20 to Watch: Women in HVAC - Jessica Miller
P.E., LEED BD+C, mechanical engineer, SmithGroup
Name: Jessica Miller
Title: P.E., LEED BD+C, mechanical engineer, SmithGroup
Educational Experience: Bachelor’s degree, mechanical engineering, fluids and energy concentration, Boston University.
Professional Credentials/Accreditations: P.E. (mechanical engineering, HVAC) and LEED BD+C.
Organizational Affiliations/Achievements/Awards: ASHRAE member, Lean Construction Institute (LCI) New England member, Professional Women in Construction (PWC) member, and Engineering News Record New England’s 2014 Top Young Professionals Award winner.
What caused you to/when did you fall in love with engineering?
Being an engineer isn’t just about an ability to size a pump or select equipment for a certain system. Engineering is learning from every experience, being curious, and problem solving. It is about continuous improvement and getting to the root cause of the problem. Looking back, I’ve always loved digging into a problem to try to understand it and find the appropriate solution for a given circumstance. I get excited about trying something new and outrageous to solve a problem.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of working in the skilled trades?
It’s not just about doing something a certain way because we know it works. I really love getting to the root cause of a problem, working with a team to find creative solutions, and delivering a high-quality product to a client.
Describe the proudest moment in your career.
Passing my P.E. exam. Early in my engineering career, I had people tell me “I didn’t seem like an engineer.” I was incredibly proud to pass that exam on my first try, when I had been told that I didn’t fit the stereotype of what an engineer is. You don’t need your P.E. to be an engineer, but it was a milestone that was very meaningful to me.
What challenges do women face in this profession? Can you give a personal example?
I have been treated differently when I am out in the field. Men will offer to carry a ladder for me or apologize for swearing as soon as they realize a woman is there. I don’t think it’s always a negative thing, but it’s clear that they feel a need to treat me differently. We need to start educating women at a younger age about opportunities in engineering, explain how they can be successful in this profession, and give them training on how to thrive in a world where they might get treated differently. We also have to continue to sponsor and mentor women already in the industry. There is a shortage of women in higher level positions, but I hope that once my generation gets enough experience, there will be a big influx of female leadership.
What does your day-to-day job entail?
I’m collaborating and learning every day. My passions lie in seeking the opportunities to develop new workflows and processes to make our work better and building relationships. I make a conscious effort to try to make at least one improvement to a process each day. One of my goals is to help others learn from my mistakes. I’ve had such great mentors in my past that have helped me in so many ways that I want to be that person for others.
What drives/motivates you every day?
I love reading inspirational fitness books and listening to podcasts. They inspire me to become a better athlete and person. I recently was reading “Gold Rush” by Michael Johnson, and this excerpt resonated with me: “Achieving success and personal glory in athletics has less to do with wins and losses than it does with learning how to prepare yourself so that at the end of the day, whether on the track or in the office, you know that there was nothing more you could have done to reach your ultimate goal.”I’m driven to deliver the best possible product and experience for my clients and coworkers and always asking if there is a better way to do that.
What remains on your engineering bucket list — what do you aspire to do that you haven’t accomplished yet?
I have an ongoing list of career goals, knowing that my end goal will always be shifting. I’ve learned over the years to keep my goals flexible and take advantage of different opportunities as they align with my varying interests. In the short term, I would love to be a lead mechanical engineer for a project. I am learning more about project management so that I can understand whether it would be a possible career path for me. I love the challenge of building relationships with people and pushing a team to work in new ways.
I also want to help implement lean practices throughout my firm and with my clients. Lean practices are a huge passion of mine, and I truly believe they help develop people and create a better end product for our clients.
What’s one thing no one knows about you?
I am adopted from Korea. Sometimes I get asked if I regret being adopted, but if I didn’t go through the challenges and experiences I had, I would not be who I am today. My adoption experience has also inspired me to adopt a child from Korea.
With 10 marathons under my belt already, my dream is to run all six Abbot Major Marathons, with Tokyo being the final one. My fiancé and I would run the marathon, tour Asia, end in Korea, and bring our child home with us.
List any mentors who’ve helped you succeed and describe exactly how they’ve shaped your success.
Nick Votaw, electrical engineering discipline leader in SmithGroup’s Boston office, has been a mentor, sponsor, and a friend ever since I joined the firm after college. He isn’t afraid to tell me how it is and to encourage me to really own who I am. He also got me excited about running, which has become a major part of my life.
Jamie Newton, director of engineering in SmithGroup’s Boston office, believed in me from the start. In the interview process, he saw that I thought differently from others. He says I’m an idealist and when partnered up with some realist counterparts, we can come up with some pretty revolutionary solutions to problems. He has been there to support me in both my successes and failures. He has been a constant leader and role model to me. Without Jamie’s support, I would not have been able to push the envelope with BIM engineering workflows to change the way we work.
Mark Jussaume, office director in SmithGroup’s Boston office, really cares about developing people and helping them grow into their full potential. Mark has helped me find my “superpower” and has been a great resource in helping me build my leadership skills. I really enjoy watching how he interacts with people and the way he asks questions.
Early in our careers, Laura Herbert was my BIM counterpart in architecture. As we both grew, we also became lean leaders together. She was there for me when I made my decision to change my career and work for a fitness startup. She is always there as a support system. She’s a mom of two and killing it at her career. I can’t help but worry that I won’t be able to be the career women I want to be when I have children someday, but she helps me see that although it isn’t easy, it is possible. She is someone I hope to “grow up” to be like.
Kevin Kresser, a senior mechanical engineer in SmithGroup, has been my technical spirit animal and go-to person to learn engineering from. He has spoken up for me when he heard of opportunities for me to grow my engineering skills and exhibits patience and excitement when he teaches me. His realist mindset versus my idealist mindset can clash at times, but, together, we work to create a middle-ground solution that becomes an amazing product.
What advice do you have for prospective female engineers considering entering the field?
You, and only you, are in charge of your future. It may not always go as you plan, but you should learn from every experience and try to see the opportunities you are given. I initially turned down the position at my company as an entry-level engineer because I thought I was moving to Chicago. I ended up staying in Boston and then the job wasn’t available. They decided they needed someone to learn Revit MEP and implement it. I may not have grown my engineering skills as fast as other entry-level engineers, but I had skills that allowed me to get exposure with clients early on, speak at conferences, and get promoted earlier than a typical engineer.
I truly believe life is like a marathon. It is a time investment, and there will be many challenges that you will face, overcome, and learn from. It is all part of getting to the bigger goals. It’s not going to be easy, but if it were easy, everyone would be doing it.