I manage a team of more than 100 multi-skilled engineers delivering international engineering projects and 24-hour, seven-days-a-week production support. We make the strips and sensors diabetics use to test blood sugar.
Starting my career with a Masters degree in Chemical Engineering at the University of Cambridge, I became a project engineer at British Steel working on environmental management, followed by a project engineer at a small water consultancy delivering drainage design and water supply networks. I moved to Abbott Diabetes Care in 2001 and have been in a variety of roles in project management, lean six sigma and engineering, including placements overseas.
I’m very active in encouraging women into STEM careers both inside and outside work and recently judged the US Young Women Innovators award 2020 and the Women’s Engineering Society’s Karen Burt Award for Best Newly Chartered Female Engineer.
What is an operations engineering manager?
It’s someone who manages the engineering group in manufacturing.
This means when a manufacturing machine breaks, this person is responsible for ensuring it’s fixed quickly and the root cause is addressed so it won’t break down again. But it also means you’re responsible for bringing in new machines and new processes into production and testing them.
Read more: What it’s like to be a chemical engineer
You work closely with suppliers to design new machines and with the research and development department which tries new chemistry on the product and develops new types of technology to build into the production lines.
Also, increasingly, an operations engineering manager is responsible for the systems that are used in a manufacturing environment. So in the example of medical devices, there are a lot of systems that sit behind the machines which are used to inspect and test devices as they are made. They track any defects during the manufacturing process so that when the final device is made, any device with a defect is rejected. This means that we can be certain that all the devices shipped from the line are fit-for-purpose for patients.
What I decided to become an engineer
At school, I really enjoyed chemistry and maths and solving bigger picture type problems – which is what drew me to chemical engineering. My mum and I read the ‘Which Careers?’ book when I was 12 and that was it – I decided I was going to be a chemical engineer! I just had to work out how to get there.
When I was young I used to have chemistry sets and electronic sets which helped me to learn for myself how things worked. I also had a lot of encouragement from my science teachers and from my mum and gran – both intrepid people in their own careers (being a GP and a Latin teacher respectively). They inspired me to always persevere in my own career aspirations.
What led me to where I am today
I think through life, I like challenges, helping people and fixing things – so that’s probably why I’m now an engineering manager in healthcare.
I started at British Steel knowing it would be a tricky place for me as a woman as there was only one other female engineer on-site at that time. But I saw no reason why I couldn’t succeed as I was no better or worse than any other engineer joining. I loved the environment of overcoming the challenges and seeing that I could be a good engineer too.
Next, I moved into a smaller company that focused on water drainage and supply. I was able to develop a greater set of project engineering skills which helped me with design, management and understanding contracts.
Then I moved to Abbott Diabetes Care, based in Witney in Oxfordshire, and I became a project engineer working on test strips for diabetics to test blood sugar. I very much enjoyed working in medical devices so I stayed – for nearly 20 years!
Moving into operations
Through this time, I have done several different roles at the same company. I undertook a Master of Business Administration (MBA) and was given the opportunity to work on international projects moving processes from overseas to the UK. I also worked on our new sensor technology bringing in new high volume automation that has seen a step-change in the way diabetics can now measure their blood sugar.
And now have a big team of engineers – more than 100 – and I care a huge amount about making sure I do my best for them; helping them to develop themselves and meet all the new and changing business needs in a 24-hour a day, seven days a week, manufacturing environment. I make sure they feel valued and that they have time for themselves to look after their mental health alongside developing their careers.
Women in STEM
I’m a very keen advocate of women in STEM. I set up a Women in STEM chapter at work and I mentor several women both inside and outside work.
I am also part of the Women in Engineering Society’s judging panel reviewing all the nominations received for on the Karen Burt Award for newly chartered female engineers and I regularly speak at engineering events to encourage women in STEM.
Because I faced various challenges along the way in my career, I want to make sure that now I am in a senior role that I help and support others to find ways to succeed in their careers too.
I think sometimes people think all engineers wear hardhats. Now I quite like a hard hat – I think it’s quite fun to wear one and I remember when I started at British Steel one of my male colleagues teasing me about being the only one with a handbag and a hardhat! But in my current role, I rarely need to wear one and I know many engineers who have never had to wear one and probably never will.
I also have some female colleagues who are very vocal about this image of hardhats being so ubiquitous – I think it’s important to challenge the stereotype because I feel it narrows people’s ideas about what an engineer does.
