Yogi, Wife, Traffic Engineer - Katie Horner
“A lot of people in civil engineering are on one path - you take your F.E., you pass your P.E., and then you become a project manager. I wish I could have had someone tell me that there are other options out there, and I don’t have to take that path if it’s not working for me. The most important thing is to have an outside perspective from someone. There is not only one way to do something to be successful.”
Name: Katie Horner | Occupation: Traffic Engineer | University and Year of Graduation: North Carolina State University, BS 2015
Katie and I have been good friends for a few years now. We actually met at work - she was transferring from the Raleigh office to Charleston and came down one day to go over a project that we were collaboratively working on. Since then, we became inseparable. I find myself reminiscing of the days where I could simply walk over to her desk a few cubicles down and just chit chat about anything in life. She was my first real friend at work, which led to us being friends outside of work, and she will ultimately always have a special place in my heart. So she was the first person I thought of when it came to finding women to interview for this blog series.
Throughout our friendship, I never once asked her how she got into engineering, and realized this when I was coming up with the interview questions. We just seemed to never really talk about work while we were at work, which made me realize that we have a lot in common as just two human beings. “I was introduced to what being an engineer was in high school. I took a pre-statics class and learned college-level concepts and had an amazing teacher. I took some construction classes as well. At first I thought I wanted to be an architect because of the book Fountain Head. Then I went to a summer camp and realized that I’m not really the creative type, but very methodical. We were tasked to build something and I noticed that people were pulling ideas out of their heads and just creating, but I needed to do research as to what worked in the past and what materials I needed to use. I think in a ‘flow chart’ oriented way. Then I realized that the way I think and the way I look at things is more of an engineering path. I chose civil because I wanted to build bridges and roads. I didn’t always know that I wanted to be a traffic engineer, but I knew I wanted to be a civil engineer. My dad is a general contractor and works in construction, and I got to go to his work and see it all. It was nice to see that side of things. I didn’t like what he did though” she laughed.
When I asked Katie to tell me about both the challenges and rewards she has experienced in the engineering industry, she expressed a bit of hesitation. “I think depending on your personality and what you see as challenging will determine your path. I had a strong support system in college because I was part of an engineering sorority and had a good idea going into it of what I was facing. I knew it was going to be hard, so I went into the working world a little better equipped than most women I think. But sometimes I feel like I went in too equipped. I had to hold my own and was on the defensive a lot. Some of the challenges I faced were navigating not taking people so seriously.”
While learning about the challenges that Katie has faced, she revealed to me about a few instances in the past where she felt like she was in the wrong for expressing how some situations made her uncomfortable simply because she is a young female, or because she felt like she didn’t have enough experience to sound credible. She told me of a time when she was representing her company at a career fair and a gentleman stopped talking to her once he realized that she had an engagement ring on her finger: “I never thought that this ring on my finger would affect a professional relationship. It made me really upset and I didn’t know how to react.”
In situations like that, she expressed how having a mentor - someone she could talk to and seek advice from - would have helped her jump over such a hurdle. “I wish I would have established a female mentor in Charleston right away. I had one in Raleigh, and it was huge. I had an advocate for myself. A lot of people in civil engineering are on one path - you take your F.E., you pass your P.E., and then you become a project manager. I wish I could have had someone tell me that there are other options out there, and I don’t have to take that specific path if it’s not working for me. The most important thing is to have an outside perspective from someone. There is not only one way to do something to be successful. I always felt like I had to go down that one path. Otherwise, I wasn’t successful. I wish I had someone to tell me that.”
So how about some rewards and positives experiences? Well, Katie’s answer to “the positives” might not be what you are looking for. “I think in a way, companies are making more of an effort to hire women and reach out to them because they realize that hiring men of a specific demographic doesn’t look good anymore. Sometimes I get to go to client meetings and career fairs and get to be the face of the company. In some ways, it has given me more more confidence. I feel like it’s a back-handed reward in some ways though because I feel like my presence at these things may look good to people from the outside.”
Based on what Katie is saying, I think that if we want more women to become engineers, we need to start creating an environment that is more welcoming and supportive for them. Most importantly, if you are a female engineer, whether you’ve been working for twenty or just five years, perhaps consider making a conscious effort to support other woman and offer help. This is crucial for keeping women in the industry. I have seen a good amount of companies, professional societies, and industry leaders do a great job with this, and it makes me very hopeful.
“What would you say to your 18 years old self if you could go back in time?” I asked her.
