Dynamic career path leads alumnus to city development

Western Engineering News | February 24, 2021

“Organizational health is the single greatest competitive advantage in any business.”
  - Patrick Lencioni, The Advantage


Development Engineering Manager for the City of Kelowna, BC, James Kay, BESc/HBA ’01, is a lifelong learner and a firm believer in the idea that there is always room for improvement.

“For even the most seasoned civil engineers, there is always room to grow with regards to how your organization succeeds, how you function as a teammate, and how you contribute to a team,” says Kay. “Once you realize how you add value and make others better, you will become invaluable to your team.” 

Having lead a fast-paced career in civil engineering, Kay says he values his colleagues above all else — from the people who helped him reflect and grow throughout his career to the people he now mentors as they launch their own careers.

In our latest Q&A, Kay walks us through his career path, delivers some lessons for the next generation of engineers, and recommends some good reads for leaders in the field of engineering. Hint: Business management author Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage is at the top of Kay’s list.

Can you discuss your current leadership role with the City of Kelowna and provide a high-level overview of your career?

I joined the City of Kelowna as the Development Engineering Manager in 2016 to make a positive impact in the development of my community. I get to lead a team of skilled development technicians and collaborate with exceptional internal stakeholders as we work to facilitate quality infrastructure while supporting development and growth across the city. 

I’ve had a very dynamic career to date, starting with a few small-to-mid-size privately owned firms in Southern Ontario, where I learned techniques and approaches in civil engineering that developed skills and expertise. During the pre-Olympic infrastructure boom, my wife Julie and I relocated to the Lower Mainland of British Columbia to join a mid-size partnership where we delivered exciting projects and growth strategies, including the opportunity to lead the opening of two new branch offices, hence our relocations to Abbotsford, then Kelowna. I joined a multinational, multidisciplinary firm, leading its offices across BC as it grew into new markets, offered new services, and acquired other firms. I joined a developer, started my own firms, had the opportunity to teach at the local college and university, and ultimately joined the City of Kelowna. I’m cognizant that is a lot of movement in 20 years, but, if done with transparency, honesty, and integrity, movement can mean enormous challenge, growth, and opportunity.

The highlight for my career has absolutely been the people I have had the pleasure of working with. From the skilled technician and the savvy businessperson, to the wise mentor and the caring front line worker, I have learned and grown from them all. I go out of my way to reciprocate providing mentorship to many and creating opportunities for new grads to launch their careers.

The one overarching takeaway from my career to date is that engineering firms are generally run by engineers who got there through great ideas, innovative processes, problem solving, and hard work. Often, what they lack is the business skill set, leadership, management, growth, customer service, accounting and finance components. They learn it on the fly, often strengthening their team by surrounding themselves with complementary skill sets, but the key to my success has been trying to combine strong technical civil engineering skills with an aptitude and interest in the business of engineering.

"My career in civil engineering has been immensely rewarding, full of interesting people and projects. No two days are the same, no role or assignment ever boring or unfulfilling."

How has your engineering education benefitted your career success? 

Engineering is an exceptional and diverse educational field. It teaches practical real-life skills, while promoting hard work, discipline, and problem-solving. It is conducive to management, entrepreneurship, and leadership. I’m fortunate; I have stayed within my civil engineering field at a time when every city is experiencing enormous pressures from growth, infrastructure deficits, aging infrastructure, and innovations in asset management. I joined engineering companies that were growing, creating opportunities for advancement, and starting to focus on becoming “employers of choice” while really developing and advancing young professionals. This afforded me an opportunity for leadership, mentorship, networking, a primer into business strategy, structure, and accounting, as well as new challenges and countless open doors.

What advice or lesson learned would you share with the next generation of young leaders entering the field of engineering?

The world has changed significantly in the last 20 years, but some basic tenets still hold true. If engineering is the application of scientific principles to design and build and improve, then you must start by learning the science. But learning doesn’t stop at graduation. Be curious, innovate, engage. Hard work is always noticed; your career is a journey, and becoming knowledgeable, capable, and valuable are cornerstones. Clients didn’t question my age or experience, and colleagues afforded me some amazing growth opportunities because I had strong technical skills, a team-first attitude, and I showed initiative to tackle challenges. Once you develop the skills, there are opportunities to supervise, lead, advance, and grow, but there is no substitute for a technical foundation that demonstrates you can do it, and for hard work that validates you deserve the opportunity.

What book, resource or podcast do you recommend for civil engineers and leaders?

Upon graduation, a close friend gave me a copy of The Civil Engineering Handbook. Having just graduated, I didn’t see the wisdom in it as I clearly knew all there was about civil engineering. Until I realized I didn’t. I was able to go back and brush up on the finer points of those classes, all the details my employers and clients expected me to know, and I started my continuous-learning journey. These days, it’s supercharged. You can learn design drafting from short video clips, find quality research on any topic, take formal training, and pursue designations and specialties. For those wanting to go beyond the technical, I recommend project management training, and business leadership reading: I strongly encourage reading Patrick Lencioni’s work, particularly The Advantage. For even the most seasoned civil engineers, there is always room to grow with regards to how your organization succeeds, how you function as a teammate, and how you contribute to a team.

My years at Western Engineering were some of the most exceptional times in my life. I learned, I grew, I bonded and befriended; some would say I peaked! My career in civil engineering has been immensely rewarding, full of interesting people and projects. No two days are the same, no role or assignment ever boring or unfulfilling. Hard work? Yes. New challenges? Yes. Continuous learning? Yes. I have no idea what the next few decades hold for me, but I do know that if my last 20 years are any indication, the next 40 will be full of great people, change, innovation, learning, and growth.