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You Have a Cool Job: Engineering Chief of the "Cruise Capital of the World"

On this week’s episode

  • On this week’s episode of You Have a Cool Job, we talk to Helga Sommer. Helga is the Chief of Engineering at the Port of Miami, which spans 518 acres and is known as the “cruise capital of the world”.
  • Needless to say, Helga’s job carries a lot of responsibility and she describes the hectic aspects of her job. But, she also talks about how this chaos is what she’s always wanted, as she decided to be an engineer from a very young age.
  • Helga shares how she made her way to the Port of Miami, and what the culture is like nowadays as a woman engineer.

About the show

You Have a Cool Job is a podcast hosted by Taylor Sienkiewicz from Peterson’s. The show highlights professionals who have a unique, interesting, uncommon, or otherwise cool job.

Our goal is to motivate you and show how interesting, fulfilling, and anything-but-average your career can be, and we’ll do this by talking with people who took a path less traveled. We ask these fascinating individuals how they got to where they are in their career based on their education, experience, and influences;  why they love their job; and lots more.

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Port of Miami in Florida.

Episode 14 Transcript

HOST SHOW INTRO: Welcome to the show! From Peterson’s, I’m Taylor Sienkiewicz, and you’re listening to “You Have a Cool Job”, a podcast highlighting those who took their profession in a unique direction, and what they did to get there.

THEME MUSIC

HOST INTRO: On today’s episode of You Have a Cool Job, we talk with the Chief Engineer of the Port of Miami, Helga Sommer. This job carries a lot of responsibility, as the port is known as the cruise capital of the world and spreads over 518 acres. So, I asked Helga, who recently became the chief engineer, if big water projects were her specialty prior to this position.

HELGA SOMMER: You know, I didn’t. It was not my specialty, I actually got surround here by accident and I sort of picked it up a little okay not it up I am an engineer obviously I was a civil engineer but I was actually working on water resource projects for the Everglades restoration and right around the time of the recessional a lot of our projects had gotten cancelled and the company that I was working for at the time had a program management consulting contract with the Port of Miami and so they gave me a call one day and they said you know what you’re going to the port tomorrow and I was like okay and what do you need me to do there and they said look you know we have this sort of general open-ended contract you’re an extension of staff and they said just make yourself indispensable and they didn’t tell me anything else and I was like boom all right and so I showed up here with a handful of other people and an architect and I was the engineer and there was an architect mayor of a handful of other and and then I never left.

HOST (LIVE): So was that kind of your first big project or what does it like to work for such a large structure?

HELGA SOMMER: No I had worked for I had done a lot of other projects that were also large and so I had already had experience managing large projects multiple disciplines and with staff from different companies and different people in different parts of the country and so forth so so that part I had already I had already done I guess the biggest difference here was I mean I hadn’t actually worked on cruise terminal design but a lot of the utilities and a lot of the other projects that we have here on the port we’re not we’re not completely unusual.

HOST: I asked Helga what it’s like working at such a busy transportation hub.

HELGA SOMMER: A lot of running, we’re actually getting to where we’re in the front end of a very large programs expansion so it’s been to say it’s hectic is an understatement our our capital project project budget for the program budget was about two hundred and fifty million dollars for about five years and it’s ballooned to almost two billion dollars so there’s a lot of new construction going on and and the interesting part about it is is that it there’s just so many projects in it so we’re on an island so really there it’s it’s a large city on the head of a pin basically so trying to coordinate all of that construction and the design and and all of that work going on at the same time and under in close proximity to each other that’s a that’s a challenge so we’re we’re designing we’re constructing we’re still planning a lot of new projects it’s hectic there’s a lot of people and a lot of moving parts and we’re operating at the same time so that makes it even more interesting.

HOST: Helga explained how at this point in her career, her job has beard away from the nitty-gritty of engineering as she stepped into a management role.

HELGA SOMMER: Really now it’s the coordination of these really large projects and so it’s not just structural but there’s mechanical and electrical and civil and there’s a fire and just every discipline and and we have to coordinate all of that and sort of make sure that it all works together.

HOST (LIVE): Okay so that sounds like something more people would understand is that you’re managing just different moving parts

HELGA SOMMER: Exactly.

HOST (LIVE): Okay, great and how about what is your favorite project you’ve worked on?

HELGA SOMMER: My goodness or there’s been quite there’s been so many of them I want to pick one of the ones that I’m working on right now I’m just so worried I don’t want to Jinx it because it’s not over I could be honest I right now I would say that I would say the expansion of one of our terminals here is expansion of cruise landings and really it was because we we had such a good team and that’s really what made it made it a great project it was an expansion of the terminal and partial renovation of the existing structure and it really was the first project that we did of this starting to get into the scale and we hadn’t done it before and we kind of had a team of people throw them together and it was really our first go-round of trying to structure these kinds of project teams together and so I think what really made it was was seeing that work and seeing us finish something on time and under budget that everybody said it couldn’t be done and and it was it was nice to celebrate that once it was done.

