1st April 2022

Director Nick Russell Retires

After starting his career in engineering with Travers Morgan, Director Nick Russell joined Perega (then Thomasons) in 1985. Now, after over 40 years in the industry, Nick is taking a step back from full-time technical work.

It’s quite by accident that Nick ended up in engineering. At 12 years old, he aspired to be a farmer, inspired by having spent a lot of his childhood in the West Country with his grandparents. He had also inherited his maternal grandfather’s interest in building air craft engines. Nick’s careers master at the time suggested civil engineering was a cross between his two aspirations, so that’s what he pursued. Despite finding that he’d been rather misled, it turned out to be a good fit.

Ahead of retiring, Nick’s taken some time to reflect with us on what has been, by all accounts, a successful career in engineering:

We understand you’ll still have a presence at Perega. Can you tell us more about what you’ll be doing?

“After March, the plan is to become a consultant, helping with the training and mentoring of staff, looking at career paths and anything else that can add value. I have a strong background in training and mentoring, through the work I’ve done with institutions and other bodies.

“We’ve put together a plan to support all of the project managers in helping deliver learning programmes. We’ve been working on this for several months and it’s for absolutely everybody – support staff, technical staff and even the directors.

“We’ve always had good training taking place, embedded in the work we do – that’s how people learn. Sometimes it’s been so well-embedded, it’s not so visible. We’re trying to address that.

“I’m going to be working particularly with the younger staff, developing skills in report and letter writing, professional ethics, climate change, conceptual design  – a whole range of subjects our graduates need to learn before becoming successful professional engineers.”

Will you be continuing your role of Visiting Professor at UEL?

“Yes absolutely, I’ll be continuing at UEL as well as my work with the Joint Board of Moderators and the Institution of Structural Engineers. It’s primarily the technical work that I’m not continuing.

“There’s actually a lot of synergy and contact between Perega and UEL, which we’d like to continue developing. We have already jointly trained at least five apprentices. Another part of my work going forward is looking at better links with universities, local to our offices around the country. We’re engaging in conversations about how we can mutually add value to our processes.”

How has engineering changed since the start of your career?

“For engineers who graduated around 1950, their learning was enough to see them pretty much all the way through their career. I graduated in 1979. The learning I received at university has stood me in good stead, but throughout my career, I’ve had to learn about a lot of other things. For people graduating today, their learning will be constant. The rate of change will be phenomenal.

“Training requirements are more complicated from the outset. In the early 80s, you sat an exam where you designed a structure in 7 hours. Now, you have to do that as well as a professional interview, in which you have to demonstrate knowledge of 13 core subjects. Those things used to be covered informally and you picked them up working on projects. Graduates today have far more to consider. Things that were not always in the forefront of our minds; the climate emergency, ethics, health and safety, diversity and inclusivity.”

What have been your greatest accomplishments?

“While I’ve worked on a lot of great projects along the way, I’m most proud of having helped make sure Perega is going to last well into the future. Leading the practice from becoming a limited liability partnership to a company was a huge achievement. And then, leading the legal side of going from a company to an employee-owned trust.

“Becoming global president of the IStructE is something I look back on fondly, and being chair of the Joint Board of Moderators, which really introduced me to the academic side of the profession.”

What have you enjoyed most about your work?

“The people. I enjoy talking to people and developing schemes for projects. I’m one of those people who likes to have ideas, but I’m not the best person to finish things off. I like helping graduates with understanding engineering in greater detail.

“Transitioning to a company and then into a trust involved a lot of talking and negotiating, and making sure, as far as possible, that people were comfortable with the change. It’s definitely the people side of it that I’ve enjoyed.”

Surely you’ll have more free time as you step back from your technical work. Won’t you get bored?

“One of the things I’ve got back into recently is photography, which I used to do a lot of. My maternal grandfather was also a professional photographer. We still have the glass plate he took for the coronation of the queen. He bought me a Brownie camera when I was about six and we took loads of photos of stones sitting on walls. It was all about composition, composition and yes, more composition.

“Along with that, I’m going to do more cycling and sailing. We bought a place in Somerset, so I’ll spend some time there. We do a lot of walking, and we’ll do some travelling when we’re able. There’s quite a lot to keep me busy!”

What’s your advice to someone just starting out in engineering?

“The first thing is you should be yourself. Don’t try to be someone else. Use every opportunity to learn and find out about things. And don’t be afraid to make mistakes. There’s no such thing as a mistake if you make it just once, it’s something that helps you do things differently and better next time. Embrace it.

“Civil and structuring engineering are fantastic careers, ones in which creative people really excel and which encourage people to have ideas. It’s a wonderful privilege to be able to develop infrastructure that benefits other people.”

If you hadn’t gone into engineering, what do you think you would’ve done? Would you have become a farmer?

“The only other thing I thought I might like to have done is be a barrister. Over the last 25 years I have done a lot of expert witness work. I quite enjoy the mental challenge of being cross-examined by barristers.  They have a wonderful encyclopaedic knowledge and quite often a disarming charm. Their job is to catch you out and mine is to be completely impartial and at the same time make sure that they don’t!

“If I’m honest though, if I had the choice again, I’d do exactly the same. I’ve got no complaints.”