Amber Solomons interviewed civil engineer, Owen Mwaura, to find out why he decided to make this his career, what he enjoys about working in this field, and his advice to anyone wanting to study for a career in civil engineering.
Why did you decide to study civil engineering?
I think in my case it was circumstantial, but there were definitely key things that I looked at. First it tied in with my passion in being part of the solution for cities. Actually, my background is in small urban planning, there’s some components of civil engineering that you need to be aware of for you to be able to bring solutions into the urban space. So, my focus right now is on transportation and specifically public transport. I’m just focusing on how we can make transport more inclusive, more efficient, more accessible and just improving the core qualities of a good transport system in the sub-Saharan context.
For one to do this you may need some knowledge in how these systems work. I think civil engineering has explored that for the longest time. I think it’s a fairly new discipline because public transport came in, especially the African public transport system, with colonisation when people needed to go to work and they couldn’t afford their own transport and so had to commute long distances.
So, it’s basically principles borrowed from other continents, especially Europe.
What qualities as a person do you need as a civil engineer?
Well passion works, yeah! I think engineering takes passion. It takes skill combined with an ability to be an out-of-the- box thinker because you can’t just learn engineering to implement things that have been done before in engineering. You need to be very creative. You need to be open to learning and unlearning and relearning new things as you go. There are a lot of engineering inventions that have come up in the last few decades and you basically need to be as versatile as possible and find innovative ways of solving problems. You need to be able to absorb what is currently in the market, plan, use it in whatever space or whatever problem you’re trying to solve, and if anything comes that is more efficient you must be flexible enough to unlearn that and relearn the new thing. That is very critical in engineering.
As a civil engineer you have to be very creative and you need to be aware of the latest technology.
What do you enjoy most about civil engineering?
It’s the ability to see things and actualise them. Although they take long, you know that once it’s gone through the due processes it will happen. Like if it’s a road and you are part of the design, some two or three years later you see something, or something specific that you put on that road, probably a short bridge, probably something that you designed into that road being implemented by the contractors, I think that is the most satisfying thing, seeing your work become concrete, become physical so that it can be seen and can be used by other people even though they don’t know what went into it. So when you pass by you enjoy it. I think that’s the most enjoyable part of the work and it’s fun, just the dynamic of it, just the process that you have to go through. It’s a creative process also backed by principles so I believe it’s a fun process to go through. I think it’s satisfying to see things that you thought of being actualised by either government authorities or by contractors.
What are the challenges of the job?
The young generation of engineers are kind of overwhelmed by the older generation because the older generation doesn’t understand the evolving nature of engineering and sometimes there are new things that come up in engineering that we need to absorb and be ready to change. So, just that resistance to change, to be in tandem with the technology, to be on a par with the other developments in the field, I think that is the most challenging thing in my view.
An issue when you design a building or when you design a road or a bridge and there are some aspects that you left or you didn’t consider, like there’s a natural disaster and that bridge is swept away, I think that’s a big challenge for an engineer because they face a lot of scorning from the public and they even have to go through prosecutions so what we do and how much life depends on it, it’s a little bit of a challenge because you might put in all the work and then a natural disaster or something that is out of your control happens and your structure and your design doesn’t hold grounds and then you have to go through all the prosecution. It’s even worse if somebody is affected by your design. So I think that will be a big challenge in engineering.
So there are big responsibilities that come with it, responsibilities of a life. I think once you think of it like that it becomes critical for you to be very meticulous in what you do. It’s not really a challenge but sometimes things happen. Sometimes the discipline or the industry might not absorb certain aspects, like technology, transition, because the people that are holding the industry are still old people, still stuck to the ancient Isaac Newton’s principles. You want a progressive industry, but it’s a challenge when the people with the money and the people who make the decisions still don’t play the role of technology.
What advice do you have for anyone wanting to study civil engineering?
You must be ready to go through the process, especially if you are undergraduate. It’s a discipline that is very interesting in terms of there’s a lot of diversity in it, you can virtually be in any building environment as a civil engineer. You can be in houses, you can be in roads, you can be in bridges, you can be in cities, municipalities. You can be anything in this built environment if you do civil engineering.
I think it’s a worthwhile course, at the same time if you’re going to embark on the journey of studying civil engineering you need to know what is your passion and don’t be swayed by money because where there is money there is a lot of complications. So know what you want and by the time you finish your degree, you’ve specialised and you have a niche for yourself. Then you’ll be able to get into your niche and you won’t get stuck into a pyramid where there are so many structural engineers down there that you can’t get yourself up the pyramid because you didn’t find a niche for yourself. So basically know what you want in engineering, is it transport, water, structures, is it geo-technical? So know exactly what you want when you embark on the degree because the specialisations are very important for your success in your career.
Tell us: Would you like to become a civil engineer?