Alex Nunez-Thompson ‘16 is riding a wave in New Mexico.
The Rice University civil and environmental engineering alumnus said, “Albuquerque is a very unique market right now because it is ringed by three other cities teaming with technology and commercial opportunities: Phoenix, Denver, and Austin. We are a hidden gem in the Southwest and have begun to catch the interest of investors.”
As the vice president responsible for design and project management at ACG Engineering and Construction Management, Nunez-Thompson is pulled into meetings across the state. One project has him weaving investors together with city officials and community residents for a historic building renovation in Santa Fe. New state-of-the-art features will make it both useful and efficient, but the rooftop garden, active and passive rain water utilization and space for solar energy conversion may not feel as critical to the neighbors as the perceived impact of a more densely populated structure on their traffic and quality of life.
“It is exciting to take an existing building and add to it,” said Nunez-Thompson. “There are structural and hydrologic challenges to be sure, but the end goal is creating a beacon for the city—one that all the stakeholders can embrace.
“From both an engineering and a civic perspective, we at ACG are the communications center for how all those forces interact. It is critical to communicate clearly with everyone involved. To be a part of such a development is truly phenomenal; it feels transformational for my company and for similar projects around the state.”
Another project in which Nunez-Thompson has worked closely with community residents is an adult continuing education center in northern New Mexico. Working with the Jicarilla Apache Nation, he has helped them plan the building from the ground up. Although the features run more to how much storage space the teachers need and how many outlets are required for student devices, Nunez-Thompson said working with the community is just as critical as it is in the Santa Fe project.
“Your mobility – for project success, advancement, career opportunities – it all hinges on your communication skills,” said Nunez-Thompson. “Rice University provides its students with many opportunities to develop those communication skills.
“Beginning with ENGI 120- the first semester course for freshmen that ends in a product presentation – the chance to present our team’s work was paramount in my communications activities at Rice. I highly recommend students take any opportunity they have to present and get out of their comfort zone. If you are not presenting in class, look for other activities where you are required to communicate.”
Coordinating Willy Week, leading the Beer Bike Team for his residential college (Sid Richardson), running Sid’s Orientation Week, and serving as a senator in the Student Association are just some of the activities that forced Nunez-Thompson to become a better communicator.
“Choose activities you enjoy and learn from each of them,” he said. “Taking on a student leadership role in college will require you to communicate with other student leaders, with the university administration, and with the students supporting the activity at an individual level. The breadth of that kind of communication – across the different levels of responsibility – teaches you to choose and share appropriate information with different audiences. Developing, practicing and giving the actual presentation teaches you depth in your communication skills.”
Nunez-Thompson took every opportunity to get up and speak in front of people. During a freshman year leadership course, the instructor asked if anyone knew what it meant to network. No one raised their hand, so Nunez-Thompson waded in.
“‘That’s when you connect with people who might be useful for your career,’ I said. Then the upperclassman leading the discussion responded, ‘Thanks for answering! But networking is one thing and one thing only. It is building and maintaining relationships. If something comes out of the relationship, great. If not, that’s okay as well. It is all about the relationship.’
“That realization about the importance of relationships was another formative moment in my first semester. I didn’t go into any activities with the express purpose of forming relationships or developing my communication skills. It was only later that I realized how much I had gained from diving into activities that appealed to me, and giving each one my best effort.”
After three years of CEE courses and a diverse range of leadership roles, Nunez-Thompson was catching a ride home for the summer with a Rice friend. They stopped by the friend’s home in Albuquerque, NM, where Nunez-Thompson said a well-laid trap had been set up to tempt him into a summer job. His friend’s father, who owned a construction company, had left a set of blueprints partially visible.
“Well, I was nosy. I started flipping through the blueprints and asking questions. Then he was offering me a summer internship,” said Nunez-Thompson. “I loved everything about that work, but by the end of my senior year, business had slowed and he couldn’t offer me a full-time job.
“However, I was once again in the right place, at the right time. I’d developed a good relationship with one of my professors who had a vested interest in me becoming a teacher. I had enjoyed his course on education and had been toying with the idea of teaching. Over dinner, I was dithering about whether or not I should teach. He finally looked at me and said, ‘I can get your foot in the door somewhere if you really want to be a teacher. Otherwise, I don’t want to hear this conversation again. You have five seconds.’ And he started counting.
“It was really that quick. I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ So I taught physics, engineering, and college math for five years. And every summer, I was back at Rice, doing more research in the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen with Matthew Wettergreen and Ann Saterbak.”
When their research led to a conference presentation in Albuquerque, Nunez-Thompson called his former internship boss. With a low budget as a high school teacher, he was looking for a couch to crash on during the conference. His former boss agreed immediately. Although the conference was postponed due to the pandemic, the door to Albuquerque was open. Within a year, the door opened further with an invitation to rejoin the construction company as a staff engineer.
“Then it is about a week and a half before our move to Albuquerque. Our boxes are packed up and I’m looking forward to grunt work, getting back into construction at the ground level,” said Nunez-Thompson. “Before tackling that drive to Arizona, I need an oil change. The mechanic is explaining something about my car when I get a call from my boss.
“He’s decided to expand. He tells me I’m going to be a partner; he’s making me vice president in charge of growing the company. I motion to the mechanic to stop talking. I can’t believe what I’m hearing.”
Eight months into his role as a vice president, Nunez-Thompson is still feeling a little stunned. Then he laughs, shakes off the feeling, and heads out to a window inspection at one of their projects.
This story is part of a series of profiles for the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program.