Emerging Leaders: How to create the engineering career you actually want

Emerging Leaders: How to create the engineering career you actually want

Lachlan Smith

Lachlan Smith


Recently I was invited to present as part of Roads Australia’s Emerging Leaders webinar. I took the opportunity to talk about building a career in infrastructure, through the lens of working on large projects and my own experiences in the infrastructure industry. 

I chose to do this using the concept of divergence and convergence. That is to say, the pressure to do the same thing as everyone else, vs. the value of doing things differently in the right way. More on this shortly. But first, some insight into how my career and FSC Group came to be. 

My Career

I began my career working on major projects with companies such as Fulton Hogan and Thiess, before at 27 starting FSC with two of my colleagues. Over the past 6 years, we’ve worked hard building FSC from a crazy idea into a place that people love to work. We’re a rapidly growing business that provides a unique combination of engineering services to major infrastructure projects across Australia.

My experiences as an engineer and an entrepreneur in infrastructure have given me a different perspective on our industry, how it works and how to build a great career within it. This article is an opportunity for me to share some of what I’ve learnt along the way. 

FSC Group and our ‘Universe’

Well, we might as well get the shameless plug out of the way here… FSC started as 3 engineers doing project management on small regional projects. We’re now a fully-fledged engineering consultancy, servicing our clients across;

  • Project Management 
  • Engineering Design & Advisory 
  • Environmental Consulting

We like to think of our company like a solar system, because why not! All the technical areas are orbiting around our culture at the centre, which stand for: 

  • Putting our people first 
  • Making a positive impact on the world through our work 
  • Diverging, being entrepreneurial and creative 
  • Creating opportunity for one another 

FSC Group

Designing your Career

Now that you have an idea of where we are now, let’s rewind and talk about designing your career first of all. This is the way I approach it. 

We are all unique by our nature. Therefore, by definition we are going to want something different from the person next to us. It may not be drastically different, but different nonetheless. As a result, we must decide for ourselves what we want our career to look like. Each industry has a ‘track’ that you can travel, but you need to be intentional in putting your own spin on it. To the concept of divergence and convergence – don’t converge to what others tell you that you want, diverge and figure it out for yourself. 

Working on Major Projects

At FSC, we’ve had the privilege of working on pretty much every Victorian major infrastructure project in the last 4 years. This gives us a unique perspective across the industry. Major projects by their nature are unpredictable, and the bigger they are, the more so this is true. The way we have been solving the issues on projects as an industry is to put in place more process and centralise decision making more and more. This, however, makes changing anything very difficult. 

This top-down decision making pushes us more and more into a structure like the below, which is a branch network, like a river system or the arteries in your body. 

FSC Group

These types of structures become slower and slower as they get bigger. They also have the effect of converging everyone in the system to act the same. This is very effective in managing large known risks, but not so good when it comes to dynamic systems. I’m sure we’ve all experienced this in different ways on projects. 

In contrast to this, a network structure – like the right below – the way humans organise in say cities, has the opposite characteristics. 

FSC Group

Each node is unique and is able to come up with solutions and it gets faster as it gets bigger. This is a structure that we should use more and more for managing non-catastrophic risk. 

The previous, top-down hierarchical structure creates extra pressure to all act the same way. Paradoxically, it is your unique difference, your divergence that you get rewarded for. It’s your unique ability to create value. So, diverging will create better project outcomes for your project, and it will help you become great at what you do. 

How to diverge… without getting fired

So, diverging is great – but executing can be easier said than done. To start, we need to be able to understand risk profiles and adjust how we respond accordingly. To talk about this I want to contrast learning to play basketball with learning to perform brain surgery. 

To learn how to play basketball, you wouldn’t sit in a lecture theatre, you’d go out on the court and play – this is a very effective way to learn. Now think about surgery. If you were going to teach me to do brain surgery, you wouldn’t tell me to scrub up and let’s go figure it out in the theatre! The risk is too high. In practice, we wouldn’t try a new harness idea that I came up with by repelling down a retaining wall on site without testing it first. 

So the best way to learn and figure something out is by having an action bias, that is to have a tendency towards action instead of planning or procrastination. However, only where the risk is controlled. Most things are more like basketball or can be made to be that way than you think, so give it a go! But always cap the downside when you are trying to diverge. 

Innovate to Diverge

So, we’ve designed our unique career, we’ve managed our risk and found our unique area of skill, now we need to know how to come up with new ideas. The answer is innovation. This is a massively overused word! Nevertheless, I want to try and simplify it and look at it in a slightly different way here. 

It’s easiest to explain with a physical thing, but for most of us, this is going to be more relevant by looking at non-physical things like our approach to work and systems. The good news though, is that innovation is a team sport. We can work together to innovate and diverge. 

Innovation happens when ideas have babies. Innovating is about combining old things with new things, or using something from one industry in another. Have a look at a car and think about all the combinations of different inventions that make the car what it is.

So, you can innovate your own skillset through learning and working with others. For me, an example was taking an 80’s approach to time management and adding this to Trello, a software program to dramatically increase my productivity. 

As a leader, learn team design and lead innovation together by learning from other industries. The infrastructure industry can learn a lot from industries which have innovated faster than our own. At FSC, we’ve modelled our approach to delivering practical outcomes off a New York Restauranteurs approach to hospitality, with great results! You can also give attention to your methods of working, like using new technologies such as UAV survey equipment to make us more efficient. If you do these things, you will diverge.   

A final thought

In my experience, creating the career you actually want comes down to these fives things; 

  1. Define what success is for you 
  2. Have an action bias where risk is low 
  3. Innovate to diverge 
  4. With your valuable skill set, use it to achieve your career design 
  5. Have fun

I want to just emphasise that last point, as it’s easy to throw out there. The career you want will, for most of us, involve a fair bit of fun. Back to diverging, this should also be fun. Diverging, innovation and fun all go hand in hand. The opportunity to be creative, try new things, make mistakes and stumble across new innovations should all be exciting to you, so enjoy it! You’ll notice the more you do, the more you enjoy your career, and the work you do.

FSC is a growing business; are you part of the next big thing?

At FSC we put our people first, we love out of the box ideas and helping individuals build a career. Keen to join the team? Get in touch today.

FSC Group

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