Hi, my name is Ezra Teshome. If you don’t know me already, I’m an Ethiopian-American interdisciplinary artist living and working in San Francisco, California. I also do Sales related work at Join. This is a snapshot of my story in the construction industry.
My journey starts at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. After attempting a double major in both Civil Engineering and Construction Management, I decided one bachelor's degree was enough. Hoping that I wouldn’t be tied to a desk for 8+ hours a day after I finished school, I shifted my focus to Construction Management because the program was geared towards a career that would allow me to be physically on construction sites.
I won’t sugar-coat this, college was a difficult time for me. I saw many of my white classmates collaborating in study groups with other students who looked, spoke, and shared a different culture from me. These groups would pride themselves on having different versions of the previous year’s exams from their mostly white fraternity and sorority siblings. I fought many times to be included, but was never fully embraced. There were times where I’d ask a few classmates if I could join their study groups and they would not show up at the time and place they scheduled to meet with me.
I learned that some classes required one-on-one office hours with professors, but some professors held office hours that only some students knew about. I worked hard to book these sessions with professors, but was not always successful in getting what I needed.
I mention all of this because I want you to see that my education in construction was systematically geared to benefit my white male counterparts, even before I entered the workforce. I remember sitting in a lecture for a course on Ethics in Construction where students openly stated they did not want women in the construction workforce. When I started my freshman year, most of the professors in the Engineering program were white men. As the years went on, the program began introducing Teacher Assistants and Adjunct Professors who were femme identifying and people of color. To be clear, these were non-tenured positions with less pay than the established professors at the university.
I started applying for jobs during my last year of college. I was taking interviews in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Charlotte. I would easily pass through phone screenings and companies were flying me out for in-person interviews, but usually when I arrived, I could tell by the expressions on their faces they were surprised that I was black. I’ve had a few conversations during interviews where this was mentioned and people would tell me how eloquent my speech was; they honestly thought they were complimenting me.
Ultimately, I wasn’t offered a job with most of these companies and the ones who did would only do so by offering me a low wage. For context, the typical role for a recent graduate with my degree was the Field Engineer or Project Engineer role and the average salary at that time in North Carolina was approximately $55,000/year. After years of experience, these engineers would grow into a Superintendent or Project Manager. One company offered me a Quality Control Engineer job upon graduation and the offer was about 50% of the average salary, with no clear trajectory of where I could grow in this role.
I was willing to do any job to get my foot in the door of this industry. Meanwhile my classmates were joining companies they’d interned for or were joining companies their families had built over the course of generations. My folks were the first generation to immigrate to this country from Ethiopia and they had no interest in construction and didn’t know how to help.
In the summer of 2013, a few months after graduation, I was able to find a temporary job helping my aunt’s Civil Engineering consultancy. I didn't know it at the time, but this was a rescue attempt by my Aunt who barely knew me. Also, my close friend housed me for a few months while I was still looking for full time employment in the most expensive city in the US. To make ends meet, I was shoveling and off-hauling soil from the backyard that belonged to a CEO of a technology company. I’d get to the house in Noe Valley at 8AM and shovel for six to eight hours a day.
During this physically and mentally demanding time of my life I was able to make friends with a wonderful community of people in San Francisco. A friendship I made got me an opportunity to intern with a local, small-medium sized, general contractor. Even with my degree, I was hired as an intern. At that time I was introduced to a new type of construction technology. I was working on an apartment building in the Dog Patch District of SF where I was introduced to PlanGrid. The Project Engineer on the job gave me an iPad with PlanGrid, we walked the jobsite and he showed me how to find and document issues with drywall. I felt so empowered as I was contributing in a very tangible way; there was a dramatic change in my experience and feelings of self worth. With the help of the drywall/framing subcontractor, I learned the basics of how framing and drywall worked and what a deficiency could look like (things we were never taught in college). I was now able to apply my architectural plan reading capabilities to real life using this application.
After a few months of this internship, I applied for another job because the company was not willing to promote me to a salaried entry level position. I noticed that my performance reviews were not aligning with the positive feedback from my team. Although I gained support from my team in the field, I did not have an advocate who could empower the advancement of my career.
