The industry isn’t standing still and you need to be learning new skills. You need to take ownership of your career and drive it for yourself
Former PhD student and Alumna of the University of Sheffield, Dr Liane Smith has had a distinguished career in engineering and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2011.
Read: our interview with Liane
Dr Liane Smith didn't grow up in a family of engineers. “My parents weren’t involved in science. My mum was a housewife and my dad worked on the newspapers” says Liane.
“I remember very distinctly going on holiday with my family to North Wales and driving past Stanlow Oil Refinery in Ellesmere Port and asking them what it was. They said “You’ll have to ask your teacher”. So I did and she told me more about it. My teacher had been an industrial chemist herself and it stuck in my mind that it would be cool to know about that kind of thing.”
Liane was always interested in Science and good at Maths at school. “I had a real curiosity to understand.” she says. After studying Physical Sciences at Girton College, Cambridge, she then worked for Shell as a researcher.
“Shell sponsored my research project in Laser Welding. They were interested in using the process to make cheaper pipelines with a faster fabrication process and were happy for me to do this as a PhD. I approached a number of Universities and the University of Sheffield accepted me as a part-time student, which allowed me the flexibility of working and studying at the same time.” she says.
Liane looks back at that time and wonders how she managed to fit everything in. “I worked in the week and then travelled to Sheffield at the weekend. It was fantastic as I got access to electron microscopes and other equipment that no-one used at weekends!” she says. Her PhD was a great experience for her. “I was getting paid and I had a budget, so I could arrange to get unusual steels made for me to analyse. I’m very proud of getting the qualification and grateful to the University of Sheffield for actually facilitating it and realising the benefits of industrial collaborations.”
Her career at Shell saw her move from research in the UK to a variety of jobs in the Netherlands, including two and a half years as the company’s Senior Welding Engineer. “It was great time to be working in the oil business as there was lots going on - lots of pipelines being laid and offshore structures being built. I had a team of six Dutch welding engineers working for me and it was just superb. My 5 years in the Netherlands was a wonderful experience and really expanded my knowledge of the industry.”
On returning to the UK, Liane decided she wanted to be proactive in the industry, so she left Shell and set up her own company, Intetech. “I began the company based on my own experience in design work and the methodologies I created in selecting materials. I quickly started working with other people, taking on contractors and then expanding to include employees.”
The scope of the company has grown too. “It started off as a materials consultancy and then over time we became a specialist in wells, in particular the selection of materials for wells. This area took me into petroleum engineering and along the way I developed software products to support these activities. It was an organic growth of the business and now we have 50 staff, with offices in 4 countries and it’s going really well. We’ve just celebrated 25 years of running the business.”
In 2013, Intetech was acquired by Wood Group, a multinational oil and gas services company, but Liane still continues as Managing Director with objectives to grow the business further across the world.
Her experience in the industry and plaudits as an engineer make her an inspiring figure to encourage more people into the field of engineering, especially women.
On this, she says “I don’t think we emphasise enough the fact that engineering is all about teamwork. Students are told to work in groups and collaborate because you need to develop the communication and teamwork skills in your career as an engineer.
It’s an exciting thing to sit in a meeting with lots of other people from different engineering disciplines - you all know what your contribution is going to be and you’re relying on everyone else to do their part. That’s such a great working environment and one that typically women enjoy.”
Another point she is keen to stress is the flexibility available to women in an engineering career. “It’s a fact that women can’t get around that if you want a family, it’s you that’s got to have the baby. It’s an interruption to a career and it’s a big dilemma for women as much today as it was twenty years ago. It’s not going to go away but the thing about engineering is that it’s all contract driven. We have contracts come in and they may be 3 weeks or 6 months or 2 years. If, at some point, someone comes to me as an employer and says ‘I’m expecting’, it’s not a problem as I just make sure they’re working on a project that finishes at a convenient time. Then they disappear for a bit, come back and they can be assigned a new project. It’s very flexible from a career point of view.”
It’s a refreshing attitude from a woman at the top of her field, and after thirty five years in the industry, she is still relishing the buzz of her work. “The best thing about being an engineer is the ongoing challenge. I was finishing a project this week that has still been hugely challenging to me. It’s the variety. I’ve been a serial specialist - from laser welding to other welding, materials selection to cladding materials, cost analysis of materials, corrosion modelling, petroleum engineering, risk and reliability and software development. I like to move on to new projects and that’s not necessarily something you can do in every career. The industry isn’t standing still and you need to be learning new skills. You need to take ownership of your career and drive it for yourself.”