Chief Engineer, Sound Transit
WSU ’98 Civil Engineering
As the top engineering for Sound Transit, Kerry Pihlstrom (civil engineering, ’98) leads hundreds of engineering professionals and consultants to support one of the largest transportation systems in the United States, including light rail, bus rapid transit and commuter rail.
We asked Kerry for her thoughts on how her experience at Washington State University helped prepare her for a career in civil engineering, and her advice for others who are considering in entering the field.
Kerry, what does a Chief Engineer at Sound Transit do?
As Chief Engineer for Sound Transit, I am accountable for establishing and enforcing technical criteria for and changes or reconfigurations of our agency’s assets such as train control and signals, power distribution and traction electrification, operational communications, rail vehicles, track, fire and life safety, and structures.
In addition, I am accountable for establishing agency technical standards and specifications that are included in all of our contracts to ensure we build and maintain our infrastructure to meet our agency needs. And I do that all leveraging and delegating through various expertise within our Engineering division.
Our agency is implementing the nation’s largest transit infrastructure program while also ensuring support of our existing assets in operations. This requires me to ensure the role of engineering in our agency is clearly defined, staffed appropriately, and that decisions are made in a timely manner while ensuring the needs of our agency are met.
Engineering is the technical conscience and voice for Sound Transit and in that regard, I am the ultimate authority for engineering and my voice represents almost 80 engineers working for Sound Transit and 100s of consultants designing our infrastructure. Any given day, I find myself making engineering judgement calls on behalf of our agency in collaboration with many other departments that help deliver safe and reliable transit. I am often discussing complex technical issues that arise across the portfolio of projects we have underway that warrant my involvement either as a path for escalation or within my decision-making authority as represented on various governing boards. I also work heavily with many others on aligning our staffing resources and ensuring clarity in our roles and responsibilities.
Lastly, I am part of the leadership team help to strategize on the best approach to deliver a quality, safe and reliable system.
How did your educational experience at WSU prepare you for your career?
Leading a team of diverse engineers with varying backgrounds in engineering, requires a broad understanding of engineering, not just within my specific degree of choice. WSU’s program required courses to be taken in other areas of engineering outside of civil engineering.
As I have moved up in the various organizations I have worked, I quickly became a project manager overseeing the delivery of design by multiple disciplines of engineering. Having a broad understanding of the fundamentals of electrical, environmental and mechanical engineering has helped me get up to speed faster with the variety of engineering challenges we face on a daily basis.
In addition, the effort to solve problems with a team of diverse backgrounds and experiences is a critical skill that I use every day. And lastly, the last 15 years of my career has required public speaking to technical and non-technical audiences helping to explain the challenges and the steps we are taking to keep our system safe and reliable. At WSU, I was actively involved in ASCE and Society of Women Engineers as well as being an Alumni Ambassador that offered me the opportunity to speak in public, explain technical challenges to non-technical audiences and work on being more comfortable with public speaking.
Some may not understand how they get from Point A – graduating from college, to Point B- doing what you do today. Could you describe your career progression?
The most important piece of advice I got after graduating from college was the importance of getting my Professional Engineering license that would open doors for me in my career.
I always knew I liked to work in teams, I liked solving problems, and I liked to manage people and delivery of work. But before I could do those things, I first had to grow a strong technical foundation of engineering for the transportation system.
I first worked for a consulting firm, Jacobs Engineering, that offered me the opportunity to work with some of the best structural and civil engineers in the transportation industry and built my foundational knowledge of transportation. I worked on all types of transportation infrastructure from bridges, fish weirs, walls, ferry terminals, and more. This experience was critical to supporting by ability to obtain my PE license.
After I obtained that experience, I moved on to work for WSDOT in the ferry division managing projects during the planning and environmental stages, then became WSDOT’s Northwest Region Environmental Program Manager, then led the engineering deliverables and stakeholder engagement including acting as the public face of SR 520 Floating Bridge and Landings program, which all prepared me to move on to Sound Transit and within 4.5 years at Sound Transit, became the Chief Engineer.
How I got here has a lot to do with being a strong communicator and manager of multi-disciplinary teams while also saying yes to opportunities before me while experiencing engineering in various stages of a project from planning to construction. There are engineers that like to engineer and not speak to non-technical audiences about their work and there are engineers that like to communicate technical topics to non-technical audiences. We all bring different skills and abilities to our jobs and I am grateful for all the engineers I have worked with. All types are needed and valuable in delivering a safe and reliable transportation system.
What tips or advice do you have for today’s engineering graduates to be successful in their careers?
