We love the energy the new interns bring to our teams. Questioning, learning, researching, calculating, chasing down obscure details. In the best of all worlds, they like us, we like them, and we offer them a job after graduation. A future professional engineer gets his or her start, and our KPFF family grows a little bit bigger.
This phenomenon has characterized the careers of many of our employees over the years and we are a stronger, more talented firm because of it. But how does one become an intern at KPFF? What goes into transitioning from an internship to a job? What’s the secret to success? We polled a few interns-turned-tenured-employees at KPFF Portland Structural to find out.
I was pursuing my BSCE at PSU in the late 1980s. After midterms in November, 1989, I was approached by a professor who asked if I would be interested in an internship with KPFF. I remember making the first call to KPFF to ask about the internship from a phone booth! I got an interview shortly after. Janice (who’s still our receptionist) greeted me in the lobby and sent me in to meet with two KPFF veterans, Bob Grummel and Jerry Dodd. They must have liked me, because I was offered the internship and started in December of 1989. I worked hard that winter (full time in school and 20-30 hours at KPFF). When Spring semester came around I only had one class left, Timber Design. I had been working on wood design at KPFF for the last few months, so the class was a breeze and I graduated in 1990. Grant Davis, Principal at KPFF Portland, offered me a full-time job to start that summer. The Portland office had about 35 employees at the time.
I was assigned to work under Bob and Jerry. Unfortunately, they both moved on to other jobs after just a couple of years, but I was in good hands: Grant Davis, Brad Moyes, Gaafar Gaafar, and Art Johnson became my mentors. Most engineering graduates only know about 20% of what is needed to act as a fully functioning consulting engineer, so they taught me a lot. I’ll always be indebted to Jerry Dodd, who introduced me to Don Eggleston, a founder of SERA Architects. Don and I hit it off and we’ve been fortunate to work on some interesting projects and develop a friendship over the last 25 years. It’s relationships like these – with my colleagues and my clients as well as the KPFF culture that have kept me here at KPFF ever since.
I had a family friend in the neighborhood who was friends with Art Johnson. The neighbor knew I had gone to Oregon State and was an engineering major who had just finished my junior year. My neighbor recommended that Art talk with me for a potential summer job at KPFF Portland. KPFF didn’t have a formal intern program at the time and the recession of the early 1980s was happening, but the firm needed some help and offered me an ‘internship’ for the summer.
In reality, I was mostly a gopher, but I felt lucky for the opportunity to get any professional experience at all. On my first day, I had to deliver drawing sets to Salem. In Art Johnson’s Italian sports car. That was a convertible. I didn’t crash and made the delivery on time, so I kept working at KPFF, helping with whatever was needed. At some point, my neat handwriting was discovered and I was assigned to help the drafting team with lettering drawings. (This was before computer-aided drafting and large-format printing were widely used.) I guess this was really useful, and KPFF hired me back for a second internship before grad school at University of Washington.
After grad school, I applied for a full-time position in KPFF’s Portland office and was accepted. I kept working closely with the drafting group throughout my career, from Project Engineer to Project Manager to Principal. I stayed at KPFF because the work is always varied and interesting, and it’s been very satisfying to help my city grow and mature. The AEC community of Portland is also rather small, and I’m pretty proud to know almost everyone in it.
After spending most of my 20s working flexible jobs that allowed me to travel and pursue many interests, it occurred to me that I wanted to design bridges. I didn’t even know what that meant at the time, but fortunately my roommate knew. She informed me that I was talking about structural engineering. I spent that summer reviewing calculus and then dove in as a full-time undergrad at Portland State University.
Classes were great, but I was slightly concerned that I had no idea if I would enjoy the actual job of engineering. I didn’t even know what that would entail on a daily basis. (Don’t get me started on how little school prepares you for that!) As luck would have it, KPFF offered a scholarship that included a year of tuition and a paid internship. I was awarded the scholarship that year and happily traded a pay cut (bartending $$ > intern $$) for a chance to see what kind of career I had in store.
I was relieved to learn that while entry-level engineering could be tedious at times (I personally checked every piece of steel and shop weld at OHSU’s Center for Health & Healing South, the work in general was pretty cool. I worked hard and it was a good fit, so I was happy to accept a full-time job offer at graduation.
Looking back, the biggest reasons I’m still here at KPFF, 12+ years later, is the variety of projects we get to work on and the (relatively) flat structure of the office. The general approach to work here is also supportive and empowering – employees are encouraged to learn new things, figure out their own approach, and take on as much responsibility as she can handle at a given time.
I went to Portland State University first for my Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering in 2007, and then my Master of Science in Civil Engineering in 2011. As a grad student, I worked with Dr. Dusicka, who runs the iSTAR laboratory at PSU’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. Dr. Dusicka approached me about a graduate-level research internship that KPFF was offering that year. The internship would allow me to work on my master’s project while also learning practical applications to structural engineering. I had not held internships in professional offices as an undergrad – I had worked instead in engineering research labs assisting graduate students with technical projects – so felt that this opportunity was a great chance to earn competitive industry experience while also working towards my master’s degree.
I was accepted for the internship and settled into Nathan Ingraffea’s group. I helped with shop drawings and simple structural designs when needed, but I primarily worked on my master’s project. I guess that’s pretty unusual, but it was great for me because I could use past KPFF projects as the basis of my project, which focused on nonlinear time-history analysis of eccentrically braced-frame structures. I ended up working as an intern at KPFF throughout grad school.
KPFF offered me a full-time job upon graduation, and I accepted. I’ve now been here 5 years and it has been a great fit for me professionally and personally. The scale of projects at the firm – both large and small – doesn’t limit me to a particular building type. KPFF is really the only firm in downtown Portland that offers such variety. I love being able to live and work in Portland and watch the city I now call home grow. I recently worked on a 10-story office tower at SW Third & Taylor, a site I can see from the office. It will be fun to see it be built from my desk.
So, it seems like a magic swirl of luck, brains, personality, and passion can crystalize an intern into an employee. Beyond this not-so-secret-sauce, we asked Blake, Jerry, Andi and Michael for any extra advice for future potential employees. They shared a few gems, like getting experience on the contractor-side of the industry is very helpful. Learning firsthand what goes into the construction of a building is invaluable, especially if an applicant doesn’t have prior office experience. Also, what seems like a mundane task can actually offer good insights into how the details of a structural engineering solution come together. And lastly, mistakes happen and can be hard to accept, but they can be great learning opportunities if you let them. How a person handles mistakes is what matters – they can be rectified and others can help you overcome them. You become a better, smarter engineer over time.
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