Step Up Your Game

Learn more about CEC’s “Step Up Your Game” internal technical conference held earlier this year. Listen to the presenters as they talk about the process and challenges of developing a presentation and the opportunities the conference has helped provide for them.

Podcast Transcript

Announcer: Welcome to CEC Explains — your deep dive into fascinating subjects from the worlds of engineering and the environment, brought to you by Civil & Environmental Consultants. And now, from our CEC studios around the nation, this is CEC Explains.


Mike: Hello, my name is Mike Ellis. I’m a Principal in the St. Louis office, and I’m a member of the Step Up Your Game conference committee. Today we have three individuals that participated in the Step Up Your Game conference, and we’re going to discuss the past conference and the conference that’s scheduled for March of 2023. The Step Up Your Game conference was a conference that was put together for deliberate professional development for junior staff. It was to guide and mentor junior staff for preparation of a presentation or a poster presentation that could be peer-reviewed and developed for national and regional conferences. The Step Up Your Game conference also allowed staff an opportunity to practice their presentation in a conference setting and also provided an opportunity for staff to network and learn networking skills and how to meet other people, introduce themselves, and also provide a social atmosphere for the staff that participated to get to know other colleagues from different offices and different practices. With that, I’ll let David introduce himself.


David: Hi, Mike. Thanks. I’m excited to talk about the Step Up Your Game conference. So, my name is David Robinson. I’m from the Austin office. I work in the Environmental practice. I’m a Project Manager there focusing mostly on hazardous waste and industrial waste compliance and permitting, 


Mike: Abigail, go ahead.


Abigail: Hi. My name is Abigail Pollock, and I’m a Project Manager I in the Pittsburgh office, and I’ve been an engineer in the Solid Waste group there, for almost seven years.


Mike: Mehar? 


Mehar: Hey, my name is Mehar Patel. I work in the Charlotte office. I have been with CEC for over two years now. I am a Staff Consultant in Water Resources Group. 


Mike: OK, great. I guess what we’d like to talk about first is the abstracts and if each of you could kind of provide a little bit of discussion on how you became involved in Step Up Your Game and why you decided to submit an abstract to participate in the conference.


Abigail: I first heard about the call for abstracts in an email from my department lead, and he was encouraging all the staff in our group to send him ideas for abstracts. And at that point, I had already given an office Brown Bag/tech talk that covered a number of case studies from my recent project experience with the subject. And so, that seemed like the most logical way to move forward.


Mehar: So, I have a very different story. When I got involved with the conference, I was substituting for a coworker of mine. Because of some scheduling conflicts, he couldn’t submit or continue with the poster. So, when I got involved, the abstract was already submitted to the committee. So, I had no role in preparing the abstract myself.


David: Yeah, I had been hoping to try to take kind of the next professional development step and start doing presentations. And so, this had been kind of on my development goals for a while, and the right opportunity kind of hadn’t been put in my face. And this email came through asking for abstracts, and it just seemed too perfect. And so, I jumped on the opportunity and tried to come up with some topics that I’d like to present to the audience.


Mike: Well, maybe, and this would be to Abigail and David, did you have any advice or help in putting together the abstract, and can you provide any advice to others considering submitting an abstract?


Abigail: Yes, I definitely had help at that early stage. Both my department lead and one of the Vice Principals in my group was basically a mentor to me. Both shared with me abstracts that they had written for other conferences as sort of a guideline. And then with the Vice President, Rick, we had coauthored a presentation quite recently, and, so, I had an abstract that I wrote with him on that and was able to use that as a starting place for the Step Up Your Game abstract. They both also gave me feedback and edits after I had drafted it as well.


Mike: Any advice to someone else considering putting together an abstract? Should they seek senior and staff involvement or other guidance?


Abigail: Yeah, definitely. You don’t have to do it yourself. When I started, I didn’t really even know what an abstract looks like. I mean, I’ve seen them for papers, but definitely, there are a lot of people at CEC who have that kind of experience and who are going to be happy to share with you what they know about it already. You don’t have to start from a blank slate.


David: Yeah, and I had a couple ideas of topics I might want to write an abstract for, and I took those to my supervisor and bounced some ideas off of him to what would be useful to create an abstract from. So, I went early so I didn’t have to spin my wheels trying to write an abstract without that feedback. So, getting your mentors or senior supervisors involved early to make sure you’re on the right track will definitely push you forward in getting an abstract written.


