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Engineering role models

8 March 2018

Engineering has an image problem. Imagine an engineer and there might be a particular image that springs to mind. Probably a man, probably wearing a hard hat, usually stood in front of a bridge or a building site holding a clip board.

Unfortunately not only does this stereotype miss out swathes of other engineering careers – it may be dissuading women from pursuing the career they want and depriving the engineer sector of the talented engineers it will need in the future.1

Robotics engineers are needed to design robots to go into environments too hostile for humans, architectural engineers are needed to design new buildings and public spaces, and clinical engineers to design medical technology, there are so many.

Whatever the field an engineer works in, to go from a trainee or apprentice to a team leader or senior manager requires professional development opportunities, along with the chance to work with and learn from others. It is also important for ensuring that organisations like STFC that rely on engineers, have the best and strongest workforce available - that the best people not only join, but stay and progress their careers.

Like other STEM careers, however, there is a disparity between the number of male and females in engineering roles. Across the engineering sector men outnumber women 8:11 which can limit the opportunities women have to learn from other women in senior positions.

Software engineering at all levels

Fortunately this is not the case in every situation. In STFC’s ISIS Neutron and Muon Source, a management chain of software engineers has a female member of staff reporting into a female manager at every level. They underpin the work at this world-leading facility, and ensure that the users and staff need to do their world-leading science.

Part of this team, and at the start of her career is apprentice software developer, Emma Hancock. Emma became interested in software development after she left school, and this interest led her to an apprenticeship at STFC.

“A typical day for me starts with running through my objectives, seeing what I have to do and then deciding on what I want to achieve by the end of the day. I would then start working through these objectives one by one, if there is anything that I don’t understand I can ask my peers and my line manager for some help and information so that I can finish the work correctly.”

Emma’s line manager is schedule and operations team leader, Sonia Conway. She’s been in software engineering since graduating 20 years ago, and recently joined STFC. For her, the best thing about her role is the variety:

“It’s always changing, in terms of the software methodologies, programming languages and the growth of the web. There’s always something new to learn. We work together to provide the solutions our customers need. That can be anything from assisting junior developers to learn new skills or understand the product better, defining requirements with the users, or writing code to fix and enhance the product.”

This enthusiasm for making things work, and work more effectively, is something that’s also shared by Hannah Griffin, the facilities business applications group leader at ISIS.

“I love making things. I really like seeing sketches and designs that I have worked on become reality. I enjoy the immense satisfaction of solving a problem or fixing a bug. It is great to be part of building a piece of software or creating a solution from nothing.”

Hannah is also conscious that a large part of her role is helping others to address issues and tackle challenges:

“I joke about being the ‘last resort’ and help folks move forward with a problem. I usually do this by bouncing ideas around with them, asking questions, or sometimes I just remember something that helps them make a decision or suggest who to talk to or where to go to find out more.”

Overseeing all of this activity is the head of the ISIS instrumentation division, Debbie Greenfield.

She almost didn’t pursue an engineering degree after being dissuaded by her teachers (‘Oh no dear, you don’t want to do that – a nasty dirty job!’), but changed her mind when she realised she enjoyed engineering more than the physics she was studying at university.

And she hasn’t looked back since.

“I have reached the pinnacle of my career, in senior management, and am enjoying mentoring others. I see my job as a manager being mostly a support role – my team are all experts in their own fields and know much more than I do about their areas. My aim is to help them to deliver effectively and to grow in their careers.”

One of Debbie’s favourite experiences has been working on the ATLAS semi-conductor tracker end-cap project – an important part of the ATLAS experiment at CERN, involved in the detection of the Higgs boson.

“It involved managing teams from many different countries, and there were lots of technical and managerial problems to be solved. I loved commuting out to CERN. As I had small children at the time I would often just go out for one day – I would catch the first flight to Geneva and come back late in the evening. CERN is an amazing place to spend time. There is such a buzz amongst the particle physicists and the engineers who turn their dreams into reality.”

1. Engineering UK: the state of engineering. Accessed: February 2018.

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000