The stories behind people’s reasons for getting into civil engineering are just as unique as their aspirations once they get into the field. While some of us dream about working on a particular project, whether it be building the highest skyscraper on Earth or the brand new stadium of our favorite basketball team, others visualize themselves stepping up into management roles and becoming the president of national, or even multinational engineering firms. Today’s guest is a perfect example of a successful engineer who followed his passion for a specific discipline of the field and proved to everyone else that engineers do have the soft skills needed to tackle the day-to-day, non-technical tasks.
Today, Isaac talks to Tait Ketcham, the current president at Dunn Associates, Inc, in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the past president of the Structural Engineers Association of Utah (SEAU). After spending his childhood building things out of wood, he developed a strong interest in construction and design, and since then has worked on many notable projects, such as the Memphis Grizzlies stadium and the Hale Centre Theater.
In this interview, Tait talks about his passion for the role that our field plays in shaping and positively impacting societies, the many different paths an undergraduate student can take in the field, given its huge branch of segments, as well as the mistakes that taught him the greatest lessons in engineering and life in general. Going through school, studying for the FE or the PE, and dealing with the day-to-day tasks of meeting deadlines and resolving issues that come up onsite may sound hard. But according to Tait, “Passion is contagious.”
Tait Ketcham – https://www.linkedin.com/in/tait-ketcham-26015a77
Dunn Associates, Inc – http://www.dunn-se.com
Structural Engineers Association of Utah (SEAU) – https://seau.org
American Society of Civil Engineers – https://www.asce.org
Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) – https://www.udot.utah.gov/connect
Memphis Grizzlies Stadium – https://fedexforum.com
Hale Centre Theater – https://www.hct.org/Online/default.asp
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Transcript of Show
You can download our show notes summary here or get our transcript of the show below!
Isaac Oakeson: All right! What's going on, everybody? I have Tait with me. Tait Ketcham, how's it going?
Tait Ketcham: I'm good.
Isaac Oakeson: Great. Thank you for joining me. I will be reading in a little bit of your bio before this episode, but it's always fun to get your own bio from you. So, why don't you go ahead and tell us a little bit about yourself, how you got into engineering, what do you do?
Tait Ketcham: Well, currently, I'm the president of Dunn Associates, which is a structural engineering firm in Salt Lake City. And I've been working for them for a little over 17 years now. And basically, I've always, even as a kid, I've always liked to build something. I had a piece of wood and a hammer, and I was always making something. And so I've always had a strong interest in construction and design. And so, that's kind of what led me into this field. And now, here we are, over 20 years later, doing this kind of stuff and having a bless, getting to work on some pretty cool projects. Our company kind of has a little thing right now in our website and such that, you know, we build cities and it's kind of fun to see that I've been part of that over the past 20 years or so.
Isaac Oakeson: That is awesome. So, I guess as a president, what's a typical day for you right now versus what it was as an engineer?
Tait Ketcham: I think it's a lot more of the personal one-on-one with the younger engineers. Mentoring is a huge part of what I try to do now. But there's also a lot of client relationship type of stuff. I don't quite get as involved in the heavy analysis number crunching that I used to, but -- So there's a lot more people skills, you know? The things that they joke about that engineers aren't very good at. That's what I do most of the time now.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. Those soft skills.
Tait Ketcham: Exactly.
Isaac Oakeson: So, I guess that brings up a good point. Do you have any advice for an engineer that needs to learn those kind of skills, or what do you think?
Tait Ketcham: You know, that's kind of a challenging question because I hate to put labels on people, right? I mean, as a group, engineers are somewhat identified as introvert, and that has kind of a bad connotation. But in my opinion, introvert means how do you get recharged, you know? Some people get recharged by being around people. And I use that definition of an extrovert, and an introvert is somebody that needs time alone to recharge. I'm definitely the time alone, but I feel very comfortable in large group settings and talking with people. And so, I think the biggest thing is just have the confidence to go out there and talk with people, ask a lot of questions, and listen to what people have to say. Most of the time, you ask a good question, you won't have to do a whole lot of talking.
