Jamila Johnson, managing director for Water Resources in Walter P Moore’s Houston office, talks about her nearly 30-year career in the public works sector and beyond
As an extension of the SWS Women in Water coverage from the October print issue, Jamila Johnson, managing director for Water Resources in Walter P Moore’s Houston office, talks with SWS Managing Editor Katie Johns about her career, being a woman in the industry and her goals. Johnson also shares advice for those just joining in the water industry.
Katie Johns: Can you tell me about your career and how you got into this industry?
Jamila Johnson: That's a long story but kind of a direct one. My start in the industry goes back to my choice of career. When I was growing up, I knew I wanted to focus my talents on learning, to solve problems and improve the quality of life of people who lived in urban areas like me. I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, and for me, civil engineering, engineering for people, was just a natural fit. When I think about the career of civil engineering – that area now and then – it's really kind of the foundation of a good quality of life. Of course, we are really focusing on water, clean water, appropriately handled wastewater and well-managed storm water, but that also includes reliable transportation systems and awesome structures that provide shelter and of course, a well stewarded environment.
When it was time for me to pick a school, I went and studied civil engineering at Washington University and got to start my career right here in Houston, Texas. I spent the first part of my career developing a really diverse engineering experience, working on projects from oil and gas to land development, but I really hit my stride in my career, when I had the opportunity to serve as the city of Houston's floodplain manager for about nine years. Then after that I worked for Houston public works as infrastructure policy manager, and this really gave me the chance to help shape the direction of floodplain management and infrastructure policy and projects.
I'm really proud of that, but I really had this strong desire to adjust to some of these awesome projects we conceived of at Houston public works. We're getting started to really be part of making them a reality to get more hands on and bringing those projects to fruition. So here I am at Walter P Moore leading up water resources engineering in Houston. And I really can't wait to let that rubber hit the road on these projects.
KJ: It sounds like this is a little bit of a newer role for you outside of public works. So what are you looking forward to about that change? Is it having that more hands-on feel?
JJ: I worked as a consulting engineer at the beginning of my career too, and I really enjoyed having the opportunity to partner with my clients to help them achieve their goals. Getting the opportunity to work with Walter P Moore and water resources is amazing because there's so much work to be done for these public projects that are really going to help improve resilience and equity in Houston and in other communities like Houston. So I'm really excited to be more hands-on and to make those projects happen.
KJ: Looking at your overall career so far, what have been some of the biggest challenges that you face and how have those helped shape you as a professional in this industry?
JJ: Well, you know, it seems like there's nothing but challenges, but that's really the point. I want to be able to use my talents and skills to solve problems. So in Houston, we've got a couple of approaches. We've got problems, but those are opportunities. Houston has developed in an environment where we build first and kind of regulate later with about 80% of the city's infrastructure and structures even being built before we had any modern floodplain management or storm water management. That's something that a lot of people don't understand about our area. And so, considering that and considering just the challenges that we face with climate change, with aging infrastructure, with historic disinvestment, and some of our socially vulnerable communities, it's time to figure out the way to be really judicious with available resources, to bring the biggest bang for the buck to our clients, and ultimately, the people in the communities that our projects are intended to serve.
That's kind of the landscape of challenges that we face, and the solutions are, of course, we're going to work on projects that help mitigate the potential for flooding. We also want to find ways to do that that are innovative and that pay close attention to the needs of the community so that we can find co-benefits. We want to find ways of working on projects that might engage non-traditional partners and funding mechanisms for projects. We want to find ways to make sure that we're not leaving anyone behind, so that we're injecting equity and trying to prioritize projects that serve our socially vulnerable communities. Any opportunity to get these things done really needs to be a part of our project, so that we're kind of squeezing everything we can out of every bit of investment that our clients are making.
Equally we're faced with problems of climate change and growing population and aging infrastructure that need to be addressed, and how do you prioritize that and find ways that really bring the biggest benefits to communities, and so that's what the challenge is all about. With everything I've learned and with seeing the devastation that not paying attention to these things can bring, makes me really motivated to find ways to get that done, to judiciously and surgically use our resources to help solve problems. That's going to bring the biggest benefit to the communities we serve and that's going to make Walter P Moore look good and make our clients look good.
KJ: What have been some big successes in your career that you look back on and you're really proud of?
JJ: I'm really proud of all the work that I've done in Houston public works. A real game changer for me in my role was Hurricane Harvey and making sure that we were able to do the best that we could to, first of all, characterize and identify problem areas in the city's floodplain, and to make sure that we did everything we could in the floodplain management office, the group that I ran, to ensure that those residents had access to services and information that they needed to help with recovery. That's step one. But once you're developing that type of information and understanding where the trouble areas are and getting that information out really quickly, which was a lot of what we did in the immediate aftermath of Harvey, you find out that that information can be used in a lot of different ways to secure funding, to develop strategies for mitigation to guide policy decisions. All of that work after Harvey, in terms of coming up with strategies for mitigation that fueled our funding requests, coming up with the right changes to our floodplain and storm water regulations to ensure that the public would be better protected in the future, especially when folks were rebuilding – to make sure that folks wouldn't build it back the same way, that instead they'd be building forward – all of that work is something that has led us to where we are now, where those funding requests and funding received are turning into projects that are going to take us into the future. So that work I'm really proud of.
KJ: To touch on our Women in Water special section we have, do you think there are more women in this industry now than when you first started and, and when do you think that that started to change?
JJ: It's definitely true that there are more women in water resources engineering and the water sector in general. It's something that I'm really excited about. The industry has just really changed in the over 25 years I’ve been working. At first there were a few women, and there was a real lack of diversity, but now over time, while we still have a lot more work to do, there's a lot more women and a much more diverse group of professionals that have a place at the table. I really think that this diversity helps to fuel our innovation, and I'm hoping that there's more of that type of change to come.
KJ: What advice can you give to people that are just starting to join and work in this industry?
JJ: I would say that they should really focus on developing their skills so that they can solve problems and to communicate, to listen, as well as to be able to explain their technical knowledge in a clear way is really important. We can't just do our engineering in a black box. We're not doing it for the joy of practicing and writing out some calculations. The point of all of this is to solve problems and to improve quality of life, and we can't do that if we don't have the capacity to be curious, to listen to our clients, to listen to the public. We can't fully understand the problem if we don't take those steps. We need to be able to explain what the heck we're doing and why it's important so that we can advocate for changes ... I just think that being curious and communicating are really the things that I would advise.
KJ: What are some of your goals, both in your current role and just for the industry in general?
JJ: My goal is to find ways to partner with my clients to improve resilience and equity. Those are the things that I think are most important in water resources. Everything we do should improve our resilience because there's challenges ahead, some of which we can predict, and even the ones we could predict seem pretty daunting, but there's also some stuff we don't even know about yet. If we can really build a strong foundation based on our work, and we ensure that we don't leave anyone behind, then we'll be in a better spot to bounce back from whatever mother nature or our own actions deal us in terms of challenges. That's really my goal, and I really hope that my philosophies are something that I can impart to my team. I think it's something that I share with the folks, with a great group of professionals that I'm working with. I hope that we can develop further the idea that we can find innovative ways to solve problems and to get more benefit out of our projects is really the direction I want to go in.