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Have you ever wondered how tall buildings can survive major disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes? We interviewed this structural engineer with more than 30 years experience to find out what goes into making buildings safe, and what it is like dedicating your life's work to designing safe structures.

Q: What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How many years of experience do you have in this field? How would you describe yourself using only three adjectives?

A: I am a structural engineer at a large engineering firm in San Francisco. I have over thirty years of experience in engineering. If I had to describe myself in three adjectives I would choose "diligent," "focused," and "honest."

Q: What’s your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you? If you ever experienced discrimination, how have you responded and what worked best?

A: I am a white male, but I don't feel that has helped me in this profession. Our firm has an award-winning diversity program to attract talented women and minorities, and we judge all of our employees on the quality of their work. Unlike other endeavors, the quality of an engineer's work is evident, and we promote based on a record of success. I have never experienced discrimination, nor have I witnessed it towards any person - male or female, white or minority - at this firm.

Q: How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail? Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?

A: As a structural engineer I am responsible for working with architects to ensure the strength of their buildings. In Northern California, much of my work revolves around seismic regulations; we rigorously test all of our structures to make sure they can withstand a 250-year earthquake event and remain intact. I don't feel there are any misunderstandings about what structural engineers do. It's just like the title says -- we engineer the structure of buildings.

Q: On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What might need to change about your job to unleash your full enthusiasm?

A: I would rate my job satisfaction at a 9. My work is intellectually stimulating, it is stable, and the importance of my work is evident all around me. I love driving around the city and pointing out structures that I have helped design. My job satisfaction was not always that high, but in the last decade my job satisfaction has risen with my added compensation as I approach partner track.

Q: If this job moves your heart – how so? Ever feel like you found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?

A: This job definitely moves my heart. During the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, several of my buildings withstood forces 2-5 times stronger than they were designed to withstand. I was assured by my superiors that those buildings could have killed thousands of people if they had fallen. I'm not a hero, but I felt enormous pride at seeing those buildings still standing. Had I not chosen to do this with my life, how many families would be missing a loved one today?

Q: Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?

A: My path to engineering was not a straight shot. I spent a lot of time traveling after college, and after my adventures were over I returned to graduate school in engineering. Before that I had toyed with the idea of architecture or even being an artist, but my parents saw my talents in science and mathematics and insisted I put them to good use. I'm really glad I did.

Q: How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?

A: I was an intern for my company while I was in graduate school, working on a small stipend over the summers and building relationships with my future colleagues. That's still the way to get into a large engineering firm, so I do not regret taking that approach. I don't even wish I'd gone to graduate school sooner; I needed some time to mature, and when I finally enrolled I was much more focused than if I had not taken the time to travel and have fun.

Q: What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?

A: Engineers try not to learn things the hard way - as mentioned above, people tend to die when we do, but it did take me some trial and error to master building professional relationships with my colleagues. It was hard to work on a team with guys in their fifties when I was only 29, especially in an era when computers were just becoming a huge part of engineering firms.

Q: What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?

A: I learned to take pride in my work. In school all of my knowledge seemed abstract, but in the working world everything I did was meaningful and served some purpose.

Q: What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?

A: We once worked with a Saudi prince who wanted a 12-story glass mausoleum to be buried in. I had to fly to Riyadh to survey the site because the giant sliding doors he wanted built into the ceiling were difficult to build on a sand foundation. The project took three years and $35 million to complete.

Q: Why do you get up and go to work each day? Can you give an example of something that really made you feel good or proud?

A: I really enjoy my work, and even when I'm not working I wish I were. As I'm nearing retirement I'm trying to find ways to keep working because I feel lazy if I'm not. Like I said, I feel good knowing that my work has saved lives in the past.

Q: What kind of challenges do you handle and what makes you want to just quit?

A: Building in Northern California is full of challenges, both natural and man-made. Sometimes the government regulations are frustrating, but I have never wanted to quit. I love engineering too much.

Q: How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance? How?

A: My job is not very stressful. It is complicated, but we work on such large-scale projects that the burden never falls directly on one person over a short period of time. We plan enough that we can avoid those problems. My work-life balance was not great when I was raising my kids, but as they got older I was able to spend more time with my family.

Q: What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?

A: A starting engineer can expect to make $60,000 per year on average. I make well over six figures now. I am paid enough for my duties and experience, and it is certainly enough to live a comfortable life in San Francisco.

Q: How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?

A: I take about three weeks of vacation each year. It is enough for me.

Q: What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?

A: Engineers should ideally have both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in engineering. We hire many Ph.D. graduates as well, although I do not hold a terminal degree.

Q: What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?

A: If someone wanted to start at my age, I would recommend against it. But if a young friend were just starting out, I would recommend finding good internships -- they build the relationships with companies that lead to a good career.

Q: If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?

A: I'll be retired in five years, so while I hope to see my children more often I also fully expect to continue working in some capacity. I just wouldn't feel comfortable sitting on the beach for another twenty years!