Isaac Oakeson: That's good advice. And I think everybody's learning at some stage, right? Even though, you know -- If you move up in the company, you know? You started as an engineer, and I don't think those skills just naturally flip the switch. So, you get into scenarios and everybody's always learninghow to be a better person and hone the craft that they're trying to learn. So, if that's speaking better or writing better, those are things you can pick up, you know? Learn. Probably harder to learn engineering than those skills. Who knows?
Tait Ketcham: Yeah. I mean, as an engineer, you feel really comfortable with numbers generally, right? Math is generally the thing you felt very confident with in school. And when you jump out into the real world, I call ityou realize that that's just a small part of what you do. At least from my perspective, most of the design work you do is working through challenges or conflicts with your clients. Not that they're always negative. It's, "Hey, we've got this thing we're trying to address", "We need this building for this purpose", and working through and trying to find the best solution for those is what we do.
Isaac Oakeson: Great. I just -- This kind of popped in my head, but everybody's dealing with COVID. Have you guys had to deal with that much? Are people, I guess, in isolation more, or are you still able to get together? I mean, how's the company navigated that?
Tait Ketcham: Yeah, I think, as a company, we've been pretty fortunate because the makeup of our office space Ronald Dunn , our founder, he [inaudible] building in kind of the outskirts of downtown. So we have very large offices and can spread out pretty well, as far as the social or physical distancing thing. You know, in the spring, when everything got shut down, we were fairly -- Most of us were working from home and, thanks to technology, that was found to be fairly successful. I think we were a little surprised how seamless that end up being. But there's definitely a synergy of being in the same building with people you work with and being able to holler over the wall to somebody and ask them a question, you know?
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah, that's very true. There's definitely a synergy there. You know, I am a working engineer as well, and the president has been pushing for people to try to get back to work when they can. So, he enjoys that synergy a little more than people working at home.
Tait Ketcham: Right. Absolutely.
Isaac Oakeson: I want to dive into this. Is there a lesson that you've learned through all of your experience of a mistake made or something of that nature you could share with us?
Tait Ketcham: You know, you sent me a couple of questions, and that was one that I struggled with a little bit in that -- You know, I've made plenty of mistakes over the years, and some of them of said the wrong thing in a meeting, some of them have been you know, analytical, made a mistake, put the wrong input in the computer program and didn't realize it was a mistake until later. But, I think the biggest one that stood out to me was a social interaction with -- I was onsite at a project and there was an issue that we were trying to deal with, and I wasn't personally able to answer that question. It required somebody with a little more experience to answer it. And the contractor and the owner's representative was unavailable at the time and -- Not unavailable, but they were very anxious. And the person that was needing to answer that question wasn't available. And they were getting really frustrated with me, and I basically said, "Well, I can't get ahold of him either. So, I don't know what to tell you". That didn't go over well. I got a phone call from my supervisor after that and said "That isn't something we say". So I think, choose your words carefully when you're in those tough situations.
Isaac Oakeson: "We'll Get back to you". How about that?
Tait Ketcham: Yeah, yeah. Actually, that was one of the advice I thought of is what -- One of my, I would consider mentors early on in my career, he said, "Never make a decision in the field or on the phone". Andat the time, I didn't quite understand why, but now, as I've looked back, there's been so many times where you go to a site and something comes up and they want an answer right now because the concrete's in the truck or something, you know? But I found that as you thought about it, or looked the issue from a different angle, or asked another person their opinion, your decision has changed slightly from what you thought when you first had the problem come up. And so, that's kind of the main advice I like to give the younger engineers that are coming up is, you know, most of the time they're going to push you for an answer right now, but say, "well, I think" -- It's okay to say, "I think that this is probably what we're going to have to do, but let me check a few things and I'll get back with you". It's a better way to handle that situation.
