5 questions w Denise Herrera

Denise Herrera, PE, SE, is a structural engineer with extensive experience in structural design and support for bridge projects for municipalities, state departments of transportation, and the Illinois Tollway. She recently passed the Structural Engineering Exam, making her the first woman at CMT to hold this esteemed license. Denise holds a master’s degree in structural engineering, as well as a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, with an emphasis in structural and geotechnical engineering. With CMT since 2014, Denise works out of our Aurora, IL, office. She is also involved in the firm’s employee-led Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, as well as the Young Professionals Planning Group.

How did you first become interested in civil engineering?  

I first became interested in civil engineering during the last couple years of high school. Up until my junior year, I thought I wanted to pursue a career in architecture. In line with my interests, I was taking computer-aided design (CAD), drafting, and other architecture-focused courses at school, but it wasn’t until my architecture teacher mentioned engineering that I even became aware of the field. As I learned more about the discipline, something that piqued my interest was engineering’s focus on the rationale behind specific design choices. As a result, I decided to apply to colleges in the engineering field and eventually enrolled in the University of Illinois to pursue a degree in civil engineering. As my studies continued, I discovered my appreciation for problem-solving and found civil engineering to be an excellent match for me.

What was the exam experience like – both before, as you were preparing, and during, as you were taking the exam?

With the amount of work it took, I would equate it to completing another master’s. Starting two years out from the exam, I would work normal business hours and then spend my evenings and weekends studying. Preparation was crucial, as the test is well-known for its low pass rate. It was a prolonged, intense process. However, I had the goal in mind the whole time, knowing that I just had to keep studying and preparing as much as possible.

To be honest, by the time I was sitting for the exams, I was looking forward to finishing more than anything else. With the hours of studying, preparation, and stress leading up to this moment, I just wanted to be done with it, regardless of the results.

However, once I finally passed both days, I was overjoyed! All of my hard work and determination had paid off, and I was finally able to move on to the next chapter of my life with a sense of accomplishment and relief.

What were some of the key lessons you took from your Structural Engineering Exam preparation?

A key lesson I took from my Structural Engineering Exam preparation is that there are no shortcuts to success. Luck alone is not enough to get you where you want to be. The amount of effort you put into preparing directly correlates with the results you achieve.

But on the other hand, I also discovered the importance of not giving all of myself to preparation, leaving nothing for other important aspects of my life. At one time, I did invest all my energy into achieving my goals, but I learned that it’s necessary to make time for other things that matter. Despite this new approach, I managed to pass the exam while still prioritizing time for other aspects of my life. It was refreshing to find that balance.

What inspired you to be engaged with the DEI Committee?

I received a call from CMT Board Chair and DEI Committee Chair Dan Meckes, who invited me to join the committee as it was being formed. The committee is composed of a diverse group of people – both managers and individual contributors, at varying career stages, with different areas of expertise. As time passed, I observed how the committee, under Dan’s leadership, demonstrated an authentic interest in, passion for, and appreciation of this important work. This inspired me to become more involved with the committee, and I’m excited for the direction it’s headed.

How has your field evolved since the beginning of your career, and where do you see it trending in the future?

During my time working at CMT, I have observed a noticeable rise in the number of young women interested in engineering, which is fantastic considering that the field of structural engineering is largely male-dominated. Witnessing young women enter this discipline is truly inspiring, and it highlights the potential for greater diversity within the industry. Ideally, we hope to see even more women taking on leadership roles and pursuing careers in STEM in the years to come.