Keelin Cox: Hi Sara, thanks for sitting down with me today, I’ve been excited to chat with you about International Women in Engineering Day! I understand that before you became a cost manager you worked as a civil engineer for many years.
Thanks, Keelin. Yes, I started my career in engineering in Iran, where I got my Bachelors of Science in Civil Engineering. From there I worked as a structural designer, helping to design infrastructure projects including water treatment plants, mid-rise buildings and residential spaces, among others.
KC: What made you decide to pursue a career in engineering?
I’ve always enjoyed creating and fixing things and loved math and physics when I was in school, so engineering was a natural extension for me. Growing up in Iran, I was always amazed by the gigantic structures I would see and I’d think, “I want to build something like that one day”. It could be anything: bridges, skyscrapers, even the huge manmade stone structures that have been standing for 2,500 years. The Veresk bridge, built during WWII, and the structures in Persepolis, dating 550 BC, come to mind, as well as the Golestan Palace, in my own hometown. I just always wanted to build.
KC: Is there a certain kind of project that you would like to work on that you haven’t so far?
I’ve always liked bridges. The trouble is we don’t build bridges every day in U.S. or anywhere in the world for that matter. But I’ve always liked the structure of bridges and I’ve had some training on bridge design, but I have never built or designed one myself.
KC: After working in design, how did your career progress and lead you to the planning side of the industry?
As I continued in my career, my interests moved toward the construction side rather than design. I maintained that same desire to build, but wanted to get out in the field and get my hands dirty. So, when I moved to the U.S., I got a master’s in Construction Management and began my career as a cost estimator in New York. Since then, I’ve worked across a range of industries including aviation and healthcare. I joined Faithful+Gould in 2016 and started working on a Corporate Real Estate project, where I remain today.
Despite moving around the industry, I’m happy with my choice to work in civil engineering. That background has been a real asset to my work today. Everything I learned when I was designing allows me to better understand the point of view of the designer and client when I’m working. I understand the necessity of every element of the project, from the very early stages of design to the last bit of construction. Compared to someone without this knowledge and experience, I feel more comfortable working with other project teams, which can be crucial to overall success, particularly with larger projects like the one I am working on now.
KC: Tell me a little about your current project.
As a cost manager, I’m working on a tenant improvement (TI) project for one of our key accounts in Silicon Valley. We’re working to create a space for the employees with the work-life balance that much of Silicon Valley’s work culture is geared toward right now, creating a campus featuring elements that promote a healthy work environment, that includes bike rooms and gyms, rest areas, snack bars, etc., inside an open office concept. This project has been a great opportunity to learn and challenge myself in many ways.
KC: How has it challenged you?
Well for one, it’s quite an interesting project because the design is unlike anything I’ve worked on before. I’ve worked on TI projects in the past, but the scale and scope I’m dealing with today is much more complex than my past work. Secondly, when I came on board in 2016, I was new to Faithful+Gould, new to the team and new to San Francisco. It’s been a personal challenge to work outside my comfort zone, but one that I’ve welcomed as an opportunity to learn.
KC: That’s a great outlook.
I like to think so. That’s why I’ve always loved working in both engineering and construction: my projects are always different. Since I began my career I’ve had the chance to see a wide variety of designs and scopes of work with so many talented and intelligent people who share my passion for building and creating. I am satisfied if I can walk away at the end of the day, knowing that I learned or taught something new. I try to view every challenge as an opportunity to do just that.
KC: What’s been an opportunity to learn, either with this project or in your career overall?
Well, in my career working internationally, I should probably mention the big challenge for every construction manager or engineer who has worked and studied outside of the U.S.: using the Imperial system as opposed to the metric system. I still sometimes intuitively convert units in my head when I’m working. It felt strange at first but it’s gotten much easier over time.
In the U.S., companies are expected to provide equal opportunities for both genders to work but less women pursue education in construction industries so there’s a gap.
In terms of this project specifically, I’ve really been working to increase communication among the various parties. The project is very dynamic with many moving parts and teams to coordinate. In keeping with the current nature of work in Silicon Valley, construction is fast-paced so as a cost manager I’m dealing with a high volume of data every day. Of course, the client is looking to the cost management team to ensure their work can be done at the highest possible quality and optimal cost, so keeping them updated day-to-day is very important. It’s all about teamwork among all of the parties to speed up the project effectively. That’s true of any construction project.
KC: Would you say your background in engineering has been helpful in this regard?
Absolutely. As I’ve said, I can better connect with other teams, due to my understanding of the various areas of the project. Even though right now my responsibilities lie on the cost management end, managing change orders, providing cost management advice, etc., with my understanding of design, I can think like an engineer and consider all possible options to solve any issues as they arise. The perspective that engineering will give you is invaluable, no matter what role you have on a construction project.
KC: Both engineering and construction, at least somewhat stereotypically, have been regarded as male-dominated fields. Have you seen that in your career?
Yes, I have seen that to a certain degree. It is perhaps more prevalent in the country I am from, but we’ve made strides there, as well as in the United States. I think it’s clear, as with any typically male-dominated industry, that we have a long way to go to be on total equal footing but we’re getting there.
KC: As someone who has worked in both countries, how would you compare the issues women face working in this industry?
It’s interesting. In Iran, you can see relatively equal numbers of students of both genders studying engineering, but there is less demand for female engineers in the workplace so many women don’t follow their passion after they finish school. In the U.S., companies are expected to provide equal opportunities for both genders to work but less women pursue education in construction industries so there’s a gap.
KC: How can we combat this?
It has a lot to do with the differing cultures of the two countries, but the common theme is a lack of confidence in women to pursue careers in this industry, which I think is unfortunate given the caliber of talent I’ve seen from women in engineering, and other construction professions.
...women in construction need to be ready to lead with confidence, letting our competency drive our success and allow us to overcome the obstacles we face due to the gender gap.
To move forward, women in construction need to be ready to lead with confidence, letting our competency drive our success and allow us to overcome the obstacles we face due to the gender gap. This is not exclusive to the construction industry, but rather a universal idea. Success is all about maintaining an “I can” attitude, particularly when faced with certain obstacles outside of your control. Having confidence will not only drive personal success but allow women in the industry to lead by example and help to bridge that gap in future generations.
KC: With that in mind, as a woman in engineering, and construction, is there any advice you would give yourself on your first day?
I would say, “Don’t be afraid. You’ve put in the time to get your degree and you have the knowledge you need to be successful. You have the ability to do anything you want, and learn along the way. So, be brave. And just get to work.”