Two skinny boys with fade haircuts and soccer jerseys sat next to each other in the front row as I was about to start my presentation on civil engineering. It was Career Day at my kids’ school, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world. The boy on the left, tan with black hair and eyes the color of dark chocolate, asked me, “Mommy, can I wear your hard hat?” and so I handed it to him. He sat there the whole time, wearing my hard hat, proud as could be that his mommy had come to the school to meet his friends and tell them about engineering. “My mom builds the biggest bridges ever!”, he told a girl sitting behind him. She smiled approvingly. Apparently, when you’re a few days shy of 7, this is worth some street cred.
At the end of my presentation, the boy sitting next to my son raised his hand. He said, “Have you ever heard of [consulting firm]?”
I said, “Yes, I know it well. I almost ended up working there.”
He replied, “My daddy works there. He’s an engineer, too.”
“What’s his name? I probably know him.”, I asked.
The boy told me his father’s name, and sure enough, he was the CEO, and I do know him. He interviewed me twice, passed me over once, and made an offer the second time. I told the boy that his father is a brilliant engineer, and that he does work that everybody respects, because that’s true. He smiled, probably mostly amused by the fact that his schoolmate’s mom knows his dad. Civil engineering really is a small profession.
As the kids filed out, I thought to myself how glad I am that I chose my employer over that firm when I had both options in play.
It was a significant crossroads in my life as an engineer. I could go to the fastest growing consulting firm in our region of the country, receive bonuses for every project I completed, drink free craft beer out of the office fridge, and work in a hip looking office in a quickly gentrifying neighborhood just east of the Central Business District and right by a train station. That firm looks so shiny on the surface. They have the best looking and best dressed engineers, and they roll into local government meetings with the precision of an Army unit (not surprising, as I served in the Army with one of their VP’s), the flare of a fraternity step dance team, and the smoothness of every politician up the hill in the capital building combined. They do the kind of work that gets written up in the paper for its originality, its relevance, and its sheer good looks. Their permit parties draw a crowd that includes the Mayor, Senators, and sometimes local actors and musicians. They are a shiny firm, and I wanted in since the day I arrived in this city.
At the last minute, I stopped short and accepted an offer from a state agency to work in an ugly building in an area with terrible traffic, and do work that nobody would ever hear about unless I messed up badly enough that people died. It came down to a gut feeling, and the fact that I trusted my first boss here at this state agency to let me be there for my family. I did not trust the leadership of that firm to have my interests in mind in that way. The hours they worked, it was clear that they were relying very heavily on their spouses or hired help to care for their kids, and while I don’t judge them or anybody else for that, it would not have worked for my family, and it didn’t seem like they were flexible on it.
Could I have made more money at that firm? I’m not sure. I might have been able to, but I’ve done better than expected here. The one thing I do know is that of the two civil engineers with kids in that room at that moment, I was the one at Career Day. That’s worth something, too.