Member Spotlight: Julie Thuy Underwood

Mentors have been critical in allowing me to reach my career goals. I'm excited to help the next generation of women reach their career goals.

ARTICLE | Jun 1, 2016

Julie Thuy Underwood is the assistant city manager of Daly City, California.

How did you get your start in local government? 

My career track has been pretty traditional. I started as an intern in the city manager's office, and from there I went on to become assistant to the city manager in the same organization. I wanted to continue on the city manager track, and became assistant city manager. I was for a time a city manager and now I'm back to being an assistant city manager.

What's the difference in terms of the kinds of activities you did in your role as assistant versus the role as a city manager?

As an assistant city manager, you're the behind the scenes person who’s helping the manager implement policy and operate the city. As the city manager, your primary role is working with your elected officials, helping them with strategic planning, and making important decisions.

If you were talking to somebody who’s thinking of getting into local government, or maybe someone who is thinking of where to take their career in public service, what would you say to them about this profession?

You really get to see the people you impact. It isn’t just statistics or numbers. And I think for myself, I want to make a difference. I want to have a purpose-driven life. It’s the best, most rewarding job there is.

Real Life Heroes


What has been the most inspiring experience that you have had in local government?

When one of my children was in first grade, his teacher asked him to identify one of his real-life heroes. My son picked me. To have my children and people see me as having a positive impact is very special. To have your child pick you as a role model at such a young age really leaves a lasting impression. This is why I do the work that I do.

One of the biggest challenges we’ve talked about is the lack of diversity, the lack of females at the senior leadership level. Do you have any thoughts for those considering the profession about barriers they may have to overcome and why they should stick with it?

As a woman and also a person of color, I have been able to reach my career goal and become a city manager. It is certainly possible and it’s certainly worth it to have that as your goal. I know this probably sounds like a cliché or you’ve heard it before, but I can't express how true it is about partnering with your boss to help you with your career path. Also, finding coaches and mentors in your profession, someone you can talk to about your career planning goals. It doesn't mean you're not going to face barriers, it doesn’t mean it’s not going to be a challenge to try to continue to move up in your career. You will face those challenges, but if you have a support network, you'll do it more effectively.

I do remain disappointed there aren’t more women in city and county manager roles. But I’m excited about the future because I see so many capable, competent, thoughtful, intelligent women who can serve in those roles as awesome, effective leaders. It won't get any better unless we become part of the solution.

Describe the role and impact that some of your mentors have had on your career. How has this influenced you?

I have been fortunate throughout my 15+ year career to have outstanding mentors and coaches. In the early days, Walt Scheiber, ICMA Range Rider (Range Riders are now referred to as senior advisors), would take me to lunch when I was an intern at the city of Rockville. He would tell great stories of what it was like for him as a city manager. To this day, whenever I go to lunch with a rising star who’s looking for career advice, lunch is always on me!

While working for the city of Rockville, under the leadership of Julia Novak and Catherine Tuck Parrish, I learned the value of ICMA membership and networking. As a young woman coming into the field, I was lucky to have these two strong and intelligent women in my corner. They were outstanding role models who gave me confidence to pursue my career goals. Going to work for Steve Burkett and Bob Olander for the city of Shoreline was a tremendous experience. It was a new community that had only been incorporated for six years when I came aboard. It was still trying to figure out its vision and map out its future. It was stressful and exciting. These two mentors had very different strengths, which helped prepare me for the next role in my career – the role of city manager. I continue to seek advice from them even though they have both retired. I continue to be blessed as I now work with Pat Martel, ICMA President. Her optimism for the future of local government is contagious. Pat’s commitment to create greater openness and inclusion is such a significant purpose, and one that I fully support. Pat has helped me see how important my role is in helping to recruit and prepare the next generation of diverse talent.

If you were talking to someone who's maybe in Cal-ICMA or one of the other associations in California, why would you suggest that they also belong to ICMA? What unique value does ICMA bring?

I've been an ICMA member since I was a graduate student, so I have really valued my membership from early in my career. ICMA is one of those organizations that looks at broad, big-picture policy issues that are facing our communities. Sometimes when we're working in our communities, we get tunnel vision and it’s very hard to see the larger perspective, the bigger picture. ICMA gives you that. ICMA also connects you with members from around the United States and the world. I've never had an ICMA member not want to help, and that to me is another benefit and also obviously coming to the conference is really great. Having access to amazing presenters and speakers on important issues and access to all of the training opportunities are key benefits that ICMA provides me.


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