I am so impressed with the women who have volunteered to be interviewed so far for the Engineering Emily Interview Series. These women have shared their honest stories on the hard work and dedication it takes to become an engineer. But once they have become an engineer they have gone on to great careers and even started families. It isn’t easy, and they have shared the ups and downs and great tips along the way.
Today’s interview is no exception. I am proud to share the story of mechanical engineer turned software company owner (and my friend), Florence Durant.
EE: How and when did you decide to become an engineer?
FD: My father is an engineer, though I never understood what he did. I chose to go into engineering during high school because I knew I was good at math and science and felt that an engineering degree would keep a lot of doors open for me while I figured out exactly what I wanted to do. By the time I graduated, I knew I didn’t want to work as an engineer, so I didn’t bother taking the EIT which is a prerequisite for the getting your PE license. In retrospect, I wish my high school curriculum would have included more opportunities to explore other careers outside of my family. Asking an 18-year-old what they want to do with their life seems like an enormous decision.
EE: What was your university experience like as an engineering student? What GPA did you have at graduation?
FD: I graduated with a 3.71 GPA in mechanical engineering from Rice University. Surprisingly, I never felt that I learned very much actual engineering while I was at university. Many of my engineering professors were not strong teachers. Typically, I would get lost somewhere during the first 5 minutes, and stay lost for the rest of the class. I took one course where the professor was so inept that I only attended two classes during the entire course.
My saving graces were I took good notes, I spent an enormous amount of time working through the information outside of class, and I had a lot of friends. We were expected to figure the material out on our own, so having a good network of friends to work through it with was invaluable. Still, there were courses where, based on the curve, a 15% on a test got me an A-, so you can see why I never felt particularly confident in my engineering knowledge. However, the most important skill I took away from my university experience is I learned how to pick up a book and figure things out on my own. This has served me incredibly well in my career and in life in general.
EE: Did you do any internships in engineering during college?
FD: I worked at engineering jobs every summer while in college, and I worked a contract position for Shell Research and Development during my last semester at college. My first summer job was for the Department of the Interior on a road project on which the general contractor was defaulting. There were many days when no workers showed up, so they hired 19 year-old me as the project engineer to keep tabs on things. At first I played a lot of catch up, but with support from a few engineers at the Army Corps of Engineers and from my friends down in the machine yard, I learned a lot. My biggest contribution that summer was in restaking a bridge which was originally positioned a significant distance from the creek it was supposed to span. I reviewed the surveyor’s triangulation and was able to unravel that an engineer’s decision to change the angle of a curve upstream of the bridge increased the distance to the water. Once I had it figured out, I provided the corrected coordinates for the bridge.
Another summer, I worked for the Corps of Engineers on a waste water treatment plant upgrade. I didn’t learn as much that summer, and I got covered by primary sludge (Do you know what this is?) when one of the mechanical contractors decided to play a “joke” on me.
My last summer, I worked for an engineering consulting company in Houston. My primary job that summer was to locate and verify the correct sizing for hundreds of safety valves in the Union Carbide oil plant in Texas City. It was mind numbing.
EE: How did you get your first job?
FD: After I graduated from University, I traveled to New Zealand with a work visa and $1,500 in my bank account. It took me two weeks to find a job. I was hired as a receptionist by an engineering company in Auckland. Two weeks after that, I was hired as a project engineer with a mechanical engineering consulting company. I was assigned to a fishmeal plant rebuild for Starkist in American Samoa. My work consisted of arranging to have the pieces for the fishmeal plant built in New Zealand and shipped to American Samoa. I didn’t love what I did, but I gained an immense amount of respect for how capable New Zealanders are on the whole. It was not uncommon for me to meet some guy or girl who was working on building their own boat as a side project. I loved New Zealand, but I missed home.
EE: What industry do you work in?
FD: Software development.
EE: What has been your career path from graduation up to today?
FD: After I returned from New Zealand, I had a vague plan. The engineering work that I had been involved with was fairly slow, and uncreative. I have a surprising creative streak and a large sense of ownership. I wanted to build something myself rather than spec something for others to build. I have an aptitude for computers, and their real-time response is a perfect fit for my impatient personality. I figured I’d become a programmer.
Unfortunately, based on my lack of experience, there were very few companies that were willing to give me a chance. Finally after about 6 months of sitting around sending out resumes, I got a call from a man named Alan Anderson in Dallas, TX. He owned a small software company that built database management software for chambers of commerce. He suggested that I come to work for him as a technical support representative, and I could help him program his new 32 bit version of the company’s Chamber application. He also told me that he was a “world-class programmer,” and he had the credentials to back it up. I took him up on his offer, and we worked together for two years building the new version of his application in MS Visual FoxPro. He is an amazing teacher and the definition of a perfectionist. I voluntarily worked extra long hours and weekends so we could finish.
