Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Engineer Chic blog has officially moved!

Click on the following link to visit the new site

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Early Career Connect

Its less than a month until the International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition - IMECE!

This year's congress will be held in Denver, Colorado and I just cant wait! Being an ASME volunteer is an amazing way to network within the field and get involved in a whole host of exciting activities: from competitions to technical devisions to affinity communities to career development- there is somehting for everyone within ASME. Last year I even presented on Lean Healthcare - scary- but what an awesome experience! It also lets you meet great people from all over the world and make connections.
(I met EcoHawk at the last IMECE in Vancouver - very romantic!)

Yes, IMECE is technically 'work', but its mostly just a lot of fun. All the Early-Career Engineers kind-of know each other - but there are always a couple new faces each time, which is really great. We generally go out and have a great time caching up.

This year, EcoHawk and I are recruiting for the ECC - Early Career Connect. This group is for Early Career engineers within ASME (or new to ASME) that might want to get involved, but just dont know where to start! ASME is a really huge society, and its easy to become overwhelmed by all there is to offer. The ECC helps you sort through all the information and opportunities out there and helps you to find one thats just the right fit!
Interested? Join Early Career Connect.


Twitter: ASME_EC_Connect
ECC - Connect to Your Future

Sunday, October 16, 2011

New EngineerChic Site!

Hey There Awesome Readers!

I know I've been quits scarce recently, but the I hav been working on an awesome surprise!

Engineer Chic has a new website! I've been thinking about getting my own site for a while and leaving my days behind me, so here it is!

The URL is

For now, you will still be able to visit the old site, but once I finish setting up the new one, readers will be automatically redirected.

You will now be able to get new Engineer-Chic posts mailed to your inbox,
leave and reply to comments, and a whole lot more!
Please let me know what you think! I'm still ironing out all the bugs and adding additional pages/ content so check back in a week or two.

Happy Reading!

Friday, October 7, 2011

More about Work

Since I blog about my life, and life is now work, it seems fitting that I blog about work- right? This week has been one of those super-crazy weeks. It feels like my feet haven't touched the ground as we're preparing for another audit of our project management controls next week. And guess who is specifically responsible for ensuring we're implementing our systems for project controls? Ok, its me. This may  sound like a bit of a boring task, but its actually really interesting and touches every area of the project! So much so that I'm making a masters of it!

And yes, I said masters!

So, being the crazy-workaholic-who -believes-she-can-take-on-anything that I am, I've decided to yield to my ex-and-soon-to-be-future supervisor's frequent requests for me to do a masters with him.
(And the best part is that I just found out that he reads my blog! Hi Prof!)

I really didn't want to rush into anything. So it was a good idea that I took about a year to settle into my job and find an area I was really interested in and one that aligns with the work I'm doing. This way, I can do the masters and work at the same time - which means I'll be doing a full-dissertation masters without coursework to hopefully finish in a year...

Yes - I will be a full-time student and be working a full time job! Wish me luck - I will need it!

It turns out this is a really great way to bring more structure to my approach to my work, and get a degree out of it at the same time. This is something I do NOT recommend to the faint-hearted as the chance of you actually being successful with a masters while working full time is 4 times lower than if you had to do it through coursework.
My GM already warned me that I had a lot on my plate, although he supported the idea...

In unrelated news, my supervisor and the other junior engineer on the project AN, weren't around today for our meeting with the Mine Managers (whose Plant the three of us are responsible for building). I had to Chair the Progress Meeting...alone. SCARY! This was totally the opposite of the meeting I blogged about last - this time I had to literally control the whole meeting. The Mettalurgical Manager (who AN and I are very fond of), asked (in Afrikaans) if the "little girlie was nervous to take on the old men?" 

(Note: In the South African mining industry, if you dont speak and understand Afrikaans, don't even bother showing up. Meetings are bilingual and not only will you miss out on much of the business being discussed, you will miss out on all the jokes too!)

It was an affectionate comment that wasn't undermining in the least for this particular culture. And it actually did break the ice!  I replied: "hadn't he noticed that I'm perfectly comfortable being the youngest and the only female in the room at every previous meeting?" The truth  was that I had been slightly nervous about it all day. All went well until the Mine Manager came in half way through. He is really intimidating and I had to concentrate really hard to hold it together. I know it will be easier next time though!

Later the Metallurgical Manager and I argued light-heartedly over whether or not we should build unisex bathrooms to be built on the plant. I said we needed female facilities as well as male. He accused me of being selective in my advocacy for equality. I replied that I wasn't advocating for equality, only equal rights and opportunities; that you should acknowledge the inherent differences that exist between people and celebrate them!  They smiled and the meeting went on.

I think they might like me...

Sunday, October 2, 2011

See a Need, Fill a Need

Today I want to break from the career-talk for a reality-check from my beloved country, South Africa. Not many people from "the West" know much about the REAL South Africa, but I can tell you, its a unique place! Its a country filled with opportunity - with international businesses recently investing large sums of money, good infrastructure and a stable economic and political climate, the possibilities available to entrepreneurs and educated, young people are endless right now. SA also has a lot of wealth, especially in cities where you will find large mansions, fast cars and golf estates. 

Unfortunately, it is also a place of great poverty. Just across the (imaginary) border that divides our land you will find shanty-towns, violence, hunger and unemployment. South Africa is the most unequal place in the world - her people are uneducated and unable to break across the border of inequality and into the land of promise and opportunity - that exists just down the road.

In South Africa if you have money, you can fool yourself into believing that you live in a first world country. You can shut yourself away behind electric fences and enjoy the luxuries that your money buys you. You can choose to ignore the very real problems you see at every street corner, every day on the news...But what if you weren't happy with that? What if you knew that there were young people out there with real talent; with the potential to be engineers, doctors and scientists despite their challenging conditions - people who just needed a little help to reach their dreams and lift their families out of poverty?  What if you wanted to give a little and touch someones life? But where would you find these gems?
Where would you even start to look?

