Embrace Discipline, Stay Curious and Aim High
Meet Cathleen Ma, a Construction Engineer in TYLin’s Los Angeles, California, office.
What inspired you to become an engineer?
I come from a family of mathematicians and engineers, but my father was the one who truly inspired me. After my family immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong, my father started his career as a mechanic but was really a jack-of-all-trades. He could do anything, from fixing the smallest things to building our home. He slowly built his career in real estate. I remember when he took me on a site visit to a commercial building and how fascinated I was. Looking back, I’m sure that’s where it all started.
What's one thing the engineering industry can do to encourage more women into its ranks?
Women in the industry may often feel discouraged or uncomfortable in what is historically a male-dominated field. Having a positive and encouraging support system from colleagues and internal management goes a long way in motivating those seeking to advance their career. Regardless of gender, the industry needs to continue recognizing individuals with the skillsets and ambitions for higher positions.
Who have been mentors and advisors in your career?
I’ve been fortunate to have many incredible mentors in my career. Two of my biggest mentors are my parents. They’ve instilled in me the value of hard work. I also must give much credit to TYLin’s Joseph Smith, PE, and John Buckley, PE. These two gentlemen have taught me most of what I know about this industry.
What technical skills have helped you advance in your career?
My education is in structural engineering, and my master’s degrees in construction management and business administration laid the foundation for my career. But what’s helped me advance are the soft skills that aren't taught: attention to detail, being organized, and most importantly, being an effective communicator.
What personal traits or characteristics have helped you succeed in this position?
The two traits that have helped me are self-discipline and the desire to improve. Everyone procrastinates but discipline keeps me on track. I still have weaknesses I need to work on. There’s a Chinese proverb that my parents used to say: “活到老 學到老”- which means “Live till you're old, and study till you're old.”
What are two of the most memorable projects you have worked on?
First is the I-10 at Jefferson Street Interchange in Indio, California. TYLin was the Construction Manager for this USD 42.3 million interchange project. It was my very first construction project as a full-time engineer. I relocated to the desert to serve as the Office Engineer, but my duties didn’t stop there. I had opportunities to do so much more, including field inspection, which was fundamental to my growth as an entry-level engineer.
My second most memorable project is the North Atwater Non-Motorized Multimodal Bridge in Los Angeles, California. TYLin provided Construction Management and Engineer of Record services. The bridge is 325 feet long and 35 feet wide and has separate paths for equestrians and pedestrians/bicyclists. This bridge is very special because it is the only cable-stayed bridge in Los Angeles and possibly the first cable-stayed equestrian bridge in the world! It is also symbolic to me because my last name means “horse” in Chinese. As the construction engineer, I not only helped with the design of the shock transmission unit at the abutments, but I also got to design the lighting system for the handrails.
What advice would you give to young engineers who are interested in a position such as yours?
Be curious and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Struggle is a part of learning. It’s also important to recognize that while people can be experts, no one knows everything. For younger women engineers: Aim as high as possible.