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Journey To Civil Engineering Success

Journey To Civil Engineering Success

Even wondered what it takes to have a successful career in civil engineering? Well, wonder no more, as I have been to the IABSE Journey To Success event, and will happily share with you all the secrets of the successful; even if the first train I attempted to journey to success with was somewhat ironically cancelled…

Knowing you’re in the right place at the right time, but equally knowing when you’re in the wrong place.

The event itself was a Q&A, chaired by the ever-present Anthony Oliver, with four successful engineers, interspersed with some pub-orientated networking. In an attempt to maintain some structure, I’ve reallocated the satellite discussions to each of the four speakers; a “what and how of my success” if you will. Hopefully the result is somewhat coherent and a Anthony Robbins¬†cast-off…

Ian Firth

Chief Operating Officer – Flint & Neill

“The fact that I had the courage to go to the boss and ask.”

I think, more than the other’s, Ian’s career demonstrates the importance of taking a few risks. Up until 1994 he worked for Flint & Neill on their focal industry- clever assessment and analysis. It was then that conceptual design started to interest him; he went to the partners with a case and they agreed to enter a design competition. The risk paid off, and Ian discovered an aptitude for conceptual design that has led the company into becoming one of the big players in ‘blunt-pencil’ design.

Currently Flint & Neill employ around 80 people; a statistic that led to a discussion of the virtues of being a small company. Admitting a bias (that I share) of being a small-company man, Ian, and those others in the room of similar experience, noted increased access to responsibility, and a greater chance to affect a change as some of the main reasons to be with a smaller firm. Although it is at the expense of the structured progression and resource accessibility that larger companies can provide.

Ian also gave us a time frame for his experience, noting that (after returning from doing a masters degree) he gained his first project management role in his mid-to-late twenties; a metric to measure against. Given his seniority, Ian was asked whether a leadership/management role was essential to be successful; tellingly he conceded that business skills were, of course, important, but his enjoyment was in the design- an aspect he has been careful not to leave behind as he progressed.

“Engineer because you enjoy it.”

Hayley Gryc

Associate – Arup

“You have to express yourself as to what your interests are; tell people what you want to do.”

Although a dangerous game, I’m going to take a shot and say that Hayley was the youngest member of the panel. She is currently an associate of the International Development Group in Arup; having taken a surprise change of path after following the more traditional ‘big-buildings’ career of the structural engineer.

Six or seven years ago Hayley volunteered to do some humanitarian work in India, and came back feeling both that Arup could be doing more than just sending people out. More crucially, however, she identified that this was a field in which she could really add some value. Working parallel to her ‘everyday’ job she began engaging both people and projects within the humanitarian sector.

Perhaps the most pertinent thing she said (to me, at least), was to build a technical base first, and grow your engineering tool-kit. Once you’re experienced and chartered, that’s when you can really start to make an impact on where you are heading; noting that it took the process of becoming an associate before she really thought about what direction she was taking her career in.

“Grasp opportunities you think are interesting.”

Sebastian Macmillan

IDBE Course Director – Cambridge University

“Know yourself, know your own strengths and weaknesses.”

Starting off as an architect, Sebastian’s background of post-war welfare-state founding parents established his underlying ethic- that the purpose of the built environment is to help society. Thus the discovery in university that architects are taught largely to satisfy other architects (peer review), rather than the public purpose, led him towards a PhD in a attempt to define the implicit values against which design is judged.

Perhaps the least directed of the panellists, Sebastian’s route to success took him through a failed architectural practice and ultimately the luck in finding both a niche and a like-minded individual to work it with. It is this that led to his key recommendation; not to be like he had been, a boat being blown in the wind, but to take the courage of decision.

The final key point Sebastian’s discussion raised was the suggestion of finding a specialism (not only if you’re aiming for academia). There are a lot of generalists, but if you can find a field to excel in, make friends and get yourself known as the ‘go to’ for that niche; it’s much easier to find success from a smaller pool. Although another panellist chipped in that such long-term aspirations can be deceptive: “You can’t plan a career that changes all the time”. It was the fairly unanimous opinion of the panel that career plans should be short (1-2 years) and flexible.