The Fund A Dream Foundation is an initiative of a really amazing young woman (and close friend of mine) - Remona Moodley. Apart from currently competing in Miss South Africa 2011 and completing her degree in electrical engineering at UCT, Remona has recently launched the registered NGO - Fund A Dream Foundation to seek out SA's most talented young people.

With funding opportunities ranging from "Buy-a-Blazer", where investors can sponsor a year of school supplies and excursions to top-performing township scholars to  "See a Need- Fill a Need", where investors can search through the database of gifted youths and choose what kind of impact they want to make, to "Start-a-Scholarship" that allows investors to make a significant impact to life of a young person.

I am seriously thrilled about this initiative that links individual funders, families and small businesses-owners to people who just need a helping hand from a good heart! I'm also really excited to watch how this fledgling organisation grows, so a big shout out to investors: GET IN EARLY and benefit from the amazing opportunity to give back and get your business's name out there!

If you like what Remona and her team are doing, then comment on this post, share this link or email me and let me know what you think! 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Getting the Coffee: Veronica's Response

It seems my last post sparked up a little bit of controversy from readers...I absolutely love that, of course!

Here is what Veronica said:
I just read your blog, I just thought that I should share my opinion and what I learnt at the ABSA Capital Pioneering Young Women Conference I was so fortunate to have been selected to attend:

'I disagree. Juniour or not, I wouldn't pour the coffee, unless I wanted some for myself - in which case, I would ask around if anyone would like me to pour them a cup as well. This would not be out of insolence, but out of the philosophy that 'you teach people how to treat yo'u. As a juniour, who would be vying for promotion and greater responsibility, I believe that people will judge you not by your coffee-pouring etiquette, but by your performance and knowledge, and the respect you have for yourself at a meeting. Yes, you are sitting in, but you're not there for vac work and you attained your qualification legitimately. You are an employee of the organisation, just like everybody else. And while you were cringing while he poured you your coffee, everyone else was thinking about the task at hand and viewing the coffee-pouring as normal or okay. I've worked with a lot of guys my age, and they too take it without a thought. As a juniour - I will not be making the coffee, taking notes or running the errands. That's not what I hope to have gotten my engineering degree for. And if that were the most challenging aspect of my job at work, then it's never too late to find a new one. There are so many organisations that explicitly say that you did not graduate to do some filing. I believe that when given the chance, one should own their seat at the table to the best of *one's* ability. Yes, you may be young but I definitely feel that you are talented. I really hope that at the next meeting, you will speak up if you find that you may have something to share. When I was with WSP Africa, even just as a third-year student, the engineers there were so amazing and chilled. They had no problem offering to pour me a cup of coffee, at which point I would be like 'it's fine, thank you so much', and most probably return theh favour at a later stage, but would take that graciously.'

I don't know :) But as usual loving your blog. Congrats on your presentation in Mozambique. And thank nyou for sharing your experiences. Am such a fan! Subscribed and everything.


V :)
Here was my reply:

Hi Veronica,

Thanks for commenting!

I agree that I didn't get an engineering degree to make the coffee or take notes, but I think you will find when you start working, things are very different to what you may have expected and that it is not ONLY your engineering skills that are going to get you promoted. It will be a combination of skills, competence and how you interact with others-who you (sorry to say) suck up to and how you deal with difficult situations and people. Also, remember that you will be entering an environment filled with older men-many of which will see you as a threat since you have the advantages of BBBEE (South Africa's affirmative action) behind you and have a degree-which they may not have. Saying that, its VERY important that you remember that you are still "small-fry" until you have earned respect. As women, its even harder to earn that respect and entering a job with 'an attitude' that give the impressiong that you don't know your place in the pecking order wont get you far.

As for me chirping up in meetings-don't you worry- I have not issue with that. In progress meetings with the mine managers whose plant I'm building I am very assertive and the Mettalurgical Manager generally makes the coffee. My supervisor and I both share the responsibilities for the minutes but I have told him that we need an assistent-to which he's agreed. The meeting I blogged about had really nothing to do with me and involved very high-level planning of the project- so there was really not much I could contribute in any case. Sitting in was a privilege, but you are perhaps right - it shouldn't be expected that I got the drinks and I shouldn't have had that cringing reaction (maybe thats just also something lingering from my Indian upbringing too).

One last thing I'd like to stress is that things will be different when you're a student/ vac work and when you're an employee. The boys in your class are not your superiors. When you have real responsibilites and real competition, you will discover a dynamic to the working environment that you will need to manage carefully in order to get the credit for which you are due whilst not coming off as arrogant.

Good Luck with this! But the only way to really learn is to get thrown into the deep end, make a few mistakes, stick your foot in your mouth a few times and never stop learning!
Thanks again for sharing and keep reading and sharing!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

When Should Women Get the Coffee?

I'm still feeling my way through this workplace-etiquette thing. Like this week there was a really important meeting going on and all the managers in the Projects Department met to discuss something really important about the project schedule. Since my new supervisor was responsible for presenting at the meeting, he told me I could sit in. Of course I was only too thrilled to.

When we got to the company's really gorgeous thatched meeting room, we discovered there were no drinks. The meeting was long so I volunteered to go fetch them. When they arrived half an hour later and the porter left them on the table. I felt an urge to get up and serve them to everyone! I was, of course, the only woman in this room of white males so I remained seated and let the meeting continue. If anybody wanted a drink, they could get up and fetch one, right? Why should I feel obligated to serve the men? After all, its important to be careful about the way I portrayed myself to others...

How embarrassing do you think it was for me when my GENERAL WORKS MANAGER PROJECTS (a really good-natured, but very powerful man) got up and started serving everyone drinks...including me! 

I realised at that moment that whilst I may have been the only women in the room, and the only non-white woman at that, I was also the youngest and most junior person in the room. And furthermore, I was just sitting-in in the first place! I realised that in worrying so much about how I came across as a female engineer, I must have come across really insolent as a junior engineer! Wow!