Isaac Oakeson: That's smart. You know, when you're out in the field, there's so much pressure to keep things moving on. It's tough to just throw an answer out without knowing that, you know, it might be a mistake. We need some more thought into this when it's not sopressured. Yeah. That's good advice. I did tell, though, a few of the projects you've worked on in kind of your bio, which is really fascinating to me. So, have those -- You mentioned working on an NBA stadium, as well as the Hale Centre Theater. Have those been some of your funnest projects or there've been others?
Tait Ketcham: Those are definitely memorable projects for sure. I think that the thing that I most like about those is that, while they were really stressful and difficult at the time, the satisfaction that we have after they're complete and the celebration, so to speak, of the project after the fact with awards and things, really is gratifying to see that. Now there's not a whole lot of -- I consider myself very lucky to be in an engineering field where you can drive down the street and say, "Hey, I worked on that project", "I worked on that building". And so, I think that's the thing that I like about structural engineering the most is that I can go to Hale Centre Theater and talk to my wife and say, "Hey, what you don't see above our head is these trusses that span 130 feet and support a hundred thousand pounds", you know? Those kinds of things that my wife just rolls her eyes and said, "Okay, whatever". "Stop Looking up", she says.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome. Well, when you said you worked on an NBA stadium, I got excited because I'm a big basketball fan. So, I was curious, you know, what that was like andthe challenges and the celebrations that you had when that was done, because that looks a fun one.
Tait Ketcham: Yeah, for sure. So, it's been...What? Almost 18 years now since I worked on that. So, it's been a little while. So I'm getting old. I had a little more hair back then.
Isaac Oakeson: What's been your favorite project?
Tait Ketcham: I would probably say that one. So, a little backstory on that. I was working for a firm called EQE at the time and they had offices across the nation and they were lucky enough to -- They had an office in Memphis, Tennessee, and they were lucky enough to be awarded the local engineer for the Memphis Grizzlies stadium. They were a small office, they only had seven people in their office. And so, that was a gigantic project for them. And so they put out a company-wide call saying, "Hey, we have a need of engineers and drafters to come to Memphis and work on this stadium to help us complete it". Not a hundred percent sure why, at the time, but I felt compelled to volunteer to do that. I was single and it's like, "That sounds like fun. That opportunity doesn't come up much". So I volunteered and they accepted me and had that opportunity. I still remember the very first day I got there. The firm that was over the project as a whole is called Ellerbe Becket, and they've designed several stadiums throughout the country. And they gave us the drawings for the Indiana Pacers stadium that had been recently completed at the time and said, "Here's these drawings. Get familiar with them. We'll run in in a day or two". And just the enormity of that information. That was the biggest thing I remember is just the sheer size of the project. It's enormous. That was a fun year and a half of my life.
Isaac Oakeson: Wow. Well, that sounds like a fun project. That would be really cool. I want to jump into some kind of quick questions, short answers. You can take as long or as short as you want. But, you know, you're the president of a company now, but what are some obstacles you faced when, you know, becoming a civil engineer or even where you're at now? What's been some of the obstacles you have faced?
Tait Ketcham: I think the biggest one that I could think of is just being able to work on the thing that you're passionate about. And when you're in school, you're exposed -- I mean, civil engineering is a pretty broad subject. There's a wide diversity of different focuses that you can look at. And when I went into this field, I pretty much wanted to do buildings. I like building things out of wood andthat's what I wanted to do. And my first real job was with UDOT, which wasn't that. And while that was interesting for a year and a half or so, that wasn't really what I wanted to do. So, struggling to get my foot in the door in a structural engineering firm was somewhat of a challenge to find that right company. I had to actually take a pay cut from UDOT to go work for the smaller company that I first started with because, you know, I wanted really to do structures. I didn't want to do highways. Sobeing able to take that leap of faith, that it would all work out, was definitely scary at the time when you're in your early twenties.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, that's great. I mean, you followedthe passion, and I think as a younger engineer, a lot of engineers don't -- You don't quite know what you don't know, right? So, how do you experience all the different disciplines and make a decision on what you want to go into? That can be a challenge. So, that's great. You knew what you wanted and went for it. That's awesome. So, if anyone's listening and going through that, maybe you should follow what you want to do, right? Don't be stuck where you don't want to be.
