Sulo Shanmuganathan is a structural engineer and Technical Director at Holmes Consulting. We caught up with her to find out what drove her to choose engineering as a career and how the industry has changed over the years.
What led you to a career in engineering?
When I began university in Sri Lanka, engineering was considered one of the two best careers paths to follow. The other being medicine. Engineering was the most attractive to me as I was doing well academically, and I had an interest in technical subjects like science and maths in school.
My late father was a civil engineer, and he was keen that I followed in his footsteps. However, when I entered the profession, I didn't have a deep understanding of what was involved in terms of solving community problems and how much the work impacts people's lives. Once I understood this, it was an easy decision for me to choose engineering as my career path.
Where did you attend university?
I began my undergraduate studies at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka and graduated in 1987. I was very keen to become an academic at that stage in my life, so I decided to join the engineering department at the university and became a teaching assistant.
After two years, I decided to pack up my life and move to Scotland to study for my structural engineering masters at Dundee University. I thought of Scotland as 'heaven' coming from Sri Lanka. I had so many friends there - we'd go on day trips together, it was a great time in my life. I also met my husband in Scotland - so I always have fond memories of the place.
After Scotland, we moved to the United Kingdom, where I completed my PhD at Nottingham Trent University. While I was studying, my supervisor offered me a job at his company. It was a bit of a mental shift for me because I'd always thought I'd be in the academic side of the industry. But, things change!
Once I started working for a private firm, I got to work on some exciting projects. We designed the hyperbolic-parabolic roof structure for the Sydney Olympic Stadium in 2000. It was a very cool experience!
There were times when I was homesick and would miss my family, but overall the education, work, and life lessons prepared me for the rest of my professional career.
Why did you decide to move to New Zealand?
When I got married, my husband had already moved to New Zealand, so I moved too. It was an easy decision to make at the time and one that I never regretted making.
Tell us about your day-to-day role with Holmes Consulting?
I've been with Holmes for three years now. As Technical Director, my primary focus is on two fundamental aspects. The first is gaining an understanding of precisely what each customer expects from our involvement in their project. The projects I'm involved in mainly focus on transport infrastructure and the built environment. I deal with a wide range of clients ranging from the KiwiRail to local councils. Nowadays, many of the infrastructure projects that we are dealing with are exceptionally complex due to the way they're funded and the regulatory framework that has to be worked through before a project can proceed. It is vitally important that I develop a strong working relationship with the customer and acquire a deep understanding of the project and what problems need to be solved.
My second focus area is the development of the team that will undertake the project work. I am involved in nurturing the team, which includes engineers, draughtspeople and technicians as they work with the customer to deliver the solution. I enjoy this work as I am part of the community as well as being an engineer, and I have my views on how I would like to see our cities and towns develop.
How did Holmes work during the COVID lockdown?
We've been trialling a range of technology platforms for some time now. That worked out well for us during lockdown as the work we had done to improve our technology and collaboration prepared us well for remote working.
I think the company did exceedingly well over that difficult time with projects continuing to be delivered on time and within budget. As human beings, we have an incredible potential for adaptability if we put our mind to it. We can be resilient and deal with any problems that come our way, and that was never better demonstrated than during the time many of us spent away from the office in March and April this year.
How has the workplace changed since you joined the engineering industry?
It's one of the most common questions I get asked when I do this type of interview.
During my 30-year career in engineering, I have seen some profound changes.
Even when I look back over the last five years in New Zealand, there have been significant changes including the launch of The Diversity Agenda and Infrastructure New Zealand's Women's Infrastructure Network which launched in 2016. Many of these new initiatives have significantly raised awareness of how we must embrace diversity and inclusion in the workplace. I believe there is now more understanding that people have different passions and desires, and as a community, we must learn to accept these differences. Even having this conversation shows that there is a recognition that the engineering community is now prepared to include different groups of people, and it's great that we can bring diverse viewpoints to the table.
What do you love about your job?
I enjoy the challenge that comes from solving problems. It may be a complex challenge or just a small issue, but for me, working as an engineer is about making a difference for the community and seeing the benefits to people lives that come from solving these problems. I'm privileged to be able to live and work in New Zealand and have been able to develop a satisfying lifestyle that comes from living in this beautiful part of the world. I don't want to waste the chance I have been given, and I take every opportunity to maximise the differences I can make to people's lives.
What do you love to do outside of consulting?
I've recently taken up baking and cooking. I also love to read and go for walks - well, not so much to walk these days as much as eating!