Blog  •  23 Jun 2020  •  6 min read

A sneak peek into the life of a Systems Engineer, Charlie Kenney

Today we are celebrating International Women in Engineering Day, a global campaign aimed at raising the profile of women engineers and encourage more people to consider engineering as a career path.

To mark this occasion, we decided to take a sneak peek into the life of Charlie Kenney, one of our talented Systems Engineers. We hope you find this article interesting; it may challenge some misconceptions about the profession and perhaps spark some interest for others to look further into this field.

Here’s Charlie’s words about her job, her career journey and a fascinating choice as her Plan B – read on!

How would you describe your job to a 10-year old?

Well, we take big complicated, engineering problems and we break them down to smaller problems to make them easier to solve.

For example, if we take an aeroplane, we would first look at all the things it “needs to do”, like travelling from A to B overseas really quickly, carrying a large number of people and so on. Designing a whole aeroplane is very difficult so we break it down in to smaller parts (or sub-systems) so you may have one team looking at the wings, another in charge of the engines or the electrical system and so on. We can then look at what each of those sub-systems need to do in order to make sure the whole aeroplane works and we focus on how to solve all of these smaller problems individually. The hard part is making sure that it all fits together properly as if you change one small part it can have an impact on everything else e.g. If you make the body bigger you might need a bigger aircraft hangar to store it in and the wings and engines may need to be made bigger or else it may not be able to fly.

What was your favourite subject in school and was there anyone who influenced you into STEM subjects?

My favourite subject in school was Art and Design, closely followed by Physics. It might be an unusual combination but I liked art and design for being creative and messy and Physics for applying logical thinking to solve real-life problems and for being free to experiment. My favourite teacher in school was our Physics teacher; he was great at coming up with examples from the real life as problems and challenges to solve.

What’s a common misconception that people have about what you do?

Everyone always think systems engineering is an IT role. Another common misconception is that people don’t think it is real engineering. Although it’s not a ‘focussed’ engineering subject, we still need to understand the different areas of engineering (mechanical, electrical, aerodynamics, etc.) in order to understand the overall system and work with all people involved, we just take an overview rather than focussing on a specific area.

What are the types of industry that you specifically focus in?

Through my career so far, I have been working primarily in the defence sector (land, sea and air) as well as the civil nuclear and civil aerospace industries.

What was the career path you took?

I decided to study product design and mechanical engineering at university. I fully intended to become a Product Design Engineer but in my placement year I ended up working for General Dynamics in their systems engineering department. When I graduated, I got job offers for several systems engineering roles and I went straight in to systems engineering consultancy which was a bit strange as generally people expect a consultant to already be a “seasoned expert” of the field even though I had just graduated. Several years and many projects later, here I am!

What do you like most about being a Systems Engineer?

I like the variety the most. Systems engineering can be applied to any complex engineering project and although the process itself remains fairly similar, you get to learn something new in every project.

I also enjoy the challenge that comes with consultancy of being thrown in the deep end and having to get up to speed quickly. As a consultant, you get to experience different companies and their culture and ways of working so you learn a lot of soft skills in addition to the technical knowledge.

What’s the best project you have worked on?

I did enjoy working for Airbus; it was the longest project I have been involved in and seeing a project through several stages from early design to qualification and preparation for the aircrafts first flight was really rewarding.

What would you say is the most rewarding part of your job?

I enjoy helping people – whether it’s creating a process, delivering a specific piece of work or just providing another pair of hands or set of skills to make their life easier – you are helping them in some way and it feels really great. I thrive on fixing people’s problems.

In your opinion, what top three changes could make life easier for Women in STEM?

I think it’s quite a complex and multi-faceted challenge but my top picks are:

  • Changing the perception that only people who think and act in a certain way are suitable to become an engineer or scientist. A lot of people expect female engineers to be tomboys for example;
  • Changing how the media portrays engineers in general to start showing young people that the STEM field is really diverse and requires very different talents and skills (not just being good at Maths);
  • Raising awareness and showcasing all the different types of roles and careers in STEM, it’s not just about fixing a machine and getting dirty or mixing chemicals in a lab, it’s a lot more complex and diverse.

If you weren’t a Systems Engineer what would be your Plan B?

When I was a kid, I would dream about becoming a pilot (or at one point, Batman). I had the chance to fly few planes and it was fun but I decided it wasn’t what I wanted. My back-up plan nowadays is running an art café, selling cakes and tea and running crafts and creative courses, maybe selling art on the side.

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