Alumni Share Thought Process Behind Early Career Paths
By Syl Kapacpyr
This semester, hundreds of Cornell Engineering students will begin the daunting process of job hunting. A popular interview question that many will be asked is, “where do you see yourself in five to 10 years?” It can be a challenging question to answer, so we asked three alumni to share what was going through their minds as they finished school, chose their first jobs and then began the climb up their respective career ladders.
Hilary Renison ’05, M.Eng. ’07, M.B.A. ’09
Digital and Strategic Marketing, GE
Hilary Renison ’05, M.Eng. ’07, M.B.A. ’09, flew her first airplane when she was just 12-years-old. Growing up on Long Island, she had enrolled in Nassau County’s Aviation Operations program for high school students with the dream of traveling the world as a commercial airline pilot.
By the age of 16, Renison was already flying solo and had enrolled at Cornell Engineering to study mechanical and aerospace engineering, becoming part of the first generation in her family to attend a four-year university. With her eyes on the sky, Renison was on the fast track to achieving her dream. But once at Cornell, she would discover a new passion for engineering that would have her navigating a new course, eventually leading to her strategic marketing career at General Electric (GE).
Renison was just beginning her undergraduate education at Cornell when a physics professor asked the young student an enlightening question regarding her ambition to travel and experience the world. “My professor said, ‘why would you want to get an engineering degree so you can be a glorified taxi driver? You’re going to fly to a city, go to sleep, if lucky, wake up the next day and fly out,’” recalled Renison. “I had never thought of it that way,” she added. That was the moment she first started to think about engineering as a career, as well as the global impact she could have with a technical discipline.
Renison decided to explore the areas of energy and health. She joined the Odysseus space exploration team, published research on 3D printing and biomedicine, and contributed to the winning designs of the world-champion Formula SAE race car team. She eventually decided to focus on energy. “I recognized the interconnection of access to energy and economic development,” said Renison. “To reach one’s full potential in the world we know today, I felt it was critical that communities would have access to electricity. You could study longer at night by light, improve health with refrigeration for food and a reduction on dependency on biomass for cooking or heat—things that are paramount to any developed society. So I focused on energy because I wanted to make a positive difference in the world.”
Renison worked full-time for Cornell Engineering’s Office of Diversity Programs while taking two years to earn her master’s degree. Wanting to learn more about commercializing energy technologies, she then went on to obtain a M.B.A. from Cornell’s Johnson School. During the summers she would intern at oil and gas giant BP.
Seeing oil and gas operations first-hand, Renison developed an interest in cleaner technology and opted to pursue the topic while studying abroad at a French business school during the last fall of her M.B.A. While the experience was invaluable, the time away meant Renison had missed the full-time recruiting cycle. Finding a job outside of the traditional cycle would have been challenging, especially in 2009 at the start of the Great Recession.
Renison say she doesn’t regret her decision to study abroad. Rather than accept a job that wasn’t the right fit, “I decided to make the most of my summer and explore something I was passionate about,” she said. Before entering the job field she spent her last summer interning abroad for the Indian company Duron Energy, which focused on bringing point-of-use solar products to rural communities. The experience reinforced Renison’s understanding of the role energy plays in socioeconomics. “I observed poverty where there was no social system to aid the poor, the disabled, the sick. It was a wake up call for me and it made me really appreciate the blessings I had been given,” she recalled of her time in rural India.
It was during those eight months that Renison found her way into a high-visibility technical development program at GE Renewable Energy. There, she would focus on sales, product management and technical customer support, giving her the opportunity to climb and troubleshoot wind turbines. Within three years, Renison had learned how the technology was designed, manufactured, installed and operated.
After gaining a ground-level perspective of how renewable energy technologies are produced, Renison graduated from the program and moved on to become a power economics consultant for GE Energy Consulting. During those two years, she gained a better understanding of how renewables fit into the broader power-generation picture, modeling power plants and generating data on power demand, fuel prices and profit forecasts.
Renison felt her work experience had provided her with invaluable technical knowledge about the renewable energy industry, but soon she wanted a job that would more formally apply her business degree toward commercialization. That’s when a fellow Cornell alum working at GE invited her to apply for the position she currently holds at the company, within an executive readiness program. GE’s Experienced Commercial Leadership Program places promising employees on a two-to-five-year trajectory for an executive-level position. Renison is specifically focused on digital marketing and building new platforms that change the way GE works with its clients. “I find myself now in the commercial space but I bring that engineering mindset of looking at a complex problem, breaking it down into manageable components and solving each as you go, day-by-day,” said Renison.
Her term in the leadership program will end in June and that’s when she’ll be looking for her next opportunity, hopefully still along the lines of digital marketing and analytics, says Renison.
She has navigated the career field with a certain confidence thanks to the educational foundation she received at Cornell, but in moments of doubt she also thinks back to when she was 16, sitting in the cockpit waiting to fly her first solo flight. “I was scared like you would not believe. Knots in my stomach, stiffness in my chest. And in that moment I realized I was never going to get where I wanted to go unless I took off,” said Renison. “And I see the parallels in that experience to where I live and work today, where even if there is doubt or I find myself asking ‘will this work,’ I’ve always jumped in with two feet. It’s calculated and I make sure I have the experience required to be successful, but despite the nerves, you have to push through and take off.”
