Principal and Director of Information Technology Rich Grant. The bottom photo is of Rich at his desk at 641 Ave. of the Americas, back when he was a young engineer. Note the then state-of-the-art computer terminal behind him and the tie (look familiar?). Top photo by Bess Adler.
When Principal and Director of Information Technology Rich Grant embarked on his career at Thornton Tomasetti in June 1988, it was as an entry-level engineer eager to show off his design chops. Bits and bytes were probably the furthest things from his mind.
“When I was in college, I hated working with computers,” Grant, who is based in the New York office, said. “I took the bare minimum of required programing courses. It wasn’t until I actually started using computers for structural analysis that I began to appreciate what a valuable tool it could be.”
The more time Grant spent at the keyboard learning about how computers worked, the more he realized that he had an aptitude for technology. So did the executives at Thornton Tomasetti, who found a place for him within the firm where his engineering background and interest in technology could converge.
“I love being in the trenches and finding a technology problem before anyone else notices it,” Grant said. “But much of my success with technology can be attributed to my training as an engineer. Working under people like (Chairman and CEO) Tom Scarangello and (Principal) Len Joseph was an invaluable experience, especially when it comes to things like problem solving.”
Grant recently talked about his 25 years at Thornton Tomasetti and his work here as both an engineer and as an IT specialist.
How did you come to Thornton Tomasetti?
I was about to graduate from The Cooper Union in Manhattan with a bachelor’s degree in engineering. My plan was to work full-time over the summer and then go to part-time in the fall while pursuing a master’s degree. I found Thornton Tomasetti on a list of engineering firms in the student career center and sent out a resume. One day, I got a call to come in for an interview. I met with Jay Prasad, who at the time was the partner in charge of personnel, at our old office at 641 Ave. of the Americas. During the interview, I got to meet Charlie Thornton, Joe Lieber and I think Len Joseph. Jay offered me a position then and there. I started a week after graduation, and even though I switched to part-time in September, I was probably putting in 30 hours a week in that first year.
What was the firm like then?
When I joined, it was Thornton Tomasetti PC, a division of Lev Zetlin Associates, and we were much smaller. There were about 125 people. Then as it is now, we worked hard and kept busy. But we did do some things a little differently. It was much less corporate back then. For instance, we used to do fun things within the office, like ethnic food day. Everyone would bring in a dish for lunch based on their ethnicity and share it with staff.
What was the first project you worked on?
It was Chifley Tower, a 50-story high-rise in Sydney, Australia. I worked under Len Joseph, and Tom Scarangello was the project engineer. Since it was my first job, I was pretty nervous. I would sit at my desk and just crank away at the work. But it was very interesting and I got exposed to a lot of things on this project. My first task was doing the lateral analysis of the building. Obviously the analysis tools we had back then were not as sophisticated as they are now. We were using a truss analysis program that Tom Scarangello had developed in Fortran. It would optimize truss framing for structures. The whole idea for this building was to optimize the steel. At the time, there weren’t a lot of steel structures in Sydney.
What were the more memorable projects you worked on during your career?
I worked on a lot of high profile jobs, such as the new Comiskey Park (now known as U.S. Cellular Field) in Chicago. There was a group of us, including Tom and Chris Christoforou. Another firm had been the engineer of record on the job. We had come on board to do the peer review, and we ended up taking over the project in the middle of construction. Everything was super-fast paced because we were trying to figure out what needed to get done while fixing the problems that resulted from the original design. I did a lot of the shop drawing review work and got to spend a few weeks working on site during construction.
After that, I had the opportunity to work on some very interesting projects, a few of which did not get built. One was the Miglin-Beitler Tower in Chicago. It was going to be 125 stories, taller than Sears Tower and the tallest building in the world. I mostly did the analysis, working on a mainframe computer, which took a long time. In addition to the analysis packages developed by Tom, in those days we also used a finite element analysis program called Ease 2 and one from McDonnell Douglas, both of which operated off of the mainframe.
How did you make the transition from engineering to information technology?