Tait Ketcham: Yeah. Your career is a long time and you better enjoy it.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. That brings up another good question, though. What advice would you give to someone that wanted to pursue a career similar to yours?
Tait Ketcham: I think it's similar to those thoughts. It's that,ind out what you're passionate about. Early in school, when you're taking those engineering classes, try them all out. Find out what you like, what you enjoy, you know? It was interesting that as I did that in college, I was -- Well, structure still became my favorite. You know, some of the others, the water resources classes and things that I took were super interesting. And I wouldn't have thought that going into it. So, be open to try different things and have an opportunity to do that. I recently came across a person that had basicaly a bachelor's and master's in civil engineering, structural engineering, and then went and got his law degree. And now practices law defending liability insurance type claims with other architects and engineers. So, that was his passion. But,he background that the engineering gave helped him be better at his job as a lawyer. So, there's many, many paths you can take.
Isaac Oakeson: Great advice. I guess, just hitting back on the civil structural stuff would there be a software or something that if a beginning engineer wanted to learn or give them a leg up in starting, what would you recommend that they play around with, or start diving into to give them a leg up?
Tait Ketcham: So, for the most part, our product that we sell, besides our expertise or the drawings that we create for construction, the vehicle or tool that we use is Revit. And so, I would say that learning how to use Revit. You know, there are student licenses of that program, and getting to know that program andbeing an asset in that way would be my biggest suggestion. I know our younger engineers that we hire out of school, we encourage them to do a lot of their own drafting because while running a program and getting all the inputs and outputs to be green lights, you know? All these engineering programs, we've got red lights and green lights, right? So, if everything's green, they think they're done. And unfortunately that's far from being done. So, being able to translate that to a set of drawings that a contractor can use to build is key.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. That's great advice. Thanks for sharing that. I think that knowing those things as a beginning engineer helps them to start entering that world. So that helps. What's a personal habit that maybe you've had that's contributed to your success?
Tait Ketcham: I think the best thing for me isI had -- A friend of mine, he says, "The best thing you can do is take batting practice". And what he meant by that, obviously, was take the time to study. Always learn because, you know, the market's changing all the time. Those code books are pretty big. And so, usually what happens is you'll come up with the problem during the day that you don't know the answer to, but taking the steel manual home and trying to find the solution, you know? Take that batting practice has helped me so that you can be more efficient at work, as well as just fill that library of background knowledge. You know, I had -- My mentorbasically said, "Paper is for remembering and your brain is for solving problems". So I think that's a great thing to think of, but at the same time, you need to be able to recall where to look for that information. All the tests, the FE, the PE, the SE tests that we take, for the most part they're open book, but being able to know where to turn, to find the answer quickly is the key. And so being able to, like I said, take that batting practice has been key to helping me get to where I'm at today.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great advice. I love that. Yeah. I mean, everyone needs to, you know, keep in touch, especially those code books. Wow! They always get updated.
Tait Ketcham: Yeah, Every three years, it's kind of frustrating actually.
Isaac Oakeson: I deal with that. Over here, we run a couple of courses to help people with the FE, with the PE, and every time things change, specs change and we gotta update with them. So, that's great. Who's someone that you've looked up to and why?
Tait Ketcham: You know, there's a lot of people, but the one that came to mind right off the bat wasSo, the first company that I worked for after UDOT was Martin and Martin. They had a local office here in Salt Lake City, but one of their head offices is in Denver. AndI had the opportunity to work with a senior person over in the Denver office on a project, and he was actually one of the founders of the company that was purchased by Martin Martin, Los Angeles, and his name was Mike Barrett. He was in his seventies at the time or getting close to retirement, but just even itbeing in the industry for 40 years, plus or minus, he still had a passion for engineering, and working with the clients. We were working on a project for the Southern Ute Indian tribe down in Southern Colorado, near the four corners area. And, just to listen to him and see how he worked through problems and addressed design challenges was kind of eye opening to me. And I just remember thinking, "I hope I have this much excitement about the industry when I'm his age". Because what we do is pretty stressful, you know? A lot of times you go home exhausted.
