Change Leader Full Interview: Technical Vendor Representatives Benefit Engineering Projects
Shelley Finnigan is the global technical sales engineer and head of technical sales and marketing for ArcelorMittal.
V1 Media: Please provide a brief background of your education and career before ArcelorMittal.
Finnigan: I attended Purdue University for both my undergraduate degree, a bachelor’s of science in civil engineering, and my graduate degree, which was a master’s of science in civil engineering. While I was there, I had the good fortune to participate as a teaching assistant with the Civil Engineering school during my master’s, which equipped me with some invaluable skills for my job here at ArcelorMittal.
During my graduate studies, I also had the opportunity to meet Charlie Thornton, who was one of the co-founders of Thornton Tomasetti. I was introduced to him during the end of my graduate degree and ended up working for Thornton Tomasetti for the first five years of my career. I worked in the Chicago office, and then I was also based out of their London office for a year. This provided me with a diverse range of experience.
Charlie made an interesting comment when I first met him. He was presenting us at one of our graduate school seminars, and he commented that anyone who works at his firm should have a very diverse range of experiences. And I took that to heart, not only by working in Chicago and London, but I also practiced there as a structural engineer and once I was licensed, I moved into their marketing department, and then into their business development department before I left the firm to join ArcelorMittal.
V1 Media: Can you tell me about how you ended up switching over to ArcelorMittal and describe your current role there?
Finnigan: My decision to move into the marketing and business development departments at Thornton Tomasetti served as an alternative to pursuing an MBA. Once I gained that exposure, I had separated myself from a traditional engineering path. ArcelorMittal found out about me through some mutual connections we have in the industry, and they were really intrigued by this mixed background I had: the capability to design a steel building coupled with the capability to market professional services.
It translated nicely to what I do here at ArcelorMittal, which is technical solutions support on projects, also called technical sales. More specifically, I take messaging from our steel mills, and I translate it to useful information for construction project stakeholders, such as structural engineers, developers, architects, and contractors. Whether they be skyscrapers, stadiums, or aviation facilities, I support designers on any project that’s part of the built environment by introducing them to the unique types of steel ArcelorMittal produces and by helping them find ways to use those steels in their projects. My intent is to always find solutions that help designers save costs associated with building their structure.
V1 Media: Now could you please describe some of your favorite projects and your role in them as well as why they’re your favorites?
Finnigan: When I was at Thornton Tomasetti, I worked on the design of several major steel projects, all of which are among my favorites. Taking part in them enabled me to obtain a detailed understanding of how the design of a steel building works and of what it looks like to work in the trenches as a structural engineer. In particular, I’m grateful to have a first-hand understanding of the collaborative process and types of conversations that occur among the engineers, architects, contractors and additional subconsultants that comprise project teams. Those experiences have served as the foundation for me to be an effective technical representative of ArcelorMittal, and they helped me recognize how my role at ArcelorMittal can be a positive force in construction projects.
One project I’m really pleased to have taken part in since joining ArcelorMittal is 150 North Riverside in Chicago (to read a feature article on this building, see “Tower of Power: Strong Steel Overcomes Constraints at a Tight Site,” Informed Infrastructure, March/April 2016, page 33). Normally people view the angle that I come into a project as “just a vendor” and one of the participants in the project that’s just going to supply a product. But the 150 North Riverside team, Magnusson Klemencic Associates especially, viewed us as a true support for the feedback we gave them during the design phases of the project.
There were a couple of design challenges the team faced that involved really heavy sections that would require a lot of fabrication and were going to be pretty challenging to put up in the field. However, through conversations that took place directly between me and the project manager, we were able to propose new solutions that used ArcelorMittal’s high-strength steel and some of our heaviest rolled shapes. Actually the heaviest rolled shapes available in the world. Due to their effectiveness, the proposals were incorporated onto the project.
