Name: Barbara H. McCrary

Title: President, HHB Engineers P.C.

Age: 40

Educational Experience: Bachelor and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering, University of Alabama

Professional Credentials/Accreditations: Professional Engineer (P.E.) and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Accredited Professional (AP) Building Design + Construction (BD+C)

Organizational Affiliations/Achievements/Awards: Member of ASHRAE, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE), and National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). 2020 Engineer of the Year, Engineering Council of Birmingham; 2016 University of Alabama Mechanical Engineering Distinguished Fellow; 2013 Young Engineer of the Year, Birmingham ASHRAE Chapter; 2006 Willis Carrier Award Winner from the 2006 ASHRAE Winter Meeting; and Best Poster Presentation at the 2006 ASHRAE Winter Meeting

What caused you to/when did you fall in love with engineering?

My first direct experience with engineering came at Space Camp in Huntsville Alabama. I always enjoyed all things outer space and was able to attend the camp while I was in middle school and loved it. We all had roles assigned to us to simulate a shuttle launch, and I asked to be the person who “pressed the most buttons.” I went back a second time the next summer because I enjoyed it so much. Following that, I was recruited to our eighth-grade Science Olympiad team by the coach, Mrs. Covington. I naturally gravitated toward the challenge called Mission Possible, which was 100% engineering. Participants design, build, test, and document a Rube Goldberg-like device that completes required actions throughout the “course.” Our task was to put a golf ball on a tee. Throughout the course, the ball had to initiate a set of actions: electrical, mechanical, chemical, etc., with points assigned to each. This contest was a lot of fun and also opened my eyes as to some of the applications engineering can have. I became sure that engineering was going to be my career path after participating in that event. We won first place in our regional and state competition. Our team, as a whole, got first place at state, and we advanced to nationals — allowing me to go even deeper into the field at a young age.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of working in the skilled trades?

Oftentimes, I really feel like I make a difference in what I do. In building design, our project timeline from start of design to construction completion is generally fairly short — often a year or less for most projects. I enjoy getting to see the entire process that starts with a blank piece of paper grow into to a finished product. Coupled with that, I find my ability to make impactful decisions along the way very rewarding, particularly when it comes to energy use and energy efficiency in a design. Even when it’s not mandated or has a specific set goal by the owner, I enjoy trying to find ways to reduce the overall energy use in a system. Buildings use a tremendous amount of the energy in this country and globally, contributing to global warming and other detrimental environmental impacts. It feels good knowing I’m making an impact in helping to curb that in ways that are good for clients and our planet.

Describe the proudest moment in your career.

I was very proud to be selected to work on the recent renovation of Bryant Denny Stadium for the University of Alabama football team. We were the smallest design firm on the team by far.  A national sports architect was brought onboard as well as an electrical firm that had a large portfolio of stadium projects. We were selected due to our firm’s reputation at the university and, specifically, our work with athletics through our years’ long history with them. I was chosen as the lead on the mechanical team for our firm. It was an honor to be selected for such a high-profile project. As an Alabama alumna and big Alabama football fan, it was exciting to be involved in a project where I have so many fun memories.

What challenges do women face in this profession? Can you give a personal example? Why aren’t there more women in engineering? How can we increase the number of women in engineering?

Even though I have been working in engineering for 15-plus years and am the president of my firm, it’s not a rare occurrence for people to assume I am someone’s assistant or a nontechnical-type construction team member. I once had a job where some workers asked if I was there to write an article and take pictures for the local newspaper, as they saw me taking notes. This is happening less and less, and I hope future women engineers will no longer have to confront this challenge.

It may not be a fair burden to put on women in engineering, but I think it's important to be mentors to other young women and otherwise be ambassadors to show that women can succeed at high levels in engineering and male-dominated fields. I often speak to college classes and other groups and try to be especially attentive to young women who have questions and interest in the field.  

I also think it would be helpful for high school and college programs to offer more practical field experience to school- and college-aged women, outside of internships and co-ops. No matter how smart someone is or how strong academically, there are many things you can’t learn unless you are hands-on. Finding ways for engineering students to shadow an engineer for a day — for example, be active in the field and generally get more exposure to what engineers do — would be an asset for all students and help demystify the profession.

What does your day-to-day job entail?

I handle full project design and management from start to finish, from the programming phase through design to construction administration. I enjoy designing my own projects and being hands-on during the process, working directly with our staff engineers. I don’t desire to be in a purely management role — I like to stay engaged in the technical engineering aspect of what I do.  