“Be aware of your own values.”

Caroline Tong

Associate Director – CH2M Hill

“Be prepared to step out of your comfort zone.”

Caroline was the one member of the panel I had seen before, as a panellist once again at the IABSE Future of Design 2013 event. Being one of the most highly placed women in our industry, a lot of her experience and recommendations focused on the issues to success for women in a still male dominated industry; from being one of the first in her company to take a career break to start a family, to the struggles of finding a path without any role models.

Looking around the room (as, it seems, I do at every one of these events), I would say that the balance was 40-60 to men, which shows how times are changing, and maybe already have; hopefully it will only be a matter of time before it is no longer noteworthy to find women in senior engineering positions. This sparked a discussion about the importance of finding mentors; and interestingly not necessarily ones within the same industry as yourself. I was particularly taken by an audience notion that a good mentor is one you find yourself.

One statistic that stuck with me from Caroline’s thoughts was that men typically master around 25% of their current role before they feel they are due a promotion, whilst women won’t speak-up until they know around 80%. Although the intent was to say “those who don’t ask don’t get” (to women, in particular), I can’t help but feel the lesson should be: Men should really get to grips with what they’re doing before they move up the ladder!

“Be aware of your weaknesses, but don’t worry about them.”

[Ed: Don’t worry- I’ll be back with my normal cynicism next week…]

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  1. I definitely found Ian’s segment the most interesting/relevant to my professional career – I would have liked to pick his brains a bit on the topic of design competitions as he seems to have a lot of experience with them. Was amazed that F+N only have 80 employees!

    Notes I would have liked to have bring up in the debate, although my terrible excuse for staying silent was that I was at the back far left!

    1. Are structural engineers increasingly playing 2nd fiddle to architects especially with respect to “iconic” pedestrian bridges, and have the public who is ultimately coughing up for these proposals been any better/worse off for it?
    2. Is the current lack of bridge design competitions in the UK (relative to the amount in the US,EU etc) detrimental to giving talented young structural engineering graduates a chance to creatively express their capability for design without the constraints of typical contractor/consultancy arrangements?

    Overall a very good evening! Wish I had a chance to mingle a bit more, but thought this event was a lot better than the typically dry IStructE/ICE conferences that I’ve been to so far.

    Curiously, I currently work at the company you used to work for and was forwarded a link to your blog by a colleague – definitely a very interesting blog up there with TheHappyPontist. You should come out for a drink with us sometime to catch up! Send me an e-mail if interested.

    P.S. Thanks for the very helpful LUSAS LSP routines – the generate BMD/SFD script seems to be broken though. I really wish LUSAS would give us a feature to automatically generate windows with these all nicely set up with summary windows and the like – consider it an informal feature request : )


    • Yes, the IABSE events have a real focus on networking. I would say the same for the ACE talks if you get a chance to go to one of those- maybe I’ll see you there!

      As for your comments, I’d say:

      1 . Architects and Engineers do different jobs, and for projects where we work together, you could argue that the main aim of the engineer is to enable the architect. To draw a fairly apt example; only people with an interest talk about the Directors of films, or the producers/sound engineers behind albums- most ‘end-users’ only appreciate the actors and the musicians, although neither would be one without the other.

      In the case of these footbridges, the client has decided they want a work of art, rather than a functional structure (for better, or for worse); and thus the artist sells the dream to the public and the engineer makes it happen.

      2. Probably not; engineers in the UK are well respected and do a lot of work abroad.

      Although what do I know! I’ll see if I can cajole a response out of Ian himself- no promises though.

      I’m glad you like the blog and the scripts; if you let me know what the error you’re getting is with the BMD/SFD stuff I’ll take a look; and I’ve passed on the request- although I’d hate Being Brunel to become an informal LUSAS features line!

      As for that drink, well- I’ve added you on LinkedIn.