For Linda Finley, the soon-to-be-retired Chief of Mega Projects Center, a life-long passion for engineering has been a driving force behind her successful career. More importantly, that love for her chosen profession has been part of a long-standing family tradition spanning three generations.
Listening to Finley reflect on a career of more than 40 years, it’s quickly apparent that the principles of integrity, hard work, and a willingness to take on new challenges, have been the earmark of not only her professional life, but also her personal life as well.
As an only child born into a Japanese-American family, the culture of living with honor and holding strong to traditional values, was ingrained early. It was those ideals that drew her to work with the Army later on when she recognized its regard for those same qualities.
Growing up, Finley remembers sitting around the dinner table every evening, listening to her father share stories about his work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Nick Finley joined the Sacramento District as a mechanical draftsman in 1966. More than 30 years later, he would retire from the same district as a mechanical engineering technician.
The seeds for Finley’s future career were planted during those family meals.
“When we had dinner, my father would always talk about the work he was doing at the Corps, and the work that was being done in the district.”
Finley reminisces about one of the more interesting projects, one that would be key in her decision to become an engineer. “At that time, the district was working with Vandenberg Air Force Base, designing and building the launch for the Space Shuttle Program.” The work at Vandenberg made such an impact on her that while in college she wrote and presented a paper on it at the National Convention for the Society of Engineers in 1980. Later on, she’d experience a bookend moment of that memory when she saw the final flight of the space shuttle from outside her office.
“I had such a unique view on this important engineering project from beginning to end. So many scientists and engineers came together to work on it and make it happen.”
Although Finley grew up hearing about mechanical engineering and found it interesting, it was not the original direction she intended to go. She started off studying pre-med at University of California, Berkeley, but says “During that first quarter, the chemistry almost did me in and I thought ‘No way.’”
It was not an uncommon situation, she explained, “At that time, many people who went into pre-med, were washing into engineering.”
While she had hoped to study engineering at Berkeley, she wasn’t accepted, and transferred to the Mechanical Engineering Program at UC Davis.
“I remember being fascinated by engineering because of all the different things you could do. Hearing about the projects my dad worked on enhanced my curiosity about the field even more,” She admitted.
The decision to transfer reflected a personal philosophy that has served Finley well.
“When a door slams in your face, you don’t realize how many other doors are opening. That has happened to me consistently throughout my career, and in my personal life as well.”
Thinking back, Finley recalled the small number of women going into a predominantly male field.
“In 1981, out of 2,000 engineers that graduated, under-grad and graduate, 200 were women. Of those 200, only 50 went on to work out in the field.” When asked why the numbers were so low, she gave a rue smile and said, “Well, it was a great place to meet men.”
That was never Finley’s motivation however.
“I’ve never stopped working in engineering. Even after I had children, it was something that was a very big part of who I was and what I enjoyed doing. It was very fulfilling to me as an individual, and also what I was able to contribute.”
Finley raised her two daughters the same way she had been, and although she never encouraged it, they both followed in her footsteps in becoming engineers.
“My daughters saw the joy, and also the agony, of what I went through in my career. We would always talk at family dinners and they would ask questions, just like I did with my father.”
Her eldest daughter, Morgan, civil/geotechnical engineer, is a project manager with the State of California’s Department of Water Resources. Her youngest daughter, Jackie, is a mechanical engineer with the USACE’s Seattle District.
Incidentally, both daughters married engineers and Finley’s husband, Keith, is a computer science engineer. Needless to say, with so many engineers around the dinner table at family gatherings, the tradition of technical talk continues to this day.
When reflecting on challenging periods of her career, some came as a result of her becoming a mother.
“When I was pregnant with my first, I was a military project manager. I had difficulties near the end of the pregnancy, and of course, it coincided with the fiscal year-end.” Having to take 12 weeks off at such a crucial time was not well-received, providing a bit of an eye-opener when she returned to work.
“After I got back, I discovered my boss had cancelled all of my scheduled training, stating, “Well, now that you’re a mother, you can’t travel.' ” Finley held her ground. “I got very firm with him and told him that it was not going to be pretty if he did not let me attend.” Needless to say, Finley won.
“During that time, it was hard for some people to understand that you could be both a mom and a professional, and maintain a balance between them,” she added.
When it came to projects, a major challenge presented itself in 2004 when the Folsom Program was trying to award a very large project for the dam.
“When the District got the contractor proposal, it was four times what the government estimate was,” Finley explained. “It was a disaster. The District was heavily criticized, everyone was being criticized. I was the Civil Works Program Manager at the time and I was really under the gun by the organization.”
Finley helped turn the problem into a solution with the development of the Joint Federal Project, which paired USACE with the Bureau of Reclamation to construct an auxiliary spillway at Folsom Dam, and she summarized this period very matter-of-factly, “All big projects have their challenges. That comes with the territory and you just have to work with it.”
As her children got older and became more independent, Finley focused more on her career and actively pursued promotion. After starting out as a project manager, Finley has served as Military Program Manager, Civil Works Program Manager, Deputy Chief of PPMD, before concluding her career as the Chief of Mega Projects Center.
Throughout her career, Finley experienced firsthand the culture shift when it comes to women in the workplace.
“I calculated that approximately 60 percent of upper management at the Sacramento District are women,” she said. “When I started it was zero women.”
“To see the recognition of the hard work those women are doing is wonderful,” Finley added.
Finley points out that it’s still a delicate balancing act for women managers.
“In order to be taken seriously women may have to act differently,” she said. “I’m known to be incredibly tough on people, but I have always told people don’t judge a person by how they act in a meeting, or by the position they hold. You have to have the courage to get to know that person as an individual.”
On the flip side, “That leader also has to have the courage to allow people to get to know them as well. You have to be willing to be you, and understand who you truly are.”
The role of women in the workplace isn’t the only thing that’s changed during Finley’s career. She says the most notable has probably been the USACE’s transition into its use of current technology.
“When I first started in 1986, we had one computer for the entire section,” she explains. “There must have been 15 project managers and we all had to take turns entering data into it.”
Change came in 1991, when the district moved to its current location at 1325 J Street.
“It was major,” Finley stated, “Every single one of us had a computer on our own desks. Now look at us, we carry these computers in our pockets.”
One thing that has not changed is the way USACE gets work done.
“With regards to [USACE’s] high standards, its decision making, for the most part, we do it the same now as when I started.” She continued, “But we look at risks far more, and also focus on potential decision making that could result in a negative reputation for the Corps, but we are always focused on doing what is right.”
As her retirement date quickly nears, Finley is enthusiastic about the future. After taking a well-deserved break, one thing she knows for sure, she will continue to encourage other women to go into the same field that has brought her a lifetime of joy and satisfaction.
“Work hard, always strive to do excellent work, and don’t be afraid to try new positions/programs/challenges – Love what you do!”
And hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, a fourth generation of future engineers will be joining the family around the dinner table.