Debra James, ’79, Serves as Client Service Leader for Barge Design Solutions
By Eva Richards
Even though Debra James, ’79, never saw where her career was headed, her NIU education prepared her for where it led.
Writing was always an outlet for James. Growing up on the West Side of Chicago, James was not athletic, so she spent more time reading and writing anything she could to express herself—essays, poetry, whatever came to mind—especially after her father died when she was 12.
When she followed her best friend and roommate to NIU after high school, she hoped her passion for writing translated to a future career. She majored in journalism and public relations and minored in marketing.
“I have been fortunate enough to always use my degree,” James said. “I’ve definitely gotten my money’s worth out of it. I have had a variety of opportunities and each of them allowed me to use skills and abilities that I developed at NIU. Not just the writing, but also communications, media relations, planning—every bit of it was used.”
After graduation, James worked in retail advertising before moving on as a public information officer for a couple of local governments, media relations for the Georgia Lottery, and government relations and marketing communications for the cable company that is now Comcast.
When she was 20 years into her career, she moved into the engineering industry by accident.
“The opportunity came to me. In 2001, I had a public affairs contract for a water and sewer organization. I knew nothing about engineering or consulting or water, but I knew public affairs. The company was looking for someone to provide media relations help, to develop a school program, and what they were looking for in their public affairs program jived with what I had been doing for more than two decades. Once I got in the door providing public affairs services, I planned events and conducted public meetings required by various projects. Not only was I working with water projects, but I also started supporting U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects and the National Parks Service projects.”
Because James had a background in government relations, she wanted to move into business development. From there, it was a matter of understanding the engineering industry and services provided, applying what she knew about meeting with government and elected officials, and applying those skill sets, which were already developed.
In July, James moved to a role at Barge Design Solutions, Inc.—a professional services firm that includes engineers, architects, landscape architects, geologists, environmental scientists, planners, surveyors, engineering technicians, and CADD and GIS specialists—as vice president and client service leader for the metro Atlanta market.
“At Barge, I am responsible for identifying opportunities, developing relationships with clients, and preparing a strategy to win those opportunities. I’ve learned from being in this industry in a business development role that it is pivotal to learn to think strategically. I always understood the importance of planning, but developing a strategy, building a team and creating winning messages is just as important. My degree in public relations gave me a strong foundation, and working in business development honed it. It’s funny, I looked up one day and realized that I was starting to be more strategic in planning my life.”
James finds her new role fulfilling because she is goal-driven and results-oriented.
“When I came to the engineering industry, I don’t think I even knew an engineer, and I certainly knew nothing about consulting or the water profession,” she said. “This industry is critical to the quality of life we all enjoy, especially water and wastewater treatment, building and maintaining transportation infrastructure, among other crucial functions. I feel like I am working at a job in an industry that matters, that is part of building better communities.”
In her new role, James is proud that she has been able to help people and has proven her value.
“I am a non-technical professional working in a technical world,” she said. “When I first started in this industry, I had to convince the technical folks that I, a non-engineer, could sell the services that they provide. I also had to prove that what I offer, while different, is important. I am most proud that of how much I’ve learned and accomplished in the 20 years I have been in this industry.”
James reflects on her time at NIU as the opening of a door.
“The classes, the professors, and the ideas I was exposed to, and the people I met made an impression on me, even if I didn’t realize it at the time,” she said. “Leaving my neighborhood and coming to NIU, while easier with my friend there, was a big step and I learned to take more big steps, to be confident and to have faith in my abilities. I made a lot of changes throughout my career and worked for numerous organizations. I liked the new experiences and opportunities that came with each. Looking back, my time at NIU was a beginning.”