Rob McCrae is a technical director working in Atkins' Hong Kong office on various rail and tunnelling projects. As part of the #AtkinsMyTime initiative, he's taken the time to share some perspectives from across his career.
What are the experiences that have been formative to getting your career to where it is today?
I have always had great engineers who helped me understand both the challenges and the limits of what one can do. Without more senior engineers to mentor one and collaborative colleagues progress in the profession is difficult. Without the encouragement and support of colleagues throughout my career I would not have been as successful - it is important to seek out their help and support as one builds ones career.
Who or what project has influenced you most in your career? And how?
The Channel Tunnel. When you are involved in the design of a project which has been two hundred years in gestation it brings home how important engineers are in delivering the infrastructure which improves communication and opens up new travel possibilities. I worked on many of the key issues on developing the design parameters and also liaising with our French counterparts. More importantly is the long term benefit. I have traveled through it regularly since, a much easier way to Paris, for meetings, than the flights we made during construction. It is a sense of pride that I was part of the construction.
How has technology changed your working life?
The way the office works is now totally different. When I started there was no CAD and computers only used to a limited extent. Most design and calculations relied on calculators though some of the older engineers still had slide rules in their desks. In some of my early work, designing tunnels in Saudi Arabia, we printed all the design drawings in UK and then sent out massive roles of prints about twice a week. The only rapid means of communication was telephone or Telex. The advent of fax considerably sped up design information exchange with people on-site as pictures and sketches can present a much clearer description for many design and engineering concepts. The difference the ability we now have to easily exchange information has changed totally how communication between worldwide offices and projects can be designed and run.
How important has partnership/collaboration been throughout your career? Can you give examples?
Nearly all successful jobs rely on a strong sense of partnership and collaboration: the need to work together for the best outcomes makes this essential. When it is apparent early in a project that such collaboration is not working then, without change, the chances of bringing the project to a successful conclusion for everyone involved is low. On Crossrail the joint working relationship with Arup and for Crossrail is a prime example were through cooperation and trust a team has continued for almost ten years to work in successful partnership. This has meant during the course of the work that decisions have been needed to remove those who may be excellent in other ways, but don't fit into the team. The reason for this was selecting the right people at the onset and working closely with the client. We can rightly claim to be the consultancy group most highly respected by Crossrail - which is then reflected in the revenue Atkins (and Arup) have derived from the project.
What small change has made a big impact on your working life?
A phone call from Mike Kilkenny nineteen years ago. He knew my then employers were being closed and staff transferring to another consultant. He said did I want to come and talk to Atkins about joining them. Contacts in the industry have always been important and regular conversations though only a little thing at the time can have important consequences.
Can you give an example of how your work has benefitted our society?
Before Gautrain came into operation in South Africa railway travel for commuting and similar purposes was considered too dangerous by most of the population and those who could afford cars would always use them instead. This polarised society and also meant for two to three hours in the morning and similarly in the evening roads were gridlocked.
Through the design and construction of Gautrain in which Atkins were heavily involved the situation has changed. Now there is a safe means of travel from the airport in Johannesburg and also between Pretoria and Johannesburg. After almost five years in operation the railway is carrying more passengers than predicted and industry is reaping the benefit of staff knowing they can be punctual without fear of traffic delay. The presence of the railway has also allowed tolls to be introduced on some main roads (politically unacceptable before when no alternative available) which helps to encourage people to use the railway and reduce traffic congestion and pollution.
The success is shown by the enthusiasm in the country to build similar schemes to provide safe transport and an alternative to cars on an extremely busy, overloaded and dangerous road system.
What’s the most transformational project you’ve worked on? And why?
There are two - Gautrain, for the changes it has caused in Johannesburg transportation usage as described above. Then in the eighties I worked on the Al Hudaydah to Dhamar road which came about through international funding following a severe earthquake. The remoteness and lack of communication lead to many avoidable deaths because the rescue / medical services couldn't get to remote villages. Putting in a new road through such a remote area and challenging conditions was an opportunity few would get. Though after the event it helped change the lives of the villages by changing journeys which had taken days to hours to Sanaa and the outside world.
Can you give an example of a clever solution to a challenging project you’ve worked on or observed?
On the Northwich salt mine backfilling we had a town centre which was effectively frozen for future development because of the hazard of underlying salt mines filled with concentrated brine.
We wanted to remedy the situation in the most environmentally way possible. Instead of using road transport we remediated an abandoned railway siding to minimise road transport (saving well over 100,000 road movements). We utilised ash being discarded at a local power station (Fiddlers Ferry) as the main filling material and transported the displaced brine to a salt manufacturer for recycling rather than expensive waste disposal. The whole scheme was based on finding the most sustainable means to stabilise the mines, safeguarding the town centre and allowing development of the twin and (Weaver) riverside areas.
What would you say or do to attract young people to the profession?
Civil engineering has been since the time of Telfer about how we can provide the infrastructure to better people's existence. That applies as much today as it did in 1800. Young engineers and designers can be introduced to what Atkins is doing not only through steel and concrete and images of what this makes but by understanding the positive change and betterment this has on those who will and do use the outcomes. How building transport links improve people's lives through easing travel as an example.
How do you see the industry evolving?
When I started there were many small consultancies and also contractors. I believe the change to be larger or mega firms will continue as larger projects are taken on. Multi billion projects will happen and it is only the very largest firms that will be able to deliver them.
What advice would you give to someone trying to build a successful career in Atkins?
In the early parts of anyone's career it is important to see some variety. This can either be in different sectors of the business or in different locations. It is critical to develop as early as possible a wide appreciation of what can be achieved and not be constrained in thought by ones own speciality or region.
What business experiences do you think will be key to building a successful senior exec career over the next 20 years?
To be a successful executive over the next twenty years one clearly needs to understand the business and also have a clear view as to how it is likely to change in the future. Therefore it is important that any aspiring executive gains as wide an experience as possible of all aspects of the global Atkins business and actively seeks out and maintains contacts beyond their own business stream. Most importantly however I believe it is the necessity to recognise when change is needed and embrace it which is the most important attribute for our future leaders. One must recognise that one’s knowledge and experience to advance one’s career does not only come from one’s employer. Therefore one should actively understand how other organisations work and maintain a wide and varied professional network.