Like most teenagers, Engineers Australia Fellow Adrian Piani FIEAust had no idea what he wanted to do when he finished school. In fact, becoming an engineer hadn’t even crossed the mind of the future first Chief Engineer of the ACT.
As a born and raised Canberran, it was fortuitous that when Piani’s careers advisor suggested an engineering degree, the Australian National University (ANU) was just starting its engineering program.
“So really, I fell into it. I had good marks and engineering sounded good so I thought, why not,” Piani told create.
This attitude and an ability to jump at chances as they present themselves has followed Piani throughout his career. Perhaps, then, it was inevitable that someone who goes with the flow would end up fascinated by water and natural resources.
“ANU’s program was a systems engineering course, strong on mechanical, computing and electronics,” Piani said.
“About halfway through I realised that wasn’t really my skill set, so I transferred to the environmental engineering course at the University of New England, which had a heavy focus on water, and I loved it.”
He may not have realised it in high school, but after finding a passion for sustainability, Piani went all in. He will speak about this passion at the Climate Smart Engineering conference in November.
“I was lucky enough, just through circumstance, to find my way into engineering and find an environmental engineering course,” he said.
“And then through work experience I got my first job in the water sector, which has been fantastic. It’s been a bedrock for me ever since.”
Piani spent much of his career in the private sector, and says what he learned there set him in good stead for his transition into the public sector.
“In my first job, I provided secretariat support for a
stakeholder, I had to do all the agendas and minutes for their meetings,” he said.
“It’s probably not what you expect an engineer to do, but it gave me firsthand experience of dealing with multiple stakeholders and developing a plan everyone will accept.
“A lot of engineering is complex problem solving, finding solutions when you’ve got all these opportunities and constraints. Whether those constraints are environmental, technological, safety, community, etc. The engineer’s job is to find a way through all these constraints to an answer that people can accept.”
Gaining traditional ‘corporate’ skills became particularly important in Piani’s most recent role as the ACT Regional Manager at civil the consulting firm AECOM.
“I really enjoyed that role because I was working with some great people and great teams that have exceptional knowledge and technical skill,” Piani said.
“I think engineering is a really good foundation for later management and leadership roles. A lot of engineers reach a point in their career where they step away from the technical side of things to lead projects and people.”
While often a natural transition, Piani acknowledged some engineers struggle when they reach this point in their career as they find themselves feeling adrift in their new role.
“When you’re leading a project, you pretty much control the project, and then as you get into leading a team you have to learn to be more hands off,” he said.
“I think you have to realise you add value as a leader not just as an engineer.”
Taking up learning and development opportunities can help to solidify that feeling of adding value, suggested Piani.
“I would definitely advise anyone in that position to do a leadership course or some kind of extra training,” he said.
What’s in store for the ACT?
For Piani, his leadership qualifications are coming in handy. One of his first tasks when he was appointed ACT Chief Engineer in 2019 was to create a workforce plan for engineers in the ACT government.
“It was actually a really important exercise,” he said.
“It’s not about technical requirements or how engineers design things. This was taking a hard look at our capability, capacity and possibilities for the future.”
This plan gives a strong foundation to build on; showing where engineers stand and what they want to achieve. The focus is now on making sure engineers in the ACT are the best they can be to deliver maximum benefit to the ACT.
“We’re looking at a few unique approaches, such as developing our graduate programs and enabling professional growth for our early career engineers through a secondment program that includes the private sector,” he said.
“We’re also planning to address the issue of diversity in engineering. I want to make it a career that all people would consider.
“We’re better as a profession when we’re more diverse.”
Of course, he’s also thinking about the environment and what future engineers can do to tackle climate change.
“This is something I will touch on at Climate Smart Engineering 2021, but what I will say is we have the capability to do something about climate change. We just need to be making that connection between the skills and knowledge we have and the issue at hand.
“There isn’t a void of solutions, but we need to tap into them.”
Hear more from Adrian Piani at the Climate Smart Engineering conference from 16-17 November.