Alumni Spotlight

Engineering management program takes alumna to the next level

Originally published April 18, 2023 on

Written by Monica Smith

Engineers keep cities grounded, running and thriving. But, being a top-level engineer isn’t only about the nuts and bolts of engineering — it’s also about leadership.

Alumna Irene Varela says FIU’s Master of Science in Engineering Management degree is the key to combining excellent engineering know-how with crucial management and business skills. The degree, offered both in-person and fully online, blends a carefully chosen mix of graduate courses in engineering and computing, business administration and law. The program’s is designed for engineers seeking to advance to managerial positions and acquire the skills necessary for success at the next level.

Varela, who works to improve construction in Florida, says her degree did just that — it prepared her for advancement and gave her the agility needed to succeed across teams. In this Q and A, Varela, shares what the program is like, what skills were immediately transferrable and how FIU made the difference for her.

When did you graduate?

I graduated in summer 2021 from the Master of Science in Engineering Management.

Why did you decide to study this area and choose this program?

Civil engineering is my second career. I completed my bachelor’s degree in 2018. After graduation, I immediately found a job working for the [Florida] Department of Transportation (FDOT) here in Miami. After a year, I applied for a project manager position within the department, and I was selected for the position. At that time, I felt that I was missing certain skills for management. I saw that FIU was offering a master’s degree in Engineering Management, which was attractive to me given that it offered to fill the gap between engineering management and business, and it filled the gap in management training I felt I was missing.  Also, many of my colleagues at FDOT recommended it.

Where do you work now?

I work for Miami Dade County Department of Environmental Resource Management (DERM).

What do you do?

I work under the special section reviewing commercial, residential, and multi-family housing building plans for environmental federal regulation and municipal code compliance. I am also responsible for communicating with design professionals and contractors regarding code interpretation and compliance, determining corrective actions, evaluating details, and assessing technical reports.

What was your favorite class and why?

I loved every single class. I cannot tell you how much I wish I could keep taking classes. Every class had immediate applicable skills that improved every aspect of my work immensely and increased my worth as a professional. I can tell you that all professors, Dr. Chen, Dr. Ford, Dr. Pissaris, Dr. Schmahl, they are there to make sure you succeed. They want to see you learn and they want to make sure all the skills in their classes are applicable almost immediately. The reports, presentations and research done in the classes you can use for work right away.

What immediately applicable skills did you learn?

To start, teamwork is a huge skill that goes beyond just working in a group. Each class is based on teamwork. This allows you to learn about yourself and how you fit in and connect with others. Part of the genius of the curriculum is that everyone is a different kind of engineer (civil, electrical, computer, mechanical) and you will not have the most applicable skills or experience in all the classes/assignments. The courses allow for opportunities to either lead a team or support your classmates as a valuable member of the team. By the end of the program, your role on a team is evident and you are able to contribute toward success based on the needs. Therefore, in some classes, you will have to lead and others you will recognize that you can just be part of the support team and still feel a valuable member of that team. By the end of the program, you can join any team and immediately be able to identify what you can do to be useful to that team and help the team succeed.

As engineers, we always wish we had the right team, the right fit, the right skills, and this master’s degree gives you the tools to manage any team with any players—it gives you the tools to lead both technical and non-technical teams. You realize, at the end of the program, you have changed as a person and as a leader. You can lead absolutely any team, and you’ll be able to find use of anyone’s talents and inspire anyone in any position to work for and with you.

How does your degree help you in your work?

The quality of my work improved immensely. I gained leadership skills. I am able to be part of a team and improve on processes, regardless of position.  It has also opened many doors for me in my career.  I get contacted from recruiters all the time because they know the leadership and management skills the graduates from this program bring to any company.

What is one of the best things you gained from the program?

The networking during the program is fantastic. I keep in touch with a lot of the people in my cohort. If I have a doubt in any area I’m not an expert in, there’s always someone from the program that I can reach out to. The camaraderie and engagement among students were just outstanding.

Would you recommend this program to other students?

Absolutely, this is a must have for any engineer [of] any background, if you are interested in lead[ing] or eventually form[ing] your own company.

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