Isaac Oakeson: I can imagine. That's great. I mean, to find someone like that is very valuable. I remember when I started, I'm in the utility world, but Iended up in transmission design. So, transmission for high voltage power lines. And there was a guy they brought back in that was similar, 70 years old, kind of coming to work for a few years, but he really enjoyed it, and I learned a lot from him. Hang on to those mentors. Those are good. What's a sweet resource you would recommend to our community, the Civil Engineering Academy community, or if there's anything you can think of that you would like to share? Whether it's your own resource or whether it was a book you read, or even the software we mentioned, I guess. Is there anything out there that you'd recommend to our audience?
Tait Ketcham: I think, as a student, getting involved with the different associations, like ASCE, you know? For structural side of things, there's the Structural Engineering Association of Utah.I actually had the opportunity to be the president of that association a few years ago. And getting involved as a student and learning what people in the industry are doing. As a student, you get a screaming deal on being a member. So, being involved with those associations. I know for SEAU, they have a great website and there's lots of really good articles on there that you can read about technical things, as well as some of the soft skills that we all need to improve on. Look up seau.Org andthat's one of my recommendations.
Isaac Oakeson: Perfect. That's great. That's fun. This is kind of a fun question I like to ask, but if you had all the resources and knowledge in the world, what's something you'd like to be part of in engineering? Is there something outside of what you're already doing? Or something bigger you'd like to be a part of?
Tait Ketcham: That's interesting because we always want to go bigger and better, I think, in what we do. And I think having an impact -- You know, civil engineering, it's interesting because it shapes the society around us you know? If you're doing utilities, if you're doing water resources, if you're doing buildings, doing transportation, highway stuff, all of that relates to how it impacts the world. And so you can have a real impact to the betterment of society. And I think working on projects that help those less fortunate would be great. Too often, I get involved with projects where there's owners that are just trying to make a profit, you know? Andwhile that pays the bills, I think having a higher purpose would be nice. And one of these days I'm going to see -- I'd love to go to, you know, pick a country and help build a school or do something like that. That would be something that I'd really enjoy doing.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome. I was expecting you to say like, build the tallest building in the world, or build the school on Mars or something like that when we get there. That'd be cool. That was great.
Tait Ketcham: I hate flying more than three hours. I can't imagine going to Mars.
Isaac Oakeson: Kind of the same. "Ooh, That's a long flight". Well... Tait, this has been fun. I appreciate you jumping on and doing this. It's fun to hear from someone that's worked their way from engineering up to being a president. I don't know if there's any last piece of guidance. I mean, if there's other engineers that want to follow on those kind of footsteps, what advice would you have? I mean, if engineers want to work their way into a management role, or even have a shot at being a president is there any advice you'd have for them?
Tait Ketcham: I think that the biggest advice I can give is, don't give up on your passion. You know, passion is contagious, and so find that passion first. But once you find it, just continue to work hard and be an advocate for your coworkers and just work hard to make a contribution. Ultimately, that'll be recognized, you know? There's been a lot of times that, you know, deadlines are unreasonable and you gotta work a lot of extra hours. But ultimately raising your hand and fighting through those problems is been a huge benefit to help me progress through my career.
Isaac Oakeson: Sounds good. You got an important call back there, I can tell.
Tait Ketcham: I don't know what that call is for. Butanyway, to finish that thought essentially, one of the things that I've said to people is, it's always fun to pull weeds with somebody else and not by yourself. And so, if you can find a team to work with that you really enjoy being around, it makes all the difference.
Isaac Oakeson: That's very true. Well, that's great. Good pieces of advice, fun to talk with you, and get your experience on everything that you've worked on. I think you've shared a lot with us. Tait, I appreciate you jumping on with me. It's been really fun.
Tait Ketcham: Yeah. Thanks, Isaac. I appreciate coming. This has been fun too.
Isaac Oakeson: Okay. All right. We'll talk to you later.
Tait Ketcham: Thanks.
Isaac Oakeson: Bye.
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