Profiles in design: Power player Cierine Nicolas

Starchitects aside, we hear little about the individuals whose cumulative decisions shape the built environment. To peer behind the curtain of today’s design field, we’re asking engineers, architects, policymakers, and others about their personal experiences and opinions.

Cierine Nicolas joined Arup last fall and leads our Chicago office. As part of her considerable career, Cierine was active within the Chicago architecture, engineering, and real estate community as a vice president at a large consulting engineering firm. Prior to joining Arup, she served as an executive consultant to a preeminent Silicon Valley tech firm, advising the company’s CEO and top management team on domestic and international construction projects and real estate strategies. She spoke with Doggerel about electrophysiology, parenting as the ultimate form of leadership, and connecting the dots through a multifaceted career.

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Do you see any connection between what you loved and what drove you as a child and where you are today?

From a very young age, I actually always wanted to become a doctor, which isn’t so surprising if you consider my family’s history. My mom was a track star in school. When she was 12, she was anchoring the 4x200m relay and she collapsed. It turns out she had a heart condition that would affect the rest of her life.

Twenty-eight years after that race, I was born in Quezon City, the new capital of the Philippines at the time. The pregnancy was very taxing on my mom’s heart, and directly after I was born she was told she’d need mitral valve replacement surgery — which wasn’t performed regularly in the US yet, much less the Philippines. My mom, dad, and brother set off for Chicago for her care, while my three-month-old self stayed in the Philippines with my aunt.

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Quezon City, Philippines

Unfortunately, a moratorium was put in place that barred entry into the US from the Philippines. What was supposed to be a six-month separation lapsed into four and a half years… This is probably more than you bargained for from this question — but yes, I’d say I was driven to medicine since about four years old.

Then, connecting back to my career today, I always gravitated toward math and science — not uncommon for an engineer — but even more so toward engineering and technology. At the age of nine, I looked for opportunities (which were somewhat rare during that era) to take coding classes after school. Then I was accepted to a reputable selective-enrollment high school in Chicago, which offered numerous AP classes, so that I was able to enter University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) as a sophomore. In full-on geek mode, I decided to double major in electrical engineering and molecular and cellular biology as a premed student.

So was engineering a backup plan?

It’s funny, electrical engineering was an interest I hadn’t yet associated with a possible career track — despite my older brother actually being an electrical engineer. Even after several fulfilling engineering internships over summer breaks, I was busy working my butt off to get into Johns Hopkins.

Once I did, and after having medicine on the brain for over 15 years, I finally pressed pause. It was actually something my friends, who were a little older and already entrenched in medical school, were saying — basically that medicine is a life choice, not a career choice. That was probably the first time I seriously thought through what a medical life really means.

Then an opportunity came up. During undergrad I had worked with a professor in the Molecular and Integrative Physiology Department. As part of a graduate-level independent study program, I coauthored a paper with him for the American Journal of Physiology. During that R&D experience, I learned that physiology, electrical engineering, and physics have a lot of overlap in the study of the human body. Through that work and a rigorous undergrad curriculum, I was awarded an accelerated master’s fellowship jointly offered by UIUC, Princeton, and MIT (on the East Coast) and Stanford and Caltech (on the West Coast). Basically, I couldn’t pass it up.

A fellowship in engineering?

A fellowship in theoretical physics and electrical engineering. During that fellowship, my interest in electrical engineering finally surpassed my old love of medicine. Ironically, it turns out engineering, especially consulting engineering, is also a life choice. I’ve probably pulled more all-nighters in my engineering career than most of my medical-path friends.

Where did you land post fellowship?

My first career stop as an electrical engineer was at Environmental Systems Design (ESD), a large MEP firm in Chicago. I worked there for 15 years and wore many hats, as the first female VP in the Chicago headquarters, the buildings practice leader (with a focus on high-performance high-rise buildings, especially of the super-tall variety), and the electrical technical authority for the commercial sector.

How did you get to Silicon Valley?

