Thursday, November 17, 2011

9 to 5: Michelle, Government Contract Proposal Writer

new feature!

Today I am quite excited to bring back the 9 to 5 feature after a little hiatus, and what better person to finish up this series with (I have just a few more to share) than my friend Michelle! Michelle is an old friend of mine- she's actually best friends with one of my friends' little sisters, so I've known here for a long, long time. And in all the time I've been aquainted with her, she always manages to make me laugh, whether it's in person or even over twitter. She's fabulous. And today, Michelle's here to tell us all about her career, which I find to be incredibly fascinating. Enjoy! And thanks again Michelle!

Tell us about yourself.

Once upon a time, a petite art student met a tall, lanky water polo player at California State University – Northridge. That art student became an amazing English and Art Teacher – as well as a reading specialist. That water polo player majored in Chemistry, and after college decided to start his own construction company. They got married and had two daughters. Skip ahead twenty-seven years, and here I sit today – one of those daughters, Michelle Conery, writing this to you! I tell you this about my parents – because I feel as though each of them have somewhat shaped my career path, or at least helped shape who I am today.

I currently reside in downtown Tucson – close to my parents and my sister. I love where I live – it’s a studio loft that was renovated from a catholic school (originally constructed in the 1890s). It has a true sense of originality and history, and I can walk everywhere. I have two cats – although I will deny it out in public for fear of being called a cat lady! My grandma actually got me a Mother’s Day card this year and signed it “Love, Captain and Petey.” I don’t really know how I feel about that, but I love my grandma nonetheless.

I moved from Los Angeles to Tucson when I was in grade school, and graduated from Arizona State University in 2006. After several years in Tempe/Scottsdale, I decided to come back to Tucson, and accepted a job opportunity with Granite Construction, as a Senior Proposal Coordinator.

Describe a typical day at work.

A typical day at work is completely unpredictable. Working for a national company that consistently ranks among the nation’s “Top 10 Construction Giants,” with over 5,000 employees and offices from coast to coast, Granite employs a national proposal group of eight. The eight of us are spread across the country – with the majority of the group located in the corporate offices in Northern California. If a proposal drops, we need to have the flexibility to be able to hop on a plane and help get the proposal completed within the deadline. Several of the proposal group members enjoy the travel, and spend more than 75% on the road. I made a goal of 25% travel, and for the last year have probably met that goal. The last proposal I worked on was for an environmental copper mine clean-up project in the greater Seattle area. This week, I’m working on a project for the Reno, NV office, and next week working on a proposal for Homeland Security – Border Patrol. Nearly 98% of my proposal work is government contract specifications, basically technical writing to meet specifications of a job. For the recent mine clean-up project, we had to write step-by-step how we will interface with the town during the contaminated soil extraction, work will national forest personnel, and transport construction equipment to the remote site (often times flying equipment by helicopter). A recent project our company is currently completing for Homeland Security is the main border fence surrounding the Port of Entry in Nogales, AZ. Working on a high-profile project as this, proposal questions including the media requests, interfacing with state and federal politicians, safety and security, as well as what we would do if we came across an underground drug tunnel during construction. Proposal writing pulls from a variety of skills – the ability to take good photographs (of people or projects), interview engineers, architects and government officials to “tell the story” of how a project was built, as well as graphic design, and overall project management. As the government tightens its qualifications (largely due to the enormous deficit we are facing) qualifications for their work has gotten extremely competitive and very detail-oriented. These proposals are similar to a 30 to 300 page custom brochure – with technical qualifications, pictures, diagrams and charts, to help convince the client that we are the best value to the government.


Did you always want to be a Proposal Writer?

I look at the skills it takes to do this type of marketing – graphic design, print production, writing, editing and proof reading – coupled with basic engineering/construction knowledge. If someone morphed my Mom and my Dad – that would be me! Throw my stepdad in there (a web designer) and I feel like I have maximized the experience from all of my parents. I didn’t think I would end up in the construction industry – but I definitely know exactly how I got here! I think that I always thought I would be a writer of some sort – and applying my skills to a field that offers me experience in another field (engineering and construction) I feel like I am continuing to learn as we build these projects. I enjoy this company’s market sectors more than others because it involves a lot more environmental and safety regulations – working in the nation’s waterways, mine tailings cleanup, landfill capping, as well as airport runway construction and highway infrastructure. We drive on roads every day, and now I have a better understanding of how our roads and bridges are funded, how the city maintains its intersections, parking lots and even bus stops. This year I have gotten more involved with alternative energy systems, including solar and wind farms. We have recently completed our second solar project in Southern Arizona – with the University of Arizona (pictured). Although I don’t get out of the office as much as I would like – I make an attempt to do jobsite visits once a month, and it amazes me at the work that we get to be a part of in this community.

How did you get into this field?

One week before I graduated college, I found a job posting at a local construction company for a marketing coordinator position, which offered a unique twist – marketing for a music festival as well. I thought that was a pretty unique combination, so I decided to pursue the opportunity. I was hired – and spent five interesting years straddling the responsibilities of marketing for a construction company, as well as managing the public relations and volunteer program for the construction company’s non-profit music festival (The McDowell Mountain Music Festival in Scottsdale, AZ). Needless to say, I wouldn’t have been interested in the job if it didn’t have the music component. I had no interest in construction and music is one of my lifelong passions. Over the years, I refined my skills as a corporate proposal writer, graphic designer and overall marketing through the construction company. Through my role with the music festival, I established a strong connection with the community, engaged over 500 volunteers annually, got to know a lot of local and national bands - and made many friends along the way. I will always value that job, it was an absolute blast – and just warmed my heart. I couldn’t have learned more in those few years that I was there. Within the last year of my time there, I realized that although working with the music festival was fun, finding a career path in construction would offer more long-term benefit than holding onto a position with a non-profit or the music industry. So I let go of that part of my life – and moved forward with proposal writing.

