Taylor Dayton, EIT, is a project engineer at Aspect Consulting’s office in Wenatchee, Washington.
By Richard Massey
“My clients seem to value responsiveness above all other aspects of communication,” Dayton says. “Four years ago, I would have interpreted ‘responsiveness’ as having my phone on at all hours of the day, but I see nuance to it now. My clients value timely responses where I don’t come in swinging right off the bat with the ‘magic’ solution.”
A CONVERSATION WITH TAYLOR DAYTON.
The Zweig Letter: You started out as a biochemist at NASA. What did you learn from that experience that has been useful to you as a project engineer?
Taylor Dayton: From my first day on base, I was around women engineers of all ages, serving in a variety of roles – the head of my program office, the aeronautics project manager that stepped up as my mentor, the chemical engineer I shared an office with. As much as I knew there must be women engineers out there in the world, it was a very different experience witnessing them in action – solving very complex engineering problems, managing large technical teams, and directing entire programs. I suddenly had a dozen role models that were like me in some way and actively encouraging me to get involved in the missions they were passionate about. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and they made sure there was a path available to anyone who wanted to jump onboard.
As a project manager, I want to grow into that role with my junior staff and with clients. It is easy in a technical field to hoard work and information because engineering problems grow in complexity very quickly. I am still learning but actively trying to be intentional about creating that space to share my enthusiasm for pumps and pipes and keep it accessible for anyone who wants to come along for the ride.
TZL: What has it been like going from a lab setting to working in the field, sometimes in remote areas accessible only by helicopter?
TD: Lab science left more room for trial and error. If my microbes died or I pressed down too hard and pipetted a reagent in the wrong volume, I could step away and come back another day. Today, much of my fieldwork is remote – whether that’s in the mountains or far out in the desert. There is zero chance of a hardware store run in the middle of the day if I come up short on my equipment list. There is also no help coming if a bolt refuses to budge or you drop your only wrench into a deep lake. Those situations begin to ingrain a healthy, “This is what we have and this is the situation – get it done!” attitude. Six hours rotohammering into a cliffside to secure a stream level gage really puts my occasional reluctance to check my office voicemail into perspective!
TZL: You’ve worked on the $82 million Icicle Basin project in North Central Washington. This is a high public-profile project with a large stakeholder group trying to collaborate and overcome varied water disputes. What have been some of the challenges and accomplishments you’ve experienced working on this project?
TD: The Icicle Basin project effort has many facets. I quickly learned that my role in large projects is to take ownership over a small portion of the project and support the overall mission to the best of my ability. Engineers love details and it was difficult to not get wrapped up in trying to track every effort that was going on simultaneously. There was a learning curve to accepting my role and making my piece of the technical puzzle fit with the greater team effort, but the end results have been greater than the sum of their parts. I’m really excited to see how our efforts might help solve a critical local issue.
TZL: As a consulting engineer, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about communicating with clients?
TD: My clients seem to value responsiveness above all other aspects of communication. Four years ago, I would have interpreted “responsiveness” as having my phone on at all hours of the day, but I see nuance to it now. My clients value timely responses where I don’t come in swinging right off the bat with the “magic” solution.
I am learning to make room for the client to talk and fully explain their circumstances, then present option-based advice instead of laser focusing on what I determine to be best alternative. There is a skill to structuring those options to help clients make an informed decision rapidly that I am still developing, but I find the better I do at clearly laying out the possible paths forward with their respective challenges delineated, the more satisfied the client is with the solution.
TZL: In 2015, you moved across the country from Virginia to Washington to work at Aspect. Any culture shock? What attracted you to the firm?
TD: The day after I applied, the associate engineer in Wenatchee called me directly to let me know what he was looking for in a staff-level coworker, described what Wenatchee was like to live in, and to get to know me to see if we would be a good fit working together. He had personally read my resume and cover letter – not a computer looking for keywords, not an HR manager in a different city with no knowledge of the day-to-day feel of the office I wanted to work in. There was no generic questionnaire asking what three things I would bring to a desert island. Aspect was the first engineering firm I had applied to that used a direct-contact approach and that instantly shot them to the top of my list.
As far as culture shock, when you ask someone in Central Washington what they do, they rarely start off by describing their day job. They start with their family, their hobbies, and their outdoor pursuits. It’s dangerously easy to get invited into the world of white water rafting or Ultimate Frisbee or powder skiing and, before you know it, you have a shed full of gear and every weekend booked out. It’s very different than the status jockeying that dominates when you live and work near Washington, D.C.
TZL: You are a young engineer who has been with your firm for four years now. What made you decide to stay? Benefits? Work satisfaction/opportunity?
