From Engineers in Training to Leaders of Syska
Gary Brennen, Jerry Burkhardt, and Mary Ann Hay have a lot in common. They have each been at Syska for decades. Each graduated from Penn State University’s five-year program in architectural engineering. And each participated in Syska’s Engineer in Training program (EIT), now known as Engineer Development Training (EDT).
EIT, in contrast to today’s year-long, part-time EDT, was a three-week intensive program. New hires from Syska’s offices around the country came to New York City to attend classes, design and present a project, and – last but not necessarily least – mix and mingle.
We asked Gary, Jerry, and Mary Ann about their experiences in the program, how it affected their career progression at Syska, and what advice they’d give to young engineers today.
“I’d never been to New York City. I was intrigued by the big city, big company, and high-profile projects.
Gary, now Syska’s chairman and former co-president, had three job offers to choose from when he graduated from Penn State in 1982. One was a large firm in Houston. Another was a smaller firm in Washington, D.C. The third, of course, was Syska.
Factors underlying his eventual decision included Syska’s policy of sending Penn State alumni to do on-campus recruiting, and an amazing video they showed him about the design and construction of the original Madison Square Garden. “I’d never been to New York City,” Gary recalls. “I was intrigued by the big city, big company, and high-profile projects. At the same time, it was comforting to know that there were several alumni at Syska.”
Although Gary doesn’t remember the details of his EIT project, he remembers that his project team “volunteered” him to be the presenter. He also remembers the celebration that followed, which he hosted at the ground-floor apartment that Syska had rented for him for his first month in the city. “All of the EIT participants showed up,” he recounts. “We built a fire pit on the back patio and had pizza and beer delivered. About an hour after the party started, there was a knock on the door. I open it and see that it was the HR director, a few of the key vice presidents, and John Hennessy III, who was a Vice President at the time but just a few years away from taking the mantle of CEO and Chairman succeeding his father as the third generation family leader of the firm.
“I thought to myself: ‘I’m busted. They’re going to fire me.’ But after some initial awkwardness, I let them in. When they saw the stash of Bud and Bud Light available, they said: ‘Oh no, that won’t work. Go down to the liquor store.’ Then the party really began.”
Amusing though the anecdote is, it also reflects a major selling point of the program -- the ability to interact with top-level executives. “It made an impression on me,” Gary notes.
“The program was the foundation for the realization that everything we do as individuals and principals affects the day-to-day lives of the 500-plus people at Syska."
Jerry, the site leader of Syska Los Angeles and senior principal of the west region’s critical facilities group, was in the same EIT class as Gary.
The job at Syska appealed to Jerry because it offered a chance to work in Washington, D.C., where he had completed a summer internship and initially wanted to live. After meeting with Syska professionals on the Penn State campus, he interviewed with two principals who were leading the D.C. office. “Somehow or other, I managed to secure a job,” he quips.
Like Gary, Jerry enjoyed the balance of fun and education that EIT offered. “We built a lot of camaraderie during those three weeks,” he says. Although his experience involved a few nights out at the bars with his EIT colleagues, followed by 8 a.m. starts, he learned a lot.
For example, the EIT program instilled in Jerry a sense of ownership. This applied to not only his day-to-day responsibilities, but also the role he would eventually play as a principal in an employee-owned company. “I learned how important it is to look out for the people who are in the company,” he says. “The program was the foundation for the realization that everything we do as individuals and principals affects the day-to-day lives of the 500-plus people at Syska. That’s why we all need to do our part to keep Syska healthy and prosperous.”
“We’d go out after work and you’d have vice presidents, young engineers and even summer interns spending time together."
Mary Ann Hay
Mary Ann, principal and director of Syska’s architectural lighting design team, learned about the EIT program during an internship at Syska the summer before she graduated.
