Keda Cao, SNC Lavalin Inc.

Tell us about your job. What do you do?

As a geotechnical engineer, I deal with soils and rocks; which are almost encountered in every civil engineering project. For example, high-rise towers need solid foundations that are built upon strong soils or rocks; landfills need impervious clay linear to prevent leachate from leaking into our natural water system, and water dams require regular inspections to make sure their earthworks will save us from floods. My job is to determine whether these soils and rocks are competent or not, based on geotechnical investigations and engineering analysis. Utilization of good soils and rocks available on site helps reduce the cost of a project, whilst improvement or replacement of bad soils and rocks help avoid catastrophic consequences.

What does a typical day look like for you?

It depends on where I am, in the office or in the field. When I am in the office, a day typically starts with quick planning for the day. A good plan keeps me organized and productive. I usually work on those mentally demanding tasks in the morning, such as doing analysis, preparing presentations, and writing reports. After lunch, I’d like to take a short break, walking around the +15 corridors for half an hour.  Afternoons are usually occupied by meetings and other routine administrative tasks. Sometimes I also carry out construction supervision or inspection in the field, where the schedule could be quite different. Field work could start as early as 6 am and end as late as 8 pm. Field work could also be more physically demanding, as you may need to move equipment around.

What’s an exciting project that you’re working on?

I would like to introduce the ‘Trillium Line Extension Project’ for the City of Ottawa.  This project will extend the existing light-rail system by 16 km and upgrade the existing transit facilities. I am now part of the team supporting construction. Since this is an expansion and upgrade project, there are hundreds of existing underground structures nearby the proposed new railroads, such as watermains that supply water for the city and fibre-optic cables that provide Internet to thousands of people. If an excavation activity will likely damage a fibre-optic cable or a pile installation may break a water pipe, my responsibility is to find viable engineering solutions to facilitate the construction while guaranteeing the safety of these utilities.

What’s your favourite thing about working in consulting?

The most attractive thing in consulting is the chance to work on a variety of projects in completely different engineering settings. Each of these projects is a great learning opportunity for myself. This is particularly the case in Alberta, where mining, energy, and infrastructure sectors play important roles. When managing tailings, I learnt how a mine operates; when designing pipelines, I learnt how pipes cross mountains and valleys; when building a landfill, I learnt how our household wastes are handled. These projects have given me a broader understanding of engineering and helped me diversify my skill set. I believe these experiences at the early stage of my career will have a life-long impact on my professional development.

How did you first become interested in consulting engineering – what or who inspired you to be an engineer?

Building something big has been my dream since high school, when I first witnessed the complete development process of a skyscraper near my school. At that time, I spent a lot of time studying skyscrapers. When I was doing my research, I found that some other structures such as water dams, suspension bridges, nuclear power plants, etc. are also very interesting. I really wanted to be an engineer who would be capable of designing and building those structures. That is the reason why I chose civil engineering at university. After graduation, consulting was undoubtedly my first option, because it is the industry where my technical expertise can be utilized, as I dreamed of. The things I am now building are not just big, but also meaningful to the communities around us.


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