Muhammad Ali: A multi-national perspective

Driven to explore and discover, this world traveler recognizes the benefits of diversity in the workplace.

Muhammad Ali, P.E., senior associate and team leader at Lockwood, Andrews and Newnam, Inc. (LAN)/LEO A DALY in Houston, leads LAN’s Municipal Infrastructure Group, specializing in city urban infrastructure projects. He has served as project manager for planning, analysis, design, and construction of projects involving drainage, roadway, traffic, private and public utilities, and landscaping amenities. He has 18 years of experience ranging in client, program, and project management with strong skills in business development and marketing. He has assisted entities with overseeing multi-million-dollar capital improvement plans to promote redevelopment by improving mobility, drainage, and quality of life. Throughout his career, he has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to complete projects on time and within budget, regardless of the challenges encountered.

In the following Q&A with Civil + Structural Engineer (C+S), Ali describes his diverse experiences from the Middle East to Russia to London to Houston and how that has impacted his career in civil engineering.

Ali meets with LAN’s senior construction management, Rick Butler, and a contractor to discuss construction progress. Photo: LAN

C+S: What has been the path to your current position at LAN, including education and professional background and focus?

Ali: I joined LAN in 2006 in Houston as a senior project engineer in the transportation department. I started off designing and managing complex roadway and highway projects for local agencies. Then, I soon had the opportunity to join the LAN team responsible for designing the $360 million Southeast Corridor Light Rail Project in Houston. At that point, I was afforded the opportunity to take on a larger role with more responsibility by managing a larger team of professionals.

In early 2009, while working on the light rail project, I discovered that our parent company, LEO A DALY, an international architecture/engineering firm, was opening an office in Abu Dhabi, UAE, and was actively seeking a regional director to manage the Middle East. At that time, the Middle East offered a promising market for engineering and architecture services, despite the widespread world economic crisis.

As I was seriously considering this position, I remembered a moment in my childhood as I stood in front of a large puddle, looking at my parents with an adventurous spirit, asking them, “Should I jump? Should I jump?” My parents both responded, “No, do not jump!” Like many kids, I jumped and enjoyed making a big splash. As a kid, my desire to make a splash was driven by my natural instinct to explore and discover. The exploratory and discovery instincts stayed with me as I got older and I knew I had to quickly jump on this exciting opportunity and looked forward to making a big splash.

I was interviewed and hired for the position. At that time, the Abu Dhabi office was LEO A DALY/LAN’s 30th office worldwide and the regional office for the Middle East. I managed the daily office activities, coordinating work efforts in the Abu Dhabi office with 22 domestic offices. The first year was extremely challenging, establishing an office in a foreign city, a nine-hour time difference from the U.S. offices, trying to initiate and maintain contacts with clients and industry representatives, organizations, and companies.

The market was very competitive and there were companies from all over the world that were already well established. I even started doubting my decision to relocate. However, I knew I wasn’t a quitter and I had to change my strategy to be able to succeed internationally. By being flexible and changing the business plan and aligning with strong local partners, things got brighter and, after a year of hard work, we were able to secure two large health care projects and an [indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity] contract. The hard work was paying off and it felt good.

The experience I acquired from being the regional director was invaluable and it significantly helped with my professional growth. After approximately three years in Abu Dhabi, we decided to come back home to Houston to be closer to family and have our kids grow up near their grandparents.

After moving back to Houston, the company assigned me to manage a multi-million-dollar capital improvement program for a local client.

I worked very closely with the client to assist in identifying and designing large mobility and drainage projects through planning, design, and construction. From that point on, my team grew and began expanding to other local municipal clients in the Houston area. Eventually, the team branched out on its own and became the Municipal Infrastructure Group. I am currently leading the Municipal Infrastructure Group as a senior associate and team leader in the company.

Muhammad Ali with Chairman and CEO Leo A. Daly III during one of his visits to Abu Dhabi, UAE. Photo: LAN

C+S: What initially attracted you to a career in engineering?

Ali: The way engineering contributes to the wellbeing of society by providing solutions to real world problems was a big draw. Also, being able to see tangible results from planning and design to construction is very satisfying. In addition, I thoroughly enjoyed math growing up and it was my favorite class. Maybe this was because of my parents’ influence on me. My dad has a Ph.D. in physics and my mom has a degree in math. Both my parents instilled the importance of academics in us at a very young age and I am very grateful to them for that.

C+S: What aspects of your experience and career as an engineer have surprised you the most — both positively and negatively?

