Network Rail

How I became Network Rail engineering director: making courageous career choices

Helen Samuels traces her career from civil engineering student to becoming a hydrology specialist to moving into rail. She's never been afraid of moving out of comfort zones.
During my career there have been times when I’ve felt the need to make a courageous career move.

When I was at school I had planned to become a physiotherapist. Engineering wasn’t a career I had thought about until my A level physics teacher suggested I look into it. After attending a Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) event at Cardiff University, I was certain that this was an industry that I wanted to enter. Water engineering and hydrology appealed to me from an ethical perspective, as providing clean water and disposing of waste water are fundamental to people’s lives.

Getting work experience and CV tips

Throughout my degrees I made sure to get as much work experience as I could during holidays. By the time I was applying for graduate jobs, I already had around a year’s worth of experience of working for construction companies. This experience really differentiated me from other graduates in the recruitment process. Seeing what I had learned at university working in practice also helped to consolidate my learning and so was useful from an academic perspective.

Students should think about what skills and qualities they have that are their unique selling points. Having a range of varied work experience and attaining the highest level of academic achievement will always make your CV stand out, but also be aware of the skills you might be demonstrating through extracurricular activities too. Whether you’ve shown leadership through sports or resilience through travelling, you need to be able to talk about these in applications and interviews in a way that would be interesting to a recruiter.

Going against the flow in my career

During my career there have been times when I’ve felt the need to make a courageous career move. Moving outside of my comfort zone was a risk, as things may or may not go well, but I knew that I would learn from it either way. Both times when I’ve had children, being on maternity leave allowed me to think about what I wanted to do. I had my first son, Archie, in 1996 and when I returned to work again I moved to the Environment Agency; after my second son, Douglas, was born in 1998 I joined Halcrow in a project management position. Rather than limiting my career (as some mothers can fear), having children kept me motivated and moved me to new things.

While at Halcrow a director-level position opened up, which was, at the time, three grades above my position. Looking at the job listing, I thought ‘I could do that’ and so decided to apply. I didn’t get it, but I did come a close second; by being brave and sticking my head above the wall I caught the attention of senior people in the company, which resulted in me eventually being promoted to a position where I was in charge of the company’s water sector for a year in Australia.

Until I joined United Utilities I’d worked on both the design and construction of infrastructure, but I had yet to work for an employer that owned and operated infrastructure. Despite moving out of my comfort zone into a role that was much more challenging than what I had been doing before, I am very proud of what I achieved in a relatively short amount of time. I was able to build a brilliant new team who, even now, are continuing the work I began. After a couple of years I again reached a point where I was looking for a new challenge. I wanted to stay working for a company that owns infrastructure, but there wasn’t really anything bigger in the UK water sector. Fortunately for me, I was headhunted by Network Rail.

Looking backwards and forwards

Network Rail’s infrastructure projects department is responsible for building new assets and renewing existing ones: every year we construct around £5 billion worth of infrastructure and make sure it performs for our many customers. My role is to lead the technical authority for these projects. I’d never worked in rail before, so have been able to bring a fresh pair of eyes to the industry. I also line manage the in-house design team of about 550 engineers, who are doing jobs outside of my technical experience; I’ve had develop my managerial style to help me do this. Moving to Network Rail was an amazing opportunity for me and I have absolutely loved it so far. I am looking forward to working with my new team and, with their help, continuing to learn more about my new industry.

If I reflect back on my early career there was a lot of ‘stuff’ that I had to put up with as a woman in engineering. At the time it was the norm and I didn’t realise how inappropriate some of it was, but I’m really proud of how far the engineering industry has come. Research has been carried out that shows diverse workplaces are more effective and, although the engineering sector still has a way to go, we’ve moved on massively in terms of how female engineers are treated. Being named one of the top 50 most influential female engineers in the UK was a lovely surprise, as my team had nominated me and it was extremely affirming to be in the same room as so many other senior women in the industry.

Exclusive content for The Guardian UK 300 2017/18. Copyright of all material written by TARGETjobs lies solely with GTI Media.

View The Guardian UK 300.