When lunch arrived I duly got up and set out the trays so that everyone could fetch their food (we were all starving). Luckily, soon after the initial episode my GWMP made a tongue-in-cheek comment about something being discussed (as he loves to do) and shot me a smile, asking if I agreed. I did and the tension I was feeling eased up a lot. I even managed to chirp up once or twice towards the end of the meeting.

So the moral of this story is, that whilst it is important to not position yourself as a doormat, and that it is more difficult for a woman to be respected in the workplace that a man, one should realise that respect is always earned. There are no shortcuts to the top, and whilst you are a junior, you should be making the coffee, taking the notes, running the errands - just like every other junior in the place, male or female!

Just don't let them treat you differently to the male juniors, in which case you really should try being more asserive ;)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

How to Better Your Chances of Finding A Job in This Economy

I recently wrote a guest-post for engineer-turned writer Anthony Fasano....I thought it may be good for EC too. Here it is:

Every engineering student has heard that ‘an engineer will never be out of work’; it’s a generally accepted belief that our scarce skills will always be sought after. Unfortunately, the recent recession has resulted in large companies grounding major projects, and all of a sudden that perfect graduate job is not so easy to land as expected. In a globally competitive world, if you’re not a top-student, what options do you have to help you stand out from the crowd?

Industry has identified that graduate engineers often have poor communication, leadership and interpersonal skills and an inability to work independently or in multidisciplinary teams. So how can students gain these critical skills and outshine the competition?

Read more of my guest post on

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Lean Symposium in Mozambique and Waste Identification Diagrams

Last week I was lucky enough to visit the capital of Mozambique, Maputo for a week-long conference. Mozambique is definitely an interesting place! Its just north of our border (South Africa) but a totally different world. For one, everybody speaks Portuguese. There are a number of local languages of course, but the common vernacular is Portuguese! The Portuguese have left behind more than just the language, and you can see it in the architecture and the distinctive Mediterranean 'flavour' of the locals. Unfortunately, civil war and floods have ravaged the country, leaving much of its people in poverty. Roads are unmaintained and buildings are dilapidated in the capital. Also, the imminent problem of corrupt police creating indescretions and threatening to lock you up (unless you pay them of course) is an annoyance tourists have to deal with.

Note: In Mozambique, carry your passport WHEREVER you go!  I didn't get the memo it seems :/

I was there for the Portuguese-Mozambican Congress on Engineering and presented in the Lean Management Symposium.  Not speaking any Portuguese was...interesting...especially at an engineering conference, but it was actually a pretty cool experience. One thing is for sure, the Portuguese are an awesome bunch of people! They are really friendly, accommodating and they know how to party!

My talk on the research I worked on as a student at the University of Cape Town last year was about how best to teach Lean Thinking to undergraduate engineering students - I provided a 'student's perspective' whilst my ex-supervisor's presentation was all about the teaching of Lean to students (including me). We proposed that not only is it possible for undergrads to gain a depth of understanding of Lean through PBL (Project Based Learning) - where students complete Lean projects within a real company, but that this type of experience teaches them critical soft skills that a conventional engineering degree fails to produce.

One REALLY awesome thing that came out from one of the Symposium's presentations was a new Lean Tool: the Waste Identification Diagram developed by the University of Minho. This is a brand new tool, developed to aid employees in visualising waste in a production line offers a lot more information than the conventional value-stream map.
A Waste Identification Diagram of a real production unit

"The width of the block (X axis) is related to the WIP on that process. The units used to measure WIP may be number of parts, weight units, length units, volume units or their value (currency). The height of the block (Y axis) corresponds to the Takt Time and the height of the green part is the Cycle Time of that process. The difference between the Takt Time and the Cycle Time (CT), shown in orange, represents the unused capacity for that process. The units used for TT and CT are time units (e.g. seconds, minutes or hours) per part.

The depth of the block (Z axis) represents the changeover time or setup time for that process or workstation. When a process needs large setup times a natural and classical consequence is large levels of WIP associated with it. In this way, may be expected that thicker blocks (blocks with high values of C/O) would also be wider (blocks with high values of WIP)."
If you're interested in the WID, send me an email and I'll forward you the conference paper.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to see one of Mozambique's famous beaches. My party-loving younger sister (and engineer-to-be) spends every New Years soaking up the sun in Mozambique so its definitely on my to-do list. (Christmas and New Years are in the middle of Summer for us so we usually spend them on the beach! I can just see all my Northern-Hemisphere friends/ readers cringing). ;)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Transforming the Image of Engineering: Part 2

Following from the previous post, Transforming the Image of Engineering: Part 1, this post is about showing an existing side of engineering that is far more interesting and attractive to women.

My dad is a doctor and I grew up in a rural Kwa-Zulu Natal town in South Africa. It was my dream to be a doctor and work for Doctors Without Borders. When my dad asked me why I wanted to follow that path, I said simply, "Because I want to help people, Daddy."

Back then I had no idea about what an Engineer was. Buildings, roads and machines just appeared. You picked up a sewing machine, or a washing machine from a shop and sent it in when it broke. My medically-orientated family were not much help in this respect. I used to get into a world of trouble for taking apart the vacuum cleaner and sewing machine. When I figured out how the damn thing worked and started making my own clothes at 12, my parents were not impressed. They wanted me to become a doctor, not a dress maker!

They looked a little like this:

Okay, my parents look nothing like that. But they were strict Indian parents nonetheless so you get the picture!

Looking back now, I laugh at how much engineering actually goes into making clothes. You have to design for manufacture and assembly, considering the fabric properties: texture, flow, pattern. Then you need to cut the shapes leaving enough space for machining (sewing seams). Finally, you have to use logic to determine what order to assemble the pieces together to create a seamless and neat finish. Sound familiar? 