Mike: I can add a little discussion regarding the conference committee. There were 43 abstracts submitted, and we deliberated over those for quite a while before selecting the final presenters. I think another part of the deliberate professional development that was part of the objective of the Step Up Your Game conference — even the abstracts that were not selected, we contacted all of those individuals that submitted those abstracts and discussed how to make their abstracts better, kind of discuss why we did not choose their abstract for the presentation and tried to help them with that abstract so that they could consider participating in future conferences. 

So, that took a little bit of time, but after the selection of the presenters, we started moving forward with the conference, and I guess I’d like to ask a question from each of you: when you started putting together your presentation, how much time did you spend on that? Did you run into any issues or problems? And I guess the other comment I might add is can you discuss a little bit about the conference committee’s involvement and if they helped and how that advice or suggestions or recommendations improved your presentations?


Abigail: My poster presentation was titled “Landfill Solar: Design and Permitting of Solar Power on Closed Disposal Facilities.” I spent a few hours I think preparing the initial abstract and then once we started putting the presentation together — it’s a little bit hard for me to say because, at the same time, I was also coauthoring a poster presentation. So, I really like split my time between both of those posters. The turnaround time was pretty quick. So, I mean, a few hours in the first few weeks to really hammer out the layout and the kind of content that we wanted to see.


Mehar: So, when I started the poster, I would say it took like a day — day and a half for me to come up with the whole poster. One challenge that I found with posters was that because it’s such limited space, I need to fit everything in that space was a tricky thing to navigate

My topic was “Complex Wastewater Evaluation and Treatment Technologies for Emerging Contaminants.” Sorry for the long name, but it had like so much different technologies that I wanted it to be included in my poster. And it was hard because there was not enough space, and I did not want to put a lot of writeup or text in there because the poster needs to be more graphically appealing for a person to come and look at it and start dialogue from there. So, that was a tricky thing.

And as to what Mike was asking earlier about the committee involvement, I would say that I was in a position where if there was no committee, it would have been really difficult for me because when I started working, it was like I don’t know anything. Like I didn’t know what the abstract was or what the formatting was because I had missed all the initial meetings that they were having with all the participants and the committee members. So, for me, personally, I think the committee helped me immensely. Like the day I decided that I was doing that, within a week I had a call scheduled with Mike, and he briefed me on everything that I missed, and I think I’m grateful for him to be able to do this at the last minute or else it would have been a difficult poster presentation for me personally.


David: Yes, my presentation was about “Avoiding Waste Over-Classification,” and I chose to use case studies to present the topic. So, it was from examples that I had encountered during my experience with consulting and working with my clients, and I turned that into a presentation to try to highlight some of the issues that I went through. And it took quite a bit of time to make sure that we covered the challenging regulatory and technical aspects. And when I present that to an external audience, I wanted to do my research and double-check to make sure I was saying the right thing and didn’t have that kind of embarrassing moment of telling a crowd of people the wrong thing.

So, I took some time to do my research which helped me learn the topic better, and the committee was really involved, and I got a lot of feedback as I prepared my presentation. I was assigned a mentor as I developed my presentation and went through the draft stages. So, we met on a regular basis which I know we’re all guilty of a little bit of procrastination and having some deadlines in there and the committee checking up on me, that was definitely helpful to make sure I got it done and worked well, and I got lots of great feedback. It was great because it wasn’t my supervisor who intimately knew my projects and my case studies; it was someone external who could give a great perspective, and so, that Step Up Your Game committee feedback and check-ins were really valuable in preparing my presentation.


Mike: Based upon that discussion, what was the most challenging aspect associated with the conference, particularly on the preparation side then we can go with some other further discussion later.


David: I’ll jump in first. And so, for me, the most challenging aspect of the conference was trying to balance my time with my regular obligations and responsibilities and develop this presentation on the side without letting my work slack. So, that time balance was a little bit challenging, but it was so valuable to make that time commitment to do that because now I have this presentation that I’ve developed, and I can use that going forward. So, it was definitely – it was challenging but very valuable to use that time.


Mike: Good. Mehar, I suspect because of your involvement later in the scheduled time for preparing your presentation, you probably had a time constraint issue. And managing your time may have been very difficult. Any other further discussion you can add regarding that?