TD: I have been the oddball among the peers I graduated with by staying on with the first firm I joined. To tap an earlier question, I’m always looking for role models that are wired like me but are farther along in their career. In Virginia, the only path forward seemed to be the Washington, D.C. life of wearing suits to work and commuting two hours on the subway each day. It was refreshing to find associates and principals at Aspect succeeding just as well in life wearing blue jeans and kneeling in the dirt of an apple orchard. The reassurance that I can be me and succeed in this career outweighs the higher salaries available in bigger cities
TZL: You just became a project manager. That’s a workhorse position with tons of responsibility. What are you learning about yourself? What are you learning about the work and those you work with?
TD: This is the make it or break it time. The top down direction for project managers is to keep doing everything you’ve been doing at the junior level, but also get better at doing all of it, start learning delegation, make new client connections, step up in managing existing clients, scope larger projects, take more ownership over reviewing work product, and lean further into the technical specializations you want your career path to follow. Also, it’s not all about you and make sure you’re working on teams to keep your technical skill set growing, take on work from a variety of senior project managers, tag up with your peers who are also learning the project manager ropes, and bring junior staff up alongside you just like your last project manager did for you.
When you’re not a coffee drinker, you start wondering if there are enough hours in a work week to do all of those things. I try to keep in mind that it’s a marathon, not a sprint (and I’m always on the hunt for a metaphor because I really don’t enjoy running!). If the offer came tomorrow to skip this part of my career and move another notch up the ladder, I wouldn’t want to take it. This is a great time to sort out a sustainable career/life balance and work out what management tools fit my style of leadership and help me meet my goals.
TZL: Early in your career, what project seemed to be the most daunting, and why? What did you learn by meeting the challenge?
TD: The first contract I brought in on my own was intimidating. I scoped the project with a tight budget and, at the end of the project, the client asked for some additional work. Completing that requested work would have pushed my project overbudget. I was surprised by how reluctant I felt asking for a contract change. In my mind, it was just a couple more hours of my time crunching numbers like I do every day and it was difficult to rectify that with the additional money I would have to ask for to cover that time.
Stressed about the contract change, I had a long heart-to-heart with my manager about standing behind and valuing my work and time. I’ve carried that forward to my role as a project manager. Developing pump specifications might feel like a casual afternoon activity, but many years of training and practice went into building that skill set and I need to put value on that.
TZL: Guitars and water rights legends. Tell us about your interesting hobbies when you are not working.
TD: Water Conservancy Board: Washington state water rights play a role in every water infrastructure project I work on. Right away, I was intrigued. Washington became a state in 1889 but didn’t develop a surface water code until 1917. The state didn’t regulate groundwater until 1945. There are hundreds of laws and court cases that interweave those three major milestones. Each court case is like a fairy tale or legend – someone tried to do something and someone else disagreed and some court made a very situation-specific ruling that we now need to extrapolate and apply to every similar case in perpetuity. That situation rides until someone else tries to do something that interacts with that extrapolation and the water code continues to evolve. It is awesome and one year into my job I decided I wanted even more of it.
Several counties in Washington state have Conservancy Boards. Conservancy Boards are volunteer boards of three to five members that can process change applications to water rights within their county and make a preliminary recommendation to the Department of Ecology. This helps Ecology manage a large backlog of change applications. There are some substantial training requirements and time commitments involved, but Conservancy Boards are a great way to stay plugged into water availability locally and to get a glimpse into Ecology’s work process in regulating state water rights.
I must have skimmed the portion of the RCW describing Conservancy Board responsibilities because I was a little surprised when my commission letter thanked me for taking on a six-year term, but I am enjoying the experience. Now I am a small part of some of those legends and I get a front-row seat to many more.
Guitars: I can’t hum my way through Happy Birthday without my voice cracking and I have never matched a pitch correctly on the first try in my life. I missed the phase of life where I might have found a rock legend to idolize. Somewhere along the line, though, I saw a band perform and there was moment where the bassist and guitarist exchanged a look and the whole tone of the music changed and evolved. All I could think of is, “How did they do that?” That kicked off a seven-year journey of faking my way through bass player auditions only knowing four notes on my fretboard, being the only adult in a six-month long guitar lesson series populated with hyper critical 9-year-olds, and a stint as the drummer for a band called “Run Fast, We Only Know 3 Songs” that exclusively performed at 5K run events.
My partner is a dedicated hobbyist woodworker and I’m full of ideas with very little of the patience required to sand a block of wood with 10 types of sandpaper. With his help, I love building guitars and restoring my weird pawn shop finds. I enjoy learning about the hobbyist builders who created the iconic guitars that have stuck around for 70 years. There are “vintage correct” paint finishes on some 1950s guitars that sell for tens of thousands of dollars, but when you dig into the story behind them, you’ll find the builder was just looking to cut costs and grabbed a pallet of old paint leftover from unpopular car colors from the next door auto shop’s garbage can. There’s something great about that.