I was an engineer, it was clear as day. But my parents just didn't know enough about engineering to recognise this. And my father wondered how I was going to match my philanthropic dream up with a technical career. I wondered too. But I stuck to my guns and it wasn't until my final year of engineering that I figured out how I could help others and be and engineer! An opportunity to lead an Engineers Without Borders project landed on my lap (by some miracle and thanks to the wonderful ex-chair of EWB-UCT Brennan Hodkinson) and everything started to align. The project involved finding cooking alternatives for people trading in Nyanga Informal Settlement in Cape Town. (Their methods were harmful to their health). After countless site-visits where we sought to understand people's needs, we came up with high-efficiency stoves. (These were developed by our Technical Head MD together with Honeycomb Homes in Durban who develop green technologies!)

From there, I discovered that instead of a purely technical thesis, I could propose my own thesis project that sought to improve process-flows within a public hospital on the notorious Cape Flats. I used techniques developed in car manufacturing to ensure critical medical equipment was available to patients when they needed it.
(My dad was very proud and started telling everyone he could that his daughter was an engineer!)

I was incredibly lucky to have an awesome supervisor who understood what I wanted to do and helped me realise it. Not all universities allow this, but that too is changing. EWB-UK operates a program for undergraduate engineering students where external community development organizations and NGO’s submit research projects to universities. Those projects that pass the bar are made available to final-year students who work directly with these agencies – benefiting from the real-world experience this offers.

EWB-Australia has implemented a similar program, introducing all first year students to development through their “EWB Challenge”, and to a full research project based on community involvement in their final year. Each year, more female students than males take on these final-year projects. This amazing initiative was itself implemented by a woman - EWB-Australia’s CEO Elizabeth Webb Brown, who was then Director of Education, Research and Training.

 So I say, why not?  Why not make this unconventional but increasingly important side of engineering visible to students? Why not teach them that design isn’t confined to the little book of Shigley’s Machine Component Design? Why not give mechanical engineering students the opportunity to design a solar-powered, Ghandian-Engineering torch rather than another battery-operated one, for a fraction of the price. Why not highlight in our university brochures the fact that civil engineering students are busy designing storm-water drainage systems for informal settlements?

Why not make developmental projects and opportunities available to our students, teaching them early on that engineering isn’t only about space ships and fast cars? (which, let’s face it, are traditionally masculine). Why not show that engineering is as much about designing high-efficiency wood stoves by understanding community needs, and still involves thermo-dynamic design for the heat transfer, fluid mechanics optimization to channel air to the combustion chamber and smoke away from the user and a good dose of materials science for insulating the combustion chamber against the elements during cold, rainy Cape winters. If we showed this picture of engineering, how many more females would want to choose engineering then?

A transformation is happening in engineering: a transformation towards sustainability and an increased emphasis on the role of the engineer in alleviating poverty.  This picture of what a engineering is, is not only far more appealing to women, but when introduced to engineering students has the potential to improve their communication and leadership skills whilst developing them into socially-conscious, change-agents - something my country can use a lot more of.

So remember when I told my dad that I wanted to be a doctor because I wanted to help people? Wouldn’t it be great if little girls replied to this question with, “I want to be an engineer because I want to help make the world a better place?”

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Transforming the Image of Engineering: Part 1

Last week, I had the honour of being a speaker at the WESTC (Women in Engineering, Science and Technology Conference) in  Johannesburg, hosted by Melrose Training! This exciting initiative sought to bring women from around Africa together to discuss pertinent issues surrounding being a woman in engineering. It was an all-round great experience and I had the chance to network with some incredible young women who are doing amazing things in South Africa.  I will definitely blog about these soon.

My talk titled "Transformation in Engineering, Women and Changing the Face of Engineering", took at look at attracting and retaining women in engineering in a slightly different light than the typical, 'the numbers are just too low' approach. Women stay away from engineering because of two main reasons. 1. they are actively discouraged from the field by society and 2. they don't see any part of engineering that appeals to them. The number of high-calibre, successful and happy women who I met at the conference made it clear that this perception of society (and that of the young women being turned away from this highly rewarding field), is seriously warped.

Basically, engineering has an image problem:


 and worst of all ???

Small wonder why you don't just see women falling over themselves to be a part of this action?

What I’ve come to realize however is that the problem is not that engineering is a “man’s field” or that its “difficult and dirty”. These are generalizations, but they are true. In most engineering environments, there are still more men than women, and engineering can be very difficult and very dirty. But this is not the full picture. Engineers work in areas that the majority of society doesn’t even know about - that engineering students and graduates don’t even know about (shock, horror!) - and some of these are increasingly attractive and accommodating to women. If only the career-counselors, parents and mentors of young girls had a more realistic picture of what engineering was about, they would be able to help them make informed choices about their careers.

I suppose that is really what the Engineer-Chic blog tries to accomplish: transforming the image of engineering. Let me just say though that I’m not here to razzmatazz girls with pink icing or to make engineering look like a cupcake. Engineering is no more a cupcake than medicine or a competitive business-career is a cupcake. What I want to do is give women the right information – the full picture of the opportunities available to them as engineers - to help them make an informed choice.
A study in perception was done by the National Academy of Engineering in the US which was reported in the publication Changing the Conversation, (2008). What they did was come up with messages aimed at improving public understanding of engineering. These were markedly different to “old-school” attempts at this which sought to emphasize strong links between engineering and maths and science, whilst ignoring other more attractive characteristics including creativity, teamwork and communication. This was tested and broadly disseminated to school children and teachers.

The survey found that girls saw the following two messages the most appealing:

"Engineering makes a world of difference"

(Boys also rated this highly)

 “Engineering is essential to our health, happiness and safety”

(Boys did not rate this highly)

Not considered appealing by any of the survey populations was,

“Engineering connects science to the real world”

So girls find messages linked to 'helping others' appealing. Wow, what a shocking revelation (considering that women have traditionally been (with exceptions) nurturers: nurses, teachers, mothers!)  

