Mandy Chessell CBE FREng is a Distinguished Engineer and Master Inventor at IBM
“Be curious and do not be afraid to try new things.”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
There are three parts to my role – firstly, I work on the strategy for our data and analytics products. These products need to continuously improve as new technology becomes available. I work as a consultant with many of our clients to understand how their IT systems will need to change in the future. These conversations help to drive our product strategy. I also mentor and teach other engineers about information architecture and strategy.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
When I was about 14 we had a visitor from IBM come to our school and tell us about the opportunities for a career in IBM. He told us about the fast-paced technology industry where we would always be learning, and how working for an international company would give us opportunities to travel around the world and meet fascinating people. I was hooked and followed his advice on the subjects to study and how to get work experience at IBM while I was at university. IBM offered me a permanent role when I graduated and after nearly 30 years I still love the challenge.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
I have always loved to build things and solve problems. Engineering gives me both of these, plus the opportunity to work with some outstanding and brilliant people. Over the years I have learnt so much from other engineers and I also enjoy the opportunity to pass this knowledge on.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
There are several. I have always wanted to write a book and I published my first in 2013 and second in 2015. IBM has a job role called Distinguished Engineer. It is an executive role and there are very strict criteria, and a lot of competition in the appointment process. However, after a lot of hard work, and taking on difficult tasks to build skills and prove my capability, I was appointed as a Distinguished Engineer in 2007. Finally, in 2015, I was awarded a CBE in the New Year’s Honours list. This was completely unexpected and a wonderful surprise.
How do you think gender parity in engineering can be achieved?
Ultimately, this will be achieved by having an increasing number of women doing an excellent job in engineering. This builds trust in female engineers until we reach the stage where people do not feel surprised that an engineer is a woman. Getting to this point takes time. Women are very noticeable in the engineering profession. This is a double-edged sword because both successes and failures are remembered and both of these occur throughout anyone’s career. Additional support for female engineers to enable them to practice skills ‘in private’ help to boost confidence, avoid reinforcing negative stereotypes and ensure they are seen in a positive light.
How has being a woman in engineering changed since you started working in the engineering sector?
When I started in engineering, there was a suspicion that all women had an unfair advantage due to positive discrimination. This opinion was not rational given the lack of women in senior engineering roles. Whenever I achieved something there was a constant hunt for reasons why I was doing well, that had nothing to do with the fact I was good at my job.
Today, I do not see these types of reactions. The industry has matured and more people accept that women can be top engineers on merit.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
Go for it! Engineering is about blending the art of the possible (great new ideas) with the art of the practical (making it work in a timely and cost-efficient manner). To do a good job, you need to understand the technology and also understand how it will be used. This requires good communication skills, a wide range of experiences and flexibility in thinking. So be curious and do not be afraid to try new things. Work and socialise with a wide range of people. Finally, have fun – since this is when you can think creatively. There is no greater sense of satisfaction when the new system is working and you are helping people do things they could not do before.