Civil engineering alumna guides digital transformation for global company
In some ways, Heather Wishart-Smith’s job at Jacobs reflects how much civil engineering has changed since she earned her bachelor’s and then master’s at UVA. In others, it’s a reminder that the field has always fundamentally been about interrelated systems, with infrastructure the underlying foundation.
In the age of the internet of things, seeing engineering challenges from a whole-picture perspective and applying the latest science and technologies from across disciplines to complex problems takes on even greater significance. The cyber and physical already interact, or soon will, in nearly every facet of our lives. Companies at the edge of innovation recognize this need for cross-cutting expertise.
In June 2019, Wishart-Smith was promoted to Jacobs’ senior vice president, technology and innovation. Previously, she served as the company’s vice president of Innovation and Jacobs Connected Enterprise for the company’s Buildings, Infrastructure and Advanced Facilities business — the position in which she began helping lead Jacobs’ transformation into this new epoch. Jacobs Connected Enterprise is a strategy focused on integrating digital connectivity into customers’ solutions as well as Jacobs’ own traditional areas of operation: The company’s global Buildings, Infrastructure and Advanced Facilities business represents approximately $6 billion in revenue and 30,000 people.
“The way the industry is changing, the way the world is changing, it’s no longer sufficient to have a single-disciplinary focus,” Wishart-Smith said. “It’s valuable to have engineers with experience in computer programming, say, or in data analytics. We’re using technology, predictive analytics, and the Internet of Things to help our clients make better business decisions.”
For example, Jacobs is developing a digital twin of Singapore’s water system. A model of the system collects real-time data and uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve performance. The company also remotely monitors infrastructure for clients, such as bridges and highways, with internet-connected sensors, which requires extensive data analysis and cybersecurity expertise.
Another project collects and analyzes data from 400 million multi-modal journeys across the United Kingdom to make predictions and help transportation officials in London optimize existing infrastructure. “Rather than building new lanes or transit stations, they can make better use of what they already have,” Wishart-Smith said.
Wishart-Smith is a classically trained civil engineer. She cut her teeth in the U.S. Navy Civil Engineer Corps. Much of her distinguished career has focused on managing projects — at Jacobs since 2007 when it acquired Carter & Burgess, where she had worked since 2005, and Kellogg Brown & Root, her first stop after leaving the Navy in 2002.
Now, she is happy to give back to UVA Engineering and the University, both of which she speaks of fondly. She volunteered as a member and former chair of civil engineering’s advisory committee and still leads case study-based discussions on leadership and ethics with students in design classes. She’s always eager to talk to young people about why engineering matters, she said.
“What we do is so tangible. The thought that some day I could bring my grandchildren to see these buildings, roads and bridges that I had a part in when they were just a spreadsheet is exciting. Especially when they serve a public need, like bridges, highways and water systems. The opportunities we have to solve tough engineering challenges with innovative solutions are amazing.”