Mehar: Yeah, I think that sounds about right. As you mentioned, I did start really late. And when I was asked to present or submit the poster, people had already submitted their poster like a month back, and I was trying to do everything and figure everything out in like a week – prepare the whole poster, submit it, do the research to be able to talk about it at the conference. Time was an issue. I mean, when they told me, it was nerve-racking, but I think the topic that I had for my poster was something that I have done quite a bit of my work and projects on. Those technologies I have done immense work on, and I was still doing a project while preparing the poster, so it definitely helped me in my own project and also the part that I was being able to develop a poster, improving my presentation skills, and also my poster making skills. I think this was the first time that I did a poster professionally. So, I think time was an issue, but I’m glad that I was part of this conference and was able to learn and present it at a stage where I could get so much out of it.


Mike: Looking at the conference in the poster presentation and actually attending the conference, is there something you would do differently now that you’ve attended the conference and presented? Is there some aspect of either scheduling, the technical research, or whatever that you might consider doing differently for a future presentation?


David: I mean, honestly, it’s not wait this long to create a presentation. I feel like Step Up Your Game was a great motivator to do it, and I just wish I would have done this a couple of years earlier, but I’m just glad that we have this opportunity now for future CEC staff to take advantage of.

And I’ll add that I was a speaker, but I found the poster presentation super valuable for, I mean, yes, the skillset of developing your presentation, but another important part of this conference was the collaborations and the networking and that aspect of professional development. And the poster presentations had a huge part in that and those interactions. So, I mean, I didn’t know Abigail very well before the conference, and we stood around her poster and talked about landfills for 20 minutes. So, I got to know her and made that connection at that conference because her poster presentation was kind of that spark to have that conversation.


Mehar: I think I’ll support what David said as well. Like me being the poster presenter, I mean, I learned so much new stuff about the technology that I was presenting. The challenges that they might have come across while working on some projects were good for me to know. And to make sure that if in the future, I start working on a project like that, I have some expertise in the company to reach out to learn something from them as well at the same time where I can contribute something to their project as well.


Mike: How do each of you feel after participating in the conference? Are you better prepared to present and participate in future conferences? Did you learn some skills and techniques at the conference that you feel comfortable using at future conferences? Can each of you kind of elaborate a little further upon that?


David: Yeah, definitely. The conference was a great boost to my confidence, honestly and to do those external presentations. So, since we’ve had the Step Up Your Game conference, I’ve submitted for an external conference and presented, and it went well. And it was on the same topic that I did at Step Up Your Game, so I had that practice run. I had to change it a little bit for a different audience, but having that slide deck, that work done, made it so much easier. And then the confidence of already having presented that to my colleagues and peers and getting their feedback was huge for making me take that next step in putting myself out there and really completing that professional development.


Abigail: Yeah, the skills that we got to practice and being able to engage with somebody in a conversation about our projects and about our knowledge base and also developing relationships around that poster I think are definitely skills that you need when you’re just attending a conference. And that’s a large part of conference attendance is having those types of conversations with other attendees, not just limited to what your presentation is at that conference. So, that was definitely valuable.

I think the biggest takeaway for me from the whole experience was definitely just the idea that you can do hard things. In my department, the folks who attend conferences and give presentations have like 30 years of experience, and it feels like they know everything. But my biggest takeaway from Step Up Your Game is just the idea that you don’t have to have 30 years of experience to know something valuable and to know it well and to be able to communicate that knowledge to other people. And like David said, that was just like a huge confidence booster for me as a young professional to know that I have something to contribute to the workplace, and I have something to contribute to CEC and to my clients. I’m not limited so much as I thought just because I’m a junior staff level and don’t have 30 years of experience. So, that was definitely a big shift for me in my professional growth.


Mike: Good. That was, you know, part of the objective for this professional — this deliberate professional development. I’m glad to hear that you received so many benefits. Mehar, do you have anything to add?


Mehar: So, I think the two most important things that I took away were improving my networking skills and my presentation skills out of the conference to be able to meet new people. And I mean, CEC is a company where we collaborate with different offices while we work on projects, but we do that via Teams, and that’s an online platform. When you meet somebody in person, it’s just so much easier to develop a deeper connection and be able to talk about something, and it’s more engaging and easier to even understand where they’re coming from. So, to be able to get an opportunity to meet all the coworkers from like different areas of the country was immensely helpful as a professional development opportunity I would say. And coming up with the whole poster from scratch and trying to do the research to be able to make sure that I’m including all the right content on the poster and be able to present all of that in a concise manner because you don’t have like an hour to spend with somebody. So, being able to communicate something concisely and something to the point was what I learned from this. So, worked on my presentation skills and networking skills. Those are the two main things that I learn.


