by Mary O'Donoghue Andujar

February 22, 2018

Today is introduce a girl to engineering day… I’d like to introduce you to one of our talented Cyclone Energy Group engineers: Emmy Riley. With 8 years in the field, Emmy has been working with Cyclone for over 2 years, primarily in the field of building energy efficiency.

I sat down with Emmy to find out what led her down the path to engineering, her favorite thing about being an engineer, advice for future engineers along with non-work hobbies, and fun facts!

What is your educational background?

I received a BS in General Engineering from UIUC and Master of Energy Engineering at UIC.

What was your career path to your current position?

When I graduated undergrad in 2009, I worked at a management consulting firm for a year and found that I didn’t like it very much. I didn’t find the work fulfilling, so I wasn’t very good at it. I hadn’t thought I would want to use my engineering degree technically when I was in school, but consulting helped me realize that I actually did. One of my classmates from undergrad was working at a group called SEDAC at the time and said they were hiring. I interviewed and got the job, and I worked there for almost five years as a building energy engineer. SEDAC (the Smart Energy Design Assistance Center) is a part of the (now-former) DCEO Illinois Energy Now program and primarily served the public sector. After SEDAC, I interviewed with Cyclone Energy Group in the spring of 2015 and was hired to work in the private sector side of building energy efficiency work in July of that year.

What is your title and what are your primary responsibilities?

My title at Cyclone is Building Analyst. My main responsibility is leading retro-commissioning projects, which involves a lot of data analysis and calculator creation.

What is your typical day like?

Typically I come to the office and do analysis for energy savings recommendations in spreadsheet models or energy modeling software; then after I’ve done calculations, the other big part of what I do is writing reports to deliver that information clients. A smaller portion of my day is spent at client sites gathering data for the reports I’ll later write. Also phone meetings and emails.

What/who influenced you in your career choice?

Actually I had a high school teacher at IMSA, Diane Hinterlong, who was an electrical engineer before she taught there. She was the first female engineer I can remember being around (or at least the first one I realized that about), and she really inspired me to want to go into a technical field as a woman. Also just so many IMSA students apply to engineering programs, I think that definitely had an influence on me too.

What are the most rewarding things about being an engineer?

Seeing clients understand how they can save energy in their buildings and implement my recommendations.

What qualities do you feel define a successful engineer?

  • Creativity
  • Thoughtfulness
  • Being ethical
  • Knowing when an answer or solution is good enough rather than perfect
  • Being modest and humble (i.e., sharing knowledge rather than trying to prove how smart you are)
  • Being able to accept being wrong pretty often but learning from it rather than giving up

Describe the type of math that you use in your work.

At the end of the day, it ends up being mostly just basic algebra, but it depends how on how in-depth of a solution you want to explore. I use thermodynamic and heat transfer equations a lot too, as well as pump laws, fan laws, and laws that relate things like static pressure, air and water flow, and motor horsepower to electricity demand. A lot of thinking about how to manipulate equations in Excel to simulate real-world operation.

Is writing involved in your work? If so, what kind?

Yes a lot—writing reports for clients to explain the way their buildings use energy now and how they could use less for retro-commissioning reports.

How well are your work and your education connected?

I would say my undergrad is valuable and a great foundation but not necessarily directly connected to the work I do now. My Master’s degree is really closely related.

What courses were the most useful in preparing you for your job?

I think more than any one particular course preparing me for my job, just the way engineering classes teach you to think about problem-solving was more valuable than anything. But also any heat transfer and thermodynamics I’ve taken have been pretty helpful. Oh and also any non-technical classes I’ve taken have helped me be more well-rounded and informed, and probably more interesting to talk to—they were some of my favorites and shouldn’t be discounted.

How do you stay current in your field?

I read a lot of articles online. I follow Midwest Energy News, Switchboard from NRDC, Greentech, MNN, and a few energy auditing blogs in my blog aggregator. Attending workshops and conferences (MEEA, ASHRAE, etc.) is helpful for staying current and staying connected to your peers too.

What are your strongest skills?

I think I have strong communication and interpersonal skills. I’m good at the technical aspect of my job, but the skill I value most and try hardest to be good at is communication. My goal is to pass on what I know to other people so that we can hopefully all make better, more informed decisions. If I’m not able to express my technical knowledge in a way that others can understand, then I think I’ve failed at my goal. For me personally, the most successful client relationships I have happen when the client knows I have an interest in them and try to relate to them. I care a lot about the work I do, so forming relationships with my colleagues and clients is really important to me. I also love planning and organizing—both for true client work as well as for office events.

What are your career aspirations?

This is a tough question. There was a time when I would have said, “Earn my PhD” or “Rise to be the head of a company,” but as I’ve gotten a little bit further away from undergrad, it’s been really liberating to be honest with myself about the fact that I don’t care so much about being at the very top of a company managing people. What brings me joy is making little differences where I can, solving technical problems, and feeling like the work I do is valuable in a bigger context.

I think all I’m comfortable saying right now is that I aspire to leave the world a better place than it was when I entered it (advance the human condition, as it were), and to just be kind to people and do quality work that I enjoy and to be happy.

What advice do you have for potential engineers?

Go to office hours and form relationships with your professors!! Study hard in undergrad, it’ll be worth it after you graduate. I’ve read articles recently that advise college kids to not worry about studying so much and to go out and have The College Experience. I did well in undergrad, and college is fun, but if anything I wish I would have studied more and spent even more time in office hours or learning as much as I could. I also wish I would have taken some classes that were notoriously hard and bad for your GPA but would have been really useful content-wise. Maybe taken them pass/fail? Also get involved with technical societies, networking (like it or not) is really important—spread that net.

What are your non-work hobbies? 

Plants and gardening, yoga, experimenting with sourdough bread baking, napping, wine. Cats (shout out to my own, Data & All Ball) and animals in general, especially moose and manatees.

One Fun Fact about me:

I do great pigeon and pterodactyl impressions.

Fill In the blank: 

If I weren’t an engineer, I would be…

A staff gardener at Kew Gardens in London, but for a long time the answer would have been docent at an art museum.

I engineer because…

I feel like it’s my pathway to making the most positive change I can. And the street cred.