Matt Clohisy on Transitioning to Engineering Consulting and What Trusting The Process Looked Like For Him On the Job
Talk about your WashU experience.
I chose WashU because I saw it as premiere academic institution that I thought would provide me with great opportunities for personal growth, a top-tier education, and a variety of professional opportunities. My initial goal as I began my freshman fall was to make the Baseball team as an infielder. I made the team. Sophomore year I was turned into a pitcher and outfielder. And junior year I became a pitcher-only...you could say I learned how to adapt and be flexible.
What was the biggest lesson you learned during your time as a student-athlete?
One of the biggest lessons I learned as a student-athlete is trusting the process, and that big strides usually aren’t made quickly. When I first started work, I had very few directly applicable skills to my company. I had some foundational knowledge, but nothing that specifically translated to my day-to-day tasks. I put my head down, and showed up every day to put the time in. I knew it’s not going to take a year or two to get where I want to be, but I know my hard work will pay off over time.
Another lesson I learned is patience. In our society with all the instant gratification of social media and the internet, I think a lot of non-athletes may have a harder time with this. Athletes tend to understand that development takes time and opportunities are limited. A lot of athletes know what it feels like to have to work hard at improving for 2-3 years as they sit on the bench until an opportunity to contribute to the team arises.
As a student-athlete, you were interested in engineering. Where did this interest come from and how did you work towards a career in the field?
I’m a very pragmatic person, and I was always much more interested in the physical element to things than the philosophical or what can’t be seen. Physics was my favorite class in high school, and I always loved numbers. Even though math was always a strength of mine, I was never very interested in going into the financial world. I wanted to work with real, concrete things. I think there’s something satisfying about finishing a job and being able to point and say, “I did that.” I saw the engineering field as a good fit for these reasons and many others.
In terms of how I prepared for this, I had two different internships during the summers after my sophomore and junior years. My sophomore summer I had a role as a project management intern for a small industrial engineering firm. My junior summer I worked for a global energy company as a product management intern. It was great to work for two very different companies and see the pros/cons to each. My summer experiences really helped me identify what sort of job and company I wanted to pursue after graduation – a technical engineering role for an engineering consultant firm. While working full-time in the summers, I was also able to play in a summer league on the weekends. I usually had one start each weekend and was able to train daily after work as well.
Can you tell us a bit about your job now.
I am a mechanical engineer and I work for an engineering consulting firm called CRB, based in St. Louis. My boss was a student-athlete at WashU in the ‘90s. I interviewed with her, and I felt like she related to me well and respected my accomplishments even more having been a Wash U student-athlete herself. CRB is a unique company in the engineering world because of the technical nature of our projects – we design facilities for pharmaceutical companies. When looking for jobs, I wanted a job that would be challenging, and I didn’t want to be doing the same thing over and over. I wanted to have the opportunity to learn something new every day. My job has turned out to be exactly that. All our projects are a little different, and there are no cookie cutter solutions. I also enjoy that, in my field, it takes a long time to develop the skills and knowledge to be an expert. There are experts in my company who have been working there for longer than I’ve been alive. I enjoy having a challenge every day and always having something to work towards.
What skills did you need when you arrived at your job that you didn't have?
We design most of our projects in a 3D modeling software called Revit. It’s a very powerful tool that allows all of our disciplines to be working on the same model at the same time and provides a platform for coordination. We export all of our 2D drawings from this software. The ability to navigate, edit, and add to the model is a huge part of my job. I had zero experience in this software when I started. I received two days of training as part of my on-boarding that were very helpful in getting down the basics. Figuring out the specifics and intricacies of the software was up to me as I started to work on projects. I relied a lot on my co-workers who had more experience in the software and learning from online tutorials.
Would you say you’ve mastered these skills at this point?
