For the fifth of this six-part blog and video series, Your career in chemical engineering, we spoke to senior engineering managers Rachel Cooke, Simon Farrar and Helen Ramsay.
Find out more about their career paths through different sectors, the engineering skills that have helped them become successful managers and why they applied for their current roles at tech firm Amazon, regulating dangerous goods at WorkSafe Victoria and creating devices for diabetes at Abbott below.
Rachel Cooke is a Senior Manager Reliability Engineering at Amazon in Luxembourg. Leading a team of 170 people based in eight countries in Europe, she sets the strategy for reliability and maintenance operations across the company’s European facilities to ensure Amazon’s equipment runs smoothly and reliability in handling the storage and delivery of products between suppliers and customers every day.
When graduating her bachelors and then Master’s degree at the University of Cambridge, UK, oil and gas was a prominent sector and she believed that would be her career direction. So she followed with a PhD at the university, sponsored by oilfield technology specialist Schlumberger, on secondary phase oil field recovery.
However, she “recognised my childhood love of chocolate” so decided to apply for the graduate scheme at Cadbury in Birmingham, UK. She lived and worked in different countries in her 10 years there, working in various roles in supply chain, operations and procurement. Through a contact on LinkedIn, she moved to SAB Miller, one of the world’s largest brewers, leading their global manufacturing development programme.
With her eye on the future of engineering, and keen to remain working in Europe in a growing company, she moved to Amazon in 2017. She began with a role scaling up the build of new fulfilment and warehouse centres across Europe. A few years in, she gained an internal transfer to her current role ensuring those centres operate reliably.
She said: “I’ve always liked to think about what’s coming in the future, the fourth industrial revolution, the internet of things and how all this digital transformation is affecting the way we work. So really I couldn’t think of a better company than Amazon to learn from in this area.
“What I enjoy most is the intellectual challenge, growing and learning, and having a massive impact over hundreds of sites in many different countries and scaling the ideas we have, as well as the variety of the day-to-day work. As an example, I could be going from a meeting on safety protocol and safety checks and sign off in Europe, straight to one about HR practices. Having that constant stimulus is something I find very enjoyable.”
As Director of Major Hazards & Dangerous Goods at WorkSafe Victoria in Australia, Simon and his team of 40 regulate and license the 40 major hazards facilities in the state of Victoria. They also regulate the state’s dangerous goods facilities and provide the technical expertise for dangerous goods statutory approvals and licensing, such as the handling and transportation of explosive materials.
After completing a Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at Monash University in Melbourne, his career began in chemicals first as a Process Engineer at ICI, Melbourne for four years, which then became Orica, for a further 18 years. There, he progressed through numerous roles, spanning process design and plant commissioning, quality systems and operations technical management before moving into health, safety and risk-based manager roles. During his time with Orica, he grabbed the opportunity to travel and work across China and Indonesia to expand the business’ operations in formaldehyde-based resins and technology for the wood panel industry.
Two major incidents in Simon’s lifetime became the key drivers to use his technical skills as an opportunity to forge a pathway into risk leadership and his current career in regulation.
The first being the 1998 Longford gas plant explosion in Victoria (five years into his career), which triggered major hazard facilities (MHF) legislation to be introduced in Australia. Orica’s Melbourne formaldehyde facility was designated as a new MHF, so he opted to lead the development of the site’s first safety case, recognising it as a good career opportunity – which ultimately helped his later work within the regulatory field.
The second was the 2014 Hazelwood coal mine fire. By then, he’d gained further experience supporting Orica’s process safety work, leading project HAZOPs, revising existing site risk assessments, and setting the standards and conducting compliance checks for its safety, health and environment management. This experience enabled Simon to transition to a formal regulatory position at WorkSafe Victoria in a new role assisting the regulation of the state’s mining operations following the fire.
Simon said: “I’ve always had a fascination of major accidents, what the causes are and what the learnings are to try to prevent those events from reoccurring,” said Simon. “So I’ve spent a lot of my career working in those environments and putting the systems in place with the systems approach (which comes naturally to chemical engineers), and this has been a cornerstone of my career.
“What first attracted me to my current organisation was the opportunity to bring my industrial skills and experience to the regulatory environment and working with a regulator that has a sound reputation and leads the way on many areas of regulatory practice.
“What I enjoy most is leading and seeing improvement in the safety performance of our highest hazard chemical process facilities, so the industry is also recognised for the value that they bring to our society and to their local community.”
Helen works in the diabetes care business as Operations Engineering Manager at Abbott, UK. Based at the company’s Witney site, she manages a team of more than 100 engineers across multiple disciplines, supporting worldwide engineering projects to produce glucose sensing technology giving people with diabetes the freedom to monitor and track their glucose levels continuously without the pain of fingersticks.