I found out a few years later that this saved millions of dollars on the project, which makes me feel pretty fantastic about being able to be part of the collaborative process. When it was submitted for the IDEAS2 award with AISC, the project team elected to list ArcelorMittal as a consultant on the project. For me, that was a huge achievement because I had broken through that barrier of being viewed as somebody who’s supplying steel for the project to be viewed instead as a partner, which is a position where we really bring value to the overall project outcomes.
V1 Media: For our audience of engineers, can you give them some advice on how to better understand and relate with those like yourself, who might be coming from a vendor side?
Finnigan: I’m going to sound like I’m boosting our company here, but I really do believe that ArcelorMittal, especially as a steel supplier for the construction industry, is very unique. Committed to providing complimentary technical support services, we employ numerous experts whose backgrounds are in structural engineering. Those individuals, like me, are focused on knowledgeably advising construction project stakeholders on how to make their buildings more efficient. We aren’t just salespeople, who are looking to “close the deal”. Instead, we strive to work alongside project teams to overcome their specific challenges. We focus on unique steel solutions that will lead the project to immense cost savings, improved efficiencies, and better sustainability outcomes.
For engineers to make the most of engaging with a vendor’s technical expert, they should engage us in their projects early. The more time that we have to work alongside them—and to deeply understand their challenges and intricacies – the more opportunity we will have to help them improve the building overall.
V1 Media: To be more general, let’s say engineers are speaking to generic product representatives or vendor representatives and not your company. What might be some better ways they can communicate with them so you’re not adversarial and are working on the same team?
Finnigan: When a person who would be perceived as a vendor comes into their office, engineers tend to assume that the vendor has sent a salesperson to talk to them, and that the “salesperson” might not have an in depth knowledge about structural engineering, for example, or even mechanical engineering, depending on whatever type of vendor it is. I think it’s really important for design firms to be open to these conversations with technical representatives from vendors, and not necessarily go into the meeting assuming that person won’t bring value to their project outcomes.
I think there is a strong set of expertise amongst these technical representatives from vendors that’s extremely specialized and can bring great value to project outcomes. It’s common for these technical representatives from vendors to be involved in design organizations that set standards—meaning they’ll have an inner working knowledge of how buildings are getting designed—and that they are exposed to a wide range of projects in a variety of markets—meaning that they can bring creative yet practical insights to the challenges that designers are looking to overcome. In order for designers to take full advantage of this expertise, they need to be open to learning from another person who is still just as technical as them, but has chosen to take an alternative career path as opposed to traditional engineering careers.
V1 Media: Are there some questions or communication that can ease their fears that they’re not being spoken to by a salesperson? Some way to more-quickly bridge that gap?
Finnigan: My approach is to broadcast my credentials and work history, so I can forge a connection and build trust as quickly as possible. I don’t really wait for anybody to ask me those questions, but I would definitely respond openly to any queries that engineers have about my expertise and experience.
V1 Media: How did you end up in engineering? And did you experience difficulties unique to women engineers?
Finnigan: I ended up in engineering because math always intrigued me. In third grade, I received my first math workbook, and it was the first time I was free to learn at my own pace. I convinced a couple of other students in my class to sit with me at recess and just plow through this math workbook. We really chugged along. Halfway through the school year, we had finished the workbook. We then purchased the second iteration of the math workbook and worked through it in the second part of the year. After that, the teacher decided it was necessary for us to have advanced math classes at our school.
Math was always really easy for me and something that always made me feel really great. By the time I was in my sophomore year of high school, I was in the last math class offered by my high school. And people started saying to me, “You know what? Engineering in general is something you should be exploring.” I hadn’t really thought about what an engineering degree looked like, but at that point in my life, I had also started to become intrigued by architecture. When I learned engineering could be married to architecture, that was how I decided engineering was probably something I wanted to be doing in the future.