So I took another opportunity with a local general contractor who was looking for someone with PlanGrid experience. This opportunity was the renovation of a historic building in San Francisco, it was my favorite project ever. This time my immediate team (the project staff) included a woman and an Asian man, and as you may expect, I learned so much more working with a more diverse team. The wealth of knowledge I accumulated was poured into my brain on a daily basis.
The superintendent I worked with spent countless hours explaining the intricacies of fabrication and installation. We would strategize on safety, subcontractor work coordination, and how to accomplish the most amount of work in place with the least amount of paperwork. The camaraderie was palpable. Including electricians, fire safety subcontractors, plumbers, and more, there were about 500 people simultaneously working in the building at the peak of construction. With the project team, I would transfer information from subcontractors to architects to designers to owner representatives, tactfully explaining why we were experiencing construction delays due to unforeseen conditions of the building. This was the most difficult and rewarding project I’ve ever worked on, a true trial by fire. Some days the fire was literal: I’ve signed over a hundred “Hot Work Permits.”
Although the work was satisfying and I found pride in my association with this historic project, almost two years had passed and I was beginning to explore other opportunities. I did this because I was made aware that my white male counterparts were paid significantly more than I was. I was upset, I felt betrayed, I contributed equally to this project and yet was not compensated equally to my white male counterparts. Additionally, the company kept postponing the pay raise that was verbally promised.
A friend of mine from college was working at a large, globally represented developer/general contractor. He wanted me to work on his team and he recruited me. This is where I was introduced to high rise construction management, I started by working with a team doing “punchlist” and “owner acceptance” at a large twin tower project. This was the final process of construction, getting sign off from the developer/owner as they receive their building one condominium at a time.
Once that project was completed, I was assigned to a mid-rise building project, managing preconstruction work. Our goal as a team was to put together a massive contractual document that would allow us to begin construction. Along with our estimate, qualification documents, and construction schedule, we needed to provide a GMP (Guaranteed Maximum Price). Although a few apps were starting up to tackle this massive feat, there wasn’t an app that could help us clearly show the client why our GMP looked different from our estimate.
I spent a year collecting bids from potential contractors and setting up tabs in a giant spreadsheet, doing a cost analysis between our company's estimate and what a subcontractor would provide me. This was an area of construction that lacked an all encompassing technology solution. I spent hours in a spreadsheet only to have it crash and start over again from scratch. The spreadsheet macros we used just needed the slightest of human error while inputting data to be rendered useless, and I had to rebuild our spreadsheet more than a handful of times.
Fast forward two years and I find myself in an interview with the team at Join, a company providing software that helps manage the many design changes that happen during preconstruction. For the first time, I felt safe to voice my frustrations about my experience in preconstruction. The room was filled with a lot of nodding heads that have heard the same story from Precon Directors, Chief Estimators, and other people in the AEC (Architecture, Engineering, and Construction) industry. Join felt like a place where I could make a difference in the AEC industry. Over the five years I spent in the industry, I have been fortunate enough to have experienced almost the entire lifecycle of construction, from the design phase to completion.
Technology has empowered and inspired me to see how the future of the industry could look. I see a future where marginalized communities can be educated and empowered with technology used in construction to help revolutionize this industry. I believe this would allow more opportunities for people of diverse backgrounds to seamlessly transition into management and executive level roles. Technology can become a tool for diversifying an industry that has been systematically designed to deny these opportunities for us. At Join we are taking steps to move in this direction. Since day one, I have been made aware that my opinion matters. I’ve been in meetings where my voice was heard and actions were taken to improve a process or to consider hiring a new team member.
I anticipate the day where humans can be assisted with robots for life-endangering tasks, where humans can wear a suit that reduces fatigue, and where all our science fiction dreams come to life. But until then, I have the joys of hearing people’s stories of how Join has helped create an open dialogue between the design/construction team and their clients. I’m excited to be able to grow with such a young company that has so much more to contribute to the industry.