For Marianne Corrao, engineering is a team sport that should offer everyone — men and women — the ability to have a career they love and the flexibility to pursue that career to their fullest extent.
Corrao co-founded Nexus Engineering Group LLC with her partner Jeff Herzog in 2005, after they both realized they could better serve the oil and gas refinery industry as contractors versus employees. The company, with more than 115 professional employees, provides a full range of engineering and design services along with project and construction management expertise in the oil, chemical, and manufacturing industries. In addition to its corporate headquarters in Cleveland, Nexus Engineering has offices in Maumee, Ohio and Houston.
Around 2004, BP approached Corrao and Herzog about rejoining the company as they needed help developing several new projects. Instead of becoming employees, though, they suggested they would help BP as an engineering contractor resource. They started their company there on the spot.
“We think of what we do as not only just engineering, but really having an impact on their business. We have no problem saying, ‘You know what? This is a bad project. This doesn’t look like it’s the right thing to do. It doesn’t make money; it costs too much. It’s not achieving your business objective.
“We wind up killing projects and that’s a good thing because we’re making the right decision for our customer,” Corrao said. “And then, we’re able to continue to help them look at other things. We think of it as a positive. I think that’s a differentiator within our organization.”
Flexibility and honesty are key
It is this kind of honesty and flexibility that Corrao says is key to the culture at Nexus Engineering, and key to keeping women in engineering. For example, she does not really see barriers for women engineers from an entry-level standpoint. “Where the gap widens is a few years down the road, where a significant number of women leave the engineering ranks,” she said, pointing to statistics from The Society of Women Engineers that show that women comprise more than 20% of engineering school graduates, yet only 11% of practicing engineers are women, despite decades of academic, federal, and employer interventions to address this gender gap. Many women said they left because they don’t like the workplace climate or culture or wanted to start a family.
“I see lack of corporate flexibility and lack of accountability as drivers contributing to some women leaving the engineering workforce relatively early in their careers. And when there are fewer women in the workforce, there will be fewer women advancing to leadership roles,” Corrao said. “What do I mean by lack of ‘corporate flexibility and accountability?’ For example, what is more important…delivering on a business objective or being at your desk every day from 8 to 5 or longer? Delivering on the business objective is obviously key for the business. How it gets done is less important.
“Don’t get me wrong — I’m not advocating a chaotic, undisciplined work environment. I do expect full-time effort within a work schedule that allows for interface with appropriate team members. But, I don’t feel the need to micromanage. When an employee is accountable, their work always gets done.”
This means she allows her employees to have a flexible schedule, so if they need to get to a child’s baseball game, go to the doctor, or whatever it might be, she’s OK with that. As long as they let her know what’s happening and are accountable for the work getting done.
“There are a lot of women, in particular, who want to have a career and they want to have a family. To me, it shouldn’t be an either or proposition. There needs to be a culture that values that. I believe that we have that culture and I think you could ask anyone in our organization that. There’s no clock watching. There’s an accountability that my team has. They own their work, they own what we’re doing as a firm, and that’s what really makes us successful.”
Flexibility leads to better teamwork
When it comes to highlighting memorable projects, Corrao goes back to the camaraderie and team effort involved in engineering for designs to be successful.
For example, in the 2000s at Praxair, she was helping to evaluate building additional hydrogen plants to supply oil refineries with hydrogen to produce cleaner gasoline and diesel products. “One option we considered (and Praxair eventually implemented) was the creation of a storage cavern in a geologic salt dome formation on the Gulf Coast. Rather than constantly supplying hydrogen on demand from hydrogen plants throughout the system, some hydrogen could be stored in the cavern during times of excess supply and then pulled from the cavern during a hydrogen plant outage for maintenance. This allowed the Praxair system to be a highly reliable source of hydrogen for their customers and turned out to be a nice competitive advantage.
“We had tremendous team spirit on this project. I supported the early conceptual design and business case using Monte Carlo statistical analysis, and others on the team provided the project engineering, project management, cost estimating and risk assessments,” Corrao said. “We all had our roles and we banded together to justify the project and get it approved for funding. It continues to be a tremendous asset in the Praxair system.
“What I have found interesting in my career is that the biggest engineering challenges often involve people. Engineering is a team sport. We often say that we can predict a good project outcome by assessing the team on the project. The team includes not only our Nexus Engineering team, but the owner client’s project team, Procurement, Operations and Maintenance teams as well. If this entire team works collaboratively and openly about the technical options, costs and risks, the project will have a successful outcome. At Nexus, we foster teamwork and actually caring for each other. We hold each other accountable but have camaraderie and it shows in the way we work on our projects and with our clients.”
Shaping future engineers
Corrao started her career in 1987 as a process engineer for the Standard Oil Company, Lima Refinery. In 1995, she joined a Cleveland based engineering firm to focus on projects from the engineering firm side of project delivery. Here she was senior process engineer, project manager, and project director during her tenure.
Like many engineers, as a high school student she excelled in math and science classes, enjoying chemistry class. When she learned about chemical engineering, she was intrigued. She enrolled in Cleveland State University’s Cooperative Education Program, a work/study program in which students work full time for a portion of the year and attend classes during the remainder of the year. She was hired as a chemical engineering co-op student by Standard Oil of Ohio (Sohio) in the early 1980s and it was there she found her place.
“My decision to become an engineer was primarily shaped by my cooperative education experiences and the engineers that I reported to or worked with at that time,” Corrao said. “I discovered that one of the most challenging tasks for engineers is to properly define a problem (or an opportunity). In school, written problems are given to you and you use math and science principles or equations to solve them. In the real world, figuring out and defining the problem is the main thing. After that, finding options to solve the problem is relatively easy.”
Because of her positive experience with the CSU co-op, she has always volunteered to be a mentor to co-op/intern students throughout her career. In fact, Nexus Engineering Group has a co-op/intern program to hire students in each one of its engineering disciplines. Corrao is also a member of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE).
“With young engineers and students, I always have an open door policy on no question’s a stupid one and if you don’t want to ask your boss you can come and ask me anytime,” she said. “It’s just kind of passing on that same attitude and culture of always learning. And making sure we’re growing the next generation. It makes me feel good. I’m happy that we’re doing that.”
And although the oil and gas business is still more male-dominated, Corrao is positive about the direction the industry is headed. “I think there has been a lot of emphasis by major corporations in the oil and gas industry to focus in on getting more women involved in technical fields and rising up through the corporation in leadership roles,” she said. “I’ve seen that with some of our customers like BP and Marathon. Where they have women in technical fields and those women have advanced. We still have a long way to go, but I’m upbeat about how things are going.”