April 2015 | Electrical engineer, working for Eskom Distribution in Cape Town
1) Briefly describe what your job involves.
I plan electricity distribution networks for rural areas within the Western Cape. This involves studying the areas to determine patterns and trends in electricity use which may be due to economic factors, weather, geography, movement of people etc. Using this information, I can forecast future electricity infrastructure needs and create conceptual designs for meeting these needs. As with all big infrastructure projects, I have to perform careful financial analysis prior to recommending investment in new networks.
2) Can you describe the most exciting part of your job?
The industry is at a pivotal point: renewables are making their way onto the grid, which is fantastic! These projects are privately driven and have much shorter timelines than the ones run by the parastatal. It's been exciting to be part of the team working with the private sector and the Department of Energy, finding technical solutions to connect these plants to the grid as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.
I also really enjoy interacting with different customers on our networks. Planning for rural areas means I deal with a vast range of customers, from small fruit farmers to far-flung municipalities and large mining companies to remote telescopes needing electricity supply in the middle of the Karoo! It's interesting to learn about different energy requirements and the industries they represent.
3) What are some of the challenges you had to face and overcome as a woman in your career?
Perhaps the biggest challenge has been convincing people that I'm committed to my job: engineering excites me, I love what I do, I'm not scared to take on the work, and I enjoy going to site and talking tech! This surprises many men in the field. I think it takes a bit longer for a woman to prove her commitment and gain the trust of the team with which she works. Once it's been achieved, though, that trust and respect become deeply entrenched in one's working relationships.
4) How did you make your career choice?
I've always loved electricity! Whilst studying engineering I became really interested in the human aspect of power systems – the social and economic elements, the environmental implications. The energy sector is an area where I know I can make a positive contribution to my country and this is something I feel strongly about. Working in the public sector can be frustrating, but I want to be part of the solution, and this is where I believe I can have the most influence.
5) How is your career directly related to your formal academic training?
On paper, my job sounds like the most naturally-linked career one could have chosen, having studied electrical engineering, majoring in power systems analysis! But the classical engineering only forms one part of my day-to-day activities. Economics, statistics, finance and communication are some of the important complementary skills which I'm developing along the way.
6) What qualifications do you require to work in your field?
A BSc or BTech in electrical engineering
7) Can you describe the most important skills you require for this work environment?
One needs to be hard-working and be able to innovate. Good communication skills are under-emphasised in engineering, but are imperative. My technical toolbox of skills requires proficiency using power systems simulation packages and basic GIS skills. Coding is always useful.
8) What does leadership mean to you?
Good leadership means everything to me, both in terms of technical excellence and human management. I don't think leaders necessarily need to be perched on the top rungs of the corporate ladder: one can lead laterally too. I believe in leading by example, and infusing quality in everything one does, whether it's producing a report, making an ethically-complicated decision, or managing a team or project.
9) What advice would you give
(a) girls who are considering a career in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM)
If you're considering a career in one of the STEM fields, do it because you love it! Don't do it simply because you've done well in maths at school, or because people tell you engineering pays nicely. You'll only make a successful career of it if you truly love it. And if you do love it, don't let anything stop you from pursuing it. It's tough, and will present enormous challenges to you, but there is always a way of getting through these challenges. Ask for help when you need it!
(b) postgraduate students entering the job market?
All experience is good experience in the early part of your career. No matter what job you take up after graduating, there'll be transferrable skills which you'll keep long after you've moved to the next job. But don't lose sight of that dream job – keep developing until you've got it. It may mean moving cities, learning new skills, stepping out of your comfort zone, and starting on the ground floor a few times over… but it'll be worth it in the end (or at least I'm hoping it will!).