An in-depth interview that could help determine whether you'd like to become a geotechnical engineer.
When Karen Savage decided to start her own engineering company back in 1997, she wasn’t quite sure what she was getting into. With a one year old daughter in tow, she had to work hard to establish herself in a male dominated industry while also balancing her career with her responsibilities at home. Today, Horizon Engineering is a booming enterprise that takes on about 250 projects every year and employs a crew of 20 talented staff. But although Karen’s life looks almost nothing like it did 30 years ago, one thing has remained the same from the very beginning: her unwavering belief in the power of diversity.
“With twenty people working at Horizon, we have eight languages and 40% female engineers,” she tells me with a proud smile. “It takes all different kinds of people to make a good team ... diversity enhances excellence.”
Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? How did you end up here?
I grew up in Vancouver. I went to UBC and graduated in 1986 with a degree in Civil Engineering. It was during a recession, so it took me a while to find work after I finished. I worked for a company for ten years, went on maternity leave, and then, when I came back, found out that my boss had sold the company. I didn’t want to go work for the company that had acquired my employer; the commute would have been awful, amongst other issues. Then an opportunity came up to be housed in somebody else’s office if I started my own business, so I started Horizon in 1997.
Tell me about Horizon Engineering. What does your company do?
We do geotechnical engineering. We do everything from assessing the characteristics of the soils so that buildings are suitably designed, to looking at slope stability and designing retention systems (including excavation shoring), to considering and designing mitigation strategies to deal with drainage (surface and subsurface) issues. Following subsurface investigation and design, we continue with a project through construction, providing field review services.
What drew you to this line of work?
When I was at university, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Engineering seemed like a fairly low threshold profession to enter; you didn’t need to have a postgraduate degree in order to get a job, you could just go and do a Bachelor’s. At the time, it was a five year program with quite a lot of specialized electives in the last year. Thus, it was just an extra year beyond what would normally be required in order to get a Bachelor of Science degree, but with engineering for that extra year, you got a career. Whereas with a degree in biology for example, you would have had to do a Master’s in order to access a career. That’s why I went into engineering.
I went into civil engineering because it’s diverse. I was interested in a lot of different things. During my degree, I decided that it would be good to get some experience that wasn’t lifeguarding, so I phoned all the engineers in the Yellow Pages. (At that time we had Yellow Pages; I don’t think we do anymore.) I phoned them, and I got a job with a geotechnical engineering company—ironically, right here in this very building—and worked for them for a couple of summers. Working with a geotechnical engineering company made those topics more interesting to me at school; more relevant. So when I graduated, I kind of ended up going that direction.
But I like geotechnical because it’s an art and a science; you have lots of formulae to do analysis and testing procedures to give you data, but you also kind of “read” the landscape in terms of understanding what the geologic stratigraphy and history might be, what the groundwater conditions might be.
And I like that you get to go outside. You’re not stuck in an office all the time.
How much of your time do you spend out in the field versus in the office?
Well, right now I’m waiting to see a surgeon about a new hip; I can’t take big steps, so site work is really challenging. But I would say that up until last fall, I was on site 15% of my time—which is a lot for a senior manager. Now it’s more like 5%. A junior person might be on site 50 to 60% of their time.
You entered this profession for pretty practical reasons. Is that pretty typical? Or do most people entering this industry have lifelong dreams of becoming an engineer?
I think both. My son has always known that he wanted to be an engineer. He’s thirteen. But my seventeen year old daughter has kind of come full circle from saying, “No, I’m never going to be an engineer,” to “Hmm...I think I might go into engineering.” She has very expensive pastimes and she knows that she needs to be able to afford them on her own.
Can you tell me a little more about the training and education that’s required? You mentioned a Bachelor’s Degree, but is there anything else?
No, although a lot of people do go for a Master’s. Following your graduation, you are registered as an Engineer in Training and that’s a minimum four-year term where you gain experience working under professionals before you can be eligible for registration as a Professional Engineer.
It’s not just about technical experience; there are moral dilemmas in engineering. You might do work for a client who wants to just do the cheapest thing, but the cheapest thing is not necessarily the best thing. Engineers have a Code of Ethics, and our primary responsibility is to protect the safety and the welfare of the public. I think that there are many people contracting to provide the same services we do who just don’t understand some of the more sophisticated soil mechanics issues. So for some jobs, there is education of clients and building officials as well as contractors required.
It’s not just about technical experience; there are moral dilemmas in engineering ... our primary responsibility is to protect the safety and the welfare of the public.
Would you say that you often end up educating people in your work?
Yes, I do. I’ve been very involved with my profession since 1990, and it’s partly why I’ve been successful in starting my own business. I’ve always been passionate about diversity in engineering. Having fluency in eight languages at Horizon, besides being amazing, means that we can have the types of conversations with clients to allow them to understand complex technical issues as well as possible in order to make good decisions.
