Customer Stories
October 28, 2021

A Young Electrical Engineer’s Rapid Co-op Career Rise

Driven by Passion for Advanced Analytics and Co-op Enterprise Software Excellence

Kelsey Gustainis, Engineering Manager, Tri-County Electric,  discussing voltage conversion work with a line apprentice (Kash Helton)Photographer: Annie McGinnis, Director of Communications

A Bundle of Energy

Kelsey Gustainis is from Tulsa Oklahoma and was always very good at math. She admits she had no idea, back in high school, what engineering really was. As Gustainis says, “All I knew was that I didn’t want to be a doctor.”

After high school, Gustainis got into Texas Tech, which was her stepfather‘s alma mater, and she fell in love with the place. She continued in math and science at Texas Tech and really enjoyed being with, as she puts it, “nerdy folks,” adding, “I joined an engineering sorority, which allowed me to have a lot of involvement in the community with a lot of involvement in STEM for the younger girls. This was impactful because there is not a lot of help for young girls interested in those areas.” (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).

Still though, Gustainis is, in her own unique way, ideally suited in her work in the electric utility industry, optimizing the flow of energy, given how she describes herself as being a bundle of energy: “I am 4’10” and was a tumbler and gymnast and cheerleader and I have always had a core passion for energy.”

While in college Gustainis became an officer in her sorority, taking on the role of New Membership Educator. She says, “this worked very well, and then I ran for President. Even though I was very nervous, I went for it, and won. I carried the president role for two years. It was very helpful for me to carry a leadership position and speak in front of a crowd which is a skill I even used last night, speaking to the Board of Directors here at Tri-County. So early on, I was building tools for my toolbox—tools that have been allowing me to succeed.”

In parallel with her leadership roles directly bettering her career path, Gustainis developed a great skill set, along with a strong network of close connections with people in key roles at electric cooperatives.

While the inspiring path Gustainis took may seem unusual, many others have also been glad they took similar paths within the utility industry, where co-ops enabled them to use the latest software and analytical tools that supported their rapid growth in their career.

An Unexpected Co-op Connection

As Gustainis explains, her first co-op connection came unexpectedly: “I was going to major in Petroleum Engineering but due to a wonderful coincidence I ended up falling in love with electric cooperatives. It started right after my mother came to visit me at Texas Tech.”

“On my mom’s flight back home, after leaving Family Weekend during my Freshman year, my mother happened to sit next to the General Manager of South Plains Electric Cooperative. The GM told my mother I should apply, and thought I should try it out, even though I had no idea what it was, I thought I should go for it. This led to my getting the internship position there.”

From a Co-op Internship to Co-op Stewardship

Gustainis loved her job at South Plains EC so much, her internship morphed into a part-time job which she kept throughout the rest of my college career. She says, “I had a great mentor at South Plains, Zachary Taylor. From the start, he let me have a great set of responsibilities and really allowed me to take the reins in the areas I worked at with South Plains.”

Early on, Gustainis saw the benefits of working in the electric utility industry, even as a Texan, where the Oil and Gas industry looms large: “The electric utility industry is a lot more stable than Oil and Gas, and you can work anywhere because utilities are everywhere. It is becoming a more and more important commodity because everything is fueled by electricity, so it will never go away. So as a result, in my junior year, I changed my major from Petroleum Engineering to Electrical Engineering. Then I was set. Power would be my background, and I continued to grow with it.”

“I was working on their substation design, protection, control system planning, and other nerdy aspects of power engineering. As I started to really get my hands dirty with it, I found I had a real energy and passion for what I was doing there and really fell in love with it.”

A Co-op Career Made Her Geographic Shift Easier

Upon finishing college, Gustainis and her fiancé faced a big decision. She explains, “My fiancé, who is now my husband, and I had to decide where we were going to end up. We had been together throughout our entire college career. It had been a great success story, but with graduation approaching my fiancé and I did not want to stay in West Texas anymore. He’s from north of Austin and we chose the Dallas-Fort Worth area which is in between Tulsa, my hometown, and Austin, his hometown. Although I loved Texas Tech and loved working at South Plains EC which was nearby in the Lubbock area, we wanted to be in a place closer to our families, as well as a place that was not as flat as West Texas, and we knew DFW had more hills and trees.”

“By this time, Zach Taylor had left and become the Executive Manager of Engineering at Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative, and I took on his role, and my new boss at South Plains was very helpful as we grew the team there. I cannot speak positively enough about how wonderful the experience of being put in the hot seat was for me and to learn all the things I had to learn, to take on big challenges and carry a large workload and make sure everything ran as it needed to run. It was very cool for me as a young part-time engineer to report to the Assistant General Manager at South Plains and to have that vast amount of responsibility. While I think it might have been unusual, it certainly put the tools in my toolbox, when it comes to taking on some big challenges and carrying a great deal of workload. The person I was reporting to at the time told me if I wanted to move to the DFW area he could connect me with the management at Tri-County.”

Gustainis’ manager did get the Tri-County EC interview referral for her, and, as the saying goes, the rest is history. Even though, as Gustainis admits, one of her interviews at Tri-County was not perfect. As she explains, “At my interview, it went well with everyone except for one person. I upset the Chief Technology Officer, who was surprised at how bold I was about what I wanted. But everyone else was supportive and everyone else agreed. Even though, to this day, the CTO still gives me a hard time about it, she and I love each other.”

Advanced Paperless Workflows Hand in Hand With Advanced Analytics

“What our group at Tri-County did was really to help Operations grow and advance enormously. We went from everything being done on paper to having a truly cutting edge set of tools.”

Gustainis started at Tri-County in Operations, with her initial engineering work focused on System Planning. She helped improve workflows in support of a wide range of processes for the distribution system, including pole inspections and inspections after close-out of work orders, as well as utilization of SCADA and other data for modeling of back-feeds and load transfers.

Both in her initial work in Operations, and now in her current role, ReportIQ has been of great benefit, along with core enterprise functionality from Meridian, and integrations and data flows associated with solutions from Futura for everything from mobile workforce management to GIS mapping, forms for inspections, and project tracking among others. Third-party solution data also seamlessly flows in support of improved processes, including data from Laserfiche.

A Career’s Rapid Rise with  Mentorship and Enterprise-wide Software

As Gustainis looks back over the last few years, she says, “Now, we are doing things few if any other co-ops are doing, and tracking things in better and better ways. And that was a great deal of fun for me. And so now Janet Rehberg, our VP of Engineering and Chief Strategy Officer, brought me over and brought me over from Operations to the Engineering team, having me come in as an Engineering Manager and grow with our team.”

Aside from its use of ReportIQ, Tri-County is a leader in the industry in many other ways, software- and technology-wise, including their use of the latest solutions from Meridian for FIS and CIS, cybersecurity, and Meter Data Management, and from Futura for Outage and Mobile Workforce, Management, GIS, Inspections and Staking, as well as integrations to Tri-County’s AMI from Landis + Gyr.

The path Gustainis has been on is one that fits a continuing pattern in the world of electric cooperatives. It also shows a great deal of the ongoing mentorship within the co-op culture. As Gustainis says, “People really enjoy how they have been helped and then years down the line they help others in similar ways. And it’s something to really be appreciated about our part of the industry. People around you really put you in a position to grow from the beginning.”

Bridges at Co-ops Bridge Generational Gaps

Co-ops provided Gustainis with a culture where there is no so-called “ageism.” In fact, the opposite is true as far as Gustainis’ experience is concerned.

Instead of an age gap, Gustainis has seen strong bonds being formed across those generations: “While there is a sort of age gap, where there are young people coming in, and then there are people at the other end of the age gap who’ve been in their current position for a long time, those age differences have never been an issue. Instead, I have always only experienced the opposite, where it has created strong bonds and a great sharing of knowledge. So instead of it being an obstacle, it has been a profound opener of doors. This is because of the strong support system I have encountered. Every step of the way I’ve been encouraged and given them more responsibility and been taught about how things are done.”

Gustainis pivots to the core and pegs a perfect landing by wrapping it up in an energetic bundle, saying, “It has all been a huge wonderful thing!”

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