Senner Well on Way to Construction Management Career

William SennerIn an autobiography written by Will Senner in one of his elementary school yearbooks, he made a prediction: He was going to go to Duke. Although it wasn’t a comment the Connecticut native initially remembered when applying to colleges, it turned out he had been right. He enrolled at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering in 2002.

Now a senior civil engineering major and economics minor, Senner is already looking forward to kicking off a career in “design-build” construction management. Design-build refers to a streamlined construction method in which a single company is involved from the design stage all the way through to construction, he explained.

But first, Senner–— who has excelled in the classroom and beyond--will complete his master’s degree in engineering management through the Pratt School’s one-year program (MEMP). The program aims to develop “future industry leaders by combining a core management curriculum with a master’s level technical education and an engineering internship.” The Pratt degree is offered with the support of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and the Duke School of Law.

Although still technically an undergraduate, Senner said his AP credits and hard work allowed him to begin graduate courses in what would have been his final year at Duke. With just one additional semester at the Pratt School next fall, he will have his graduate degree.

“The program generally hadn’t been open to undergrads,” Senner said. “But, for me it was a perfect fit.”

Senner knew from the start that his interest lay in construction, and enrolled in introductory courses that could have led him to either mechanical or civil engineering. He ultimately chose civil and environmental engineering as the department best suited to his personality and interests.

“Civil is a great department,” Senner said. “It’s so small, you get to know the entire faculty, and they all know me.”

He also sought out extracurricular opportunities that offered the hands-on building experience he craved, signing up for Duke Motorsports as a freshman.

“I was on the engine team,” Senner said. “It was my first hands-on project outside of the classroom.”

Duke University Motorsports is a student group that designs and builds open wheel, single seat racecars to compete in the Formula SAE competition sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers. In the 2005 SAE race, the student-built car placed 31st in a field of 140 teams at the competition in Detroit, Mich. -- the best finish in school history.

Senner later got involved with the annual concrete canoe competition held at the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Carolinas Conference, in which students design, build and race a canoe made of concrete, and with the Duke SmartHouse, which is to be a 4,500 square foot live-in research laboratory operated by the Pratt School.

It was during a summer internship working with an architect and team of engineers to design the SmartHouse that Senner said he really started to home in on what to do after graduation.

“It was a great learning experience,” he said. “It’s not just the house or the ‘smart’ features–— it’s learning how the process works, how to interact with different players and get people on board.”

He has continued his involvement with the SmartHouse this year as student president, a role that has allowed him to integrate his expertise in engineering with his newfound managerial skills gleaned from MEMP courses. Senner oversees SmartHouse project teams designing devices aimed at integrating technologies that advance energy efficiency, safety, automation, quality of life or environmentally-friendly design.

“The project management tools I’ve obtained through MEMP have been incredibly useful in directing how project teams operate,” Senner said. For example, he instituted a requirement that teams develop project charter documents in which they lay out their goals and plans for completing designs from the outset, including deadlines and expectations of team members.

“It’s simple, but at the same time, it isn’t just student teams that don’t always think about such things – that can happen in industry too,” he said.

Senner sums up his Pratt experience this way: “It’s been a fun ride,” he said. “I couldn’t have imagined it being any better.”

Senner will complete an internship this summer with the construction company SKANSKA in Williamsburg, Va., where his parents now live. He will be working on a mixed use development, to include homes and a movie theater. After completing the MEMP program next year, he expects to spend at least a few years working in the construction industry and hopes to ultimately start his own company.