Continuing our series of profiles focusing on women of colour in industry. We speak to Yasmin Ali, a chemical engineer.
Briefly describe your current job responsibilities
After 7 years in various engineering roles at E.ON, I very recently resigned to seek new opportunities and pursue some personal goals.
I am passionate about engaging the public with engineering and increasing diversity in a profession where only 9% of the workforce is female. I am currently working on some engineering media projects, starting to write a book that aims to de-mystify energy, and speaking at a number of schools and events to promote engineering.
I chair the Young Members’ Forum for the IChemE’s (Institution of Chemical Engineers) London & South East region, I am on the WES (Women’s Engineering Society) Young Members’ Board, and I am also a Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering Ambassador.
My most recent role with E.ON was as the control room manager for the district heating business. This is a 24/7-control room, and I was leading a team of six to ensure we deliver heating and hot water supplies to over 25,000 customers. I was also responsible for delivering income streams from our electricity generating engines.
What were the key decision points that were important in deciding your career path?
Studying chemical engineering at University after finishing school was a huge decision, which has led to my career in the energy sector.
While at university, I spent the summer holidays doing various work experience placements and internships, which helped me to decide what I liked and didn’t like. I think studying abroad in Malaysia for my second year of university really developed my independence and people skills, helping me to secure a place in the graduate scheme with E.ON when I graduated.
All of the different roles I have had at E.ON have added something to my skillset. My last role, as the control room manager, gave me leadership and management experience and set me up for my next challenge.
Deciding to resign from my role was a big decision to make, I thought hard about it. I feel I have made the right choice to take time out to reflect on my career so far, decide what I want to do next, while also focusing on engineering engagement activities.
What do you enjoy most about your current role?
I enjoyed coaching and mentoring people in my last role, as well as the commercial side of my job.
At the moment, I am enjoying being my own boss and improving my prioritisation and time management skills, based on what activities I have coming up. I am also enjoying the chance to be creative, via the writing and media projects I am working on, and also networking and meeting lots of new people!
What is the most challenging aspect of your work? What strategies have you developed for tackling that challenge?
I can get bored easily with doing the same task for a prolonged period of time, which can be detrimental to completing work. This is why I always make sure I have a few different tasks I can work on so I can switch between them when I find my attention is fading.
When I first start to tackle a problem I am unfamiliar with, I can sometimes find that overwhelming and not know where to start. I have developed ways of breaking problems down into small, less daunting tasks, which really helps.
What has been the most defining moment in your career to date?
Winning the Women’s Engineering Society Young Woman Engineer award in 2013 was amazing, recognising my achievements in my work as well as my engineering outreach.
It also means a lot to me when I see young people I have mentored doing well; it’s very satisfying and those moments will stay with me forever.
Who is the industry figure that you admire and why?
There are lots of amazing women in engineering for whom I have huge amounts of respect. Someone that spring to mind is Kerrine Bryan, an engineer who has published a series of children’s books including ‘My Mummy is an Engineer’ to challenge the unconscious bias many people have that women can’t be engineers, plumbers, scientists… and so on!
Best piece of career advice you have ever received? And who was it from?
I attended a presentation for young professionals at a conference a few years ago given by Eric Van Oort, an expert in oil and gas drilling and well engineering. He talked through 12 pieces of advice. I found them all extremely valuable and I often refer back to the presentation to remind myself of the points.
The most important piece of advice for me was around making sure you work with good people who you respect and can learn from, and who have an interest in your development.
Away from your work role what are your passions?
I spend lots of my spare time engaging with the public about engineering through various channels, it’s something I really enjoy doing and I get satisfaction from knowing that I could be helping someone make a career choice.
I have been volunteering for SmashFestUK for the last few years, an annual science and engineering festival themed around a natural disaster, this year’s theme is flooding. I am also writing science and engineering blogs for the Metro website.
I love stand-up comedy; living in London is a fantastic place to be for watching comedians. Working for a comedy club at Edinburgh festival 2010 was the beginning of this passion. I have even had a go at some comedy myself as part of Science Showoff, a monthly event in a pub where scientists and engineers try to explain their work in a fun way to a public audience!
I like to stay active too, so I walk, run and cycle as often as possible.
What are the 3 (professional or personal) books/websites/ or resources that you would recommend to others?
I recently read Yassmin’s story’ by Yassmin Abdel-Magied. We share a first name, a Middle Eastern background, and are both engineers! It’s an honest, personal story and she is a wonderful role model.
A useful resource for me is the Engineering & Technology magazine produced by the Institution of Engineering and Technology. It’s always bursting with interesting engineering stories; I love seeing what other people in the industry are getting up to!
On the non-engineering related side, I enjoy reading Jon Ronson’s books; he is good at guiding the reader through a maze of investigative journalism into an unknown world.
What do you know now, that you wish you had known as you started your career?
A job interview is an opportunity for the interviewee to suss out the company, and interview the interviewer. It’s a two-way process that helps the potential employer to see if you are the right fit for them, but also it’s an opportunity for you to decide if this is the right place for you. It took me a few years to comprehend this, and once I did interviews became a lot easier and less intimidating.
Do you have any advice for women entering your industry?
Engineering is a hugely varied career, with lots of opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds. It teaches you logical problem-solving skills and I would highly recommend it to everyone. I would say get involved in the engineering community and make the most of the opportunities that come your way.
If you weren’t in this role what would be your alternative career?
I am interested in lots of different things so it’s hard to answer that! I want to learn to code, so maybe I would be a developer. When I was younger I really enjoyed making things, so maybe I would enjoy being a jewellery maker or a carpenter. Or maybe a Blue Peter presenter?!
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