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Georgia DOT’s chief engineer on making history, why she loves her work, and why engineers need communication skills

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Meg Pirkle took over the top engineering job at the Georgia Department of Transportation in January 2015. She was the first woman named chief engineer for the department. (Photo: Georgia Department of Transportation)

Just more than a year ago, Meg Pirkle took over as the chief engineer at the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Her appointment received perhaps more than the usual level of attention because Pirkle is the first woman to hold the top engineering position at the agency. But she says the pressure she feels to succeed in the job has little to do with her gender.

“I don’t think that I feel pressure because I am the first woman. I think I feel pressure because of the level of respect I have had for the people who have had this position before me,” Pirkle said, pointing to her immediate predecessor, Russell McMurry, as one example. “The pressure is there because I hope to live up to the standard they set.”

Still, she recognizes the significance of her role.

“For me it is a great honor, regardless of [being the first woman]. I know that it means a lot to a lot of people,” said Pirkle, who earned her master’s degree in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering in 1997. “There are a lot of really fabulous woman who work [at GDOT]. I know I won’t be the last female chief engineer, for sure. It didn’t really resonate to me this is a big milestone because I am a woman, but it is a big milestone because it’s a lot of responsibility. It is a great position and a real honor to be given this responsibility.”

Pirkle sat down with us late in 2015 to talk more about her 26 years at the agency and share some thoughts about the field.

On why she does what she does:

“I really think that what I do — and what everyone in transportation does — affects lives. You don’t know anyone who is not affected by transportation. Even if they don’t drive, they walk somewhere, and they get their goods somehow. Transportation just has such far-reaching impacts, and it is critical. What I do, and the decisions we make at the GDOT, really make a difference and have an impact on the state of Georgia and the nation.”

On her favorite projects to work on:

“I’ve been the manager for the [federal] stimulus program at GDOT. It was a really exciting time because we had no regular money, so here we had this opportunity with $900 million [in stimulus funding], and we had to spend it within this certain time frame. Our board wanted to try to spread the money around. From the federal level, they were saying ‘shovel-ready projects,’ but the shovel-ready projects were all concentrated in a couple of urban areas. So the challenge of getting projects ‘shovel-ready’ all over the state and trying to spread projects and jobs around was really exciting.”

On the biggest challenge facing her now:

“[A year ago], my biggest challenge was trying to make sure that our system didn’t totally go into disrepair with lack of funding. Now the challenge is, we have the money. We need to make sure we spend it in the most efficient manner, at the right place, at the right time, and that we are ready to meet those needs.”

(The Georgia General Assembly passed a $1 billion transportation funding bill in early 2015 that will help reduce a growing backlog of maintenance issues around the state.)

“Once the money starts flowing, people are going to want to see barrels. Right now, it is ramping up and figuring out how do we get these projects out the door quickly? We can’t let anything sit around and wait. That will not be accepted by anybody.”

On the importance of so-called “soft skills” for engineers:

“You need to be able to communicate your ideas to policymakers. At the end of the day, we are all going to be answering to elected officials. Someone at the top has to be able to translate why we say, ‘no, you cannot build a detour for this bridge, you’ve got to just close this bridge,’ to the politician who is saying, ‘I don’t want these trucks to have to go an extra 30 miles for nine months while this bridge is closed.’

“The communication skills for budget and needs and engineering decisions have to be there. I work with a lot of really smart engineers; some have it and some don’t. But, I think what every engineer needs to keep in mind is, you can learn [those skills] with practice. You have to work on it.”