I am a big believer that lots of field work is necessary to understand an existing building for good quality control and to keep on track of inspections during construction. It provides experience and exposure at a level not attainable otherwise.

I’m the sole owner and partner; therefore, I’m responsible for cash flow, marketing, making sure we have enough work (without overextending), and can manage workflow with the office to meet our deadlines. I work hard to ensure no one at our firm is overworked. We share the load to ensure our staff is not working unreasonable hours and weekends.

As the president of my firm, running the day-to-day office duties with help from our office administrator means I must stay on top of everything from HR to IT and problems both big and small. On any given week, probably 20% of my time can be taken by purely administrative issues.

What drives/motivates you every day?

I enjoy solving problems. Each project is different and unique. I enjoy doing new things and continuously learning. It’s also rewarding to design a system and then see it implemented and installed, step by step. I also relish the challenges of building renovation projects. This requires an engineer to not just determine how to design the best system but to work with the constraints of the existing building, which often can have significant hurdles to overcome. I also spend a lot of time in the field. I’m very visual and really enjoy getting my hands dirty and looking in the hard-to-reach places, above ceilings, in basements, and thinking outside the box on how we can get from point A to point B.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted you personally and professionally?

I am the president of my company, so I had to make hard decisions that I never thought I’d be dealing with. I really felt the weight of the health and even life and death of my employees on my shoulders. My father works at our firm, and it was especially hard for me to think that his being at work could possibly expose him to COVID or he could take it home to my mom and extended family. Early on, no one knew what to do, and I had to take responsibility and figure it out on my own. Fundamentally, I decided to make the best decision for the health and safety of everyone at HHB and deal with the financial consequences and possible damage to client relationships later. No project, client, or financial bottom line was worth endangering our people. It took time to navigate and adapt in a profession that is best-suited for in-person collaboration. I had to have hard conversations with clients that we could not meet their deadline because we were only, at best, 30% productive during the early stages of the pandemic working from home compared to traditional office productivity. I had to tell some clients no — a few got angry and haven’t called us again. Thankfully, most understood.  

What remains on your engineering bucket list — what do you aspire to do that you haven’t accomplished yet?

Being involved in a net-zero energy project is a goal of mine. I’ve been involved in LEED Gold projects with advanced energy-saving strategies, rainwater harvesting, and water reuse, but no LEED Platinum projects. I’m passionate about energy savings and have written peer-reviewed journal articles on HVAC energy reduction strategies, so a net-zero project is an important goal and one that I hope to be part of in the future.

What’s one thing no one knows about you?

Many people are surprised to learn I am one-quarter Japanese-American. My great grandparents were both born in Japan, migrating to the U.S. in the early 1900s. They, along with my then-school age grandmother and her sister, were living in California and forced into an internment camp during World War II. Though a tragic chapter in American history, I’ve enjoyed learning about my family history and am fortunate to still be close with my grandmother, who, despite her time in the internment camp, eventually joined the Air Force right out of college, completed officers training school, became a high school government and economics teacher, and was elected to her local school board for 18 years.

List any mentors who’ve helped you succeed and describe exactly how they’ve shaped your success.

I had the same math teacher, Mrs. Black, three times between eighth and 12th grade. She really inspired a love of math in me along the way and helped nurture my engineering aptitude.

In college, one of my professors, Dr. Stephen Kavanaugh, recruited me as an undergraduate research assistant my senior year. He then encouraged me to stay to earn my master’s degree. He was my research advisor, mentor, and now friend for almost 20 years. He was as practical of a professor as one could have teaching HVAC fundamentals my senior year to classes on energy conservation and geothermal heating and cooling design. He really helped me understand the nuts and bolts of how mechanical engineers designing HVAC can have a major impact on energy use and environmental impacts as a whole. He has continued to encourage me throughout my career, and I consider him a close friend

Most of all, my dad, Tom Hattemer. He’s also a mechanical engineer, and I’ve worked with him since 2006 at my current firm. He’s been critical to my success in mentoring me not just in good engineering design but in all aspects of owning and running the business, dealing with difficult people, to training and encouraging others. He’s the best engineer I know, and I hope one day I can garner as much respect as he has throughout our design and construction community.   

What advice do you have for prospective female engineers considering entering the field?

Speak up in meetings. It may not come easy but make a point to show confidence. Don’t let anyone talk over you. Don’t be hesitant to get out in the field and be hands-on. When other team members see you working hard in the field, you will earn their respect.