General Manager, Innovation and Strategy
National Energy Resources Australia
Francis Norman’s engineering career began with a Higher National Certificate (HNC) in industrial measurement and control from Teesside University in the UK. Following this, Francis worked as an instrumentation engineer from 1983 to 2006, always working on process intensive projects, later moving into an engineering manager role. In 2014 a career change saw Francis spend two years working as a management consultant before joining National Energy Resources Australia (NERA) as General Manager, Innovation and Strategy.
How long have you been a member of Engineers Australia?
I joined Engineers Australia in 1997 when I emigrated to Australia. I had been a member of the Institute of Measurement and Control in the UK for a few years before moving here and wanted to retain a connection to the profession beyond just my day job. I’ve long been a believer that, when you have the capacity to do so, you need to contribute to your profession and not simply be a passenger.
Why did you pursue a career in engineering?
I was encouraged to pursue engineering by my father, who was a shift manager at the local petrochemical facility. During my school years I was very interested in practical subjects such as technical design and had a reasonable talent for maths, but I didn’t really know what to expect from engineering. It was, however, one of the best pieces of advice I ever received, as the profession has given me so much satisfaction over the years.
How can Australian communities/people/society benefit from your work now and in the future?
At its heart, most engineering is undertaken to benefit the community, whether it’s providing infrastructure, industry, transport or any of the other services. Fundamentally, what we do changes people’s lives, and generally for the better. It is critically important that we as a profession don’t forget this when we are doing our work. It’s easy to focus on the daily tasks and lose sight of the big picture, yet engineers have been building communities and providing safe environments for people for millennia, and need to keep doing so as our society’s needs and expectations change with our increasing understanding of the challenges we face in the future.
What is the most challenging or interesting project you’ve ever worked on?
I have been fortunate that virtually every project I have been part of has been incredibly interesting. Engineering has given me the opportunity to live and work in Brazil in the mid 1980s, South Korea through the late19 80s and early 1990s, to now live in Australia and to build networks in many other countries. The project experience I will always remember, though, is when I worked for 6 months in Brazil in 1985. I was part of a very small team, and the only one from my department, commissioning a new blast furnace for our client. The project was remote, communications took days and the work was very challenging, but I got to learn a lot about myself and build the confidence that I could work independently. It was probably this project that set up the next 20 years of my career.
Why did you become a member of the Engineers Australia WA committee and 2015 president?
I was invited to stand for election for the WA committee in 2013. Division committee membership was something I had never considered but, once I was elected, I found it to be a hugely rewarding opportunity to genuinely influence how the profession is seen by the broader community and support the careers of members and non-members alike. This was greatly amplified during 2015 when I had the huge privilege of serving as the WA president, representing the profession for the year. 2015 was a difficult year for engineers in WA as we worked through the downturn, but the enthusiasm and passion I saw from so many people was inspiring.
Following my year as president, I took on the role of chairing the College of Leadership and Management WA. This is a perfect place for me to use my experience and networks to support engineers who are moving into leadership roles, help them maintain their connection to the profession and build the skills needed to be effective leaders.
What do you see as one of the biggest issues facing the engineering profession?
I feel we have a bit of an identity crisis at present. Many, if not most, engineers went into the profession because of their passion for the maths and science that underpin everything we do. We largely see the world through logic and reason, yet increasingly decisions are being made for reasons of politics or personal preference, which can be challenging for us to accept and work with.
We desperately need to find our new role in the future of our society. For decades, engineers were seen as leaders of society, the people who built the future and were capable of turning dreams into reality. But in recent times I believe we have abdicated this role and, along with it, a lot of our passion to really be part of the future, having left that position to politicians and other professions.
We talk a lot about needing to attract new people into engineering and about the technical things we do, but I believe it’s the societal contribution we need to emphasise if we want engineering in Australia to thrive into the future.
What excites you about the future of the profession or what opportunities do you see for the future?
The future represents an exciting and undefined set of opportunities. We have an immense opportunity to actively and positively contribute to a strong future. I personally believe that as engineers we have always practiced our profession in a sustainable way, building to last. However, sustainability has been redefined and we need to be part of the solution to not just build a safe and secure future but also leave a positive legacy for future generations.
Many engineers I meet are passionate about the future and the future of the profession but struggle to know where either is heading. So, as a professional body, it is incumbent on us to help to set that direction and work to understand what engineering practice will look like in 2019 and beyond.
I believe the future of engineering will be to combine the traditional skills of the past with all of the exciting emerging skills we are seeing now, to blend data science with technical engineering disciplines, to work in global teams on the large and small challenges, and to continue to practice our profession for the betterment of society – not just the monthly pay check.
Who is your engineering hero?
My engineering heroes are the teams of professionals who work away largely unseen or unrecognised, but take their satisfaction from knowing that what they do is supporting and enhancing our lifestyle every day.
Image: courtesy of Francis Norman