We were honoured to have the opportunity to sit down and chat with Roma Agrawal, currently working at AECOM. In her career to date she has become one of the most prominent structural engineers, juggling a busy professional career with tireless outreach to children and the general public about engineering as a profession.
Quoting her official biography:
I've designed bridges, skyscrapers and sculptures with signature architects over my ten year career. I spent six years working on The Shard, the tallest building in Western Europe, and designed the foundations and the ‘Spire’.
In addition to winning industry awards, my career has been extensively featured in the media, including on BBC World News, BBC Daily Politics, TEDx, The Evening Standard, The Sunday Times, Guardian, The Telegraph, Independent, Cosmopolitan and Stylist Magazines, documentaries and in online blogs. I was the only woman featured on Channel 4's documentary on the Shard, ‘The Tallest Tower'. I was part of M&S's ‘Leading Ladies‘ campaign 2014 and was described as a top woman tweeter by the Guardian
Outside work, I promote engineering, scientific and technical careers to young people and particularly to under-represented groups such as women. I also engage about these topics with our Institutions and government to understand and develop an effective way forward. Over the last 3 years, I have spoken to over 3000 people at over 50 schools, universities and organisations across the country and abroad.
We wanted to hear more from her about getting through the early career stages of structural engineering, taking the IStructE's Chartered Member exam and her campaigning beyond.
University and studying physics
What advice can you offer for school leavers thinking of entering structural engineering or any STEM profession either as an apprentice or university student?
Structural engineering is an amazing career to go into. It’s very rewarding and there aren’t many jobs which you can actually point to huge things and say “I had a part in that”, it's a very special opportunity in that sense.
Even if you are not 100% sure about what job you want to do, if you study engineering or any STEM subject at University, you can keep your options very wide open. You might find that you actually want to go out and study different types of engineering. You might want to go into a more scientific degree, or even into business. A lot of the businesses nowadays are run by people with a science background, so don't think that you are restricting yourself just to the title of your degree.
Any advice for those learning to get through university?
I found university quite a big jump from school. Academically I found it quite difficult, but also being away from home, surrounded by new people and having to basically look after myself. It is also a completely different style of teaching and learning from school.
I think the way I got through was to have an amazing network of friends. Being able to study with other people, going to tutorials together, sharing ideas, was really the key. Yes, it is important to make sure you work through and understand things yourself, but you can learn a huge amount through working on problems with your peers.
That reflects very well on actually working an engineer in the profession. You don't work in isolation but with other people, so just engaging with your colleagues, your friends, your peers on your course it’s a really important thing to do.
Postgraduate studies – converting to Structural Engineering.
You went from studying physics to structural engineering. How did you decide this?
I enjoyed Physics, but I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do. It was really through work experience that I found out what engineering is, and realized that I really liked it.
At that point, I decided to finish my Physics degree and look at what opportunities were available to me to become an engineer. I met the Course Director for the General Structural Engineering MSc at Imperial and just said to him “This is my background, this is what I studied and what I want to do. Is your course going to help me to achieve that and would you even consider my application?”
That's how I went through doing something that is quite unconventional. Sometimes it just requires a little more work on your end to achieve that.
Did you feel like you were playing catch up for coming from a different subject background?
Absolutely, even until the day I graduated I felt like I was a few steps behind!
I didn't even understand what British Standards and Eurocodes were, in a physics degree that's just not something you talk about at all. The period during which I was in University was transitionary , so we were learning both codes. We were critiquing and comparing them, and this was all completely above my head.
But where I also realised I was a couple of steps ahead was at the pure theory. We were studying plate theory for example, or other things like second order partial differential equations, and I was like “I can do this, I have just done them on my Physics degree”. Other people on my course had trouble with that, so, I found we could help each other with different parts of the course.
What advice do you have to give to people leaving university and thinking about their next steps?
My top two pieces of advice would be to stay resilient, and do a lot of research.