A little bit of background: my husband, Michael, and I met in high school and both attended UIUC. Full disclosure: Michael is head of the electrical department at SOM. Our friends and colleagues joke that we’re the “power couple” of the Chicago AEC industry (we both focused on power systems as electrical engineering undergrads).

Anyway, Michael and I were lucky to go to school with some really intelligent individuals — prodigies, really — who went on to become the major tech entrepreneurs of our generation. We’ve known the cofounder of PayPal since high school. We attended U of I together with him and the cofounder of YouTube, who got his start at PayPal.

While I was on maternity leave with my first daughter, I found myself needing to disconnect from my manic existence at ESD. It was probably the most mentally permeable I had been in quite some time — a great time for a candid assessment of my life and professional career. I reconnected with several members of the “PayPal Mafia” who encouraged me to leave my traditional engineering job at ESD behind for an executive spot in the high-tech corridor of the world. A year later, I joined a Silicon Valley giant as VP of Engineering and Real Estate Strategy, and special advisor to the CEO.

After three exciting but very intense years in tech, it was compelling to be courted back to the Chicago AEC industry.

Not surprisingly, the Silicon Valley high-tech industry is a completely different existence. There are more 23-year-olds than 30-year-olds, and you definitely burn both ends of the candle and that is what’s expected. They say it’s the hardest job you’ll ever love. In my role, I was responsible for hiring all the consultants for the company’s new large-building developments around the globe. Arup crossed my desk constantly. I was impressed by their portfolio, but also by their ethos. After three exciting but very intense years, it was compelling to be courted back to the Chicago AEC industry to run Arup’s office there.

Did you consciously choose to switch gears?

The advice I would give now to individuals who are just starting out in their careers is to find something that gives them fulfillment and work hard for it — but also recognize that one day you may look back on the years you put towards that and you’ll realize that you can’t get them back. The best employees are the happiest employees. You are a much happier person when you are focusing, not just on your professional development but on your personal development. Balance is key, but balance is not about work versus life. It’s about feeling rewarded in both.

As a career-oriented female in a field that certainly doesn’t have ideal gender ratios, I want to acknowledge and emphasize that having a family played a huge role in finding my definition of true fulfillment and happiness. After having my daughters, not only did my heart and my mind grow in a way that I didn’t expect, it also put the perceived stressful events of work into clear perspective. I constantly strive to be both physically and mentally present for my family, and to lead a life-centric lifestyle and no longer a work-centric one. Parenting is also the ultimate form of leadership and mentorship — a form that is constant, that you can’t clock out from.

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Cierine’s daughters

Really there are many parallels between parenthood and leading an office or organization. Attributes like integrity, leading by example, fiscal responsibility, discipline, work ethic, organization, time management, ambition, fulfillment, compassion, humor, and the pursuit of quality in life and mind are shared and necessary ingredients towards achieving a successful office… and a healthy and happy family.

Well, your passion for your work is very evident — anything left on your bucket list?

I’ve been lucky that I feel like I’ve checked off quite a few. Back when my husband and I were at rival firms, he was the lead electrical engineer for Burj Khalifa — the tallest building the world. While I was at ESD, I was the electrical technical authority for Jeddah Tower, the new tallest building in the world — that’s a pretty decent one to check off!

I was also the project director for the Wrigley Field Restoration and Campus Redevelopment Project. As a die-hard Cubs fan, that was a pretty big bucket list item too — especially with the Cubs winning the World Series last year.

I have been fortunate that through a confluence of hard work, preparedness, and luck I’ve had some interesting opportunities cross my path — and some potentially life-altering decisions to make. Pursue electrical engineering over medicine? Pass up Johns Hopkins medical school to pursue a master’s fellowship? Leave a preeminent Silicon Valley firm to join Arup?

Steve Jobs spoke about “connecting the dots” in his Stanford commencement address. Looking back over the decisions that have determined my professional and personal journey thus far, I think I can finally see how those dots connected. Maybe that’s something only your history of experiences — some heartwarming, some exhilarating, some brutal — can give you.

Questions or comments for Cierine Nicolas? Contact cierine.nicolas@arup.com.

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