Daniel Bressler, EIT, A.M.ASCE, was laid off from his position as a project engineer several months ago due to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Bressler — who earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from New York University and is now pursuing his master’s degree in structural engineering through The City College of New York — was undaunted. He pursued employment by establishing clear steps he would take each day and week and completed those steps as if they were his job. By the end of just one month, he had a new position that he enjoys and feels confident in. To succeed in civil engineering, he recommends mentorships and curiosity — plus a generous helping of humor.
How did you land your current job during the pandemic?
I follow step-by-step guides for most things. So first I told my inner circle — my family and close friends — that I was looking for a job. Then I told my college friends, and after that I told my college professors. I had saved emails from my undergraduate school that listed jobs, so I went through those and reached out to the companies to ask if they still had anything available. Then I used LinkedIn, and finally I just searched websites of companies I thought I would be interested in and applied online. I used an Excel spreadsheet to track everything, and every two weeks I sent follow-up emails, up to two or three times.
It’s easier to take baby steps and take it piece by piece. And it helped that my family was there to support me. My dad said, ‘Don’t feel sorry for yourself. These things happen. Get back on your feet. Do the work.’
A friend of mine works with an architect who worked with the owner of York Tower Consulting Engineering, and that’s how my resume eventually made its way to them.
How does this new job compare to your last?
The biggest difference is that I have more responsibility. As I am earning trust from my employer, I am allowed to do more independent design. I now have more input into the final product that we deliver to the client.
For example, I designed the gravity and lateral system for an extension on an existing building. The caveat of the design was the client — an architect — did not account for columns in the layout and did not want to change the design. The solution that I got to design was a structure that started outside the existing building, so it wouldn’t disrupt the layout. For the extension of the existing building — the new upper two floors — the structure went over the existing building and continued from there, almost as if it were hugging the existing building.
It was a really different experience that I would not have thought I would have had the chance to design. I am also lucky that my days always stay interesting with other small jobs like designing connections for balconies and such.
What are the chief skills and abilities that you developed in your previous positions that enabled you to move on to this new position?
I learned self-confidence in my designs and how to gather data. When I was in school, all the information was presented to me, but over the previous two jobs, I learned that the world is far from perfect. Sometimes you must do some research and guesstimate to come up with an adequate design for the situation at hand.
What nontechnical skills have helped you so far in your career?
I always look for a challenge and ways to learn. I ask ‘why’ and dig deeper into how someone came up with an answer and how I can apply that in the future. I’m willing to take critiques and be a team player.
I also did Toastmasters, which gave me confidence in public speaking. I recommend it to anyone.
And having a sense of humor helps in an industry that can be a little bit dry. It makes it more lively and easier to work with people.
What role have mentors played in your career?
I work very intimately with my current manager, who has an open-door policy and is a very warm person, very open to any questions I have. It’s just him and me on the renovation team.
I am also part of ASCE’s Mentor Match. I’ve been with Dustin Cole, P.E., P.Eng, M.ASCE, for two years. He has taken the time and patience to help me through many of the challenges of a young engineer starting out in the industry. Every month we have a phone call. I have a checklist we go through, and then we talk about whatever else came up that month. And I take notes so I can refer back.
And my mother was a big role model for me. She went to college later — after she raised her kids — and went into nursing. That was amazing to see. It showed that if you have your mind set on something, you can do it, and it doesn’t matter when.
How did you get interested in engineering, and civil engineering specifically?
In undergraduate school, I was taking lots of courses; I was good at math, and I was interested in how things work. My brother suggested a physics course because we had a friend who is an engineer, and he suggested that. I took physics and loved it. Then I spoke to that friend, and he asked questions about what parts of the course I liked the most, and through those answers we narrowed it down to civil. And the more I took civil engineering courses, the more I fell in love with it. And now I’m pursuing my master’s degree, and the more in-depth I get, the more excited I get.
What do you hope to accomplish next in your career?
I want to get my master’s degree, which I am in the process of doing now. Within the next two years, I want to sit for my professional engineer license exam.
And I want my managers and company to feel like I am a reliable asset, that they can send something my way and know it will come back done — and done well. I strive for personal excellence.
How have you worked on developing your leadership skills?
I was a transfer student, and when I transferred to NYU, I wanted to pursue extracurricular activities to get to know people. So I went to a meeting for the ASCE Concrete Canoe Competition. I had barely taken any engineering courses yet, but I signed up to get involved. Two days later they asked me to be the construction captain. We had one project manager and five subteams, and I led one of those. It was phenomenal. We won everything on the regional level, and at nationals, we were in the top 10 — and my category placed third. That experience taught me deadlines, responsibility, and how to manage and work with people. It was fun, and I learned a lot.
Where do you see your career heading next?
After getting my master’s degree and my P.E., I may look at getting a structural engineering license. And I do want to take on more management tasks while still doing design. But beyond that? Honestly, who knows what’s next? I’m ambitious. But I’m just as curious as you!
What personal traits or characteristics do you believe helped you in this new position?
My perseverance and focus. When I don’t succeed the first time, I use that as incentive to try even harder. I truly believe that anyone can do anything they set their mind to if they put in the work, as long as they take it step by step and learn something new every day.
What advice would you give to other young engineers who would seek positions similar to yours?
I am only two years into the industry, so that’s hard to say. But I would say, ‘Try, no matter what.’ Even if you are not receiving any responses from your dream company, keep applying and do not get discouraged. I always pictured myself at a large firm, but now that I am happily employed at York Tower, which is a small firm, I realize that every organization has a unique culture and value.
Where do you think the field of civil engineering is headed in the next five to 10 years?
I think civil engineering is going to be a lot more computer based, with people connecting virtually as part of the regular routine. Already we are seeing the increased use of 3D modeling software to create construction documents. That progression will continue.
What is one item that you can share from your personal or professional bucket list?
My bucket list used to include riding a roller coaster, but I got over that fear a year and a half ago. I rode the Incredible Hulk Coaster at Universal Orlando Resort. It uses a drive-tire launch system, which avoids the dreaded chain lift!
What would your current coworkers be surprised to learn about you?
I do not drink coffee, so if you ever see me with a thermos, it’s hot cocoa. And yes, there are probably marshmallows or whipped cream in there as well!
What quote or principle do you try to live by, in your work or your personal life?
‘A mind is a terrible thing to waste.’ (The United Negro College Fund launched an ad campaign with this slogan in 1972.) My teacher in ninth grade told me this, and it stuck with me ever since. If you want to do something, set a goal and take it in baby steps.
Another similar idea came from a college professor, Ron Pennella, CCM, FCMAA: Use the word ‘challenge’ to describe goals because ‘challenge’ implies that it is something that can be overcome.
What is one routine you couldn’t do without?
Playing basketball. I need to play ball at least once a week, or I will go nuts from not moving. Before lockdown, I would play religiously twice a week, sometimes more. Right now, though, it is a little hard to play defense while staying 6 feet apart!
Are you a younger member who has recently taken the next step in your career? We’d like to hear from you. Email firstname.lastname@example.org using the subject line “Next Step.”
This article first appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Civil Engineering as “Break Down Your Goals and Follow the Steps.”