It is hard graft applying for jobs. I must have sent out between 25 and 30 applications for a graduate job, got responses from 7 or 8, interviews at 4 or 5, and finally I had 2 jobs offers. You just need to work hard and do as much as you can, without expecting to get every job because it is just not possible.
In terms of research, it’s about going out there and understanding the different types of companies that are available. University students tend to apply to all the big multinational companies, but there are actually lots of smaller companies around as well, where you can do amazing engineering.
What did you see as the benefit behind a postgraduate Master degree vs. entering a related engineering profession with a physics degree like you first had?
I think it’s harder to get a job if you are just trying to pitch up with a physics degree to become a Structural Engineer. I think it’s a big sell to companies trying to piece that together.
Companies can be more open minded about the graduates that they take on, thinking about what the skills and the potential, rather than just the qualifications. But more importantly, the institutions need to also play catch up. I was told by one of the institutions that my physics degree didn’t qualify me for graduate membership.
So yes, in theory it’s a great idea to study physics and then become a structural engineer, but if you want to get Chartered then the institutions need to catch up. I think we still need to modernise the way we are qualified and evaluated, both from companies and from institutions.
Initial Professional Development – early structural engineering career
Were you given any advice during your IPD on how you should approach it?
My first piece of advice is to be organised. It is very easy when you start a new job to get sucked into lots of work and projects but not actually sit and reflect on what you've done.
I kept the last 2-3 pages of my day-to-day workbook free, noting the different projects that I worked on, all the different materials such as steel, concrete that I worked on, and what I had been doing. This way, while I was filling in all my IPD forms during my annual review, I could just refer myself to the end of my book and just remind myself what I had actually done.
Even though I didn't fill out my forms as regularly as I should have, I had my notes to remind me about what I had done,. That will hopefully prevent a mad rush at the end, when you decide that you actually want to go for Chartership.
Many engineering graduates tend to struggle to get the non-technical experiences required for their Chartership. Can you describe how you went about getting yours?
The way the firm worked where I joined as a graduate it was quite organic. As I started to take more responsibility on my projects, the more initiative I showed. I just automatically started to receive that experience.
In the first month of my joining as a graduate I was starting to go to a few meetings. I think you need to have the technical skills, along with the communication and relationship skills, all being developed in parallel.
It is largely down to the employer to recognise that, and offer those opportunities to the graduate. However, if you've got a graduate that is well aware of the fact that this is important, then they should speak to their bosses and line managers proactively to make sure they get the experience that they need.
You won Young Structural Engineer of the Year from the IStructE – what did winning that mean to you?
That was completely unexpected and I was obviously really thrilled to win! I think that, maybe, what made my application interesting was the outreach work that I had just started doing at the time, going out to schools and universities and speaking about my work.
I think my application was fairly balanced across the technical side and the outreach side, and I can see that it's becoming an important criteria in the various awards that are available to young engineers. It also put a bit more pressure to pass my exam first time, which thankfully I did!
Preparing for IStructE's Chartered Member exam
How did you go about preparing for your exam?
I had a lot of support from other people in my firm that had done the exam. We had fortnightly sessions at lunch time, when we would go through the conceptual design part of the questions (Part 1a).
I think it's really all down to practice. The exam tests your skills as a Structural Engineer but it also tests your skills at doing the exam. This means that you can still be a great engineer and fail that exam if you haven't practiced. There’s a particular way to do it: you need to time it, understand how many calculations you need to do and what the examiner is expecting. I also attended a 10 weeks course externally, which I would highly recommend (at the University of Westminster). The benefit of taking this course was applying your knowledge into the very unusual format of the exam.
I also did 7 or 8 papers, start to finish, out of which I think I did 5 of them timed. I took my time on the first few, I found that was more about going through the whole paper and answering every single piece of the question adequately. Then, once I had got the hang of it, I said “Alright, now I need to do it within 7 hours”.