So then maybe if more engineers worked in fields related to helping others; maybe if the field of engineering was more about effectively communicating with people and building relationships with them to fully understand their needs; maybe if engineering was about working closely with human beings and empowering them to have the most basic forms of dignity: a house, a car, a flushing toilet; maybe then more women would be interested in the field?

Hang on just a second...

and how about this? 

 and lets not forget frugal engineering:

More on this topic in my next post...

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Visualising through Drawings

The new project is getting more and more interesting by the day. I've been working on a very intial-stage budget and schedule and had a meeting with the metallurgists again yesterday to work through some of the details of the process.  We're drawing up some initial PFD's (Process Flow Diagrams) to get a visual idea of what we're going to be building. This is the very first step in making the plant come to life.

Did you know, engineers LOVE drawings? We're actually trained to love drawing. Its literally the very first thing they teach you in engineering-school. And no, I'm not talking about beautiful sketches, (those come later in the development of a product i.e. the marketing phase ;) ).  I'm talking about any simple, feable attempt to describe something you can see and feel, something 3-dimensional, on paper. Its the way we communicate. A picture really does say a thousand words and I never feel quite comfortable describing something to someone without a pencil in my hand! (As you can see I'm very brainwashed).

So what the PFD's do is they take the description (in words) of the process and convert it into simplified flow-diagrams like the one below.  Well, I cant really put up the actual PFD's of our plant, but I found this one on the net which is a good example.

My role at this stage is not really to draw up the PFD's. I need to take the PFD's and create what we call a Scope of Work and a BOM (or Bill of Materials). This is a list of all the materials needed to put the plant together - all the different components that make up the plant. Although the metallurgists may specify that they need a ball mill (for example), the mechanical engineer (thats me) job is to specify all the equipment that make the ball mill operate. It needs a system of gears to drive it, a shaft and motor, bearings to hold the shaft up etc.

At this very early stage of the project, we need to put together an estimated budget and schedule. For this, the Project Engineer (thats me too), needs to estimate the costs and quantities of not only the mechanical parts, but also the steel to hold them up, the concrete for the civil foundations, the electrical and piping requirements etc.

Now if you think this is a daunting task, you are right. I have no idea how to estimate costs and quantities. In fact, there are companies that specialise in Quantity Surveying and Cost Consulting. They will come into the picture soon, but right now we've just got to get an estimate.  Its really quite interesting - especially the schedule. You have to think about each task in the project and what tasks need to happen before this task can start. There is a lot of problem solving, but I have had great help from everyone from suppliers to our Procurement and Construction Managers. (Remember - although you may be a smart young engineer, you still will learn the most from experienced people. Asking for help may be the greatest tool you will ever learn to use at work).

Hanna Rosin: New data on the rise of women | Video on

Now this is one of the most interesting TED Talks I've seen!

Hanna Rosin: New data on the rise of women Video on

Friday, August 5, 2011

Loving the Job You're In

Work has been really slow the last couple of weeks and that's been really frustrating to be honest. I had some concerns about whether I was really happy in my job and getting valuable experience. I was actually really low for a while and highly stressed but then I decided that instead of cowaring in my office and bemoaning my fate, I was going to step up and do something about it. So I made an appointment with my Project Manager to discuss my concerns.

Rather than getting angry at me, or thinking my problems were unimportant, he listened to everything I had to say and I felt that he really understood where I was coming from. It helped that it took me about a week to build up the courage to go and see him, and by then I had my emotions under control and had thought through exactly what I was going to say. He asked me to summarize everything in a short email for him to think about overnight.

The next day he gives me a ton of small tasks to do (including putting together an information document explaining how a project unfolds to semi-skilled/ unskilled labourers in order to manage hiring expectations-this was really interesting because is sometimes difficult to make things really simple and requires understanding and empathy-and loads of pictures!). The next day was even better-my PM calls me in and tells me there is another project just starting up involving the build of a beneficiation plant a mine up the road-and that he thinks it the perfect opportunity for me to get all the design experience I need!
The project involves the design and construction of a mini-plant that will upgrade the chromite ore we mine to the correct size and concentration before sending it to our smelting plants to melt into Ferrochrome for sale.

Today was the kick-off meeting with the mine's engineers. A colleague of mine, A.N. who works on our smelting plant next to our Projects offices is a metalurgical engineer graduate who did a very detailed anaylsis and optimisation of a crushing and screening plant at the smelter. The (incredibly impressive) work he did is really similar to the beneficiation plant we're building on the mine, so we managed to smuggle him into the kick-off meeting too (yay, friends!).

The project is really intersting-both mettalurgically and mechanically-and has many exciting design-features. The schedule is super-tight though, which means I am going to be working my cute butt off pretty soon (I honestly cant wait - I've been in withdrawel). The topography (lay of the land) is also quite a challenge and it was fun visiting the site and joining in the brainstorming session about what should go where to maximise efficiency. The project is really in the concept-generation phase still (which is totally the best and most creative part!) and the site is a green-field (completely untouched hillside).  After the meeting and the site visit, the (senior metalurgist) engineering manager invited A.N. and I to his office to give us more background into the plant. I've realised that information-transfer between experienced and young engineers is so important. I love listening to these old dudes go on about how things that we take for granted (the plant we work on/ the process that governs it) were developed (by them) and the awesome things they have achieved over the years. Its very inspiring. It was great, although trying to follow the conversation between metalurgists was challenging. I'm learning a new aspect of engineering though, which is great.

