Behind the Build: Interview with Isabel Harlan, Sr. Engineer and Project Manager at Hatch LTK

Isabel Harlan, Civil Engineer and Project Manager, Hatch LTK

"Always ask questions, even if you’re an expert, and listen so that you can learn."

No matter where you are, the infrastructure around you likely has an impact on your daily life. For those working in infrastructure, there are always projects to address, like designing signals and traction power or performing maintenance. 

Isabel Harlan, Senior Engineer and Project Manager at Hatch LTK, has learned to expect unexpected challenges in engineering. Through these challenges, she’s found growth, innovation, and new learning opportunities that help her in her role at Hatch LTK and landed her as a 40 Under 40 winner in 2021.

We recently spoke with Isabel to discuss her role and how LTK Engineering Services was acquired into the new Hatch LTK organization. Read more about her story below.

Tell me a little bit about Hatch LTK and what you specialize in.

Hatch LTK, formerly known as LTK Engineering Services, is a part of Hatch’s infrastructure group. Hatch is a global firm that provides engineering, project and construction services, business consulting, and operation and maintenance services across multiple disciplines, including the mining, metallurgical, energy and infrastructure sectors. Hatch LTK’s expertise is in the rail and transit industries, with a strong legacy of technical expertise.

I have a civil engineering background, but with Hatch LTK I have taken the project management path. In terms of the rail and transit industry, I am systems focused; including traction power, signals, operations, etc… On a project basis, I function as a systems integrator. I use my diverse background of experience to connect the various disciplines and ensure that we are not working in silos and not overlooking any critical interface points, which often happens on the larger projects, so that we provide a holistic and thorough product for our clients while keeping schedule, budget, and other resources in check.

Walk us through your career and what led you to become a Civil Engineer and/or Project Manager.

I didn’t follow a conventional path to becoming a Civil Engineer or Project Manager, so I love talking about this. Before I started engineering, I’d never even taken physics. Like so many women, engineering was never presented to me as an option when I was growing up.

My freshman year of college, I was studying pre-med. However, I ended up dropping out after my first semester due to several stressors in my life at the time. I worked odd jobs, served tables, and eventually saved up enough money to reapply to my original university once I was in the right headspace. I retook all the classes I failed that first semester and replaced them with A’s. 

I’d been helping some friends with their engineering homework at the time and realized “Wait, I could do this”. I didn’t really know what I was getting into, but that was the impetus for pursuing engineering.

— Isabel Harlan, Sr. Engineer & Project Manager, Hatch LTK

After I was back on track, I applied for the engineering program and was accepted. It’s a funny story actually. I’d been helping some friends with their engineering homework at the time and realized “Wait, I could do this”. I didn’t really know what I was getting into, but that was the impetus for pursuing engineering. I opted for civil engineering because it was the broadest category.

In school, I had a professor, Dr. Belinda Sturm at the University of Kansas, who believed in me and recommended me for an internship with Burns & McDonnell. I interned with them twice before graduation. After graduation, I worked in their Water global practice; focusing on water/wastewater treatment and distribution design. A couple years later, I transferred out to New Jersey with Burns & McDonnell, as part of the Aviation and Federal global practice, and did distribution design for substations, airports, military bases, and other federal contracts. 

Then, I got curious about the construction side. I applied and began to work at Dragados USA in New York City as a Civil Engineering Estimator. There, I worked on a wide range of heavy infrastructure-based projects, and I got my feet wet with proposal writing and DBE coordination for large contracts. My last role with Dragados USA was as the Engineering Coordinator for the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) Third Track Expansion Project. LTK was also working on that LIRR project, which is where I made that connection. 

What is your proudest accomplishment in your career at Hatch LTK? Why?

I think my proudest accomplishment with Hatch LTK was coming in and learning how to be a Project Manager. It’s been my favorite role to date. Even though I’d worked with and supported project managers before, you don’t really know if you can do something until you do it. I’m still learning and refining how to best approach and expand this role, and that’s one of the things I love most about it.

As construction evolves, how do you see the role of Civil Engineer and Project Manager changing?