Abigail: I’d like to just go back a minute to talk about other opportunities for presentations. I mentioned earlier that before Step Up Your Game occurred, I had the opportunity to give an office-wide, Brown Bag talk, like a tech talk, on some of my experience with solar landfill projects and was able to coauthor a short presentation with my mentor. And then during the preparation time for Step Up Your Game, I was also able to coauthor a poster presentation with Rick as well. And then looking forward to some other opportunities in the future, I have a conference coming up in October that is more of like a roundtable discussion where I’m going to be sitting with a number of panelists who are from the industry, not from consulting but from the industry, and we’re going to speak to a conference of mostly lawyers about some different lessons learned and pitfalls and how to avoid them for developing solar projects. And I also got the opportunity to be involved with CEC Educational Training Courses. We are going — there’s a group of four of us who are going to be giving a class on solar development coming up at the end of the year. So, two opportunities definitely to develop my knowledge base and draw from the knowledge base that I already have on this subject but haven’t done them yet.


Mike: Those both sound like great opportunities, the opportunity to speak in front of attorneys and exhibit the experience and expertise that you have. I think it is just a great opportunity. We’ve talked a lot about individual professional development skills, presentation, skills, and networking skills. I’d like to transition a little bit and talk a little bit about how the Step Up Your Game conference has benefited clients. The benefit to clients is that — I believe and would conclude that Step Up Your Game has made each of the participants, the attendees, better consultants. Can we talk a little bit further about that?


David: Yeah, definitely it has. I mean better consultants is such a broad term, and to kind of nail down on that a little bit: So, part of my presentation was going into some of the regulatory and technical details associated with waste classification. And, like I mentioned before, when I present that, I want to make sure I know the ins and outs of those facts so I don’t look foolish. But just so that I know that and that research I did and the extra work, I said, “Hm, this seems weird. I’ll investigate that a little further.” Or what if somebody would ask me a question about that, do I have an answer? And so, I did that extra research, and I already felt like I knew waste classification, but the process of preparing this made me an even stronger skillset, a better expert for my client, so I can take that research I did to develop this presentation, to harness that to provide better consulting, advice, and guidance for my clients. So, it’s just made me better at the actual technical aspects of my job just through going through that research and in-depth preparation.


Mike: Good. Mehar, can you elaborate a little bit further about the technology that you presented and the potential benefits for clients?


Mehar: So, I was presenting about the emerging contaminants, and we hear PFAS a lot these days. I’m sure everybody must have heard or come across that we are surrounded by PFAS, and that’s something that we are reading or seeing everywhere in our lifestyle or in our everyday life. I was presenting about the topics or the technologies that we can use to remove PFAS from the wastewater or the water. For me to be able to present on that, I had to read about those technologies, and now I feel that I have a better understanding of them than I had before. How David mentioned that you need to make sure that you know everything that you’re saying because you don’t want to not have an answer from somebody standing next to your poster. You don’t want to have a blank face at them.

So, I think a better consultant, like we were talking about earlier — I think a better consultant, or a good consultant, is somebody who can provide their expert knowledge to the client. And when we say to provide expert knowledge for that, doing these networking opportunities or reading articles blogs, or books and keeping ourselves up to date about what’s happening out there in the world, about the thing that we are working on or the technology that we are working on. So, I feel it is immensely beneficial to the client for us to have these kinds of conferences where we are meeting different professionals in our field and be able to engage with them and exchange ideas and be able to present that to a client when they need something from us, like to give them a solution, they maybe don’t have themselves,


David: Yeah, and to jump on your answer, I just want to add that we don’t have to be the technical experts ourselves, but through this conference, we’ve met other people within the company. And so just because I don’t know everything about PFAS. Now, I know that Mehar, I can call her up and use that national footprint and the many experts in CEC, be able to use them better, and provide a more complete service for our clients.


Mike: And Mehar, I would add from the description you provided earlier. I think it’s a benefit to client to describe your technology concisely in an easily understandable format so they can understand how the technology regarding potential PFAS matters can benefit them. Let’s talk a little bit about, you know, would you advocate and promote that future employees participate in Step Up Your Game, to put together abstracts?


