Nilani Venn, Engineering Consultant, Buro Happold
What is your current Job?
I work in a team that tackles water and drainage related problems. I am involved in a variety of projects from identifying the flood risk of the renovation of a local church to producing a river and surface water drainage strategy for a whole city. I use specialist software to model a river channel in two dimensions and simulate the impact of floodwater over the ground surface during an extreme storm event. From this I can create animations of flooding with colourful maps of flood depths and areas of increased hazard. I am then able to suggest how the potential impact of flooding can be minimised and ensure any new developments do not increase the risk to neighbouring areas. Engineered solutions are not always about designing hard flood-wall defences or creating more concrete channels. A better understanding of the processes shows how working with the natural environment can help limit flooding now and for future generations.
What do you love about your job?
No two projects are ever the same: each one comes with its own specific challenges. A development could be in a very tight space site, have difficult ground conditions, a particularly tight budget or legal restrictions as to what can be done there. With international projects, variations in climate bring new challenges. Understanding the mind set of your client is also important.
Working in a relatively small team means I can get involved in a multitude of projects. I have a fun bunch of people in my team and sitting close to each other means we can share ideas. At the same time being part of a global company means we have almost instant communication to colleagues across the world. I've worked on high profile projects such as the London 2012 Olympic Park. It's great to feel like a custodian for the environment and, as a result of the work that I do, I am helping to create a sustainable place to live for future generations.
Why did you choose a job in engineering?
I have always had an interest in the natural environment and the protection of it and didn't think of working for an engineering company, I thought that was just if you wanted to build something.
At school I studied Geography, Biology and Music for my A levels and then studied Geology at university which gave me an understanding of natural earth processes. As part of my course I studied one year in Sydney which was an amazing experience. Later, I studied for an MSc in Environmental Water Management while working part time at the Environment Agency. The work experience was invaluable to see how solutions are applied in reality and not just on paper. From that I applied for positions in Water Management.
What skills and qualities do you need?
Listening - you can pick up a lot of knowledge from others by listening to others and it is also really important when working in a team. You particularly need to listen to the needs of the client!
Communication - speaking to others, presenting ideas and writing reports help when demonstrating your findings. It is important to adjust the way you communicate to your client, so they understand things fully.
Planning and time management - not just for you but to make sure the team works well together.
Logic - being able to define your task, find the most appropriate approach to tackle the task and then understand the results. This will enable you to deliver the best solution in a way that can be clearly explained to everyone involved.
What advice do you have for young women interested in engineering?
Go for it! It's an enjoyable and interesting field to be a part of and the challenging nature of the work means that it is constantly changing; new and innovative solutions are always being sought. There are a range of career opportunities in the field of engineering. They may not always be obvious so don't feel afraid to seek out people in the profession and keep asking questions. The only way to really understand what is available is talking to those who are already there.
Don't be put off by the thought of engineering as a male dominated environment. An increasing number of females are working in engineering companies these days, in my team there is a good balance between males and females. In a friendly company you don't feel like you're being treated any differently.
When you were at school, what would have helped you prepare for a career in engineering and become more employable?
Getting involved in clubs and activities shows that you're a good team player and makes you more confident in interacting with different types of people. Undertaking extra-curricular activities also shows that you're able to organise yourself and plan your time accordingly. Watching the news and keeping up-to-date with current affairs means that you can demonstrate how emerging technologies and scientific research has helped shaped existing and future solutions. When you are applying for a job or a course any additional interests, no matter how small, can help set you apart from someone with the same grades.
Don't be overly concerned if you don't know what you want to be or what you'd like to do when you're older, find subjects you're interested in and enjoy them - a career can be opened up by many different paths. Talk to as many people as you can and ask questions. Jobs may not be what they appear to be on paper and many are not even advertised. Don't feel you're not good enough. In most cases you'll be your biggest critic.
Don't hold back. If it looks interesting and you want to be a part of it, go for it!