HOST (LIVE): Yeah, what would that team be made of?

HELGA SOMMER: We had, it was myself and an architect and we had a couple of people that we’ve gotten for construction management and project controls and and we also had a team of consultants that worked with us and the design-builder that worked for the port and and and we just sort of we just sort of figured it out and and it really it’s the entire port works on it even though there’s a core team that works day to day on the project we really have to work closely with everybody with security with operations with maintenance with every department on the port so it really brought and like I said it was the first time that the entire port really had to do one of these terminal expansions and this in the current you know climate basically.

HOST (LIVE): And then switching gears a little bit Helga, you were named a rising star in civil and structural engineering magazine in 2015 I saw?

HELGA SOMMER: Oh my goodness yes I was!

HOST (LIVE): So what was that like? Did it change anything?

HELGA SOMMER: You know it wasn’t it was it was some recognition that I definitely wasn’t expecting I was still working for a consultant and I was working here at the port and they I got nominated it wasn’t something I was expecting to get you know you you you work and you do the day-to-day and I guess we almost lose sight of the scale of what you’re doing and I forget that I’m in Miami and that I’m working at you know the cruise capital of the world and and and I guess that’s kind of a big deal but day to day you don’t think of it that way and so they you know that that what there was a fun kind of almost embarrassing I you know they surprised me with cake and I got my picture in a magazine and you know it was it was it was funny right so but it was it was a no it was an honor really I was I wasn’t expecting.

HOST (LIVE): So how did you get to that point that led up to that award?

HELGA SOMMER: I mean I guess I had like I’ve been with this thing I had worked for a couple of consulting companies and I’d been working for a while and like I said in some large projects and as a you know as a project manager and a project manager and I guess I did something right along the way I’m not sure.

HOST (LIVE): Yeah you mentioned a little bit about what you were doing before you came onto Port of Miami but what was kind of your education, starting out background?

HELGA SOMMER: I went to high school here in Miami I went to University of Miami on scholarship and I had double majored in civil engineering and then in architectural engineering really the program was it was kind of easy to sort of tack that on and I kind of enjoyed you know taking some of the architecture classes so I figured why not and and close to when I graduated they they created a program to combine the bachelor’s and master’s degrees and I thought oh well you know I’ll just tack that on to I was working at I was working at a firm at the time and I saw a lot of people that were quite a few years older than I was and they were you know juggling their you know families and trying to get a master’s degree and I thought you know what I just I’m just gonna get it over with and so that’s exactly what I did so I was still working I was working about 20 to 30 hours a week and project controls actually and for the water and sewer department it well program management contract also and and and then I figured I just get my Master’s finished at the same time and so that was it so I got the kicked out the three degrees in five years.

HOST (LIVE): Nice so did you always know you wanted to be an engineer?

HELGA SOMMER: I was seven I think when I decided what I wanted to do. I was going to be an architect under the premise that I just wanted to build things I’d like the idea of being able to drive by something many years later and say hey I did that and when I was about 11 I would say I think my mother had explained to me she goes you know Engineers get to build big things not that architects don’t but I guess she should simplified it for me at that age and she says you know if you’re a civil engineer you get to build big roads and airports and and big things and I thought okay that’s a great idea and that’s it and so I’ve been going into engineering ever since.

HOST (LIVE): Yeah that’s awesome, and then engineering is traditionally male-dominated so what has been your experience with pushing past that?

HELGA SOMMER: Oh you know I mean it’s definitely come a long way I mean I remember there not be I mean even when I was getting my bachelor’s degree there weren’t too many girls in our classes and but um but you know things have sort of changed the port really is a lot of leadership positions here are held by women you know for the most part of its it it hasn’t been an issue but you know you always run into people along the way that are you know we all have a few interesting stories basically as some less progressive people we run into.

HOST (LIVE): Right and what keeps you motivated in your career to continue?

HELGA SOMMER: You know I was thinking about this actually a couple days ago and you know it really is that you know so many years of studying when you’re when you’re kids and when you’re in college and stuff and you you kind of can’t wait till you grow up and you get to do this stuff and somebody lets you sort of be in charge and you kind of can get that responsibility and then you realize it oh my god like this is it like this is this is what you always wanted you know what I mean so it’s hard and it’s difficult and it’s incredibly stressful and you know some days are not easy but but oh my god like I get to build really cool things you know so so that really you know you you you if you kind of take a step back a little bit you kind of realize it that this is what you always wanted you know and and you just sort of used to sort of have to get through it one day I’m gonna when things are not as busy I’m gonna miss this.

HOST OUTRO: While not everyone knows what they want to do from a young age, people like Helga dream about what they want to be when they grow up, and are able to stick to it and make it happen. We hope you’re inspired by Helga’s story to follow your dreams, too. Thanks for tuning in, we’ll see you next week.

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