After we successfully released the new application, I was ready to move on to bigger and better things. I wanted to learn Java and C++ and start on a new project. So I left Chamber Data Systems to join a startup technology company. (This was in 2000, which was the tail-end of everyone launching technology startups.) The company that I joined was well-funded by a successful entrepreneur and inventor, Phil McKee.
I joined this company at it’s inception with 10 other software developers, and 11 hardware engineers. I quickly discovered how well I had been trained by Alan. I was the youngest engineer in the company, but I had the clarity to be able to connect the dots and understand the big picture of how everything fit together. Additionally, my experience in working as a technical support representative had taught me how to communicate clearly both verbally and in writing. I was a point person. I could understand the problems at hand. I understood how each piece fit into the scheme as a whole and who else it would affect, And I could clearly communicate the technology to others.
I was quickly promoted from low-developer-on-the-totem-pole to project manager, and eventually to chief technology officer. My boss, Phil, was one of the most charismatic men I had ever met. He was difficult to keep up with because an inventor must be able to change directions on a dime. This can be surprisingly difficult for an engineer who has invested part of themselves in the current path. However, he inspired me to want to rise to the occasion.
He paid to have me schooled in image presentation and sent me into some rather exciting meetings to give the pitch to engineers at Emerson, Maytag, Whirlpool, Sears, and others. I had the opportunity to see how some of the top-level executives at major corporations conducted themselves, and I grew in confidence.
However, my desire to create new things and the software developer inside of me was very strong. I left Phil’s company because Alan was ready to retire and offered to sell me his company. The opportunity to own and run a software company was too good to pass up. I purchased Chamber Data Systems in 2005 and have (mostly) loved every moment since.
EE: Have you had to move for work? Have you travelled for work, and if so where?
FD: I never moved for work per-se. However, I did a lot of traveling within the United States during periods when I worked with Phil’s company. There were a few months during which I was pulling day trips to Chicago twice a week. It was exhausting and lonely. I learned to appreciate the stability of staying home. It’s nice to be where your favorite restaurants and your best friends are, too. I still enjoy traveling for vacation because I enjoy the adventure, and my family comes with me.
EE: What has been your best experience as an engineer?
FD: Owning my software company. Nothing can replace the confidence and pride I have gained from being the responsible party in charge. It’s always nice to have someone above you to make the final call on a decision. However my work standard, my diligence, my creativity, and my overall effort are so much higher when the final decision for everything we do rests with me.
EE: What has been your most challenging experience as an engineer?
FD: People and dealing with confrontation at work. My instinct when someone at work is upsetting me or letting me down is to ignore them. This doesn’t work when I am in charge of them. They don’t just figure it out on their own. I have learned that it is easier to address the problems sooner rather than let them continue indefinitely. One weak team member can affect the entire team. I have also learned how important it is, when someone does a good job, to express appreciation for their work. It goes a long way towards inspiring them to future success.
EE: How do you balance career and home life?
FD: I am not the poster child for striking a balance between career and home life. I want to be able to give 100% to everything I do which is sometimes impossible. I have two boys ages 6 and 2. I want more than anything to spend every moment with them. Consequently, my husband (who also owns his company) and I have divided the work day between us.
In theory, each of us works an alternating five to six hours a day and stays home with the kids the rest of the day. However, it’s so easy to start working at home during off hours when the kids are sleeping. I let this get seriously out of control for about two years during which, more often than not, I was getting only four hours of sleep a night. I wasn’t able to enjoy anything because I was tired all the time.
Eventually, I ended up seriously ill, which gave me the opportunity to reevaluate the life choices I was making. I have been much better at limiting my work time to the planned five to six hours a day ever since.
EE: What advice do you have for someone interested in engineering/working moms?
FD: The time you spend working is a significant part of your life. Make sure you are doing something you love that lights you up.
Being a Mom of young children is a relatively short period in your life. If you are able, don’t miss it because you have too many balls in the air. Set your priorities and stick to them. For me, I have found that I need some adult interaction and challenges during the day, and I treasure the parts of the day devoted to being with my children even more because of it.
Florence’s story is a new perspective for this series because although she went to school for mechanical engineering, she now works in software development. Just because we are trained in engineering in college doesn’t mean it has to be our final job or the path that works best for each of us. I’ve gone through similar personal evaluations, wondering if engineering is the correct career for me. It is great to see that Florence was able to find her true calling as a software developer and small business owner. She is still using the problem solving and technical thinking skills that she learned in college and applying them to her new career.
Florence has had a unique and interesting journey to her current job. I love how she took a risk and travelled to New Zealand for work straight out of college. She had the rare opportunity to explore the country, find a job and immerse herself in their culture at a young age. It also helped her realize she needed to re-evaluate her career path when she returned which led to her current position.
Thanks so much for sharing your captivating story, Florence. I enjoyed reading about her winding path to success, and wish her continued success with her personal business, Chamber Data Systems. If you also have left engineering for another field and would like to share your story on the blog, please comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.