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Engineer is flying high

Published on Thursday, 16 Sep 2010
Carmen Au has had a varied career as an engineer.
Photo: David Wong

Carmen Au can't complain about a lack of variety in her career to date. Since graduating from the University of Hong Kong in 1996, the civil engineer has worked on everything from power stations and highways, to bridges, reclamation sites and urban developments. As a fast-rising associate with Aecom Asia, she specialises in aviation and transportation projects. The role involves design, delivery, business development and consultation, and managing a team and co-ordinating with architects, officials and on-site personnel.

For Au, the major attraction of the profession is the challenge of dealing with very practical problems, which she likens to solving a jigsaw puzzle. She also enjoys the combination of office work and site visits in Hong Kong and overseas. 

Why did you go into engineering?
I was a science student at school and had considered being a doctor, solicitor or architect. But I wanted to go into something where I could see concrete results quickly and I had a responsibility to my family to start earning. I enjoyed the training, felt well suited to it, and the more I did, the more I liked the work.

What are you focusing on at present?  
The biggest project right now is designing Hambantota International Airport near the southern tip of Sri Lanka. It is a green field site, and we have a design and build contract starting with the airport layout, which involves close collaboration with the local authorities and contractors there. We began last year and the work is expected to last through to 2012. I’ve also been invited to provide some input for the Master Plan 2030 Study, which will consider options for expanding the airport in Hong Kong.  

What provides the greatest job satisfaction?
The thing that makes civil engineers most proud is seeing their design on paper become a reality. I've been part of projects from design through to completion, such as the cross-boundary bridge from Lok Ma Chau to Huanggang. It was a very tight schedule. Another was building a coal-unloading jetty on Lamma Island for Hongkong Electric. That involved driving piles into the seabed, protecting against corrosion, and installing a conveyor system. 

How did you learn the specialist details of airport construction? 
I’m like a sponge when it comes to picking up all the technical information. I read everything I can get my hands on and take any opportunity to talk to experts, even if it’s only for a few minutes during a short taxi ride. Early on, I also went to Montreal for an IATA class on airport master planning, which covered many of the key principles.    

Are there skills you still need to master?
There are a lot of areas to improve, such as helping my team expand their abilities and learning to work with unreasonable people. I'm also trying to get a private pilot's licence, as one way of understanding more about airports and aviation. I've finished the theory and recently went to Brisbane to begin the practical part with 10 hours' flying in a Cessna 152. If you are working on a project with airport authorities, pilots and air-traffic controllers, it definitely helps to know their language and see things from their point of view.

What keeps you motivated?
This comes down to personality, so maybe I should thank my parents and my school for that. I want to get things done and see an end product. That can be as simple as finishing a report on time, or seeing a bridge or airport successfully completed. I feel every day can be an adventure and that work should also be fun.

In career terms, what do you hope will come next?
I would like to be a project manager overseeing a large-scale civil engineering project, perhaps a port, highway, or an airport somewhere in Asia or around the world. I have a team of four engineers, but I'm building this up to 10, so we have more scope and opportunities. If the proposal for a third runway in Hong Kong is implemented, I would love to be involved in that.


Solid foundation

  • Named Young Engineer of the Year by the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers in 2007
  • One of her dreams is to land a plane at an airport she has helped to build
  • Helped found the China Care Fund which rebuilds schools and provides financial support for students



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