What’s typical for the industry? Is the representation of women in engineering very low?
Yes, it’s low. 11%.
Wow. Has that been a challenge for you, personally?
Yeah. Although I think at the time that it was most challenging, it was kind of a double whammy of youth and gender.
What did you do to overcome that challenge?
Well, I kind of just did what I did. I just kept going.
It was challenging trying to find a balance with having a family and being so ... so isolated. The women engineers, sometimes, we would just call each other in tears and get a well needed pep talk. But it’s not like that anymore, I don’t think. Here and there, there are still pockets of isolation, but there are women professors now. When I was doing my undergrad, there was only one female professor out of forty.
It was challenging trying to find a balance with having a family and being so ... so isolated. The women engineers, sometimes, we would just call each other in tears and get a well needed pep talk.
Did that female professor make a difference for you?
I think she was kind of like a “beacon of hope.” But that’s all in the past; now the Associate Dean of Engineering at my alma mater is a woman and they have 30% female intake into first year Engineering.
So now that you’re an employer yourself, how do you ensure that you’re creating a workplace that’s diverse and open?
How do I do it? Or how is it usually done?
[Laughing] Well, in here, I’m like the Mom, so it just happens. I think it’s easy to hire people that are like you, but you have to look outside of that. Here, and anywhere else.
I think it’s easy to hire people that are like you, but you have to look outside of that. Here, and anywhere else.
I’ve also been active in my profession. Within the last decade, I have been on Council for the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of BC (APEGBC) as well as the Board of Directors for the Consulting Engineers of BC (now ACECBC), both of which were very monochromatic experiences. Basically, APEGBC registers and regulates professional engineers and geoscientists while ACECBC lobbies the government and looks after the business interests of the engineering profession. Both organizations make sure that people know about engineering, and try to promote the value of engineering. In addition, ACECBC advocates for quality based selection as opposed to price based selection.
What’s the work culture like? What kind of people do you interact with as an engineer?
I find that engineering is a very social thing to do. We really try to only hire people that we like, so I get to work with people that I get along with and that’s worked out quite well so far.
I know people think that in engineering, you work by yourself. But that’s not true at all. You work with a team. The only way that you can get things done is by being collaborative and figuring out the best idea, the best thing to do. You have a bunch of wisdom that you’ve acquired, but other people do, too. And these people include the other consultants, as well as the architect or prime consultant and, if you’re into the construction stage of a project, the contractor.
People think that in engineering, you work by yourself. But that’s not true at all. You work with a team. The only way that you can get things done is by being collaborative and figuring out the best idea, the best thing to do.
What I like about the culture of engineering is that there isn’t a lot of cattiness and drama. And maybe that’s because there haven’t been a lot of women involved. When guys don’t agree, they just say, “Screw you. Okay, let’s go have a beer.” I want to see more women entering the career, but I don’t want to lose that objectivity. There’s no business case for cattiness, it doesn’t help anything, and it doesn’t move the project forward. There’s just no merit to being territorial with your idea; what’s best for the project is what should happen.
What’s your favourite thing about what you do?
Helping people solve problems.
And what’s your least favourite?
There’s very few redeeming features about November, working outside in the rain.
Could you walk me through a typical workday?
[Laughs] A typical day starts out with something happening so that you can’t do anything that you planned!
At Horizon, we open about 250 projects a year. On any given day, any one of us is working on usually between three and ten different projects at once. I’ve had days where I’m working on up to 24, so I’ve trained myself to have a really short attention span. It’s all value based time management; you’re doing the thing that is most important first. Usually, you don’t want to be causing delays on construction sites, because that leaves a lot of people and equipment standing around. The next thing after that would be building permit application deadlines, because you don’t want to be the person blocking the path to someone doing what they’ve been planning on doing for years.
So this morning, I was going to come into the office and I got a call from one of my employees. She was drilling at an investigation site today, but a different site under construction had called her to say that they’d encountered a particular condition. She had told them what she thought they should do, which was perfect. But I had set up for somebody else to go to the construction site and they weren’t there yet, so then I thought, “You know what? I need to go there, because the person who’s going to be there doesn’t know all of this.” Then I came back to the office and finished a report, did some paperwork, that sort of thing.
What kind of hours do you typically work?
I usually start around 9am. I have kids in college and high school, so I’ll make lunches for the younger ones in the morning. I’m usually here until about 6pm. However, when the kids were younger, I started work at around 11:30am and would do something with them in the morning, or we’d all just stay in our pyjamas until it was time for daycare and work. Once when I had three kids (and I became a partial caregiver to my brother who was dying of brain cancer), my doctor prescribed a nanny.