Following her Master’s degree in chemical engineering at the University of Cambridge, UK she gained a role as an Environmental Engineer at British Steel and then worked as a Project Engineer at a water engineering consultancy.
She then secured a role as a Project Engineer at Abbott, where she’s remained for 20 years undertaking various roles such as Project Manager, and Engineering Transition Manager, being responsible for the production equipment transfer in the UK.
“I was attracted to Abbott as it is a large company offering lots of opportunities for growth with a long-term future. I also wanted to get involved in innovation and fixing things,” she said.
Over time she has progressed to her current role managing the engineering group in manufacturing, which means when a manufacturing machine breaks, she is ultimately responsible for ensuring it’s fixed quickly and the root cause is addressed to avoid further issues. She is also responsible for bringing in new machines and new processes into production and testing them. She has scaled up the production capacity and built significant international strategic partnerships with suppliers delivering new automation technology and methodology to deliver industry 4.0 to Abbott’s sites.
Her favourite part of her job? “I love trying to attract new talent into the organisation, to make sure we have the widest perspective, experience and expertise in the team to be able to innovate,” she said.
Qualifications, knowledge and experience
What’s the secret to enable successful transitions between sectors and progress through career levels?
Rachel said each of her roles in each company required different skills and experience from her. The ideal hiring criteria for the role at SAB Miller was to be Chartered or a Fellow of a professional engineering institution. “When they found out I was not only a Fellow of IChemE, but also that I chaired the Food and Drink Special Interest Group, they were delighted that I met that criteria,” she said.
“When I joined Amazon, what they looked for in my CV that helped me make that transition was someone with experience of launching new sites. During my time at Cadbury, I’d been part of the team responsible for the design and build of two new factories in Poland.”
She added: “Mentors have been fantastically important for me in my career. I still remember my first mentor for Chartership help me get the right experience and helping me correctly package my ideas into my competence and commitment report.”
Simon noted that early on his career he drew heavily on the technical principles from his engineering degree and training, allowing him to design, troubleshoot and optimize. “Over time, I’ve realised no-one works in isolation,” he said. “It’s been the leadership skills – influencing, communications and teamwork – that have helped me transition to various roles.”
He added: “Being a Professional Process Safety Engineer (PPSE) has supported me in my career because it provides me with credibility in my specific role. The PPSE accreditation is an external recognition that I have competency in the field of process safety, which is important since that is the field I regulate.”
Early on at Abbott, Helen gained a Master of Business Administration at Cranfield University, UK, and later became qualified as a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt enabling her to deploy a data approach to drive improved results from equipment for the business.
These qualifications along with core engineering skills have provided a solid foundation for her career. She said: “Team-working and problem-solving skills have given me the flexibility I needed to change industries and to work on some amazing projects.
“An example of this is when I had to deliver a new process line, getting it up and running from scratch. I had to work with a lot of engineering experts, suppliers, and others to test it to make sure it was running as we needed to deliver breakthrough technology in glucose monitoring.”
Skills transition and progression
What engineering skills have helped them that they feel others considering progressing to and between managerial roles could benefit from knowing?
Rachel said systems thinking is key when transitioning to senior leadership roles because “what you learn as an engineer is a way of thinking, a way of asking questions and seeing connections”.
She added: “You need to be able to dive into the data and to challenge it when it doesn’t make sense, as well as see the broader picture and how the systems and sub-systems interrelate. So there are some real, direct parallels between how you manage and lead different teams, and the engineering skills you need to be a successful engineer.”
Simon agreed: “The engineering skill of asking the “what if..?” type questions is a really important one and is natural for engineers to do, as it helps identify issues that can then be managed.”
He believes it’s important for engineers to be represented at senior levels in an organisation as they can map out the steps needed to obtain a goal and the risks to address along the way: “My engineering background allows me to relate to my team members and external stakeholders on technical matters and gives me credibility when engaging with them or making decisions. It also helps me ask the right questions of those I lead, which is an important part of being a senior manager.”
Helen said: “In a senior management role I have to balance multiple conflicting priorities, risk, as well as see the big picture and focus in on the detail when I need to. As an engineer these skills are really key to being successful. As a chemical engineer particularly I have to look at the whole process and what that delivers for the business, and then be able to focus in on any issue on a given day that has to get solved at that time.
“Engineers are exciting people, who drive change and are always asking why not. They can balance risk and look at opportunities that will be good for the future of the business, which is why I think they make great senior leaders.”
Watch this video to learn more from Rachel, Simon and Helen on the challenges they’ve faced and overcome, and how mentoring has helped them succeed, and why they feel chemical engineering is so important.