Reflections from an Engineer-Turned-Consultant During National Science Week

– by Sara Wilson

I come from an engineering background so National Science Week holds a special place in my heart. I have spent many Science Weeks running a stall to demonstrate scientific phenomena to children and students (and often their parents!). These events were organised by the Physics Education Centre at the Australian National University as part of their broad outreach program to get people excited about science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM).

Now that I am a Management Consultant, many people immediately assume that all the hard work I put in at university to earn three majors in engineering has gone to waste. Also, that engineering did not teach me any useful skills to be a consultant. However, my reality has been very different.

Engineering (like many STEM disciplines) is centred around creating value for people. I love the joke that engineering is great because it’s only 99% about the people (as opposed to everything else which is 100% about the people). A critical part of any technical solution is also understanding what real-life problem is being fixed, how the solution will be used by people, and how teams and organisations operate best to achieve results. At its heart, this whole-of-system perspective is very similar to the approach used on consulting projects. To me, consulting is about building outcomes for clients that will work in their specific context.

As a consultant I also get to work on projects which draw on my technical engineering understanding. Over my past eighteen months with Noetic, I’ve worked with government clients on an Emerging Disruptive Technologies Symposium, a report into the impact of emerging technologies on Defence And National Security, emergency management and response exercises in the health sector, risk management and planning, a safety incident investigation, and analysis of research infrastructure requirements for the future.

I have found that the reliance on effective communication and education in STEM disciplines is often under-recognised. To build great solutions requires many minds with diverse perspectives. This relies on the ability to explain complex concepts simply and effectively to different audiences. These communication skills, combined with the curiosity to understand the ‘why’ and ‘how’, are the key ingredients for success as a consultant AND engineer.

The people-side of STEM disciplines will only become more valuable into the future. I recently attended an event where the formidable Genevieve Bell (3A Institute) described Australia’s unique value as our multidisciplinary skills, including our strength in humanities. It’s bringing these diverse viewpoints together that will generate the outcomes that we want to see.

Of course, I have yet to deep dive into solving mechanical problems or designing new electronic circuits. But with new questions always on the horizon, who knows!