It starts before you graduate, get involved in student programs like ASCE and SWE to get to know other engineering disciplines and work on projects that bring the diverse backgrounds and expertise together.
In addition, look for summer internships and apply to as many as you can find. Internships are valuable when you graduate from school to demonstrate your experience in the industry. Knowing how to read and interpret a set of plans and specifications is a foundational skill that you can learn through an internship.
Once you are close to graduation, start looking for jobs – some jobs these days will require a master’s degree and some won’t. Even before you graduate, think about what field of engineering you want to work in and see what job opportunities are posted and look for what is required to apply for the job. This will help inform what education you need to support your career path.
Then choose a path and approach it with the attitude that you are building your foundational knowledge to support your ability to pass your PE license. Look for opportunities in your career to diversify your knowledge and expertise including design work at various phases in delivery of a project (alternatives analysis, conceptual engineering, and final design) but also construction experience like supporting your design during construction. Once you find what you enjoy doing the most, then build your expertise around that through continued training, experience and development.
There will be many forks in the road throughout your career and the above will help you choose informed by setting career goals and aspirations along the way centered around what you like doing the most.
What challenges did you face as a student or during your career? How did you overcome them?
The greatest challenge has always been being and feeling like the ‘only’ in the room. As a woman in the civil engineering program, there were only a few female engineers.
I was nervous to say if I didn’t understand something or to say if I need help. I tend to be outgoing and not shy asking questions so I can only imagine how much harder it is for someone who is more introverted and nervous to say they don’t understand something.
In my career, I still face this and I have grown in my confidence to say when I don’t understand and need help. Even at the highest achievement in my career as Chief Engineer, I still have to speak up when I don’t understand or when I need help.
Over the years I have worked hard to understand my strengths and my weaknesses and then built a support system around me. This is why building diverse teams are critical because everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Understanding each other within your team and knowing how you can best support each other is imperative to your success as a team and yourself individually.
Building a support system to help you along your educational and career journey has been the most important thing that has helped me grow in my career. I found the support through organizations like ASCE, SWE, and Women in Transportation Seminar and through those I have worked with throughout my career. Meeting others like me has and leveraging relationships along the way has helped build this support system.
What is the current climate for the civil and environmental engineering industry in the Pacific Northwest? What are the opportunities available to graduates?
Throughout my career, I have always worked in the transportation industry. Transportation is a strong and sustainable field for engineers as there is always transportation projects needed in all regions and countries.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, the transportation funding is larger than most states for the next 20 years. The demand is high for engineers – and many types of engineers. In addition, the Pacific Northwest is one of the most stringent places from an environmental regulation point of view. And every transportation project needs environmental engineers to help provide solutions that meet or beat our region’s regulations.
Based on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Civil Engineering continues to be the highest demand field for engineers. In the northwest, we are anticipating higher labor demand in engineering to support delivering the funded transportation program. This means there are an abundance of opportunities in here for graduates in engineering fields that support transportation.
Most opportunities for graduates will be within the construction and design industry – firms that deliver the work for agencies like Sound Transit and WSDOT. The types of skills that help you are any experience you bring from internships, class work, or other organized activities. Industry will look at your ability to read and interpret plans and specifications, ability to work with teams, ability to take initiative and work independently to find solutions. Having your Engineering-in-Training certificate at graduation will also provide you a competitive advantage as many jobs prefer or require this.
What are your favorite memories of WSU?
My favorite memories of WSU are the small-town community that welcomes a college presence. I could walk or ride transit to get to most places I needed to go.
I loved the seasons there as compared to the Seattle area where I grew up – snow was always fun and attending classes in the summer was the best! I loved working at Campus Carts making people’s day with a cup of coffee.
As a CEE student, my favorite memories were the ASCE events I got to be a part of like the Concrete Canoe competition. I also loved any lab time we got to spend learning with our hands and through direct experience.
The support system I had through the engineering program was also extremely helpful – professors available during office hours, peers willing to study together, TA’s available to provide me with assistance or tutoring if needed, and a vast list of scholarship opportunities I was able to obtain.
And even today, I still work with and run in to people I went to WSU with. The transportation industry is a small world, even as I have travelled across the U.S. with the various jobs I held early on in my career.
Is there anything else you would like to mention?
Working in the PNW after attending college at WSU, it is always fun to continue our WSU vs UW rivalry wherever I work. And crimson and grey just looks better than purple and gold in my opinion….even though I married a Husky! Cougars always felt a part of the community in Pullman and it is always nostalgic to return there – it still feels like the home I once I had and have fond memories of.