“That’s a really good question. It’s so hard to answer that because I don’t really remember myself at 18 years old. My priorities were so different. Honestly though, I don’t really have any regrets. I think at that age, we had to already start thinking about our career and focus on our future, and I feel like I was so focused on doing whatever I could to better myself or look better on paper. I was getting involved with organizations in college that would boost my resume. But I wish I focused more on my passions at that age because it would have helped me cope with the stress and anxiety that I experienced. Instead, I focused more on what was going to make me look better to potential employers. But it was so hard because there was a lot of pressure. There was more focus on ‘What can I do to make myself look more like a better student/engineer?’ instead of doing what made my heart and soul happy. I would definitely tell my 18 year old self to do more things genuinely for you and do what makes you happy. We are all on a different journey - but at 18, I don’t think I knew anything. That’s why I did engineering. Half of the reason why I went into it was because I knew I would be financially stable.”
My favorite question came next: “I know that for me, being an engineer has become part of my identity. The surprised, yet impressed reaction that I get from people when I tell them that I am an engineer really makes me feel good. Have you experienced this and if so, what are your thoughts? Do you feel you are labelled strictly by your occupation and not by who you are outside of that?”
“Oh my gosh, YES. I honestly have never thought about trying to separate myself, Katie, and being an engineer. I always saw them together and felt like they were dependent on each other” she said, wide-eyed.
And it’s so hard not to think that you are actually someone outside of your occupation when it’s all you focus on for several years. If you think I’m crazy, let me ask you this: What is one of the first questions you ask someone when you meet them? Mine is: “What do you do for work?”
“It’s funny because I told my yoga teacher a few weeks ago how I was having a hard time with self identification because I root myself so deeply into engineering. I think it’s because it’s been our mindset; it’s been our goal; it’s been our ambition for so long. You go through school and have blinders on and don’t think about anything else. So the end game is ‘I’m going to be an engineer, I’m going to get out of school, and get my degree and be an engineer.’ And I think for me, this mindset gave me a lot of relief while I was pushing through school because I thought it was all going to be worth it. ‘I’m going to get a job when I graduate and be an engineer, and I’m going to be so happy. Life is going to be so great.’ It was the light at the end of the tunnel for so long. But I just threw myself into that and never thought about separating the two until we previously talked about it. Now I tell myself that I am a sister; I am a yogi; I am a wife; I am a daughter, etc. NOW I am just trying to navigate myself and tell myself that I am more than this. I’ve only seen myself as an engineer.”
It put tears in my eyes to hear Katie say that out loud because not too long ago, I was feeling the same exact way. I explained to her that I think from now on, instead of me asking people what they do for work, I am going to ask them: What do you love to do? And she agreed. “Yes! I really like that! I feel like it’s such a societal thing to ask. We date based upon occupation. We judge based on occupation. And it’s so hard not to because society tells us that we are our jobs. But that’s so not true. Then again, not to point fingers, but I think it leads back to the baby boomer generation. That’s how they self-identify. That’s how they label themselves. And they throw themselves into it and works 50 plus hour weeks, and that’s not what our generation is looking for. We realize there is more to life. Or at least that’s how I feel.”
And I agree with her. As a millennial, I firmly believe that we derive our purpose through wanting to make a difference in the world. We want to feel fulfilled. Unfortunately this can come off the wrong way sometimes and make us appear lazy and whimsical.
I asked Katie if she would recommend engineering to a young girl who is still in school. “I absolutely would recommend it. I do think engineering needs more women. But I want women to be more careful with their choices and to research it (engineering) and the companies more. Ask questions. Be honest about what you’re getting yourself into. It’s our responsibility as working professionals to be honest with these women and let them know what they are getting into.”
Yes, let’s be honest with them. But in all reality, if someone at a career fair told you not to pursue your major anymore, would you change your mind? Katie says no. “I wouldn’t have changed my mind. Especially if I was well into it and didn’t want to prolong school. Being mentors to these women and saying to them: ‘Here’s my card/contact information. I’m here for you;’ that would have meant so much to me if someone did that to me. I would have wanted someone to give me raw advice. And now, I don’t want to sell bullshit. I don’t want to sell anything, but when it does get tough, I want her to know that we are in this together.”
My last question: What are you passionate about and what gives you joy? “Well it’s not engineering! Haha! Glad we threw that out real quick,” she said jokingly.
“I don’t get all of my joy from working, but sometimes when I finish a project and I can say I put 100% of my effort and hard work into finishing it - that gives me joy. What does bring me joy is how I spend my time outside of work. Yoga - I look forward to it so much! Also coming home everyday to my husband and Frenchie. Spending time with them is the high point of my day and is what brings me joy the most.”