Q&A: Navigating your engineering career path with purpose, passion and ingenuity

In the lead-up to the Women in Engineering Summit 2023, we asked some of the presenters to reflect on their careers and share some insights and experiences that may benefit emerging leaders in the field. Read on to learn from the following engineering leaders who have traversed unique journeys through determination, passion, and resilience.

  • Sarah Hannah, General Manager of Operations at Windlab
  • Jacqui Hansen, Senior Advisor in Asset Management at the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia (IPWEA)
  • Praema Ranga, Engineering Capability Manager at Boeing Defence Australia
  • Tamsyn Parker, Business Manager of Customer Engineering Services for NSW/ACT at BOC South Pacific
  • Asha Mathews, Director of Engineering Policy and Engagement at Defence Australia


Since beginning your engineering career, what factors or decisions have influenced your career path?

This group of women consciously tried to find new challenges as a way to improve their skillset. Asha Mathews says, “During the earlier days of my career I focused on building experience across a wide range of technology platforms across various industries. I kept moving around with this intent and in time took on opportunities that provided me greater learning exposure and hands-on work experience.“

Tamysn Parker noted that much of her career path came about from approaching "roles or projects in a learning outcome type way," explaining that "I might not find a particular project interesting but there is always something to be learnt or gained from it."

Sarah Hannah says she started her career feeling the “incongruence between what I was doing and my purpose in life.” This led her to travel to London looking for work in the midst of the Global Financial Crisis. She took on a “leftfield opportunity” in London, which happened to be her turning point. “I found my purpose in the essential service industry and progressing renewable energy. And 15 years later, I haven't looked back!”

While Praema Ranga was comfortable excelling as a technical engineer, she said “I wanted to build a solid foundation as a professional technical engineer before diversifying to leadership and management.” This process allowed her to gain respect as the leader she is today. “I now lead some of the best engineers in the world, whose respect and trust I have earned because they know I understand the pressures, challenges and opportunities they face even if their technical expertise is in a very different area to the one I come from.”

Jacqui Hansen started her career from passion. “I was offered the opportunity to work in a range of roles: design office, survey team and construction depot. I saw firsthand the services provided to my community by the infrastructure assets I helped build: roads, footpaths, stormwater and even a footbridge. I was so proud to be contributing the community in which I had grown up.”

What steps did you take early in your engineering career to lay a strong foundation for professional growth and development so you could achieve the career you wanted?

The responses to this question echo the sentiments from the previous. As Praema states, “I took the opportunities early in my career to travel extensively and do site-based work, undertaking a variety of projects in far flung corners of the Australian outback. I also sought out opportunities to try different roles in different areas of the business but stayed in each of these roles long enough to learn and make a difference.”

She believes these experiences helped improve her confidence as a technical engineer, which has formed a solid foundation for her career.

Tamsyn reflected on her early experience taking on a technician role in Darwin that could have been considered a step back, but instead proved to be a pivotal experience. “Taking that role grounded me and taught me the value of individuals and the importance of building inclusive team environments.”

Sarah Hannah’s initial three years as a process engineer in a consultancy combined her skills and experience in one place. “It provided a strong foundation for me in two respects; firstly, embedding my technical knowledge from university through technical design work; and secondly as a consultant I had the opportunity to work across many industries.”

Jacqui Hansen’s decision to join the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia (IPWEA) as a "younger member" led to invaluable mentoring “by legends in the industry who guided my career, encouraging me to further my studies and leave the city to take on more responsibility at a country council. In an amazing twist of fate, I now work for IPWEA as a teacher and subject matter expert, giving back to the industry, and repaying the mentoring given to me, many years ago.”

Praema agrees with Jacqui on the value of volunteering and networking, particularly through WA’s Engineers Without Borders and face-to-face university education. She says these broadened her perspective and provided valuable opportunities to connect with inspiring individuals. “The habit of being involved in communities outside my work has stayed with me and continues to give me fantastic opportunities to broaden my thinking and meet great people who energise me.”

What are some successful strategies you’ve used to develop specific skills and technical knowledge in your area of engineering specialisation?

Continuous education was the most common strategy to grow skill and knowledge for our speakers but they all tackled development in their own ways.

