You Know the Drill: Putting Into Context What’s Actually Constructible
For Hannah Iezzoni, the decision to study civil engineering in college was a no-brainer. Since she can remember, she’s had an interest in infrastructure. But during her time as a student at Northwestern University, she found out structural engineering and transportation engineering weren’t so exciting. “I didn’t really like any of it,” she says. Thanks to one of her professors, a geotechnical engineer, landing her an internship with a geotechnical specialty contractor in Chicago, she discovered her passion. “[I was] pretty much drilling really deep holes and I thought it was the best thing I’d ever done.” Now she’s completed grad school and has almost a year in with GEI Consultants as a geotechnical engineer. She is also a member of the Deep Foundations Institute's Women in Deep Foundations Committee. Iezzoni says she’s growing increasingly interested in the intersection between the planning side in the office and the construction side in the field. “As I’ve been learning more about the industry and doing even more on the design side, I keep getting sucked in more,” she says.
Q. What do you do and what keeps you coming back every day?
A. I’m a geotechnical engineer for a consulting firm in Denver. When I’m in the office, I usually help prepare plans and specifications for design projects. I also assist with geotechnical analysis, such as slope stability. When I’m in the field, I oversee construction projects that we prepare the specs and plans for. I pretty much make sure that the contractor’s building what we said in the specifications and our design drawings. Some of our projects are deep foundations for buildings and embankment dams here in Denver. We also do geotechnical investigations where we will, before anybody constructs anything, drill in the footprint of the site and sample the soil to determine the design characteristics of it.
Q. What does a typical workday involve?
A. It actually bounces around a lot. If I’m in the office, it’s like eight to nine hours of sitting in the cubicle. I write emails, I run designs, so I use different software to design analyses. I prepare plans in AutoCAD and there’s a lot of report writing going on. When I’m in the field it’s a lot more interesting. Being the consultant on the job, I’m really only there to oversee. I’m not really there to direct or manage or anything. So I attend the health and safety meeting first thing in the morning and then I let everybody get to work, and then keep notes throughout the day, like how many people are there, how deep did they drill, what’d they accomplish. I just really need to pay attention to what’s going on. So for each project the actual details are very different because they’re specific to the project, but for the most part I’m just watching.
Q. What does it take to succeed in what you do?
A. I think for the construction and for the observation, the best thing is to have good observational skills to really be able to pay attention and be aware of what’s going on when you’re watching it, but also a strong personality. As a consultant, and specifically for me as a young woman, I need to be able to get up with the drillers, the superintendent and whoever else is working on site, and ask them questions and ask them why they’re doing something one way versus another to make sure that I fully understand what’s going on so I can write very clear notes. … If they’re not doing something correctly I can find out why that’s happening, so I can communicate that to the design engineers, the clients. I kind of act as that liaison between the client, the person that owns the project, the people who designed it, and then the staff in the field.
Q. What do you wish you knew when you started?
A. I’m obviously pretty new to the job. I think that the only thing that I would tell myself five, six years ago — I had an idea of what I wanted to do but it wasn’t something that a lot of people were doing. So I would love to have known that this intersection between the field and the office is definitely a viable career path and
that there are a lot of opportunities within it.
Q. What tool can you not imagine working without?
A. Honestly it’s my notebook. I have one for the field and one for the office. I spent enough time in the field writing everything down, every five minutes writing a note on what I was doing, and I actually started doing that in the office, writing a pre and post day summary and everything. So I carry the notebooks with me everywhere I go and it’s just been very helpful professionally, to always have that record of what happened on what day, what you were thinking of.
Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
A. I had a professor who drilled into us that it’s so important to put everything into context. A lot of times in design we’ll come up with these complicated ideas that can’t actually be constructed, or you’ll get numbers when you do the calculations and they aren’t even close to what you can expect. So I hear from a lot of people in the industry that when you get a number or come up with a design or an idea, you have to put it in context. How is it going to function? How are people going to construct it? How are people going to interact with it in plain form? So it’s just really important to view everything you do in context.
Q. How would you describe the present state of the industry?
A. It’s a little tricky. I feel like I’m learning so much. I’m getting caught up to speed so it’s hard to make an objective statement. I think with geotechnical engineering there have been huge improvements on our data collection and the technology that we have with drills and other equipment. The information that we can get while we’re actually constructing whatever we’ve designed is pretty exciting. So geotechnical engineering, for a long time, was more of an art. Now we’re able to take it from less of an art and guess work to an exact science, which I think is really exciting.