After working with the construction company, I briefly worked for a small architecture firm in Phoenix. They had quite the specialty – as one of the top designers in the nation for federal and state prisons, jails, and correctional facilities. I enjoyed my time there – but felt the need to move out of Phoenix – and found the opportunity with Granite in Tucson. Now I feel like I have run the gamut of construction and architecture – writing about high-end office structures in Keirland Commons, five-star resorts, and golf clubhouses – to writing about the prison system, roads and highways, bridges, dams and airports!What kind of schooling or background did it entail?

I majored in Journalism at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School, with a strategic focus in Public Relations. My mom had always enforced the importance of a good writer. “Companies can always use good writers,” she would say. If you have an interest in taking photos, and extracting good content from people, asking the right questions, and thrive under a fast-paced, deadline-driven environment, this type of job just may be for you!

Is this what you hope to do for the rest of your life? If so, how do you see yourself growing in this career? If not, what else do you dream of doing?

I joked the other day with my boss and told him I was going to find a nice eligible bachelor twice my age and be a “stay-at-home-wife.” Then I proceeded to tell him that I would work part time as a hobby if he wanted me to. He said “Michelle, you work double-time as is, we could possibly cut you back to full-time!”

I would like to stay involved in this industry in some capacity. I love the possibility of working on projects across the country and learning about city infrastructure in different states, and could definitely see myself as a consultant or possibly working as some type of urban planner, or working on the government side as a contracts specialist. Although – I doubt the government is hiring right now!

If you could tell your 17-year old self anything about your life today, what would you tell her? Is there anything you wish you would have known back then?

Over the past two years I feel like I have had a lot of reflection with that 17 –year old girl. I was so fearless and carefree at that age. I was filled with so much ambition – and overall swollen with all the possibilities of what my life would hold in the future. I was so confident. I was so upbeat and genuinely happy. Over the last two years, I woke up one day and realized I had lost some of that ambition. I felt somewhat deflated. In the last year I made a fundamental change to move out of Scottsdale, and back to my roots. I got a job with a more realistic workload, moved back around my family, and reminded myself of my hobbies – I am drawing and painting again, and researching new music. What would I tell that 17-year old? I would tell her to hold on for dear life – that that sunny and upbeat disposition is going to be challenged for the rest of her life – that it’s up to her to hold onto that little bit of happiness – because it means the world. People spend their lives trying to find happiness, if they only held onto the happiness that was cultivated before we all became jaded adults, perhaps people would enjoy their lives more.

As far tips to “setting myself up to success” – I would say that continuous reading and lifelong learning is the most important . I know that may sound a bit corny, but when I don’t know something at work I look it up. Don’t know the definition of a word? I look it up! My other tip – is to find a field that you are interested in and apply your skills to that specific field. I started out as an intern at a local fashion magazine, and although it was a bit “fun” --- I realized quickly that it wasn’t going to be the best career choice. Just the other day one of the engineers at work asked me what I really “do” for the company. He said “What would you do with a creative writing degree anyway?” --- Although my degree isn’t in creative writing, I was still somewhat offended. I asked him if he was a good writer. He quickly said “No.” Then I said ---“See! Someone has to write for you and describe to our clients what we really do!”

My other tip for success – with the tumultuous economy – it has been a requirement that a marketing person must be a one-man-band of graphics/business development/public relations/ proposal writing/ internal communications/human resources guru! I’ll I can say is – it is a tough work environment these days. Everyone expects a writer to know InDesign or basic html, and it’s difficult to convince these employers that they may have somewhat unrealistic expectations.

Lastly – one of my favorite quotes of all time is “When you go to work, you shouldn’t have to leave your heart at home.” No matter what you do, make sure there is something that feeds that little soul of yours. It’s what’s most important!


  1. This just might be my new favorite 9-5. =]

  2. It's so true about being a good writer. I learned that quickly on all my marketing internship. I decided to take some English and communication class for leisure.

    I really enjoyed reading this 9-5.

  3. The last quote is some great advice! Really enjoyed this 9-5!

  4. "it is a tough work environment these days. Everyone expects a writer to know InDesign or basic html, and it’s difficult to convince these employers that they may have somewhat unrealistic expectations."

    Yup! I'm really glad you mentioned this. I got a lot of pushback when I tried to teach my English majors these kinds of skills. But it's become necessary to not only write well, but build the apparatus it needs as well. If you want a job, at least :)

  5. Danielle, great spread! Thanks for letting me be a part of it. Your site continues to morph into something amazing! @Daniel, I'm glad you are teaching your students the importance of "rounding out" their skillset - it will make them invaluable!

  6. NO WONDER you couldn't do lunch with me yesterday, too busy being featured in a 9-5! What a surprise this was. Congrats Michelle, great pick Danielle.

  7. Hey, I know this girl! Michelle is totally awesome, she gave me a volunteer position at the music fest in 2009 when the Flaming Lips played and I will always remember that experience as being one of the best of my life so far. Nice to see her on here!