That was when I committed to going to Purdue. I went there after my junior year of high school and started in their engineering program straight away. It was interesting, because by the time I got into civil engineering, I think we had 100 students in our class, and 10 of those students were women. For me, it wasn’t so much of a shock, because when I was growing up, I had actually moved six times in my life. So, I was very accustomed to being in different situations, and I had learned how to ignore any differences between myself and those surrounding me. I didn’t really connect with the fact that I was one of only 10 percent of the women in my class.
Whenever I would work with anybody on homework assignments or any other coursework we had—group projects and whatnot—obviously I was surrounded by gentlemen from my class, and I interacted with them like we were just peers, because we were, and didn’t let any thoughts about gender invade my psyche. I just ignored it and focused on the fact that we were all there working on our engineering degrees together.
When I graduated and started practicing as an engineer, Thornton Tomasetti’s Chicago office had probably a 30 percent female presence, which seemed like quite a bit at that time. I don’t know what those numbers look like anymore, but it felt like I was more generously surrounded by women at that point, as compared to how it was for me in undergraduate school.
I don’t feel as though I have explicitly experienced many situations where I felt like being a woman has set me back. I have always focused on embracing the confidence I have to ignore gender when I walk into a room. Being able to present myself as an equal to all the people I’m talking to; anything that might be going on in the background just doesn’t cross my mind.
V1 Media: Can you just describe how you’re helping other women get into STEM and engineering in particular?
Finnigan: I try to participate in mentoring programs whenever I have the opportunity. When I was at Thornton Tomasetti, I used to participate in the ACE mentor program.
I thought it was incredible to be able to connect with high school students and see all of the amazing ideas they had when it came to architecture, construction and engineering. Interestingly enough—it was definitely not intentional, but I’m glad it worked out this way—there have been a handful of women from that experience who I have stayed connected with, and I like to think I’ve tried to impart upon them my belief that confidence does need to come from within us first to break down these gender stereotypes. And I encourage them to learn to walk into a room and know they’re representing their company because they’re the expert in whatever the situation is.
I actually had another female, a friend of mine from college, who had become a representative of the steel industry as well. And I remember her talking to me about how intimidating she thought it was going to be when she was going to have her first presentation. And how she thought: “I think it’s going to be really tough. I’m a woman, I’m walking into this room, and engineers are a tough crowd.” She was really concerned that everybody in that room would assume she didn’t have the chops to be presenting to them.
My response to her was encouragement: “You’re representing the steel industry because you have more knowledge – even if it’s just a little bit more knowledge – and expertise in steel than anybody in that room. And you just need to rest on those laurels and walk into that room and know that everything you’re going to say is somehow going to be a new bit of information for the people there. You can’t sit there and wonder if people are thinking about you being a woman or thinking about you being a little less experienced than them. You have to know that in this subject matter, you’re the expert, and they’ve invited you to talk to them because of that.”
V1 Media: How can other engineers, men or women, take a more-active role to encourage the young women in their office to feel more comfortable? Or if they are young women, how to be more comfortable, as you’ve been talking about.
Finnigan: I have had groups of friends who mentioned there’s a “cliquey-ness” among some individuals in their office. They say, “Oh, I’ve noticed that this group of guys always goes out for lunch together every week.” I encourage people to break into that. I like to be sarcastic, so I would normally enter into the situation by pointing out – in a lighthearted, yet satirical fashion – the fact that I noticed this group of guys was always going out together. Then I would say, “I’d like to join you.” And I’d go to that lunch and not think I’m one girl amongst all the guys, but look at it as a lunch of all my colleagues going out together.
I also think it’s the duty of that group of men in the office to start paying attention to who it is they’re inviting out to lunch, and asking themselves if there may be other people in the office who they haven’t met – maybe not even people of another gender, but also other people they haven’t interacted with before. Once they recognize that the answer to that question may be “yes,”, they should get out there and connect with the people they don’t know, we all provide interesting and unique points of view.
I recognize that these situations may—especially the first time—feel uncomfortable, and I believe that we should all challenge ourselves to get outside of our comfort zones and aim more for an all-around more-inclusive environment.