• Mark J. Keenan

The Accidental Engineer

Updated: May 4


I originally gave a version of these thoughts at a presentation, in 2018, to around two hundred undergraduate engineers.


Engineers Australia had organised an event called Elevation to provide support, and hope, to the current group of student engineers. At the time, available opportunities for local engineers was low, and declining, due to the offshoring of engineering services and the economic downturn in the resources sector.


Right now seems a good a time to share some of the things I talked about then.


The Accidental Engineer.

When I was 16 years old, my family moved from the country town, Carnarvon, where I had grown up, to Perth. As a result, I completed Year 12, a thousand kilometres from my friends, in the unfamiliar environment of a large metro school.


The first half of the year was really tough. I struggled to make friends, and I was constantly singled out for my ‘country’ accent. I threw myself into my studies.

At the time, all I wanted was to get out of the city and back to the country. And I wanted to pursue my childhood dream, to be a writer. I had no idea how to do either.


Then I met Phil, Danny and Jason. Three guys who became my best friends. They were all studying maths, physics and chemistry at the same high school as me. They were all planning on doing engineering at UWA.


My dad was a communications technician and my mum was a cleaner. I didn’t know any engineers and I had no idea what they did. But I followed my mates anyway.


I completed my degree in mechanical engineering and then undertook a master’s degree in engineering science; researching cutting-edge measurement techniques for ship hulls. I’ve worked in three different countries, and travelled to many more. I’ve been to remote sites, offshore rigs, factories, shipyards all over the world. I’ve worked for multi-nationals and small businesses. I’ve spent a day counting bolts in a warehouse and spent weeks transferring data from paper records into a spreadsheet. I’ve worked on what was the world’s largest offshore project. I’ve co-founded and managed an engineering services business.


So, what have I learned.


Do anything. Do everything.

When I graduated in 1991, Australia was in recession. Two thirds of my class was unable to find work, including me. I’d sent out over a hundred applications, attended multiple interviews, and even made the second round on some of them. But I still hadn’t been able to get a job.


My final year project supervisor, no doubt feeling sorry for me, asked if I wanted to complete a postgraduate degree.


Stay at university and complete another degree?


I couldn’t have imagined anything I wanted to do less.


I started my masters degree a month later in January of 1992.


Three months into the research degree, one of the applications I had sent off resulted in an interview. I met with the owner of the construction business. It went well and I was offered employment as an engineer. I would initially be required to write the company procedures and quality manual.


Writing procedures!


I had found something I wanted to do less than stay at university.


I took the job. And I changed my masters to part-time so I could still complete it.

These are still two of the best decisions I ever made.


The owner of the business has been an inspiration for me throughout my career.


And the masters degree paid dividends when a couple of years later it was the point of difference which helped me into my first design engineering role, working for a company I consider to be the best business I have ever worked for.


Doors open for a reason, go through them, or at least take a peek.


Open your mind.

There is far more to know than you can discover in a lifetime.


I have met wonderful people in my career, who have shared with me their knowledge and wisdom. They did this because I showed interest. And I admitted I didn’t know what to do, or I wasn’t sure.


In the days before email (yes, there was such a time), I would send faxes (like an email, only slower and more likely to get lost), to engineers I’d met asking for help with different problems I was trying to solve. I (almost) always got a response.


It’s important to read widely, listen carefully, ask questions, volunteer, challenge yourself.


Learn, always.


Make mistakes.

When I was a young engineer, I was handed a set of around 200 piping drawings to sign off. They had already been signed by the draftsman and by a checker. It was late on a Friday and I wanted to get home but the drawings needed to be issued.


I quickly signed them all and had them issued to the client.


On Monday, I was called to a meeting to explain why the drawings, which had very obvious errors on them, had been issued. The client had received them for his signature and was less than impressed.


Of course, I could have tried to pass the blame to others, but it was my responsibility as the engineer for the drawings to be correct. I stayed back late that evening and the following one, checking the revised documents.


It’s okay to make mistakes, as long as you admit, correct, and learn from them.


Connect.

You’ll hear the word ‘network’ and ‘networking’ bandied around a lot.


Networking always sounds artificial to me. It often seems to come with an intent to construct something for yourself; to ‘build your network’. And I’ve found, if you don’t fit the right profile, the ‘networker’ you are talking to will move on to someone else. If you’ve ever been at one of those events where you are talking to someone, but they are looking over your shoulder at someone else they want to speak to, you will know what I mean.


Rather than trying to build anything, approach each interaction as an opportunity to connect, at a human level. We are all the same – engineers, cleaners, truck drivers – we all have dreams and fears, aspirations and concerns, abilities and imagination. Talk about what matters to you, listen to what matters to the person you are with.


Of course, you won’t connect with everyone and that’s okay. Just be you anyway.


Have fun.

Engineering has a serious side, often dealing with situations where failure can result in loss of life, loss of money, or have other catastrophic impacts.


But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have fun.


I worked in Asia for a couple of years. For part of that time I was located on-site at the LNG plant.


It was always hot and humid and most days I needed to spend at least some time outdoors. From a safety perspective everyone wore overalls, work-boots and a hardhat when in the plant. But only one person wore a tie. Me. And only on Fridays.


Be that person who’s a little bit different.


Go for it.

Have courage and reach for your dreams.


In 2005, I founded Momentum Engineering with a mate of mine. We didn’t know where it would take us and we certainly had no plan. I wanted to see if I could recreate that same feeling I had experienced in the company I mentioned before - “the best business I’ve ever worked for”.


It has been a roller-coaster experience.


In April 2008 we moved from a small (and leaky) office that housed sixteen people to a St Georges Terrace office that could take seventy people. We got a rent bill to match. Three months after the move, the global financial crisis struck. At one stage we had less than twelve people working in the office, yet somehow we persisted.


Last week, I printed the second draft of my manuscript; a story set in 1950s Bassendean. I’ll start the third draft next week. I had no idea when I started writing how difficult it was going to be, or how rewarding.


American novelist, E.L. Doctorow, was quoted as saying:

“It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”


He was talking about writing at the time, but I think he could have been talking about life. And the only thing I would add is to be adventurous and take the occasional scenic route or bush track shortcut; it just might be the best part of the journey.