The first time I did one of those timed papers it was completely terrifying, I thought I would have to give up halfway through. Another skill in trying to do this exam is just to carry on, it is, again, having the resilience. Even if you made a mistake, crack on and get through the whole thing. Actually, if you manage to do that, I think you have a fair chance of passing, as long as you've done Part 1a correctly, and explained your error to the examiner and the effect it has had on your design.
I guess the other interesting thing could be what you take in for your exam. I took Fiona Cobb’s book and also two files: one file was the mock papers I did. The second file was the one I worked so much harder on, which was basically a summary of everything that needed to go into the exam. I didn't take any other big books or anything, all my referenced material was either photocopied or handwritten in this folder that I had spent about 3 to 4 months preparing.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
I feel like it went OK overall. I think you need to be very regular, you need have it on your mind all the time. I would finish my working day at 5 pm and then spend 1- 1.5 hours maybe 3 times/week on weekdays revising, finding bits and pieces for my folder, looking at the questions that had been set for our workshops in my office.
I took it as an all-encompassing January to April at the time. I basically only worked during the day and studied for the exam at night. It worked out for me, but I didn't see my friends that much or had a social life at all, so that could be the one thing that I probably missed out.
Talking to your colleagues, talking to your peers, especially if you know other people that are doing the exam, I think it's really great to engage with them and I would have opened up more if I had to do it again.
What can you remember from the day of your CM exam?
It’s now a bit of blur, but I remember that choosing the question is difficult, it's harder than you expect. It’s something you have to practice before: picking a question and then going with it. I remember feeling really anxious for the first 30 minutes to an hour, but once you have gone past that you get into the flow of it, you stop your focus there and then you get on with it.
I have two random memories of the exam. The first one is this: I did the exam in Dubai as I was living there at the time, they had set out a huge lunch for us, hot food, cold food, dessert, biscuits, everything, I had to be very careful not to eat too much, or I would have fallen asleep. Secondly: I remember being completely and utterly exhausted when I finished. All my adrenaline ran out and I had to go home and rest.
Career beyond getting Chartered
Why did you also join The IET after IStructE?
My membership with The Institution of Engineering and Technology is more about engineering as a wider profession, how we might support women, and how we can promote it to under-represented groups. I like the IET as they are quite an all-encompassing organisation, so they don't restrict themselves to one particular discipline of engineering. That’s very forward thinking in my mind, because I think as time goes on engineering is going to become more and more multidisciplinary.
I also think that the IET has a really great women’s network. That is part of the reason I joined as well, because of the support that they have for female engineers in terms of mentoring and in terms of networking, even with the events that they hold. I was a finalist for the Young Woman Engineer of the Year Award and basically I have been working with the IET ever since. They've got lots of really great initiatives trying to promote engineering to the wider public.
In recent times you have become a high profile campaigner for diversity in engineering. What does ‘diversity’ mean to you and how might we all benefit from it?
To me diversity is about bringing different people together. That could be different genders, races, nationalities, education backgrounds or experiences.
As engineers we serve society, we build and create things for people and their use. If the engineering work force doesn't reflect that society then I can't see how we can possibly serve it well.
How does diversity and creativity fit into a highly regulated and safety-oriented industry like structural engineering?
I think the best ideas come out from rooms of people that are different and have a wide range of skills. If you just hired men only from one university, they have all probably been trained to solve problems in a similar way. You would not get the same range of options and creativity that you would from having a very mixed group of people.
For instance, you can have some people that are really creative and a bit crazy with their ideas, people that are more process-driven, others who are more managerial, and then some people who are really technical, you need to bring all of those different factors together in order to get through the whole procedure.
You have to go through ideas, picking the right one, organising it, managing it, taking risk out, delivering it, and so on. There are not that many people that can tick all of those boxes in terms of their skills, their interest or their expertise.
We do have to depend on each other to do what we are passionate about, in order to go through that kind of long and drawn out process that is designing a building.
