Coffee Break! Today’s Topic: Women in Engineering with Ashley Johnson

Brittany Harlow By: Brittany Harlow

To celebrate International Women in Engineering Day on June 23rd, I sat down with Ashley Johnson, one of four women on our bridges and structures team, at one of her favorite coffee shops, Stir Crazy Café. We enjoyed a nice afternoon chat about women in engineering all while enjoying a delicious cup of coffee.

Q. You studied civil engineering at Tulane University and even have two master’s degrees in civil engineering from Tulane and Virginia Tech. What sparked your interest in engineering?
When I was younger, I did a lot of volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity, so I had an interest in building things. I honestly had never considered going into engineering until my mom mentioned it to me one day, saying that I had always been good at math and science. I decided to give it a shot and see if I liked it, and from the very beginning of my engineering courses, I knew it was the right fit for me!

Q. Do you have a moment you can remember where you realized this was the field you wanted to pursue your career in?
I don’t think there was ever a distinct moment, but once I started the first few “real” engineering classes like statics and mechanics, they were my favorite classes.

Q. What is one thing that would surprise us to know about you and your career?
I spent a long time in grad school! At first, I was interested in getting my PhD to become an engineering professor, but I realized academic research wasn’t really for me – so that explains my two master’s degrees. I decided I liked being out in the workforce and being able to apply my knowledge in practical and tangible ways. If the opportunity ever presents itself, I would love to do some adjunct teaching at a university and help mentor younger engineers.

Q. What has been your best experience as an engineer with Timmons Group?
My best experience as an engineer with Timmons Group has been managing a large bridge rehabilitation project we’re doing for the City of Charlottesville.  The project itself is very interesting with a wide range of bridge types and repair needs to consider. However, the experience from the beginning has also been exciting because we won the project when bridges and structures was still a relatively new group to the firm.  I loved being able to meet with the client and show them how we can serve them as a team through our experience and why we were the perfect fit for the project. The most exciting part about winning this project was finding out that we won just a few hours after we interviewed!

Overall, I’m just proud of how our bridges and structures team has grown and what we’ve accomplished in just two years. We have a great team of experienced and intelligent engineers, and we’ve done a lot of interesting projects, both big and small.

Q. Timmons Group Women in Design's mission is to be an industry leader in the development of women’s careers, making a long-term impact on the success of women in the industries we serve. How has Timmons Group helped ensure your success as a woman in engineering?
I’d say the formal Women in Design events that we put on a few times a year provide a great opportunity for growth and personal development. I’m on the Women in Design Committee, so I’ve also really benefitted from the relationships I’ve built with the other women at Timmons Group as part of the committee. I also appreciate the opportunities to lead and participate in projects with other disciplines throughout Timmons Group.  This has given me the chance to develop relationships across the firm and even benefit from “mini-mentoring” moments with Timmons Group leaders.  

Q. What is it like to be a woman in engineering? Do you feel that being a woman gives a different perspective in the industry? What advantages do you see?
I don’t usually give too much thought to being a woman in this industry, but I am thankful for the women before me that paved the way and for all the opportunities I’ve had over the course of my career.  I think that your perspective in the industry comes from your personality and your experiences, and certainly being a woman is part of my personality and my past experiences.  But I also don’t want it to be the primary thing that defines me.  Like everyone, I have certain strengths and weakness that help me be a contributing member of our team, and being a woman is a part of that, but not the whole.

Q. Have any women in engineering influenced you and your career? How?
Dr. Carin Wollman was one of my professors in grad school that I was always inspired by. I looked up to her because she worked her way through school to earn her PhD and become a professor. It was inspirational seeing her as a mom, a professor, and an engineer who was able to attain the crazy work/life balance that comes with being a woman in engineering.

Q. What advice would you give to women who are just beginning their careers as engineers?
To have confidence! Confidence can be difficult for women. Being overly confident can unfortunately sometimes portray you in a negative way in the workplace so it is important to find that perfect balance and be able to take pride in your abilities. Some great advice I remember from one of our Women in Design events that I think everyone should hear is, “to make sure your manager knows what you’re doing.” If you’re proud of something you’ve worked on, let them know! And if you’re more of a wallflower (like I was at the start of my career), make sure you have an advocate in your corner (significant other, parent, sibling, friend) that can help push you a little to take steps towards being more confident.

Q. What do you want to see in the future for women working in the engineering field?
When I was in school, I was always one of only two or three women in my civil engineering classes. Working at Timmons Group is the first time I’ve been on a team with another female structural engineer! It’s encouraging to see more women joining the field of civil engineering in general, and it would be great to see more women on the transportation side in particular.

Quick Fire Round

Q. If you were not a civil engineer, what would you be?
A meteorologist. I’m pretty nerdy, so something still related to math and science. After living in New Orleans for several years, I developed a fascination with hurricanes.

Q. Favorite Richmond restaurant?
That’s a hard one! I would have to say Stella’s is my favorite place for brunch in the city. I also love Garnett’s Cafe and Thai Diner Too is my go-to for takeout.

Q. Best way to spend a day off work?
Most of my time off is spent with my 4-year old daughter and trying to be outside as much as possible.  But I like working on house projects too because it gives me a balance between relaxing and still being productive. I live in a house that was built in 1915, so there is always something to work on and my husband and I have done it all ourselves!

Q. Favorite project so far in your career?
It was a design-build project on I-64. Even though it was from several years ago, it’s my favorite because it was the first project where I was responsible for the structural design completely from start to finish. It kind of became my “baby” in a way.

Q. Favorite Women in Design event?
We had a joint networking event with a local law firm, which was a great opportunity for me and the other women to learn and practice our networking skills in a setting with much less pressure than interacting with potential clients.