Looking back at her career path, Renison says every step of her experience brought value to her life, from flying airplanes to living abroad, having great mentors to missing her M.B.A. recruitment cycle. “Even some of those bumps and bruises, I needed them to be who I am today,” said Renison.
Matthew Schmohl ’10
Senior Software Engineer, Jet.com
Like many other high-schoolers, Matthew Schmohl ’10 wasn’t sure what he wanted to study in college, let alone what he wanted to do for a career. “People didn’t really talk to me about what I was going to study. I didn’t even really know what engineering was, to be honest, until end of 11th grade when I was applying to colleges.”
But Schmohl’s enduring thirst for knowledge and determination to master his craft would eventually lead him to Jet.com where he’s currently a senior software engineer and surrounded by like-minded developers with an appreciation for science. The choices Schmohl made along the way weren’t always the obvious ones, but for him, they were the right ones.
While attending high school in East Setauket, N.Y., Schmohl was able to take a theoretical mathematics class from a Stony Brook University professor. “The professor kind of went off the books a little bit and that was when I first started getting really excited about school,” said Schmohl.
He would become a first-generation college student after choosing to study biological engineering at Cornell. Realizing he wanted more opportunities to study applied mathematics, he transferred to operations research. “I remember taking Professor Topaloglu’s simulation modeling analysis class and really liking it,” said Schmohl. “That was kind of a turning point when I really started realizing how much I liked the specialization of operations research.”
Schmohl was a busy student outside of the classroom. He worked at a coffee shop and tutored at a local high school to help pay for tuition. He was involved with Habitat for Humanity and was the philanthropy chair of Delta Upsilon. “I felt like I wasn’t as embedded into the engineering community as maybe I’d like to have been. Working jobs outside of school drew away from me becoming tighter into the engineering community,” recalled Schmohl, who wishes he had gotten involved with more engineering-related programs and clubs at the time. “One of the reasons I chose Cornell is because it has so much impact on society and I regret that I didn’t do more research or work with some of the professors, because I just think that was a missed opportunity,” he said.
Despite his feelings about how he managed his time, Schmohl exceled in the classroom. And when it came time to start his professional career, he was quickly offered an analyst position at Accenture—a Fortune Global 500 management consulting company. He would spend over two years there, eventually becoming a consultant that managed statisticians for large-scale data mining projects within the telecom industry.
“I was really grateful to Cornell,” said Schmohl. “There was an amazing engineering job fair and I got exposed to all these companies and was able to get a job right out of college. Not many of my friends from high school can say the same.”
Schmohl would eventually be offered a job at marketing software service Offerpop. It was there he grew an appetite for more foundational knowledge. “There were all these challenges that came up at work that really related to some of the stuff I only touched upon in my operations research programs. And I was kind of surprised by that,” said Schmohl. “I didn’t realize how applied it actually was,” he said.
Driven by curiosity, Schmohl spent his weekends studying code. “It’s probably something I could have done more of while at Cornell,” he admitted. But his hard work paid off. Eventually he would use his new coding abilities to build a platform at Offerpop that would automate his own job.
Schmohl’s on-the-job success lead to more job offers, including several vice-presidential positions that he turned down. For Schmohl, it wasn’t always about the money, but about finding like-minded engineers who could teach him more about the trade. That’s what brought him to Etsy—an e-commerce website with a focus on handmade and vintage items.
“People had a strong respect for scientific method at Etsy and there was opportunity to work with Ph.D.s in statistics, so I knew I was going to be learning and challenged,” said Schmohl. “It was a no-brainer for me, but it wasn’t so much for other people who said ‘no, you should take this job.’ But now that I’ve gone through that sort of training I can take on more responsibility in the future.”
As a data analyst at Etsy, Schmohl grew more interested in building tools for turning raw data into insights about the marketplace. And once again, Schmohl, always a student of his craft, found himself taking online courses and learning new skills on the weekends.
He would soon find a new job where he could build systems for data processing and large-scale information retrieval, working for online retailer Jet.com.
“Every time I changed jobs I took a pay cut. People were confused as to why I was doing that, but then I came to a company like Jet where I could tell they were highly principled people,” said Schmohl. “It’s a fun place for people who are into science,” he added.
Looking back on his experience so far in the working world, Schmohl says he would describe it as reinvigorating. Every job has opened up a new world of knowledge and possibility that he has embraced wholeheartedly.
“I basically just stuck with it. I definitely had to make concessions here and there, like studying on the weekends,” said Schmohl. “But in the end its really been fulfilling for me.”
Stephanie Glass ’06
Fractionation Technology Group Head, ExxonMobil
Stephanie Glass ’06 loved chemistry when she was in high school, and so when she visited her older sister who was studying chemical engineering at Lafayette College, she was inspired. “I visited her in a unit operations laboratory… and I just thought it was the coolest thing,” said Glass. “I think that was really what first put the idea in my head to pursue something similar.”