David: Yes, definitely. I would definitely encourage junior staff to participate in this conference going forward. I know it’s your favorite phrase, Mike, to describe this, but “deliberate professional development” really does capture the essence of this conference in that it provides professional development for junior staff on so many levels, not just becoming experts and practicing presentation skills, but it’s networking, connections, and building confidence, and competence. So, there are so many positives to participating in this conference. I would definitely encourage all junior staff to investigate that.


Mike: Mehar, if you were considering joining CEC either as a recent graduate or considering CEC for your career, would the Step Up Your Game conference influence your decision on joining the firm?


Mehar: Yes, definitely. I would say so. I’m actually part of a CEC group which is called CEC Ignite, and that is a group for young professionals where we want to make sure that CEC provides the opportunities for young graduates what they want to get out of their careers. And I think Step Up Your Game is something where the young professionals can learn and gain confidence to be able to present in front of people, and it is a good practice to be able to do it inside the company, and then eventually, you can go out to external conferences and be able to do that. But since you’ve done it before internally, you have a lot more confidence than if you had to just do it straight up outside to one group of people which you don’t know. So, I think for somebody looking at CEC fresh out of college, they should consider the fact that the company does enough for the young professionals and gives them opportunities.

Then I think it’s also important that the company is trusting us to be able to do that. Like they feel that this would be — like the young professionals can make mistakes and still they want to support us to be able to do that and learn from our mistakes. So, I think that’s really important.


Mike: I think we should move on and try to summarize where we’re at. In summary, we’ve talked about professional development that occurred with the Step Up Your Game conference, the opportunity to prepare/practice a presentation that has been peer-reviewed that is now available essentially off-the-shelf to participate in regional and national conferences. The conference also allowed for networking opportunities with colleagues within the firm and also provided more of a social atmosphere to network with colleagues, junior and senior staff, within the firm that allows that personal connection to individuals for the opportunities for future collaboration. In summary, are there any other benefits or comments or discussions that we should add regarding the discussion of the conference?


David: Yeah, I just want to add that, yes, it was an internal CEC conference, but the way it was set up with the presentation track and the posters and the breaks was very much like a normal, external conference, and it was very much a professional environment and gave you that experience of what it would be like. And it was a lot of work. Yeah, we had to be deliberate in our break time to make those interactions and network, but we had a social happy hour after it, and it was nice afterward to relax and make those connections, not just technical connections with our colleagues, but some personal connections. And the whole day was a lot of work and stressful to give those presentations and beyond, but there were a lot of valuable results and still fun at the end of it. And I’ve made some great connections from it.


Abigail: Yeah, I wanted to just add a little bit about the support that I received adjacent to the conference, I guess you could call, from folks who weren’t involved in the conference even. So, my direct supervisor, one of the Vice Presidents in my group, and a Vice President from another group all took time to review materials that I put together, to give me feedback, to share their knowledge base with me as it related to the subject. So, I think that one of my favorite things about CEC is just having that support from senior leadership in your group and outside of your group who want you to be part of this and want you to be developing your career and are giving their time to make sure that you can do that. That was such a big part of my participation was particularly three or four folks who weren’t involved in the conference, but who gave their time and their expertise to support my presentation.


David: Yeah, I had some great senior support to help prepare me, but I also want to thank Mike Ellis and the rest of the Step Up Your Game committee for the effort involved in giving us this opportunity. I think that’s something that’s very valuable to CEC, and I know it’s a lot of work from the committee but — thank you.


Mike: Let me add that the development of the Step Up Your Game conference included advocacy and support from the Practice Leads, Environmental, Eco, Water Resources, landfill, etc. We also had a lot of support from the Office Leads. We had support from management, and through all of that advocacy, I think it turned out that the conference delivered on the objective of deliberate professional development. I think everyone learned a lot, and then I think everyone had a lot of fun. There may have been a lot of anxiety and nerves associated with the presentations and preparing, but at the end of the day, I think and believe everyone had a good time.

Understanding that we received 43 abstracts for the conference for 2022, that enthusiasm has caused we’re going to have a second Step Up Your Game conference in 2023, and we look forward to everyone, junior staff, participating and preparing abstracts. We hope that the guidance, suggestions, and recommendations described by this group are helpful to those considering submitting abstracts, and we look forward to the 2023 conference and conferences to occur after that. Thank you very much.


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