Ali: During engineering school, I always assumed that focusing on the technical aspect of engineering was the key to a successful career in engineering. While having strong technical skills is very important, as my career progressed, I discovered that there are other essential skills that I needed to acquire to be able to successfully lead a team in our industry and organization. These skills include business development, people skills, client management, and effective communication. Acquiring these skills has significantly contributed to my professional growth. I highly advise students majoring in engineering to take additional classes such as business, marketing, communications, etc. to help them with their career development.

Mentoring young engineers and graduates is a passion that Ali takes seriously.
Photo: LAN

C+S: You have lived and worked in a number of countries (which countries?). How does that diverse perspective impact your approach to designing and managing projects and people?

Ali: I was fortunate to have been able to experience many different cultures throughout my life. [My family is] originally from Iraq but I was born in London, England, and was raised in a variety of countries. After my birth, my family moved back home to Baghdad, Iraq. Several years later, my father’s employment gave us the opportunity to relocate to Moscow, USSR. The culture shock was relatively easy to overcome; however, the climatic difference was initially unbearable. The transition from the hot weather to Russian snow was quite the challenge.

Shortly after, we relocated to Saudi Arabia and then back to London. Upon graduating high school (A-levels) in London, we moved to Oxford, Miss., where I attended college. I graduated from Ole Miss (Go Rebels!!!) with a civil engineering degree. Since graduating, I had the opportunity to work in Mississippi, Florida, and then ultimately joining LAN in 2006 in Houston. I also had the opportunity to relocate to Abu Dhabi, UAE. While I was there, I traveled all over the Middle East and Europe.

The extensive traveling while growing up has enabled me to acquire excellent adaptive skills. More importantly, it has given me the opportunity to encounter a variety of people and cultures. It made me very appreciative of different cultures and a big believer of diversity in the workplace. I believe that having a team from different backgrounds, different schools, different walks of life, and different stories will benefit the company, our clients, and ultimately our society.

For example, I had a great opportunity to work with our U.S. architects to design projects in the Middle East. We worked very closely to identify unique local elements to be used as inspiration for developing the conceptual design. For one of our health care projects, we developed three design concepts by incorporating local elements — oasis, gazelle, and palm trees — into our design.

C+S: What overarching trends are you seeing in engineering and construction in the countries and sectors in which you have worked?

Ali: The economic downturn has slowed down the construction industry worldwide for the last few years. It seems like projects in different parts of the world have had budget cuts, projects being put on hold or postponed. However, in the Middle East, specifically the Gulf Cooperation Council, I noticed that many countries are planning for tomorrow. There is a big push to invest in education, health care, infrastructure, and rail networks.

With a growing middle class and a shortage of quality educational and medical facilities, a lot of these countries are using their oil revenues to spend billions of dollars on hospitals and schools to cater to them. They are very impressed with the U.S.’s educational and health care institutions. They typically hire U.S. experts to provide the latest in international health care design and evidence-based design practices in order to improve patient outcomes, satisfaction, and staff efficiency. With the growing population, they are also investing in upgrading their aging infrastructure and adding rail networks all over their major cities to promote economic prosperity, growth, and an improved quality of life.

C+S: How do you see sustainable or resilient design impacting projects in the United States and internationally, if at all?

Ali: I feel engineers in the 20th century did not address the construction industry’s impacts to the global environment. In the last 15 years, there has been a push for sustainable design leading to the growth of LEED and creation of other rating systems, which shows the growing demand for sustainable design. Like many, I believe sustainable design is the future of design because it reduces energy and material consumption, preserves natural resources for future generations, and creates a healthier living environment.

To make this sustainable design more paramount, I think we need to change our mindset on the notion that sustainable design is costlier. The initial design and construction is typically higher; however, these higher initial costs will be effectively alleviated by the savings incurred over time due to lower operational costs.

Muhammad Ali with his wife, Nagham, and sons Laith (left) and Omar. Photo: DW Photography

C+S: As you approach a mid-point in your career, what advice would you give to young engineers in the early stages of their careers?

Ali: I highly recommend finding a mentor in your field. Having a more experienced role model available to support career development, who inspires you to do better and pushes you to be your best, will keep your career on the right path. That being said, chances are your supervisors or mentors are busy. You should be proactive and ask tons of questions. Be a squeaky wheel if you aren’t getting the guidance you need.

Finally, don’t ever stop learning. Your university education is just the first step in your career. A continual stream of learning is required for success at any stage. I learn something new every day.

C+S: When not working, how do you like to spend your time?

Ali: I enjoy spending time with my family and friends. I enjoy spending quality time with my lovely wife, Nagham, and our two little boys, Laith (7) and Omar (5). My personal relationships are always a priority and they bring me great joy. I also enjoy regular physical exercise and participating in various soccer leagues.

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