In these times where we are all adapting to increased use of technology, engineers are so important in the development of the systems that sit behind and alongside these changes – they make a lot of what we do now possible. It’s a real privilege to be an engineer.
Getting more girls into STEM
For me, I think it’s all about helping girls to see why careers in engineering are so worthwhile. When we look at the world now, we need talented people tackling climate change, healthcare, technology, water – so many areas that are based in and around STEM subjects.
Helping girls see that STEM subjects are interesting and fun and lead to being able to address these global issues – to make a difference even as just an individual – is so important because if we switch girls off from STEM subjects at school we automatically lose half the talent who could be solving these fundamental challenges.
I do a lot of school outreach work with ‘whynotchemeng’ as part of my role volunteering for the Institution of Chemical Engineers. I find this is so important in helping girls see that a career in chemical engineering is very much a valid choice for them. Many have never considered it and are genuinely interested in finding out more and how they can be a part of such an interesting future.
Over the last 20 years, I’ve been to many school careers fairs – and one of the nicest things was when one of the students came back and found me. They said how much they had liked the idea of engineering and they were now on their university course and just wanted to come back and tell me. That really made my day!
There have been a few challenges – and I think the one I’d like to talk about was when I took on my current job, albeit in a much smaller form back in 2012, when I only managed 12 engineers. It was my first management role and I was responsible for all the project and production engineering on the site. I had to quickly get to grips with all the different machines and their project status and be able to give various different types of updates at different meetings.
My predecessor, who had done the job for a long while before he moved roles, tended to run the department very centrally so he kept all this information in his head and could talk about it in any given situation. For me, that was very daunting! But I found a way that I could manage – I used to have a book where I wrote down all the different things happening and the updates in one place so that I could refer back as needed and keep myself updated with any issues and resolutions.
But I then set about straight away creating a much less centralised structure. I identified individuals who could become specialists and helped them become leaders in their own teams so as the department grew, suddenly, I found myself managing a very diverse team covering not only hardware but then software and now maintenance too.
So what I realised through all this, is that you can do the same job as someone else but you don’t need to do it in the same way. We all bring different skills and experiences and strengths, and that is just fine – in fact sometimes it’s better because it suits a much more rapidly changing environment when different skills are needed at different times.
Go for it! My advice would be to try to understand more about engineering. Try to shadow someone who works as an engineer. Ask a friend or colleague if there are work experience opportunities in a company who employs engineers near you. Or try taster sessions run by universities and courses. The Engineering Development Trust runs excellent university taster courses for students aged 16-17 who have an interest in creativity, problem-solving and STEM subjects. In my school days, this was called an ‘Insight’ course – now it’s called ‘headstart’ – and I did a four-day residential course at Birmingham University in my Lower Sixth. It gave me the opportunity to see different types of engineering disciplines and helped me understand the whole approach to the subject in a much greater context.
But then once you’ve decided it’s for you, I would strongly recommend looking for a mentor – someone who has done this before. It can sometimes be daunting starting at a new company and it always helps to have someone rooting for you and giving you hints and tips to help you succeed when you need them.
One thing I had set my heart on aged 12 was becoming chartered. For those less familiar with what this is, being chartered is an internationally recognised qualification that means you are a professional engineer. And I think this is key – if you aspire to become chartered from the outset, it means that you choose an engineering course that is accredited so you know you are studying the key aspects of engineering. It also helps you in your career development to cover the key essential aspects in practice that a professional engineer needs. For me, the Institution of Chemical Engineers gave me a lot of guidance and support in becoming chartered, both centrally when I was a student and locally through branch activities, and they also helped me to understand more about becoming a Fellow.
When I became a Fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers in 2019, this was a real achievement for me at this stage in my career. It has helped me both at work and outside to receive recognition. This is a level of seniority within the engineering profession and I would advise those in their early-stage engineering careers to consider becoming a Fellow – and dispute the myth that you have to be male to do it!
Finding a mentor
One thing I would do differently was to look for a mentor early on in my career – someone facing similar challenges to me. I only came across the Women’s Engineering Society in recent years and they have a wealth of mentors to help new engineers so I would strongly recommend any professional organisation like them who can link you up with someone on your chosen career path.
I love being a mentor because it is so exciting to work with others and help them achieve their goals and help them to be happy. Many challenges in the workplace are so much easier when you have someone to talk to and someone who is always on your side willing you to do well – it is also so helpful to me as they teach me so much in return!
Just one more thing – I think it’s important not to put too much weight on what other people tell you that you can or cannot do. You are able to do whatever you want to do with your career if you work at it.