You’re still very young and there’s a long way to go in your career, but already you have been leaving a legacy. How do you want people to know you now and in the future?
I’m not too sure I’ve ever thought about that very deeply!
I think in my career to date I’d like people to think of me as a skilled, technical engineer. Also as an engineer who knows how to communicate and bring engineering to a broad audience, because that’s really what my passion is now.
Regarding the future, I personally don’t know what I will be doing in 5, let alone 20 years because there are so many things I love doing: managing projects, doing bids, working with clients, doing TV, I (mostly) loved writing my book. My career could go off onto any combination or one of those things, so I try not to pigeon-hole myself into any one thing.
I might like to be known as one of the public faces of engineering who was able to inspire people to consider a career in this profession.
For example if you ask someone to name a famous engineer, a lot of people will say Isambard Kingdom Brunel but he’s been dead for nearly 150 years! So I’d love to bring a new generation of public-facing spokespersons who can leave new legacy .
From reading about your ambitions, I feel you want to be known more for bringing engineering to the public light, and not specifically about being a leading woman in engineering which most of the media campaigns appear to focus on. Do you agree with this and is there one you would prefer to be known for?
I think one is a subset of the other. By bringing engineering to the public, I hopefully will inspire more children, maybe even young girls to think about engineering as a career. I highly hope that the pure fact that I’m an ethnic minority female can encourage anyone that is ‘different’ in some way to look at me and think “if she could make it then so can I”.
I do see these messages complementing each other. Sometimes it may mean highlighting my ethnicity, other times my gender, other times it could just be that I’m young, but there are so many facets to every person.
If a different aspect of me can inspire different types of people, then I’m very happy to embrace that.
BUILT – the book.
BUILT is Roma's new book being published in February 2018. You can find out more about pre-ordering on Roma's website.
Who is your target audience, and what is the inspiration behind your book?
My target audience is the general public, definitely not specifically targeting engineers of any discipline (though I hope they will enjoy it too!).
The idea behind the book comes from the moment when I look at a building and wonder what the ground beneath is like, its foundations and its stability system. I see the world in that way, I see the different layers of a city.
My ambition with the book is to unravel some of those layers, to shine light on the ingenuity and creativity that lies behind structural engineering. To give something for people to think about when they are on the bus or tube, on the way to work passing by a building.
The book is written in a simple narrative style, it includes personal stories from my childhood, through history and the future and try to answer the question “how does the modern world work?”
What key messages do you want to drive with your book?
I’d like to highlight two key things:
The first one is the human side of engineering. For the most part, engineering conjures images of the machines, steel and concrete; but what about the people who did something special , who made a mistake leading to a brand new discovery? Human beings have been the vital key in the evolution of engineering to where it is today.
The second thing I would like to do is encourage people to be more curious about the world. Looking at buildings and think about what’s under their feet. Where did that material come from?, why does this work this way? how did that get built? Hopefully this will add more texture and colour to their daily lives.
For those who aren’t yet structural engineering profession:
I think it’s a very exciting time to be a structural engineer. Computing power is unprecedented at the moment, we are starting to think of artificial intelligence, and we keep trying to break records of taller, deeper etc.
You don’t have to study structural engineering in a traditional sense in order to contribute to the structural engineering industry. As time goes by, especially as today’s teenagers eventually join the work force, we’re going to need coders, better marketers or a broader range of skills which we might not even know about today. There are so many ways that people can contribute to the built environment.
For those going through IStructE exam:
Be organised. Try lots of practice papers, and ask loads of questions – to your seniors, and other successful candidates. Find out their techniques, ask for materials and resources for your folder that you prepare. It’s mainly by drawing on the experience of others who have gone through the exam before you, that you can get the best advice and experience to learn from.
Thank you for this wide-ranging interview Roma! You can follow Roma Agrawal on Twitter, and also find out more details of BUILT over on her website. You can also follow The Structural Exam on Twitter.