May Ngui has spent her career helping build and run major infrastructure but hopes her legacy is something much less tangible.
Very soon, May Ngui, Honorary Fellow of Engineers Australia, CPEng and NPER, will call time on 38-year career as an electrical engineer. Most of that time has been spent at GHD, where she is currently heading up people leadership, operations management and business development in the ACT, Southern NSW and Papua New Guinea.
It’s a long way from Kuching in Sarawak (now Malaysia) where she was raised in a migrant Chinese family.
It wasn’t common for women to study engineering then, but Ngui credits her father for being a role model.
“My father was quite progressive in a way. His role models were his parents, who were pepper farmers that had immigrated from South China. They came from the Hakka people. In Chinese history, they were female warriors. So they came from that Chinese clan that treated women as equal in those days,” she says.
Leaving a legacy of equality
Ngui has spent decades designing and commissioning electrical and computer-based control systems for industrial plants, water, wastewater and transportation infrastructure both in Australia and overseas, but says it’s her ability to show people that it’s possible to do the things you are passionate about that she hopes will be her legacy to the engineering profession.
Role models and equality are important themes in Ngui’s career. She was GHD’s first female board member, serving from 2009 to 2018.
“I hope my legacy will be to role model what could get you there: resilience, positivity, magnanimity, and that plays to teamwork, respect and having a collaborative mindset,” she says.
“I don’t like being classed as a trailblazer. I am building on the previous generation, building on the legacy of others and being passed the baton, and now passing the baton,” she says.
In fact, she sees her biggest career achievement is helping others to achieve.
“Other than the tangible projects, I think it’s more about how far we’ve come in bringing dialogue about inclusion and diversity into the forefront and having the courage to continue to address those challenges. I think it’s much more of a slow burning series of achievements rather than one.”
A sense of adventure
Ngui’s technical achievements are many. She worked on numerous high-profile infrastructure projects in Malaysia, India, Vietnam and Australia, including major motorways along the Australian eastern seaboard.
She also provided control strategy and design advice for most of the desalination plants in Australia and the South-East Queensland water grid.
Her career has taken her to an oil rig off the coast of East Malaysia when she was in a graduate program with Exxon, and she spent six years with BHP Engineering which included mine sites in Central Queensland and a cement factory in rural China.
In addition to the sense of adventure, Ngui said she enjoyed her years of being on the tools as an electrical engineer.
“I was doing industrial software development and automation software, which really gave me an excellent grounding and gave me the direct line of sight of the outputs of my work. It was very affirming. Looking back now I could describe it as very focused and very single dimensional, because it was all about the technical work.”
Ngui says that while she knew where she wanted to go in her career, she wasn’t rigid about the roadmap.
“I really wanted to focus on technical leadership. But GHD had given me opportunities in governance roles as the first female on the board in its then 81-year history. And that put me into a new frame of mind about long-term strategic thinking, governance and the multifaceted aspects of what one ought to be leading, and role modelling, in an engineering world,” she said.
Transforming STEM to STEAM
Retirement doesn’t mean that Ngui is leaving the engineering profession. She will now turn her energies to the board of the GHD Foundation.
“We’re very much focused on STEAM [science, technology, engineering, art and math], not just STEM, and providing educational opportunities for those in need. I felt I was disadvantaged by having a very math- and science-focused curriculum and I felt that we need to introduce humanities into a well-rounded education to get engineers and scientists to continue to question why, and not be afraid to ask the unquestionable.
“I think in this volatile world, we need to have more focus on how we question, why we question.”
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