Sakthy Selvakumaran is a Civil Engineer working for Laing O’Rourke an international engineering enterprise, specialising in construction and the built environment.
She is employed within The Engineering Excellence Group within Laing O’Rourke, which devises strategies that affect positive change and work in both consultancy and Research & Development (R&D). As part of this R&D work, Laing O’Rourke has a strong collaboration with the University of Cambridge, which is known worldwide for its research and high academic standing.
Describe a typical day, week, month, or quarter
Describing a typical day is pretty difficult as it seems to be different every day! Sometimes I’m out on a construction site or in a lab or in a design office. Sometimes the day starts off travelling to another city to meet other professionals or to visit a site. Sometimes I sit at home and fire up the laptop for an early start. The common strand to all of these activities is a decent cup of coffee at the start.
What were the key decision points or factors that were important in deciding your career path?
I always knew I wanted to do something that helped people and made a difference to the environment. I wanted to do something that benefited society, whether that is in my local neighborhood, or communities half way round the world.
When I was at school, I was good at science, as well as at maths, but my school teachers, family and friends all said I should do medicine. Being a stubborn teen meant that everyone telling me I had to do something, meant I wanted to see what else I could do and I started investigating what careers would meet my aspirations.
What do you enjoy most about your current role?
The variety: working with different types of people, in different parts of the world. I get to come up with new concepts as well as see projects get delivered in real life. Most rewarding is seeing what I’ve worked on positively impact the people and environment around them.
What is the most challenging aspect of your work? What strategies have you developed for tackling that challenge?
There are two different challenges in my line of work.
Challenge 1: The nature of the work – Civil engineers have an enormous amount of responsibility for being in charge of structures and schemes that keep people safe and don’t negatively impact the people and environment around them. To tackle this, it’s important to realise what responsibility you have as an engineer, and to keep learning from others around you for continuous improvement!
Challenge 2: The personal challenges of the work environment. In the past, the industry has been predominantly middle aged, white and male. Engineering UK stated in 2015 that only 7% of engineers were female (don’t even start on what proportion come from ethnic minorities!). This is getting better as more women in general and people from ethnic minorities in particular enter the profession. Some people look at people like me and form an immediate judgement, either because I’m young or a woman or some other preconceived idea. It’s important to just keep proving that you’re good at what you do, and to change the current diversity balance through encouraging the next generation of potential engineers. We’re currently facing a shortage of engineers in the UK and need every kind of person.
What has been the most defining moment in your career to date?
I worked on a railway station as part of the new Crossrail transport system in London. I was involved right at the beginning, offering alternative solutions and coming up with design systems to get around the challenges that popped up in real life. From this, I was able to see my sketches develop into drawings and 3D models. I then joined the site team to help deliver the bridge in real life. It was installed overnight, over a railway and under overhead powerlines using, 35m long trucks and two very large cranes. I was able to experience the designs being brought to life!
Best piece of career advice you have ever received? And who was it from?
It’s been pointed out that I (and others around my age) will probably be working until we are 70 years old. That’s nearly 50 years’ worth of working and trying something for a few years is not going to negatively affect your long term career…so why not take the road less traveled and make the most of exciting career opportunities that come your way.
Away from your work role what are your passions?
Art, playing music, travel, international development work, youth work… but I often drag quite a few of these into my career! Why not get paid to do what you love?
What are the 3 (professional or personal) books/websites/ or resources that you would recommend?
- Generally reading something that helps keeps you informed about the world – current issues, trends, etc. I read online news and have a subscription to the Economist.
- Following the right people on Twitter throws up a whole wealth of articles and resources you would never have found whilst trawling the internet. Follow people who inspire you and who are active in the fields you’re interested in.
- I love to read and have hundreds of books I’d recommend! Most recently a friend bought me a copy of ‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg, which I thought gave some really interesting insights into the world of work from the successful female COO of Facebook.
What do you know now that you wish you had known as you started your career?
That it’s not worth getting tied up in knots trying to figure out a career path. It’s a good idea to have a rough roadmap that you may want to follow, but a traditional defined path isn’t the right answer for everyone; success comes in different forms, and you can’t predict some of the exciting opportunities that will fall your way.
Do you have any advice for women entering your industry?
Most people in the general public have a fixed idea on what an engineer is…and it’s usually wrong! Don’t worry about stereotypes, or what you think a typical engineer looks like. The reality is that there are so many different engineering fields and types of roles that suit so many different types of personalities (a site engineer has a completely different lifestyle to a design engineer). You can travel the world working overseas, or spend your career working in a local office near home. My advice would be to get some work experience at the earliest opportunity and talk to people – just try out the different possibilities!
Connect with Sakthy via: @sakthys | http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/sakthy-selvakumaran/