I am once-again really happy with what I do and feel lucky to have such an amazing job that lets me create, solve problems and colaborate with great minds. I am really glad that I addressed my issues with my Manager. I cant believe how much your working environment can affect your happiness and how easy it was to set things right again. My advice to anyone who isn't loving what they're doing-don't just quit. Calm down and have a good, clear chat with your boss. Try and sort it out before losing hope - you'll never know if you don't try.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

How Engineering is like a Cupcake

Some may criticize me for making engineering look like cupcakes and daisies. I happen to love cupcakes...(just saying). But thats not really the point, is it? The thing is, I started blogging to show what my life as an engineer was really about. So I thought a lot about this the last few days and decided that my critics are right. Dressing engineering up in pink icing isn't really going to help anyone, right?  I do love my job, but sometimes it can be really, really tough! On the other hand, I can only comment on my experience so far, so how about we take a break from all the cupcakes (what, no more cupcakes!?!) and take a reality check?

How Engineering is NOT Like a Cupcake

You are Back to the Bottom of the Food-Chain
Unless you did a masters, most young engineers will graduate and head straight into their first job. While this is exciting, its also a departure from the lifestyle you enjoyed as a final-year student. By the time graduation comes along, students are pretty comfortable within their faculties. Most of the lecturers know you by name, and due to spending an obscene amount of time on campus, the engineering building is your home, and your classmates your family through tears and sleep-deprived delirium.  Its also likely that you will be involved in some sort of society or organisation and would have worked your way up to a leadership position.

When you start work, you enter a brand new organisation right at the bottom. You have no idea how anything works, there are a ton of new rules you need to become familiar with, and have a structured hierarchy of which you barely scratch the bottom. Its a scary and humbling position to be in that doesn't afford much of the freedom you grew comfortable with at Uni.

You are Likely to be Sent Out to the Sticks
Well, there is no use denying this one. The majority of engineering firms (mines, utilities, factories etc.) are either on the outskirts of the city or deep into the far regions of nowhere. Whether its the Northern-most territories of Australia, an oil rig off the coast of freezing-cold Norway, or a diamond-mine in the darkest reaches of the Congo, to get real, down-and-dirty field-experience, you will have to leave the city. There are exceptions to this rule of course, and if you go into a consultancy or design firm, you may very well end up in a Sandton office. Regardless, you will have to at least sometimes go out to site to see the environment you're designing for.

What nobody tells you (or they do but you think you're so tough that it doesn't matter to you), this is really difficult. After having lived in beautiful, vibrant cities most of my life, living alone out here does get VERY lonely. On the plus side is that engineers sent to far-out areas mostly earn more, and get great experience that can catapult your career to great heights. Nevertheless, being a woman alone out here day in and day out gets very draining. You really have to learn to be super strong and independent (which isn't a bad thing).
In the Working World, Everything is Different...and Serious
At University, there is always some way of weaseling out of a sticky situation. If for some reason you really couldn't get around to finishing that homework assignment, there was a friend to bail you out. Lecturers expected you to be tardy at least some of the time, to fall asleep during class and to distract the room with a loud peal of laughter in the middle of advanced heat transfer (I did none of these things of course! ;) The environment is relaxed enough for you to know that its unlikely that you would do anything that would get you into real troub;e (apart from failing).

In the working world, you're afforded a very short 'grace-period' before you're given responsibilities of increasing importance. The work you do will not simply be 'graded', but will be directly linked to the pace of your progression through your organization. Its a scary feeling knowing that the things you do will affect real, tangible things and other people. In the beginning there are always going to be people to help you, and the toughest lesson I've found is learning to ask for help when you need it!
You are Likely to be Thrown in the Deep End...Alone
Instead of structured design problems with clearly-defined parameters, real-world engineering problems are vague and open ended. You may be given a problem to solve and a hint as to where to find the cause of the problem. Sometimes, the REAL cause has nothing to do with that initial assumption. It can be a little like walking around in the dark. Because you're new, there is still so much you need to learn to be able to navigate. In the beginning, you basically just feel your way around until you bump into something solid.

You may be given fragmented bits of information to direct you, but its really up to you how you go about getting the rest of the information you need. Knowing what information you need is probably the hardest part of all!  In my (very short) experience so far, information was always there. Stored on somebody's hard drive, office, or just needed to figure out who the right person was to talk to.
Ok, so at first engineering isn't as scrumptious as we all might want it to be, but it is a highly rewarding career. Once you've finished running the rat-race and have settled in, life gets a lot easier (or so I'm told). No really, engineering is a field where the hard work you put in are proportional to the benefits you enjoy later on.  It may not be for everyone, but there is so much scope out there to find an aspect of engineering that you will love. I guess you'll never know unless you take that first bite.

 Ok, I admit. I just wanted an excuse to blog about cupcakes. What?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Engineer Your Life

Engineer Your Life is an amazing organisation that looks to inspire girls, into careers in Science and Engineering by changing the way they think about the field. If this is sounding familiar to you, you've probably read someone else ranting about this me perhaps?

They have actually been dealing in depth with the issue of image, and trying to find the best ways of -wait for it- marketing the profession to girls! Basically, you wouldn't buy a house if the estate agent only told you all the bad bits about the profession and left out the fact that its actually a really great investement and it will give you the freedom to follow your dreams. Would you? So why would you want to go into engineering if the only engineer you knew told you all about how awfully difficult the degree was and that you needed to get straight A's in maths and science, but left out how amazingly broad the field was and that it opened so many doors?

So the Engineer Your Life task force came up with four great messages that are perfectly truthful and positive ways to look at what the field of engineering can be! For anyone who criticizes the messages below, I have added comments from my own experiences (remember I graduated 7 months ago).

Live your life, love what you do. Engineering will challenge you to turn dreams into realities while giving you the chance to travel, work with inspiring people, and give back to your community.
(I have travelled to the USA 4 times and will go to Mozambique next month for engineering conferences, I've met inspiring and incredible people along the way and through EWB and my thesis-project, have given back to my community. Above all, I LOVE what I do!)