For the Pittsburgh native, choosing a college and career path was somewhat of a science itself. Research, experimentation and discovery would all factor into her life choices. Glass, now a fractionation technology group head at ExxonMobil, would graduate from high school and spend the next 16 years of her life at one school and one company—a testament to her apperception that home is where the heart is.
Glass chose to attend Cornell Engineering after visiting several colleges. “There was just something about Cornell when I stepped on campus. It was exactly what my mental picture of college was,” said Glass, who added that the comradery among students and the university’s strengths in different academic disciplines also attracted her. “I was fairly confident with what I wanted to do but I knew that if I decided chemical engineering wasn’t for me, I wasn’t going to have to pick up and move to another college to have an option to do something else,” she said.
Despite feeling academically challenged her first semester, Glass would quickly adapt and eventually join the Cornell Chorus, become president of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers student chapter, work two jobs and still find time to take riding lessons at the Oxley Equestrian Center.
But it was her time spent working internships that would prove most valuable to Glass’ career ambitions. She would spend each summer at a different company, learning what she did and didn’t want in a job.
At the Cornell Center for Materials Research, she spent her summer as a rising sophomore in the Research Experience for Undergraduates program, working on semiconductors and running computer models on compounds like silica and germanium. “I did not like that long-term payoff of research and development,” said Glass. Her next summer was spent at Procter & Gamble as a manufacturing intern. “It was very engineering, but it wasn’t chemical engineering,” she recalled. “I was missing that process chemistry portion.”
Her research and development internship at PepsiCo was perhaps the most surprising to Glass, who had been considering a career in the consumer product industry. There, she researched anti-foaming agents and cleaning procedures. “I thought it would be so cool to go into a store and take a product off the shelf and say, ‘this came from my production line and I can even tell what hour it was produced.’ But what I found was that it wasn’t very fulfilling for me,” said Glass.
It was a conundrum for the rising senior, who now had little time to figure out what she wanted to do for a career. That’s when she took a course from Al Center, a professor of practice who had worked many years as an engineer in the petroleum industry prior to his tenure at Cornell. Glass says Center become a mentor to her, and she began to develop an interest in the petroleum industry as she spent more time discussing it with him. “At some level I previously saw the industry as just producing products like gasoline,” she said. “It wasn’t until the start of my senior year that I saw it more as they were solving a global energy problem.”
Glass decided she would take the leap into the energy industry, and turned down several job offers from the consumer product world. The thought process behind her job search was similar to when she was considering colleges, that is, she didn’t want to corner herself. “If I end up at one of these companies and my initial path isn’t what I want to do, do I have options or am I now two years out of school and looking for a new job,” Glass asked herself at the time. She was looking not just to find a job, but to launch a career.
Glass eventually accepted a job as a planning and improvement engineer at ExxonMobil’s Baytown Refinery outside of Houston. While this initial assignment wasn’t her dream job, Glass saw a career path at the company that included many different options for advancement. “There was a lack of job definition in that assignment, but I had a very good mentor who showed me that lack of job definition is actually just a potential to define my own roles,” she recalled.
It would only be four months before she would be offered a new position at the company as a crude distillation process engineer—a hands-on job separating crude oil into its various fractions, and one Glass says she enjoyed with enthusiasm because “I was happy to have the opportunity to get out in the field. Finally, I felt like a real engineer.”
Glass would spend almost three years between that position and a fluid catalytic cracking process engineer, where she could apply knowledge from her previous position to improve a different process. In 2009, she would be offered the first of six new positions at ExxonMobil, and with each she would learn new skills along with new aspects of the industry.
Choosing a technical engineering path over a management track, Glass would next become a distillation engineer in the company’s Research and Engineering division. “I was worried about the job because it was a little bit more of a desk job and I knew I loved getting my hands dirty,” she said. “But what I learned through that role was how to add value in a different capacity and how that initial front-end engineering effort is really important to making a project a success in three or four years.”
From there, Glass would transfer back to the Baytown Refinery where she started her career, but this time with the more senior position of crude distillation complex engineer. Later, she would find herself in back in the Research and Engineering division both supporting improvements for a refinery in New Orleans and also as the lead process engineer for two large capital projects at other circuit refineries.
Today, Glass is a fractionation technology group head where she leads an engineering research and development team, provides technical consulting, and supports major unit shutdowns and maintenance inspection activities.
She annually returns to Cornell as the ExxonMobil-Cornell recruiting team lead to speak to students and share her advice for soon-to-be job seekers. “Really be introspective going into the process and understand how you make decisions and what things are valuable to you,” Glass advises. “People throw around the statistic that the average adult changes careers seven times in their life. I knew that was not me. I was looking for a place I could go and be home.”
She says in order to find a career and not just a job, treat the search process like a four-credit class. Invest time and understand how your values line up with a particular company’s. Know what type of environment you’ll be successful in and what you want your job to provide in terms of fulfillment.
Glass says ExxonMobil meets her personal needs and is a company she could see herself retiring at. “I don’t see the corporation ever running out of opportunities that would interest me,” she said. “For me that’s the biggest thing, just making sure that I enjoy my job and I find it challenging.”