Sarah Hannah emphasises the importance of knowing how you absorb new information. “Understand your learning style! Mine is through doing and conversation, not reading. The greatest learning I’ve had is through leaders who have thrown me in the deep end and trusted me to swim.”

She identifies her strengths and surrounds herself with complementary individuals, creating a collaborative and supportive environment. “I don't need to have all the answers, but I always know who will.”

Additionally, Sarah recognises that “learning never ends!” as she is currently completing her MBA.

Jacqui Hansen shares this perspective. “Don’t stop studying. There is always more to learn.”

Jacqui also highlights the importance of professional associations such as IPWEA that represent your area of specialisation. She encourages fellow engineers to “join up, get involved and stay abreast of the latest developments.”

Asha stresses the importance of staying aware of the environment and keeping updated on current trends to foster career growth. “Being early adopters allows you to climb upstream with global innovation and provides you the ability to contribute to it.”

Asha follows the 30-70 development model, which allocates 30% to training and upskilling and 70% to hands-on experience and exposure, ensuring a balanced approach to growth. Sarah also endorses this model.

Tamsyn also favours hands-on approaches to gaining knowledge, but says her key approach is “asking the right questions to the right people.” Tamsyn suggests seeking learning opportunities beyond one's immediate field and exploring other industries for fresh perspectives and ideas, harnessing the importance of guidance. “I found showing an interest and being able to ask the right questions meant that people were more willing to help me.”

Finally, can you list a few pieces of advice for early-career engineers about building a fulfilling and successful career?

Praema Ranga:

  • Take opportunities to try different things, and stretch yourself outside your comfort zones
  • Participate in networking opportunities within and outside your organisation. Seek support and guidance from senior engineers in your organisation or in the community. Don’t be afraid to ask for new opportunities
  • And most importantly, have fun. Engineering is a profession that can provide a diverse range of fulfilling and exciting opportunities. Don’t settle for anything less

Sarah Hannah:

  • A fulfilling and successful career is when you are playing to your strengths 80% of the time. A strength is something you are good at, you love doing, and which the world needs
  • There is no right career path or right industry. Engineers can add value in so many fields
  • Take the time to explore your strengths (hot tip - it's the things you do first on your to-do list!) and follow your passions

Asha Mathews:

  • Engineering is a diverse field with endless opportunities; you are your only limit when it comes to achieving success
  • Be curious and take the initiative to drive change. Own your career, set professional goals, seek mentoring and coaching support, learn from everywhere and everyone and ask for feedback
  • Most importantly build your network and seek opportunities as you upskill and gain exposure and experience

Jacqui Hansen:

  • As a female engineer, I have always felt that I could forge my own path. There were no big shoes to fill. Of the 100 students in my graduating class, there were only three girls! Whilst I believe the ratio has improved, parity is a long way off
  • As you are building your career as a female engineer, work hard and follow your own dream
  • Don’t be afraid to take risks. It might work out. It might not. But you will learn from the experience. It is not failing but an opportunity for growth. At 35 years of age, with a 2 and a 3-year-old, I sold everything in Sydney, and moved 800km to take a job at a country council. That job did not work out, and I lasted only 10 months. However, I was snapped up by the council up the road, where I worked for 6 years, in a job where I received invaluable experience and support to take on post-graduate studies

Tamsyn Parker:

  • Consider every project or assignment an opportunity to learn and grow; when you start out the work is often routine and not necessarily meaningful
  • Get your hands dirty where you can, do the role/work of the people on the ground, as they often already have the solutions to the problems but have been ignored
  • It’s never too early to start networking and meeting new people

Sarah Hannah, Jacqui Hansen, Praema Ranga, Tamsyn Parker, and Asha Mathews have each carved their paths with determination, passion, and resilience. Their stories highlight the significance of taking calculated risks, staying open to learning, and leveraging support networks to build successful and fulfilling careers in the engineering field.

Join us at the Women in Engineering Summit to hear more from Sarah, Jacqui, Tamsyn, Praema, Asha and a host of other inspirational engineering leaders on 31 October - 2 November 2023. Learn more. 

To access the detailed conference program, download the brochure here.