•Creativity has its rewards. Women engineers are respected, recognized, and financially rewarded for their innovative thinking and creative solutions.
(In my work, I get the opportunity to be creative. In uni all of my design-projects were female-orientated-for a torch-design project I designed a lantern that was easier to hold on long walks; for a multi-tool, I designed one that was suited to women's needs and could be carried around safely in a handbag-no sharp edges.  I didn't do this to be a feminist-its just what made the most sense to me as a female. I love tinkering around at home and wish someone would actually get me a cute, pink multitool for my next b-day! Hint hint! There is definitely scope to bring creatively new feminine ideas to even mechanical design)

•Make a world of difference. From small villages to big cities, organic farms to mountaintops, deep-sea labs to outer space, women engineers are going where there is the greatest need and making a lasting contribution.
(I have worked with bringing clean-energy and sustainabile technologies to some of the poorest people in South Africa through Engineers Without Borders-SA. Compassion is a must for this line of work-and this is something not limited to women. I am really proud of the other young engineers-male and female-that are carrying my project forward successfully now that I've graduated!)

•Explore possibilities. Women engineers often use their skills to go into business, medicine, law, or government. An engineering education will prepare you for many different careers.

(This is true. A great number of women do go into other fields. Many engineers I know now work for banks and marketing companies (FMCG). My thesis was in the medical field-it turns out a lot of hospitals world-round are learning from the engineering world. Engineers are sought after for their problem-solving abilities. They can apply these critical skills to practically any field.)

Too young to be mechanically minded?

I personally think these messages are a great way to promote the field by showing how positive and necessary engineering is/ can be. Sure, candy-coating it has its pitfalls. It is still a difficult degree to get through. But my aim is to attract the top female students to engineering as their FIRST CHOICE. (And not just because they couldn't get into medicine). For this, we need engineering to be as attractive as possible-attract a higher caliber of female student-and look forward to a diverse and innovative future.

I will be talking about engineering at Durban Girls' College this Thursday (my old high school), so thanks EYL for the inspirational messages to share with the girls!

Engineer-Chic is a Sexist? GASP!

It seems I've been quite naughty of late-warranting some criticism on Twitter for my overly sexist remarks, sweeping generalisations (and poor spelling on my blog), so I have to apologise profusely for the spelling. About the sweeping, sexist remarks-I'm not all that sorry-in fact, I quite enjoy rubbing you boys up the wrong way. It got a reaction, which is half the point anyhoo...(and that's not a typo, I actually wanted to say anyhoo).

The comment that got me in trouble was an assertion I made that women are better communicators than men. I did back this up by a solid spot of research, Do women make better marketers than men?, but was speaking more from my own (admittedly limited) personal experience. The scenario I tweeted about was an observation I made in a meeting that I sat in on yesterday. A specialist consultant was brought in to optimize the design of our grate for the Phase II plant. The grate had given a number of problems over the years on Phase I and subsequent changes were made.

Four chemical and mechanical engineers spent about an hour trying to explain what the exact problem was to the specialist, but again and again, the specialist kept saying, "I don't quite understand your key objective in what you want from me." I must admit, with the amount of information that was presented, I had trouble keeping up, so I understand the poor man's frustration. So another hour followed of hand-sketches, (engineering scribbles we all are very fond of), CAD models and drawings before our technical manager, a female chemical engineer came into the room. She clearly and concisely explained the relevant history, pinpointed the problem area, and explained-importantly-what the specific goal was to bring the specialist in in the first place.

I tweeted the story and the statement "Female engineers are better communicators than males."

From there it was all smooth sailing and soon we were all off to the plant for a site-visit. I love site visits. Apart from being an excuse to wear my shocking pink hard-hat, I get to chat with the foremen and artisans and get all the gossip on what machine has broken down and what they had done to solve the latest problems on the operation.

So back to my sweeping statement that women are better communicators than men. I'm afraid I can't prove that one with just one example. My first year of vac-work though, my mentor engineer said that since the evolution of the profession to being more collaborative-with team-work and multi-level contribution becoming more recognised, the influx of women-who bring charisma and a natural tendency towards relationship building-was a highly positive and even necessary dynamic.

One last thing I'd like to point out in response to what a friend JW tweeted, "its still a broad generalisation based on gender. I couldn't say something similar even with research without angering women". Whilst this may be the case in some specialisations, countries or companies, in my specific company, country and field, as a woman one simply can not be overly sensitive to sweeping generalisations made on women. If I got upset every time someone did this, I wouldn't survive in my job. Instead of complaining and burning my bra, I choose instead to do my job the best I can (and then blog about it so that everybody knows that I did all that tough stuff without a sweat).

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Leopard Conservation in South Africa

A photo Anton and Emma took on the game farm

I'd like to take a short break from engineering, marketing and all other serious topics and share a little about my experience living in rural South Africa. I live in a farming community deep in the Mpumalanga Lowveld amidst beautiful mountains in a valley full of citrus orchards. Just around the corner however, is the base of the Ingwe Leopard Project.

Anton with a Cheetah at Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center

Friends of mine, conservationists Emma and Anton are researchers who are leading the effort to stabalise leopard population numbers in the area. Apart from tracking leopard behavior, they run an education program for farmers who kill leopards thinking them menaces. I spent the weekend with them and their current volunteer house sitting the luxury tented Black Leopard Camp.

The luxurious Black Leopard Camp-nestled deep in the mountains and accessed only by special off-road vehicles

Lucky me!

The weekend started off with arriving at the carcas of a wildebeest that Anton had shot. The animal had a hernia and was suffering quite a lot. Also, in the same area, a leopard had recently given birth to three adorable cubs. Anton hoped that the kill would increase the chances of the cubs surviving. Just one in 6 leopard cubs survive to adulthood and the mother will leave them for days on end in order to find food.

Daniel, the Brazilian volunteer gutting the wildebeest to make the smell more noticable to the leopard-mother

We took a few fillets for supper, which was spent around a roaring fire at the bar.

Wildebeest Steaks!