For both Civil Engineers and Project Managers (PM), I view innovation as the key focus for change. In my experience, I’ve observed that many Civil Engineers and PM’s primarily focus on simply delivering the product they’re contracted for with a blinders on, “bull in a china shop” mentality—no matter the project delivery method. I often see this cut and dry approach on Design-Build projects that require a more fluid and dynamic touch. 

You can’t expect change unless you first create an environment that is conducive to change.

— Isabel Harlan, Sr. Engineer & Project Manager, Hatch LTK

However, you can’t expect change unless you first create an environment that is conducive to change. I believe we need project teams to prioritize design interface coordination earlier on in a project’s life cycle so we have more bandwidth for innovative thought. We also need to foster environments that empower team members to put energy into innovative brainstorming regarding how we source and implement forward-thinking designs or create design standards that support a sustainable and equitable future. No ego, no judgment. Let’s hear every idea. This plays out technically speaking and in how we interact with our peers and counterparts. I believe these are some of the most important avenues for growth and improvement in our industry. 

What are the biggest challenges you face in your role? How does technology help you overcome those challenges?

My biggest challenges come down to communication and workflows. There is a lot of room for miscommunication or forgetting to document something that is important to a project. Having the right workflows and processes in place to track everything and keep it all in line is crucial. Autodesk products are critical to managing workflows and supporting productive communication.

"Between the moment where you make an assumption and come to a conclusion, a space exists where you should ask yourself some difficult questions."

— Isabel Harlan, Sr. Engineer & Project Manager, Hatch LTK

Autodesk products help with this by creating a thorough record of everything; nothing slips through the cracks. Takeoff is easier, and it’s more traceable with how you came up with your numbers or approach, so it’s a great tool to facilitate discussions. Also, when you go back to review the work, each part of the process is timestamped and an author has been assigned. This has been beneficial more times than I can count in settling disputes.

When it comes to field work, it’s been extremely useful to have a platform that’s live and updated system-wide. Everyone is looking at the same information instead of outdated documents. I have experienced the benefits of this in terms of quality control and safety, but the impacts are far reaching. 

Is there a reason you chose to partner with Autodesk for your projects?

Efficiency. Whenever there’s a tool that can help you collaborate and be more efficient, it helps free up the headspace needed to be innovative. You can take the energy you might have spent trying to manage different parts of a project and reallocate that part of your workday. You have more freedom to think, brainstorm, and reflect on how the project is going and how it might be done better.

When you think about the future, what are your plans to advance innovation and productivity at Hatch LTK?

I believe that getting everyone on board with using the same tools is important. It streamlines the work that we do, mitigates risk, and creates space for added value. 

I personally consider Autodesk products to be the benchmark, and I have always used them on all my projects. I would like to see a more homogenous approach to the platforms we use in the industry in the future. For example, Autodesk has been an effective platform when working in a team environment with multiple shareholders, because we are all speaking the same language and sharing files that are compatible with one another. The value of this cannot be overstated.

What advice would you give to the next generation of men and women entering and preparing for the future of the industry?

I’ll quote the great Ted Lasso: “Be curious, not judgmental.” 

Between the moment where you make an assumption and come to a conclusion, a space exists where you should ask yourself some difficult questions that challenge whether you’re possibly misinterpreting or missing a piece of information that might reframe the way you’re viewing someone or a situation. It’s similar to the concept of “calling out” versus “calling in”. When we call someone out for something we don’t like or disagree with, we miss an opportunity to call them in, thereby missing an opportunity to have a conversation where maybe we can both learn something or deepen the level of trust.

This approach affects all facets of life, but, in the engineering industry, I have experienced the impact that this mindset has on interpersonal relationships, contractual disputes, project planning, and so much more. 

Always ask questions, even if you’re an expert, and listen so that you can learn.

It’s not always easy being in this industry, but it is always exciting if you stay curious.

Kelsee Campbell

As a Senior Customer Advocacy Program Manager at Autodesk, Kelsee has the privilege of working with Autodesk customers to champion their stories on the Digital Builder Blog. Kelsee strives to create an engaging experience that amplifies customer perspectives, fostering a sense of community and connection.