How would you describe your work life balance? What’s it like being a working parent?
Oh, it’s good! I have awesome kids. [Smiles] Yeah, it’s when you’re younger and the kids are young and the care is very physical, that finding balance is difficult. But then it doesn’t matter what you do—whether you’re an engineer or a teacher or whatever.
As they get older, the care and energy required gets more mental and emotional; you’re dealing with relationships, jobs, etc. Sophie Trudeau said this thing once that resonated with me: “you want to blow under their wings” and just try to empower them. You want them to do well, but you also want to recognize their successes. Even just when the kids make dinner and things like that. They all just pitch in. I’m never going to complain about what someone makes me for dinner! Pancakes again? (That’s what my son makes). I’m happy with that.
So your work never gets in the way of your home life?
Oh, for sure it does. But my kids are used to me. When I say I’ll be home at a certain time, they just add on another hour. They don’t need me to be there now, they can figure things out. If I did not have confidence that this would be so, I would be home in a flash.
When I started the business, it was, ironically, to have less work. Susan (my eldest) was just a year when I started working, so I started by working five hours a day. But, I guess, as I took on more staff, that day got longer and longer.
What kind of person succeeds in your line of work?
In engineering, I think anyone can succeed. It takes all different kinds of people to make a good team, and I think that needs to be valued. As I said, diversity enhances excellence; if you have a diverse team, you’re going to get different ideas.
In engineering, I think anyone can succeed. It takes all different kinds of people to make a good team, and I think that needs to be valued.
And who struggles?
I don’t think that there’s a place for arrogance. You need to always be thinking about how you could do it better; you can’t feel like you’re too good to do some element of the work. There’s no space for that.
What’s the job market like now?
Right now, it’s probably a bit rough. Some firms are hiring, and it’s certainly busy. Mining is terrible right now, also oil and gas. But development, locally, is good. In Vancouver we’ve kind of got this little bubble that’s associated with the incredibly high real estate prices.
Are there a lot of opportunities for promotion as an engineer?
Yes, I think so. Usually you start in a technical role, but about 60% of engineers end up in management. So you can evolve into a project management role, an executive role, that kind of thing.
And do people ever move around laterally? Or are you sort of stuck in whatever area—Civil, Mechanical, Electrical—you first started working in?
Well, within Civil, there’s like nine different types of engineering you could do, ranging from geotechnical to roads to structural to—there’s a lot. But I don’t think people usually break out of their area. I think if people are dissatisfied with engineering as a career, they tend to get out altogether. You don’t usually move laterally out of your field.
Why do people usually end up leaving engineering?
Honestly? I have no idea.
What kind of advice would you give to someone trying to enter the career?
Co-op. Anybody going into engineering, I would recommend they get involved with a co-op program. And take a bookkeeping or accounting course. Sooner or later in your career, you will end up reading financial statements as well as preparing budgets. Note that this is not the same as an economics course.
Why do you recommend co-op? Just to get some work experience before graduating?
Yes, co-op does that. Plus, it helps to make what you’re doing in school more relevant and more interesting. And when something is interesting, it’s easier to be successful at it. Also networking. Networking is part of the co-op experience. You’re building your network so that you can potentially find a job when you’re done, or, if you end up working for yourself, find projects.
Networking is part of the co-op experience. You’re building your network so that you can potentially find a job when you’re done, or, if you end up working for yourself, find projects.
How do you find work as an engineer? How do you bring in new clients?
It’s all relationships. That’s why I think being really involved in my profession was a really key part of my success. When I started my company, I had a reputation that was disproportionately large, relative to my years of experience.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about your job?
That it’s a commodity. That engineering consulting services are a commodity. With some consultants, I think that’s true, but we try not to be like that. I think that if people see your fee is high, they might not realize that the advice that you provide allows something to be constructed more cost efficiently and more safely.
How do you get your clients to start seeing what you do as essential?
It’s education, and it’s about relationships—really just building trust, over time, with your clients. I now have second generation clients, clients I’ve been working with for 28 years.
Is there any other commentary or advice that you’d like to add to this interview?
Just that engineering can be a really rewarding career in terms of personal satisfaction, contributing to a team, and contributing to society. I think a lot of women can be drawn towards more nurturing professions, which they see as being more helpful to society. But engineering is actually one of the most helpful professions in terms of assisting society—we ensure that people have access to clean water, safe buildings, different types of infrastructure and technology.
Also, that it’s not necessarily that technical. The biggest piece of technology that I use is a phone. I use my phone every day.
Actually, my other piece of advice is to stop using the phone—for texting, at least. Have real conversations, meet face-to-face, don’t be isolated—don’t use technology as a wall but as a bridge. Engage. I think that’s really important.