I would not call myself an expert now by any means, but I feel much more confident and able to use the software as needed to do my job. Developing a new skill is something that, thanks to baseball, I had a lot of practice doing. My junior year, my coach wanted me to learn a slider – a pitch I had never thrown before in my life. With practice and repetition and working with my coach and teammates who had already mastered the pitch, I found my slider. It became my second most effective pitch my senior year (but it did take a good year for it to get there). My first most effective pitch my senior year was another type of pitch that I had never thrown before, and my coach recommended I try developing due to my arm slot and the straight nature of my fastball - a cutter.
Given the team oriented nature of sports, how much of your work is team oriented vs. individual?
Pretty much all of our projects are executed as a team. In my office, we have architects, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, structural engineers, process engineers, and project managers. A vital part to the successful design of each project is coordination and communication between these disciplines, and within each discipline from the leads down to the junior level engineers. This “team” culture was something that really attracted me as a college student and has proven to be similar in a lot of ways to being part of an athletic team.
Did you feel imposter syndrome when you started? How long did it take you to overcome that if you did?
The beauty of your first job out of college is that everyone has been there before and understands how little you actually know. On my very first day, my boss and a couple senior mechanical engineers on my team took me out to a welcome lunch. One thing I was told at that lunch that I’ve gone back to time and time again was “Ask a lot of questions.” So, when I don’t understand an aspect of a project or why we design a system this way instead of that, I try to ask. When I think of an imposter I think of someone who tries to be something that he or she isn’t. If I’m asking questions, I feel like I’m being honest enough with myself and my coworkers and admitting that I don’t know everything but care enough to want to learn and understand. I started asking a lot of questions as soon as I could – but that being said, I’ve learned to always try to critically think through it first and come up with an answer of my own before I ask for someone else’s.
What was the toughest part of the transition moving away from being a student-athlete?
The toughest part for me was no longer having the daily competitive outlet that collegiate sports provided. I haven’t totally replaced it. I trained for and completed a Tough Mudder, and even recently have started to train for a marathon. While it’s nice to have things to train for and compete in, I don’t think anything I do will be as good a competitive outlet as organized college sports. I think that’s why collegiate athletics are so special and student athletes should do all they can not to take it for granted.
Is there anything else about sports that you feel helped prepare you to handle the transition well into engineering?
Being detail-oriented. One way in which I grew to become this way was watching film as a pitcher and critiquing little mechanical things in my motion and delivery. That detail orientation definitely applies as a mechanical engineer. Every little calculation and inch matters. All the little things add up and in the end shape the final project. It’s my job to figure out the details and how to make systems work. This definitely takes time to master. It’s one thing to notice something on film, and it’s another to go and do something about it. The same thing applies at my job. It’s one thing to look at a drawing and notice a problem, then it takes another step to re-do the calculation or take the extra step to go fix it.
Earlier you talked about patience being one of the things you learned from sports. Was there anything in transitioning to your job or an actual project you've worked on where patience was really important?
Design is an iterative process. You can’t sit down and design a building or an HVAC system or anything to the last detail in a day or even a week. You have to start at a high level and become more detailed in the design as the project progresses over time. And things are inevitably going to change or go back and forth multiple times. This is one frustration I had when I started but quickly learned to accept. I would finish what I thought would be the final design of something, and then we would hear from the client that they want something different, or this constraint or that constraint wouldn’t allow what I had completed to work. So I would have to start over and do it again, but differently this time. The iterative nature and tweaking things throughout the design process requires patience, and the willingness to take a step backward to take another step forward.
Finish this sentence: My biggest strength as a leader is…
my self-confidence and believing I can do whatever I set my mind to.
What would you tell your 18-year-old self, fresh on campus?
Talk to people more and ask more questions. Ask your professors about their experiences in different industries, what they liked, what they didn’t like, etc. Get to know your friends’ parents and talk to them about their careers. Attend talks and presentations that are held on campus. I was always so focused on my classes and sport that sometimes I passed up opportunities to learn from all the valuable resources that surround you on a college campus. Take advantage of those.