After the Chifley and Miglin-Beitler projects, I developed a reputation for being the analysis guy. Every time a big job came up and a model needed to be generated, it came to me. I was constantly working on the computer. And after I bought my first personal computer for home, I became even more interested in technology. I wanted to learn as much as I could, so I took some certification courses in Windows NT and the Microsoft product line.
By late 1997 I had been an engineer for about 10 years when I approached Jay Prasad and told him that I would be leaving at the end of the year to pursue an IT career. It was the beginning of the internet craze and even with my limited skills it would not have been difficult to get a job. Tom heard that I was looking to leave and asked me if I would consider moving into a position as liaison between the engineers and the computer staff. I jumped at such a generous opportunity. It took about a year for me to offload all of my engineering work before the transition was complete.
In the interim, our system administrator decided to leave. Then it was just me, a computer tech who had been with the firm less than a year and a few interns, one of whom was Aaron Fernandez. I remember the first week after the system administrator left, the backup systems failed. When I called him up to ask a few questions, he told me that it was now my problem. So I dived in head first.
Eventually I was offered the system administrator position. At the time, we had five offices with no real interconnectivity, and every office had a different domain name. Eventually we started to formalize the IT department and embarked on our first wide area network. It took many years to get some consistency within our offices and these days, the biggest challenge is trying to keep up with technology.
One of the other things that attracted me to IT was the sense of instant gratification. If there is a problem, you can work through it and get the system up and running right away. Working on a building design can take years before the actual project is completed. But I admit at times I do miss being an engineer, especially when I see some of the cool projects we are working on. I don’t, however, miss the deadlines. I can remember working nights and weekends so often that my neighbor had to cut my grass because I was never home. There was one time that Steve Witkowski and I camped out in the office from Wednesday morning until Friday night just to get a project out the door.
How has this industry changed since you started?
Software has come a long way in terms of what it enables us to do in design. But while it has made things easier for the engineers, working on the distribution side has become more complex. A lot companies producing engineering software do a great job getting the calculations to work right, but don’t make it easy to get the software deployed and working properly or keep up to date with operating systems. If you are in a 50-person office, you can run around with a thumb drive and install software on everyone’s computers. But when you have to get software out to hundreds of people in many locations around the world, it is a big challenge. To get things up and running perfectly is a lot more involved today than it was 10 or 15 years ago.
What do you think will be the most important trend for our industry moving forward?
I have seen a lot of things come and go. I’ve heard people talking about the next big thing in technology, only to see it become irrelevant in a short period of time. I feel the adoption of technology in the industry moves a lot slower than people realize. Revit, for instance, has been around for more than 20 years, but it has only become a tool of choice with the past seven or eight years. Now, everyone is talking about how cloud computing will revolutionize the way we work. Unlike some, I am not convinced that everything will be done in the (public) cloud. It is great to have a service where you can store all of your data and get to it from any place in the world, but that’s assuming that you have the ability to retrieve it. We have internet connections in every office, but they are a certain size and can pull a certain amount of information. With our internal network (private cloud), your ability to access that information is at least one order of magnitude greater than by going out to the Internet and getting it from the cloud. This will probably be the case going forward for some time to come. There are certain things you will be able to put out in the cloud, but other types of information that you will keep within the organization.
What advice do you have for younger staff?
Find a nice work/life balance. You asked earlier how the firm has changed. One thing is that we have become much more accommodating of the work/life balance of our employees. When my son was born, I had so many deadlines that I wasn’t able to take any time off. Now the firm offers paternity as well as maternity leave. I think the firm has grown a lot in that respect, and young engineers should try to take advantage of those opportunities and achieve that balance. I would also say don’t ever stop going to school. I regret not finishing my master’s degree. I fell six thesis credits short because I got consumed by the work. I loved what I was doing and it was more interesting to be hands on rather than studying about engineering. And ask questions. I was often amazed when I would ask a question and get the response, “That is just how we do it.” Don’t settle for those kinds of answers. There are a lot of smart people in this company and although they might be pressed for time, you want to understand what you are doing and why. It will lead to a much greater appreciation for the work that you do.
Follow these topics: