Yang Tao has been with the City of Madison since 2006, and currently directs the staff and operations of the City’s Traffic Engineering Division. Yang obtained his PhD in Civil Engineering from the University of Wisconsin–Madison with a minor in Business, and is a graduate of Madison’s Leadership Development Program.
Yang leads Madison’s Smart Cities Initiative, and is experienced in multimodal transportation and Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) projects. He served on the national Transportation Research Board Bicycle Transportation and ITS committees. Yang has also played leadership roles in professional associations, such as serving as the 2018 president of the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) Wisconsin Section and chairing ITE’s national Smart Communities Task Force. He is also the vice chair of the ITE Transportation Systems Management and Operations Council.
Tell us about your path from graduate school to your current position.
I studied for my PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering at UW–Madison from 2001 to 2005, with a focus on transportation. I also pursued a minor in Business. When I graduated in December 2005, I took a job with the City of Madison as a traffic engineer for family reasons. When I first started to work for the city in January 2006, the transition from academia to practice was uncomfortable. But soon I fell in love with my job. The engineering and research training at UW gave me a solid technical background, and the business and management coursework at UW offered me good understanding on how to manage projects and people. Through the years, I was promoted many times in my agency. In 2018, our division head retired, and the mayor and the city council selected me to fill the position after conducting a national search.
What do you do in your current role?
My current role as the City Traffic Engineer is to direct the staff and operations of the City’s Traffic Engineering Division. There are currently 86 employees in the agency, and we are responsible for a variety of tasks for the city: signing, pavement markings, traffic signals, streetlighting, traffic safety infrastructure, pedestrian and bicycle traffic, neighborhood traffic management, taxi cab regulation, radio and fiber communication systems, transportation review on development projects, and a variety of permit programs. I’m also involved in a few citywide initiatives, such as leading the city’s Smart City Initiative, for which I work with various City agencies, UW–Madison, and a consortium of other public and private entities to envision a next-generation people and data centered transportation system for Madison.
What do you like about this job? What is challenging?
I like this job because I can make a positive impact in the community. My agency works on solving many different problems every day, and constantly strives to make things better for our residents and visitors. To see jobs well done and know that I’m part of the efforts making Madison a great place to live and visit gives me a lot of satisfaction.
There are many challenges in my job. One example is how to balance different competing needs. We have limited space and time to assign to different road users. How to balance the different needs is often controversial and challenging. Another challenge is to manage and track all the complaints and requests from the public. Madison is blessed with an engaged citizenry, and my agency is one of the city departments that receive large volumes of public inquires, complaints and requests through multiple channels. How to respond, keep track, prioritize and follow up with all these inputs and to make sure that each one is addressed is also challenging.
What skills from graduate school are the most useful to you in this job?
There are many of them. Here are the few that I felt most useful for me: technical skills, research abilities to find answers to something unknown, creative thinking skills to innovate, effective communication, finance and budgeting, and business planning and management.
What kinds of things did you do as a student that you believe made you competitive as a job candidate?
In addition to my course work at the College of Engineering, I pursued a minor in the Business School. I completed 11 management and all the MBA core courses, and gained skills in business planning, finance, business development, management and communications. I believe these made me a much more competitive candidate.
What advice do you have for current graduate students interested in this type of career?
Practice effective communication skills, not only to audiences with similar backgrounds, but also to people from all walks of life.
Take some relevant business and management courses, in order to make you a more competitive job candidate and to prepare you for future leadership roles when they arise.
Take advantage of intern opportunities that you can find. Reach out to workplaces that you are interested in to see whether you can get involved when you are in school. Many places offer these opportunities. For example, right now my agency is hosting a couple of interns from University of Chicago and from Yale University.