Article

Breaking down walls in engineering


WORK180Jul 21, 2020

What Vanessa Bullock loves most about working in engineering is being able to connect dots and solve problems. A System Engineering Team Lead for Power & Utilities at Woodside Energy, she shares how women can excel in engineering, her tips for first-time managers and why engineers have an exciting role to play in the energy industry’s future.

Lifting the veil

With natural strengths in maths and science, it was Vanessa’s mum who encouraged her to get an admin job at an engineering firm to see if it was something she wanted to pursue a career in.

“I think there’s a veil over the things we don't know, and I didn’t know much about engineering or even any engineers I could talk to. So by doing the admin job, I got to meet a number of engineers and get a flavour for the work they did,” Vanessa explains.

“Mum was right, it opened my eyes and I thought, ‘Actually, engineering is not that hard. I can do this, and I want to do this’.”

Vanessa stayed working part-time at the engineering firm while she completed her Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering. This helped fast-track her learning and gave her an advantage in later securing internships. But it’s great mentors and coaches that have really given her career a boost, she says, as well as the confidence that she has the ability to succeed in engineering.

We create these walls for ourselves where something seems too hard and complicated. I was really lucky that I had lots of people who were willing to share their knowledge with me and help break down those walls.

After a number of different graduate roles and wanting to find a workplace where she felt she belonged, Vanessa joined Woodside Energy as a Graduate Mechanical Engineer in 2014. She has worked across a number of departments and significant projects since then.

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Women excelling in engineering

Vanessa believes a lot of women would enjoy engineering.

For women interested in a career in engineering, she offers four tips to excel:

  1. Believe you can do it – “If engineering is something you’re interested in, you should absolutely pursue it. We all have something to offer, so believe in yourself and manage any internal self doubt.”
  2. Understand the power of the team – “Nothing good is built by one person, so make sure you build an understanding of how people think and develop skills to read others. And don’t try to do everything yourself – that’s been a big lesson for me.”
  3. Develop a love of learning – ”Look for opportunities where you can get your hands dirty and develop your practical experience. Don’t be afraid to push yourself.”
  4. Find your allies – ”It’s really important you have people around you that believe in you, challenge you and will advocate for you.”

Going from individual contributor to manager

At the end of 2019, Vanessa was given the opportunity to step up into a team lead role for the power generation, power distribution and utilities team at Karratha Gas Plant. She’s enjoying the shift in focus from solving problems herself to helping her team of seven achieve their goals.

For first-time managers, her advice is to:

  • Learn about yourself and focus on your strengths.
  • Accept that you can't be the solution to everything. Get to know what people, resources and help is available within your workplace.
  • Adjust your outlook and accept that your focus is on the team, not you as an individual.

What’s also helped Vanessa adjust to her new managerial responsibilities is the learning she’s gained through the MBA she’s currently completing.

I've learnt so much about financials, business management and people management. It’s been super useful because being a good engineer doesn’t necessarily make you a good manager, you have to be trained.

When Vanessa is not studying or working, she’s creating and collecting art, and spending time outdoors: hiking, camping, swimming and gardening.

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Talking about diversity

There’s a number of reasons why Vanessa thinks Woodside is “an awesome place to work”.

“Our CEO Peter Coleman has driven this great culture of ownership, innovation, collaboration and honesty. It’s a challenging and dynamic workplace, where people are motivated to create change, and that’s really kept me here.”

A member of Woodside’s Gender Equality Matters steering committee, Vanessa also appreciates that the company isn’t afraid to talk about and take action on issues that matter, like gender and indigenous diversity.

She’s also been involved in Woodside’s Reconciliation Committee and in 2017 spent six weeks volunteering with the Gumatj Corporation, working at Gulkula Mining Company, Australia’s first Indigenous owned and run mine.

While I had never worked in mining, I was able to transfer my emergency management skills and help set up their emergency response systems. It was hard work but so rewarding.

In fact, Vanessa describes it as the best experience of her life.

“Immersing myself in the culture of the Gumatj people was transformative. Life can be really superficial, but the experience enabled genuine human connections and opened my eyes to the issues caused by societal systems.”

Being a part of the future of energy

Vanessa tries not to plan too many career steps in advance but she does admit to wanting to be involved in the energy industry’s transition to a lower carbon future, and at some point work in Woodside's power, hydrogen or carbon management teams.

The energy industry is transitioning for a sustainable future. As engineers, we’re trained to solve problems and be adaptable, which is why is so exciting to be part of that transition.

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