Case study

Graduate project manager — Jenny Luo

Jenny studied MEng Mechanical Engineering at University College London (UCL) before becoming a project manager at BAE Systems

Why did you decide on this career?

The short answer is that it's exciting. I have always been curious; I grew up watching a lot of documentaries and reading around science and engineering topics - everything from wormholes to aeroplanes. For a while I was more interested in the pure sciences and theoretical maths, but as I got older this shifted, and I found myself intrigued by how we apply these laws in practice; I really started to appreciate how big of an impact engineering has on our lives.

How did you get your job with BAE Systems?

I applied to join the BAE Systems graduate programme via their early careers website. I had already known about the company before graduating, so was keen to apply for a graduate role there. It was a relatively standard application process consisting of an online application form, online tests, video interview and assessment centre.

What more should be done to increase female representation in engineering?

It starts by increasing awareness from a young age. We should be encouraging more conversations about engineering in schools and make STEM events and the curriculum more widespread and accessible.

Female engineers and scientists, and their achievements, should be celebrated and represented more in media and books, as a lot of young people look up to role models. This is really important as the absence of female representation in engineering further perpetuates the stigma that STEM is 'for boys', and thus may deter girls from considering the industry.

What's a typical day like as a graduate project manager?

We have flexible hours but I typically start at around 9am and finish around 5:30pm. Our standard week is 37 hours, so the half-day Fridays are a bonus.

I work in a delivery-based programme management team, working very closely with our engineering teams and also regularly liaising with supply chain, finance and other support functions. A typical day at the moment could include anything from pulling together schedule updates and analysing earned value data, to supporting contract status reviews and customer meetings.

Graduates are also encouraged to undertake 'STRETCH' activities and training opportunities - something I really appreciate as I am always looking for opportunities to learn and develop. STRETCH are additional activities outside of our normal role that are great for supporting our development and building our network. I've done quite a few different activities in the past but the current ones are as a safety, health and environment (SHE) champion for my programme and a campus manager, getting involved with university careers events.

What qualities do you think are important for a project manager?

  • good communication
  • the ability to work collaboratively with different people
  • a structured thought process
  • being able to see the wider picture so you can understand the health of a project when making critical decisions.

What part of your job gives you the most satisfaction?

For me, the number one is the people. I have always preferred working in teams - bouncing ideas off each other and having in-depth discussions. Everyone I have worked with so far have been so supportive and happy to share their knowledge and expertise.

A close second would be getting value out of what I do - it brings a great sense of achievement knowing I am contributing to the team and delivering something beneficial to the project. I also gain a lot of personal value from my work, which is important to me, as I am always keen to further my personal and professional development.

As a woman in engineering what challenges have you faced?

When I was at school, accessibility of information about engineering careers was one challenge for me. I went to an all-girls secondary school and at the time very few students went on to pursue engineering at university - I was the only one for several years that went into mechanical engineering specifically. The careers team were really supportive and helped where they could, but it was difficult without many example cases to draw from. I relied a lot on online research and information from family in other engineering fields to understand more about engineering careers.

There was a big change in gender ratio when I went to university (my course was about 20% female). I got used to this quickly though and for the most part, it didn't make any difference - I enjoyed studying and made a lot of great friends.

Having said that, there are instances as a woman where you feel like you need to prove your ability more, or work a little harder to get your ideas heard, which highlights the importance of female representation in engineering and in leadership positions. The people you work with, their mindsets and the working culture make a huge difference. I am very fortunate to have worked in many great teams, both at university and at work, but there is still work to be done to ensure all women across the field feel the same way too.

In what way is your degree relevant?

It is the skills that I have gained that have been most valuable to me. It trained me to think differently when solving problems by breaking things down into steps and taking a logical approach. I am not afraid of challenging myself and have built up a strong work ethic and keenness to understand things on a deeper level. In my current project management role, we work very closely with engineers and my degree gives me an appreciation of what they do and how they think, as well as the ability to adapt to different teams.

What are your career ambitions?

This has changed constantly throughout the years and still is. At the moment, I do want to build my career in the engineering industry, as I am really enjoying the interesting and complex projects. I would like to focus on broadening my skills as a project manager, working with lots of different people and gaining new experience. One long term goal for me is working towards becoming a chartered professional. However, I am keeping an open mind, and will take on new challenges and opportunities as they arise.

What advice can you give to other aspiring females engineers?

If you are thinking of pursuing engineering, then go for it. There are a variety of fields of engineering that will appeal to a range of people, and it is so versatile. You gain a number of skills that can help lead to lots of different career paths.

For aspiring female engineers, don't let the gender ratio put you off - if anything, it has made me more passionate about my career as I want to represent women in engineering and inspire girls and women not to be afraid to challenge the norm. I believe pursuing something you're passionate about is so motivating - not just for engineering, but for anyone in any career.

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