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Secrets of success

Want to get ahead? Then don't have a plan. That is the advice of a whole set of eminent engineers. Dave Parker explains.

WANT TO be a success in civil engineering? Then make sure you join Ove Arup & Partners after graduating from Imperial College, London, with a good honours degree before marrying an understanding and supportive partner.

Then all you have to do is be in the right place at the right time, and success is assured.

That seems to be the secret of success as expounded in a new book entitled Eminent civil engineers, their 20th Century life and times. A rare exercise in civil engineering autobiography - something about the traditions of the profession seems to stifle most autobiographical impulses among its leading lights - the book is a collection of essays by 30 men who have acquired enviable reputations in the field.

Not all of them are civil engineers by training or original intent. Among the senior partners, chief executives and academics can be found such luminaries as British Board of Agrement director Professor Peter Hewlett, a qualified chemist, and mechanical engineer Tom Smith, former president of the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers.

Nor are only British engineers represented. Contributions also come from the likes of Professor Karl Kodina from Germany, Danish concrete expert Dr Gunnar Idorn and Professor Koicho Ono of Kyoto University.

Whatever their backgrounds and history, all the contributors share the belief that civil engineering is a worthwhile and satisfying career.

Most express this directly: former Wimpey chief engineer David Doran, who conceived and edited the collection, sums up his life in civil engineering as 'demanding, rewarding, stimulating, occasionally frustrating but never dull'.

Alfred Goldstein, who combined the post of chief executive of Travers Morgan with the membership of countless official committees, comments: 'I enjoyed being a civil engineer.

It is a very worthwhile career, the training for which fits anyone for a broad range of opportunities.'

But he also sounds a warning note.

'Many (of my) opportunities arose by chance, by coincidence or by random combination of circumstances.'

Unsurprisingly, his contribution is entitled 'Diversity and Happenstance'.

A similar theme runs through 'A leaf blown by the wind', the contribution of civil engineer turned Labour politician turned civil engineering journalist, Lord Howie of Troon, known to generations of NCE readers as Will Howie.

He says his 55-year career was 'a random life, marked by distinct strokes of luck'. He adds: 'A leaf blown by the wind might say as much.'

A fellow Scot, leading structural engineer Sam Thorburn, titles his essay 'The influence of history and opportunity on a professional career', linking the industrial history of his Glasgow birthplace with his initial training within the local steelworks.

Others describe a more predictable progression from school to university to consultancy, and a remarkable number of those contributing to the collection have either Imperial College or Ove Arup - or both - on their CV.

These include Sir Neville Sims, Sir Jack Zunz and Sir Alan Harris. In all, 11 of the 30 contributors - nearly half the UK engineers featured - have either OAP or Imperial College connections.

Most also pay tribute to their wives, whose patience, support, and tolerance of a typically peripatetic existence is acknowledged as being critical to their husbands' eventual success.

Eminent Engineers, their 20th century life and times. Edited by David Doran.

ISBN 1-870325-92-3. Price £35.

Contact Scottish Book Service (0131) 229 6800.

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