Since her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering (Bachelor of Engineering, Mechanical Engineering ‘93) at the University of Sydney, Jane MacMaster has had an impressive accolade of achievements on top of a successful career. She was most recently appointed Chief Engineer at Engineers Australia, where she will lead the organisation’s engagement with industry, government and academia.
We spoke to Jane about how her choice to study mechanical engineering led her to where she is today – and the many lessons she’s gleaned along the way.
Well, to be honest, I didn’t to begin with. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, or what I wanted to study when I left school. My first list of course preferences didn’t include engineering, mainly because I didn’t really know what engineers ‘did’.
During an interview with someone from the University of Sydney, the interviewer picked up on my love of maths and sciences and suggested I consider engineering. Decision made.
This was a tough question to answer because there isn’t just one! My favourite awe-inspiring memory is being in the Great Hall (for exams, unfortunately) in the Quad – amazing.
My favourite ‘fun’ experience is all the engineering get-togethers, especially on Friday afternoons and the annual revues. My favourite subject was system dynamics. But most of all I appreciated the people.
Nearly 30 years after graduating I’m still in contact with many of my fellow engineering students and quite a few of the engineering faculty staff.
My engineering degree has been fundamental to everything I’ve done in my career. It was really the springboard for everything I’ve done since 1993. It turns out that people like the way engineers think – we typically think in quite a structured way, with an emphasis on logic and we tend to adopt a ‘systems’ approach to things. That skill set and mindset is very transferrable, so an engineering degree is a versatile and valued qualification to have.
It turns out that people like the way engineers think – we typically think in quite a structured way, with an emphasis on logic and we tend to adopt a ‘systems’ approach to things.
Two years after graduating, I was lucky enough to be offered a job with British Aerospace (now BAE Systems) in Melbourne. The position was Thermal Design Engineer for a supersonic flight vehicle (Evolved SeaSparrow Missile system) that provided defence for ships against inbound threats.
It was a NATO project and Australia was a guest nation for the project. We had responsibility for designing four sub-systems – the thrust vector controller, the aerodynamic control fins, the dorsal fins and the guidance control algorithms. That project remains the most formative of my career because the teams I worked with (both Australian and international teams) were incredible – talented and fun.
I worked on the project from beginning to end – almost from a ‘blank sheet of paper’ to the production phase. That is an incredibly valuable learning experience – to see what is required to get a very complicated system from literally an ‘artist’s impression’ through to a functioning system onboard ships.
That project was where I ‘grew up’ as an engineer and I’ll be forever grateful for the team I worked with during that time for the opportunities and mentoring I was given. What I learnt about a good design process on that project has informed everything I’ve done since.
My career has taken a few unexpected turns and I’ve been lucky enough to work in a range of industries and sectors, all of them drawing on my engineering training and experience. I’ve found the varied experience to be valuable because I’ve learnt different ways of thinking and doing things in each of them. When you bring them all together it provides a bigger pool of ideas to draw on when encountering new challenges. That’s definitely been the greatest benefit of having had a varied career. There was no plan for doing that.
I’ve never really had a grand plan for my career, and while it’s great to have a plan, especially if you know what you want ‘to do’, it’s also beneficial to build in flexibility to that plan so you can accommodate new opportunities (and challenges) as they arise. The changes in my career have either been because an opportunity arose and I took it, or, in the case of starting my own business, because I felt strongly that there was a gap that I could help fill.
As it turns out despite the range of roles, industries and sectors I’ve worked in, I’ve woven together a theme from them. I wove all my experiences together to form a generalised model for problem-solving, strategy and design for complex challenges. It draws heavily on engineering principles and techniques but also builds in ideas from other areas such as complexity science, behavioural insights, theory of strategy, general systems theory and others.
The pandemic has certainly thrown us all a few challenges. I would suggest focusing now on learning, both through your university work and any work experience you may have access to, whether that’s engineering-related or another part-time job (because all work experience is valuable).
If you have time up your sleeve,
Any of these initiatives will help build your knowledge, experience and networks. You might also consider joining Engineers Australia, the largest association representing engineers in the country (and where I now work as Chief Engineer). Student membership is free and is designed to help students engage in the profession and build the skills needed to become a well-rounded professional.
The biggest challenge I had throughout my career was that I had low confidence and conviction in my ideas, probably until I reached my early 40’s.
Now, in my (very!) late 40s, I have much more confidence and conviction in my ideas and I’m comfortable talking with just about anyone, but goodness it took a long time to get to this point. I’m sure not every female engineer has low confidence like I did, but if you do, I would just remind you that asking questions, even if you don’t know the answer, is extremely valuable, because it encourages people to think about a valid point that you’ve just raised.
There is growing recognition of the value of diversity in thought, so try to contribute to discussions when you can. And don’t be afraid of saying something ‘stupid’ or asking ‘silly questions’. Goodness knows I’ve said things or asked questions which seem obvious to everyone else many times in the past, and so has everyone else by the way, and that’s just part of learning. The more you learn, the more valuable your insights will become over time.