Building a Better Future through engineering and Empowering Others
Updated: Oct 27
An interview with AKF's Senior Electrical Engineer
Lauren Foster, PE, LEED AP
Senior Electrical Engineer
Years with company/firm: 7 years
Years in field: 17 years
Years in real estate industry: 17 years
Real estate organizations / affiliations: WiMCO DC Chapter, 7x24 DC, Women in Healthcare DC Chapter
Tell us how and when you began your career in the profession you are in:
I started working at AKF’s New York Office in 2016, after taking two years away from the workforce to take care of my family. I was nervous about returning to work with a gap in my resume, but to my surprise, all I ever heard was “welcome back”. Even though I had never worked at AKF before, I had friends who worked at AKF, and it felt like I had already been there for a long time.
Only six months later, my husband got a job with the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC. I broke the news to my managing partner, afraid it would be the end of my tenure with AKF. Instead, he gave me a laptop, and I set up a remote office in my basement in Alexandria, VA. This was before 2020, when remote work was much less common. Most of the projects I worked on at that time were up in New York. AKF has been developing more work in the Southeast region, and we have since opened offices in DC, Richmond, and Raleigh.
What is your current position?
I am a Senior Electrical Engineer in AKF’s DC office. The projects I work on vary from small office fit-outs to newly constructed high-rise buildings. I mostly do electrical and fire alarm design. Recently I have started doing project management on smaller projects.
Why did you choose the field/profession you are in today?
The summer after I graduated high school, I enrolled in a house-building workshop in Maine called Shelter Institute. At the time, the classes were taught by Pat and Patsy Henin, and their three adult children. The course covered structural and MEP design, codes and standards, and hands-on construction techniques. I always enjoyed woodworking and building things, but I struggled with math and science until that summer at Shelter. The Henins taught engineering in a way that was accessible and meaningful to me. It finally clicked that I could use math to make buildings. Shelter Institute was (and still is) a family business. The Henins raised their kids at Shelter Institute, leading by example. Each of their kids grew up to become builders, engineers, and educators. Twenty years later, I work in this industry so my son and daughter can see that it’s normal for mom to put on boots and a hard hat and go to work.
How do you manage the work/life balance?
I’m thankful that workplace culture has been changing, especially since 2020. I don’t feel like I need to hide the fact that I’m a parent, or that I have other obligations outside of the office. I’m not available to sit at my desk strictly 9-5 (or longer). Many of my colleagues and clients face the same challenges. My time is mostly flexible. When I’m taking my kids to school in the morning, and evenings between 4-8 p.m. is blocked out as family time. After bedtime, I’m often back at my desk at home, and I see a lot of other coworkers on similar schedules.
What impact has social media/networking had on your business?
Often, I work with engineers from our other offices in Mexico, Minnesota, Baltimore, Boston, or New York – but it feels like we’re all in the same place because we’re communicating constantly. It’s easy if we’re all in the same office and we can physically sit together and collaborate. If I’m working with someone in another city, sometimes I’ll call or share screens on Teams as we’re working. We need to communicate more intentionally when we’re not in the same location. There is a Calvin and Hobbes comic where Calvin announces everything he does as he’s doing it. “I’m walking down the hall, going to the kitchen, getting a glass of water, further notice as events warrant.” I broadcast what I’m doing to my teammates regularly if they can’t see me, and I expect the same from them. “I finished these load calcs, getting a coffee, now I’m reviewing the specs, further notice as events warrant.” When the day is over, we all know what we’ve accomplished, and what we need to work on the next day.
What unique qualities and or personality do you feel makes you most successful in your profession?
I don’t have a good memory. I compensate for that by keeping meticulous records. I bullet-journal. I take notes on my phone calls and in meetings and sort my notes by project and date. Those notes have been a valuable resource, especially for long-running projects where we might forget something that was previously decided. Or if there was staff turnover, those notes can help bring everyone up to speed quickly.
I work best when I am a bee in a hive. I always try to make sure that my project team is informed and engaged. I like to share work and keep everyone busy. I make a point to give folks positive reinforcement when they have a good idea or have worked hard. I try to give honest constructive criticism when needed.
Do you feel being a woman is an advantage, disadvantage, or no advantage in today’s business world? Why? Why not?
It’s hard to say if advantages or disadvantages are real, or just perceived. I’ve only ever been a woman, and I’ve only ever worked in male-dominated industries. I feel like I’ve had to work extra hard to gain credibility in this field. I don’t look like an engineer to a lot of people, so if I need to make a statement about a code requirement or a design standard, it’s often not accepted simply because I said so and I’m an engineer. I always provide a qualifier – which code section I read something in, or where the design standard came from. But ultimately, being able to cite where I know everything from is a good habit, and having to do that has made me a better engineer.
Do you feel there are any differences in the way that men and women develop business relationships and if so, what activities or venues do you participate in?
Traditional venues for developing business relationships like golf, happy hours, dinner, or any event in the evening don’t work for me at this stage in my life. That’s not because I’m a woman, it’s because I’m a parent with young children. My husband has the same challenges. He’s a parent too. Any networking or business development event that’s in the daytime, on a weekend, or family-friendly, I’m there for it. Last Spring, I volunteered with friends and colleagues for a 5K run with 7x24 for International Data Center Day. AKF sponsored the 7x24 Spring Conference in Orlando this year, and I was able to attend with my family. There were interesting seminars and panels at the conference, and plenty of golf, but also activities for families like a trip to Universal Studios. I rode on roller coasters with some clients and my kids. In the Summer I helped organize a networking picnic with the DC chapter of Women in Healthcare. That event was kid and dog-friendly, and we all made meaningful connections.