future employer, as it affords you the opportunity to get a realistic view of what engineering work really is, as well as valuable hands-on experience in the work force.
For me, the benefits I've received as an engineer have far exceeded what I gave up when I was in school. I had two employment offers before I even graduated, when many of my non-engineering friends had no clue what they were going to do! Plus, there is great demand for engineers right now, so finding a job -- and more importantly, keeping it -- is relatively easy to do. This is not necessarily the case for other degrees which might not be as specialized.
However, my biggest piece of advice is find a career that you love and that you're passionate about; because you spend so much of your life at your job, you can quickly find yourself feeling utterly unrewarded if it is not something which interests you. If you work at a job that you don't enjoy, you'll watch the clock instead of jumping into your work and having fun.
But it is also very important to look to the future when selecting your career path. Think about "What do I plan on doing with this degree?" If you can't answer that question, perhaps you should think about your choice some more. Although I think it's important to have passion about what you do, it is also important to be realistic in determining if that career can financially support you -- and someday, your family -- in the lifestyle you would like to live. I've found a lot of personal freedom in knowing that I can financially support myself, without the help of anybody. It gives me so many more options in life, because I make my decisions out of "want" rather than "need."
Degrees are only stepping stones to other things, and do not ensure you will have a job one way or the other; that is completely up to you and how you choose to put your education and talent to work.