A college-aged engineer doesn’t always have all the right answers – nor should they. Part of the learning process is growing yourself and discovering where your place is in this world. The same can be said of the path to career success – it isn’t always clear. But mentorship, support and guidance from leaders can help young professionals reach their goals.
In this episode of Beyond Engineering, a podcast by RTM Engineering Consultants, RTM Principal Kathryn (Kat) Duytschaever chats with her mentee, Courtney Leaf, about her career journey. The two discuss the challenges Courtney faced, the support she received and how she is now applying lessons learned as a leader within RTM.
Here is an edited transcript of the discussion:
Kat Duytschaever: Courtney, can you tell us about the role that you play at RTM?
Courtney Leaf: I’m a project manager at RTM, and I am responsible for ensuring that the projects that are handed to me are completed in a way that makes the client happy.
Kat: What does your typical day look like?
Courtney: Every morning I start with a cup of coffee. That’s a must, and most people know to avoid me until that first cup is gone. After that I go through my emails and make sure that anything that popped in overnight is addressed. I make sure I have a game plan for my team members. As people start showing up, we talk about what everyone is doing that day and make sure we’re on top of every deadline.
Kat: Do you have a favorite project that’s currently on your docket?
Courtney: We’ve been working on a large hotel conference center in Oklahoma.
Kat: What makes that so special to you?
Courtney: It’s the scale of the project. This is one of the largest projects I have touched at RTM. It’s also very challenging because all three of the buildings work together under one system. We’re learning how to come in at one point and then distribute it through all the buildings. It’s very strategic. We’ll be running the building when it’s done. There’s a lot of input on how the day-to-day data is laid out. It’s been a new experience for me.
Kat: Let’s share a little bit about your journey. How did you come to RTM?
Courtney: Three of my friends from college were working at RTM. Two of them had been here for a year and the third was just starting. We met at a career fair, and they encouraged me to interview – so I did. I interviewed with Tim Hedrick and one of things that caught my attention was him noticing that I’m from Minnesota and saying he has a good friend in that area who works at an engineering firm. He said, if this doesn’t work out for you at RTM, let me know and I can get you his contact information. To me, that really stood out. The people here care about each other and making sure you, as an employee, are taken care of and satisfied.
Kat: You mentioned your friends recommended RTM. Did these friends also attend the Milwaukee School of Engineering [with you]?
Courtney: Yes. I played softball with two of them, and the other was my homework buddy. We did a lot of things together.
Kat: Were they able to give you some insight into how their summer internships went?
Courtney: They had both been [with RTM] for a year at that point. One of the big things they were telling me was about the different projects. There was a lot of variety in what they did. [RTM] gave you responsibility early on. It wasn’t just, go draft this in the corner and let me know when you’re done. It was more like, do this project. Here are the steps you need to think about while you’re doing this project. Talk to me if you get stuck and we’ll review it together. It seemed like a lot of freedom and responsibility. That was very attractive.
Kat: When you were interviewing with Tim, that was for the intern position, correct?
Courtney: Yes. At that time, I was interviewing for a summer internship.
Kat: How did your internship go? Where were you located?
Courtney: I was in Schaumburg [Illinois] at that time. I ended up housing with one of my friends that summer. We rode to work together and grilled out pretty much every Friday night. We hung out as a company over lunch. There were a few times when we pulled out the bag boards and played bags behind the office on Friday afternoons when things were slower. It was a lot of fun, and I got to know everyone at the company, even though I was just an intern at the time.
Kat: I remember that, when you were an intern, you impressed a lot of us. When you went back to school, you didn’t leave RTM behind – we followed you.
Courtney: Correct! I went back to school, and RTM made me an offer to continue working from school. I said sure, I have a computer, I can sign in. At that point I was comfortable doing 10 to 20 hours a week – more if needed. After that, we ended up merging with a Milwaukee firm, and I was able to go to that office once or twice a week and get to know that team while still completing work for the Schaumburg office.
Kat: I’m confident in saying that we were very interested in you for the long run. But was there ever a point of revelation that you wanted to be with RTM post-graduation?
Courtney: There were several times that come to mind. I ended up going back to school to get my master’s degree. During this process, I sat down with my boss and talked about the opportunity. I wanted to do an evening program and still be able to work 40 hours. I didn’t know what that meant for me. But my boss told me not to worry about it, and we would figure it out. The Milwaukee office was still there at the time, and it was just a 15-minute walk to school. I was able to transition to that team. For about three months, I drove in on a Thursday night and would go to classes, spend Friday at the Milwaukee office, stay through the weekend, go to my Monday class after working all day, and then drive back home to Schaumburg. I would work in the Schaumburg office Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and do it again the following week. The way RTM handled that transition meant a lot to me. They knew it was important to me and did whatever it took to make it happen.
Another time was when I moved from Milwaukee to Iowa. I wanted to go to Iowa and help the Davenport office build an electrical team. I told my boss what I wanted to do, and he said I would be awesome at it and let’s make it happen. He was very supportive of my request to go and push my career forward.
Kat: I am extremely grateful that he worked with both of us to make that transition happen. I run the Davenport office, and being a mechanical engineer, I really needed that electrical counterpart here. Just to clarify, you now have two degrees – a bachelor’s and a master’s. What are those two degrees?
Courtney: I actually have three degrees. I have a Bachelor of Science in architectural engineering with an electrical focus. I have a Bachelor of Science in construction management, and now I have a master’s degree in engineering management.
Kat: Do you feel that your master’s degree has really propelled you forward in your career?
Courtney: Yes, I learned a lot during that time. Most notably, just learning to step back and realize that everyone is different. You, as a manager, have to be able to work with every single person. You have to understand where that person is coming from and help them do their job to the best of their ability. That was a big focus of the degree. The other thing is understanding that everyone has a different learning style. Sometimes, as engineers, we see one answer to the problem, and that’s all we see. But understanding that people learn visually, some people learn with text, some people have to do it themselves – there’s a lot of different learning styles that we covered. It was an eye opener.
Kat: It’s been nearly 10 years since you joined RTM. Have there been moments where you think: This is why I’m here?
Courtney: A few months ago, I was scheduled to be out of the office for two days. Unbeknownst to me, it turned into two weeks. It was one of those things where I was texting at night, saying I’m not going to make it back for a while and is there anything that you need from me to make this work? Kat offered to sign into my email and change my out-of-office message so that we were covered as far as clients contacting me. During that time, pretty much everyone on the team either called or texted me to see if I was okay. One person even offered to drive out to my house and mow my lawn. It was very touching that the people I work with care about me as a person – more than just an employee or team member.
Kat: Do you have any other stories that you want to share with us that show you made the right choice?
Courtney: For me it’s the camaraderie that you see. People are genuinely excited for everyone when someone succeeds both personally and professionally. That reinforces the fact that this is the right company for me, and people do care for each other.
Listen to this entire conversation and find future podcasts here.
Beyond Engineering is a podcast from RTM Engineering Consultants, a MEP and Civil engineering firm that goes beyond a typical consulting role. Listen as RTM technologists share stories about innovative design, collaborative development and exacting execution that help buildings, businesses and the people working inside them, work better.
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