Women in Engineering
Projects and Engineering Manager
Gillian Cagney explains how her Engineering life journey has brought her from mastering hands-on engineering skills to team building , management and problem solving in major engineering projects often in challenging wilderness environments. Don’t fear the unknown and you will discover who you are.
Thank you to Ivana Moretti, WorleyParsons. Melbourne for permission to use additional footage in this piece.
An introduction to the life of engineering started for me long before I even thought about it as something I would be interested in doing when I went to college. When I was younger I always had an interest in what my Dad was doing (he was a welder by trade). Whether that was working in the garage or doing something with the car. I also had a love of all things lego and progressed to lego technic over the years. I’d always found that lego was like meditation, my way to unwind from the rest of the world. In fact about 4 years ago I decided to buy myself Lego for Christmas and it was only reflecting then that I found it to be a great stress reliever and thought me how to focus.
Over the years from when I was about 16 years old, I starting getting some summer work at Aughinish Alumina, in the drawing office, it was mainly supporting the administration of the drawings but over time as I continued the summer work through college I got to get some many other experiences; from my Dad showing me the shutdown planning, to working with the grad engineers and hearing about their experiences. It all seemed to make sense and this was an area I would like to pursue. I also went on an pre-college summer school at UL to test other options. Coming from an all girls secondary school the typical engineering subjects weren't available, I was doing Physics, Chemistry and Biology. I loved the engineering aspects at the summer school and decided that this was what I wanted to pursue. I had put mechanical engineering as my first choice on the degree, and production engineering as my second, I had also put down mechanical engineering as my first choice to complete the cert in CIT. When offers day came, I realised I hadn’t enough points for the mech eng degree, I’d got production engineering in UL and I got Mech Eng cert in CIT. I’d ended up taking the advice of an engineering in Aughinish and doing the Cert at CIT. At the time I thought my life couldn’t get any worse, but it was the first best decision I made.
It really gave me the hands on experience and tools used in many engineering practices today and it still gave me a pathway to get my degree, it was just going to take a year longer. It gave me a really solid foundation and good understanding of what engineering could be…… anything you set your mind to.
As I worked my way through college and got my degree. I then set off to start looking for my first job. Talk about a challenge, it was a time when jobs were pretty scarce. I ended up applying to every engineering company in the phone book at the time. It took me about 5 months to find a job but I got my start. A small mechanical building services company called T.Bourke & Co. It was brilliant, in this job I got to learn such a variety of work. I was more of a project co-ordinator supporting the project manager, but I touched so many different aspects of the worksite and this is really where I found my love. It wasn’t the purely technical aspects of engineering it was the co-ordinating and making things happens. It was about supporting team to deliver an outcome, it also exposed me to the job sites.
Following on from this, I got a call one day asking if I would be interesting in working on a project for an international company that was doing a project at Aughinish, from my previous experience there I had been recommended and they wanted to know would I be interested in filling a grad mech engineer position. What really excited me about this role was the challenge of learning something new, and the possibilities of moving onto different projects in different parts of the world when this was finished. I was on that project for a year and a half and progresses from being a grad eng to a mechanical design engineer to a mechanical project engineer. The variety of the work was immense, but again it was the team work that I throughly enjoyed and everything had a challenge or problem to be solved which was all part of the fun and the learning. Project delivery is usually fast paced and problems are sometimes solved on the run. You’re really thinking on your feet.
At the end of this project the possibility of moving overseas became real and I ended up moving to Australia with WorleyParsons. My attitude had always been if I don’t like it, I can always going back in the morning. What have I got to lose, to me it was all in the experience, and it ended up definitely being an experience. Lucky for me my boyfriend at the time (my husband today) was happy to come to Australia with me. I landed in a place called Gladstone, a big mining town on the central coast of Queensland. We ended up meeting very few Irish so had to integrate in to the community and it was great. It was really a life changing experience. Here I really found my independence and the capability of my resilience. There were so many challenges but it was very rewarding. I’m the kind of person who never shy’s away from a challenge, especially when I’m the underdog, it makes me compete harder. I was in a different country having to prove myself, and I was the only female engineering in the office.
I know some people would find this intimidating but I’ve also been the kind of person that if you show respect to people and be open and honest then you get it back tenfold. I feel that I’ve put more pressure on myself to be better than most of the other people around me a male dominant environment of which it still is today. But this has also driven me to when I am in my career today
One of the most important things I found from when I started college to where I am today, is not to be afraid of the unknown, not to fear failure. It’s got me to where I am today both in my life and in my work. At the beginning and end of college I thought I had two failures. The first was not getting the degree, this ended up being the first good failure because what I learned in the first two years I would have never learned if I’d taken the degree. Then I also failed one of my final subjects, and ended up getting a pass degree. Again it made me dig deep and look for a solution and every solution led to bigger and better things than if I’d gotten everything I wanted. Never be afraid to try something you think you don’t have the experience for, it might surprise you, it surprised me.
Within 4 years in Australia I’d gone from a project engineer to a construction manager of $685M aluminium smelter upgrade to being an engineering manager, all engineering based roles.
Then I got the opportunity still with WorleyParsons to do something different, I was seconded to an owners organisation as a logistics advisor. It was great fun and I learned so many new things. From there I ended up supporting WorleyParsons to set up a new area. This role albeit established the consulting business had nothing technical, it was about establishing a feasible business and providing each of the groups tool to support there business, help it grow and be profitable. I was involved in project managing everything from establishing HR practices, training, developing business strategies, establishing profit models. So far out of the realm of technical work but so much to do with the day to day business of a large EPC firm.
I’ve found that having a degree in engineering is so far more than sitting at a desk designing. I’ve had the opportunity to branch into so many different areas, and I’ve found a great company who have helped me to do it. I’ve also met so many different people from all 4 corners of the planet and they are also helped my grow it who I am today.
Just a quick word on money I’ve always expected a fair days pay for a days work and in the engineering industry that can be quite good. It’s important that you know where you should be, do your research, plan your performance reviews, make your case. You should always be willing to put your expectations forward and negotiated.
As I’ve writing this I’ve just finished up from spending almost 4 year in Edmonton, Canada, executing a portfolio of projects for the worlds largest oil sands company. I started as a senior project manager and finished as the Manager of Projects, a title that is usually given to men about 10 years my senior, I starting in the role when I was 35, over 2 years ago. When you challenge yourself you can go wherever you want.
Now, I’m on my way back down under to a new role, a Contract Manager managing a portfolio of projects for an oil refinery in Victoria, Australia and am responsible for managing a team as well as ensuring we meet our targets and make a profit. Just another challenge, but all worth it because you never know where it will take you.