Colin Harkness

Colin Harkness

University of New South Wales
Graduate Mechanical Engineer
Colin studied Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering at University of New South Wales

What's your job about?

I am a graduate mechanical engineer on a two year program for Downer Rail. They are responsible for building and maintaining trains for the Australian public and private markets. The graduate program encourages a rotation of roles every 3 - 6 months to gain a wide understanding and a range of experiences to take forward on my career as an engineer.

Currently I am working as a production engineer for the Waratah Train which is run by Sydney Trains. We have a large maintenance facility in western Sydney which operates 24 hours a day seven days a week. A train will normally stay with us for 48 hours before it is sent back on the network and there will be 6 shifts of technicians that will work on this train over this time.

My role is to assist these teams in performing their tasks as efficiently as possible. This is achieved by investigating possible improvements, understanding why this task is being performed and working with the key stake holders to deliver a satisfactory outcome. Projects have included performing the calculations for an improved lifting jig, standardising the way key tasks are performed, and even to extend the maintenance intervals of high wearing components through innovative methods. Through all this safety of the workers, passengers and drivers of the train are paramount.

What's your background?

I grew up in Sydney, went to a school in the city and was accepted to the University of New South Wales for a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering. After school I deferred university for a year to take a scholarship position at my school in their Outdoor Education Department. There I was part of a team which took school students on expedition trips both in Australia and also abroad. It was this job that showed me how great it was to guide groups of people through challenges and come through it better at the other side.

I have wanted to be a mechanical engineer since childhood and have always enjoyed understanding how machines work. I was a pass average student at university and realised that my marks would not distinct me from other graduates. The engineering firms I wanted to work for preferred experience over marks, so I sought to gain as much engineering experience as possible and found it to be complimentary to my studies. After working underground with coal miners for 8 months I recognise that engineers make decisions that have far reaching consequences and will often consider how my decisions will impact others.

I first heard about Downer Rail at a career fair and found that they were offering Executive level one on one mentoring. It was this, and the potential to be exposed to “real engineering” that drew me to the company. I have loved every minute and have worked with great people, who are passionate and engaged with the improvement of the facility and train.

Could someone with a different background do your job?

The top two skills I rely on almost daily, is the ability to communicate effectively with a range of people and the ability to understand and solve root causes of problems. As a production engineer in a new environment I have had to rely on technicians to highlight key areas of focus. They have a wealth of knowledge and my role has been to identify and build upon their experience. Humility and respect for the technicians is the first step as a graduate in developing a mutually beneficial relationship.

Mechanical engineering is such a broad area of study, it was never expected to provide all the knowledge but it did provide a good foundation. I knew very little about trains before I started and it was a good eye opener to how much I still had to learn. In the work force people don’t have the answers like they do at university and your boss expects you to the come to your conclusions and be justify your position. They are very supportive but often you become the expert in this situation and they will provide engineering guidance. If you are able to communicate effectively, have a mind for problems and ability to learn new information, there isn’t much that you couldn’t learn on the job.

What's the coolest thing about your job?

The level of responsibility has to be my favourite thing about my job. All my bosses have been really supportive when asked, but have encouraged me to exercise my judgement to develop me professionally. There is a great satisfaction in working with technicians, solving a problem and seeing it implemented for their benefit. I have ownership for my projects and I am able to have an impact on the day to day running of the business. With all of this I get to combine my technical understanding from university with my desire to see people build stronger teams and develop in their jobs.

What are the limitations of your job?

As a graduate rotating throughout the business, I have had 4 different managers and multiple teams to get to know and work with. You develop relationships, build your work load and then get moved to a different department to work on new things. Deliverability is critical and it has been hard to put projects on hold that I have invested in. It has taught me to focus on the important and meant that I have many connections within the business if I ever get stuck on a question.

3 pieces of advice for yourself when you were a student...

  • At university you learn some random stuff. Enjoy it, as may come in handy one day.
  • Question everything in order to learn more fully.
  • Make a decision, be the first to recognise if it not a good one but its course will provide more insight than when you first started and will help make the next one.