The internship was an exceptionally positive experience, she says. For example, she found a mentor in JoAnne Lindsley, who headed the lighting practice at that time. Knowing that Mary Ann was new to New York City, Joanne offered Mary Ann a room in her house in New Jersey and charged a very affordable rent -- Mary Ann’s wages of $5/hour wouldn’t have gone far in New York City.
Her enjoyment of the internship prompted Mary Ann to choose Syska over six other employers who offered her jobs upon her graduation. And that’s how she found herself among the incoming class of EDT trainees in 1983.
“If I hadn’t had the opportunity to come to New York for the summer internship, I don’t know if I would have considered New York for full-time employment when I graduated,” she says, noting that her parents weren’t thrilled with her choices. “They sent me to New York with a can of mace,” she recalls.
But Mary Ann has no regrets about her “leap of faith.” As she says, “It was one of the best decisions I’ve made in terms of my overall career and life.” Like Gary, she appreciated the opportunities to interact with senior leaders. “We’d go out after work and you’d have vice presidents, young engineers and even summer interns spending time together. It reinforced to me how important it is to have personal engagement with the people you’re working with.”
The Program Today
Although the format of the program has changed, it continues to position young engineers for success.
“It gives you exposure to the entire firm and the entire leadership of the firm,” says Gary. “That was true then and it’s true now.” He adds that the program enhances the on-boarding experience by assigning a mentor and a buddy to each participant. “The program isn’t just about learning; it’s also about building a network. You’re going to have valuable relationships with your classmates, mentors, buddies, supervisors, and leadership.”
“Syska was really supportive of my goals for developing and growing the practice,”
After the Program: Mary Ann, Jerry, and Gary
After graduating from the program, Mary Ann stayed in New York City. Over the years, she oversaw the transformation of the lighting design practice from a support group to what is effectively a standalone design studio under the Syska umbrella. “Syska was really supportive of my goals for developing and growing the practice.” she says.
Jerry returned to Washington, D.C. and worked in that office for about nine months before it closed. (It has since reopened.) He then returned to New York City, where he encountered several mentors: notably Lou Bello, Louie Amato, Tony Petrillo and Hamilton Chase. “They gave me my hands-on training in electrical engineering,” he says.
Gary stayed in New York City and was assigned to the international team. His first project was a a 20KV hardening project for the Sigonella Naval Station in Sicily during the midst of the Cold War. His supervisor, John Sporidis, became an important mentor. “He always had an open door, and he was always receptive,” says Gary. “But he’d also encourage me to formulate my own answers to questions.”
Mary Ann is still in New York City, but Gary and Jerry are in Los Angeles. They moved there in 1986 and 1991, respectively. Jerry, who came to the Los Angeles office to help out with projects on the West Coast, tells us: “I left New York on a freezing, windy, grey winter day and arrived in Los Angeles to beautiful, sunny, blue skies and 80 degrees and never looked back!”
“You still need your thinking cap. You can’t allow a computer to do all your thinking for you because engineering is a creative process.”
From Mentees to Mentors
Today, Gary, Jerry, and Mary Ann are mentors themselves.
They believe it’s an exciting time for the engineering field, but they have some words of caution to the next generation. “I feel like they’re too impatient for quick advancement,” says Jerry. “My advice is to embrace the learning and it will come.” He and Gary also warn about overreliance on technology. “You still need your thinking cap,” Gary states. “You can’t allow a computer to do all your thinking for you because engineering is a creative process.”
Mary Ann urges young lighting designers and engineers to advocate for themselves. “Don’t be afraid to speak up,” she advises. “Make sure that you take every opportunity to get to the site and see physically what you’re designing. Challenge yourself.”
The three EIT alums are eager to meet the participants in the 2023-24 EDT program. “Engineering has changed a lot since the early ‘80s,” says Gary. “But Syska’s commitment to nurturing the leaders of tomorrow has not. We welcome them and wish them the same kind of long and happy tenures that Mary Ann, Jerry, and I have enjoyed.”