Saturday was spent hiking a mountain to scout leopard activity and place GPS coordinates on the far corner of the park. This tiresome task took about 5 hours (and did I mention involved climbing a mountain?) but the exercise was great. We saw a number of animals and birds and the view was spectacular! I'll post the pictures at some point.

We discovered that that area of the park had very little leopard activity, which was useful anyway. The work that Ingwe have done is truly amazing. Their camera traps have aided in tracking the local leopards that inhabit the area and their research will help to conservation planning, especially in farming communities in other places. Their volunteer program allows conservation-enthusiasts from all over the world the chance to experience South African conservation first-hand. Currently, Daniel from Brazil-a jaguar-conservationist from Brazil is at Ingwe.

More information on their website: Ingwe website

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Do Women Make Better Marketers than Men?

And back to MARKETING we go.

As one reader pointed out: marketing is not advertising. Marketing is about segmeting your target market, doing research into that target market, their wants, their needs, and upon discovering those wants and needs, miraculously filling a lucrative gap in the market by developing a product tailored to meet all the needs of that target group).

So far, my engineer's brain is going, "tick!" Makes sense. There is a need, there is a gap, you fill the gap and get rich.

Ok, so now I propose a shocking and totally new idea: Women are better marketers than men!
*Shock* , *Horror*, *Outrage*
Ok, actually I lied. Its not new or my idea...lets see what the experts say:

"There is, perhaps, no more important skill for a marketer than empathy. While the media and outsiders tend to perceive marketing as a matter of spin and persuasion, the reality has always been different. It is fundamentally a challenge of understanding. Yes, later on we create advertising and packaging and other rhetorical tools, but the primary issue for all marketers is to understand their consumer and bring that understanding into the organisation. Without this basic empathy for the target market, our marketing efforts are probably going to be in vain.

It's clear, therefore, why women have such a biological advantage when it comes to marketing. Their brains are simply better at understanding others. Male marketers are more likely to make the crucial error of assuming that their own thoughts and reactions can be extrapolated to those of the market. Female marketers, in contrast, are more likely to truly get inside the head of the market and base their strategies on the real needs of consumers."

Ok, like wow! But really, what does this mean to you and me? We're engineers, not marketers. And we dont work in jobs where you can use these kinds of skills that we're apparently born with...
But why not? With the dramatic rise in numbers of women in the field of engineering, surely we've got to see these special gifts popping up here and there at some point? You cant have a whole lot of tall, short, young, chubby, cute, fiesty, butch, emotional, strong, skinny, tomboyish, petit, girly women making the exodus onto Mars without them bringing something of their Venetian heritage along with them. So how can being naturally good at marketing help you as an engineer? Let me try and give you a few examples:

  • Starting/ running an engineering business. This week I have been going through piles of tender applications for different companies that want to be awarded various contracts for the project. An attractive package that includes all the basic information already gives a positive image of the company.  Companies that have taken the time to go through our requirements and tailor their applications to align with our needs (relevant information and personalised cover letter) really stand out. You're left thinking-they will give us what we're looking for! All the above things are not technical in nature-but will likely score your company higher!
  • Landing that interview. My experience on finding the right job is really, really difficult. You have to apply for a large number of positions, and have to be really good at handling rejoection! (Especially in this economy!) The first thing possible employers see is your resume and cover letter. From these few pages, they have to decide whether you are a worthy candidate and whether you will fit in with their ethos. You have to tailor each resume/ cover letter you submit according to the company you're applying to, knowing VERY little information about the company (website/ advertisements/ meeting company ambassadors at campus)
  • Landing that job. As with the resume, during your interview, the interviewers are looking for several key things. One of them (especially in client-facing environments) is how you come across. Another is if you are a good fit for their company. Marketing yourself appropriately for different posts and different companies is key to success. For example, I was offered jobs for a engineering (mining) firm and a marketing (fast moving consumer goods) firm. Both interviews were tough, but each were looking for totally different things! I had to adapt not only what experience I chose highlight, but also the way I spoke, dressed, answered questions based on the values of each company.
  • Networking. Marketing yourself is in incredibly important aspect of your career. You need to firstly make an effort to look prefessional-clean and neat. See my post Selling Yourself-Where Engineers Get it Wrong. Who knows? That person you impressed at that conference/ cocktail event may end up being your next interviewer, or even employer! (or boyfriend for that matter)
  • Blogging/ Website design. Need I say more? Ok, ok. The fact that you're reading this right now shows that I'm doing something right. My passion is outreach. I just enjoy sharing a little bit of my world with others, and hope it inspires others to reach for their dreams. Blogs are a great way to make money though, and if you can write about something technical, you may just find a market for it! But take it from a blogger who has been through the gauntlet with readership-marketing is a huge part of it.
  • Selling inventions to clients/ your boss. I recently met someone who worked in the IT wing of a major bank. He had a young team under him that was made up of computer sciece majors, engineers and business science majors. One thing that he mentioned was that the engineers in his team consistently came up with great ideas, but really struggled with convincing others it was a good idea at all. Their presentation skills were poor, and they lacked the ability to sway the team's opinion on things. Whether you are selling an invention, idea in a brainstorming session or just a minor change to the way a process works on your plant, good marketing is imperative!
And one more from EcoHawk-which I completely hadn't thought about:
  • Getting involved in a project/ out of it. If you want to be moved onto a project you like, you can sell the team leader the idea that more people would be advantageous, or that your skills could be beneficial to them. Similarly, you can weasel your way out of one using the same skill-set.
Sneaky EcoHawk-very sneaky! But I like the idea of taking the initiative to make sure you are enjoying what you do!

Wow! All of these points are really critical to your success in a career. And we've read how women have a natural, phisiological advantage in these spheres which require good marketing skills. I do believe that there are a great number of women out there who are already tapping in to this.

Isn't is time you do to?

If you have used your feminine gift of intuition and empathy to market your way to success, write to me and tell me how you did it. I'd love to post it.