Q&A – Abbie Hutty
Kathryn Allen speaks to Abbie Hutty* about her career and transition from university to industry.
Tell me about your educational background and career to date.
I’m a mechanical engineer by training. I did a placement year at Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), UK, which is a company making small satellites, as part of my degree, and then joined the space division of Airbus after I graduated. After completing the graduate scheme, working in various mechanical analysis roles, I started working on the ExoMars Rover mission. I led the structure team in the detailed design phase of the mission, and through various testing campaigns, into the production phase. Now the structure design for the Rover is set, I’ve moved into the position of Delivery Manager.
What does your current role on the ExoMars Rover Project involve?
I’ve got a couple of different roles. Firstly, as Delivery Manager, I have to do anything required to make sure we can deliver the Rover. This means that I ensure everything is well co-ordinated in terms of what we need to buy, equipment being delivered to us, tests we need to run and things we need to manufacture or assemble, and in what order, to get everything done. Often it means that when problems arise, I have to do whatever it takes to find a solution and get it implemented to minimise the impact to the schedule or budget. It’s a very varied job and definitely keeps me on my toes. I’m also the Supplier Operations Manager for the structure. Having been so involved in the design, I’m managing the subcontractors who are building it to make sure that everything is done correctly.
What has been your biggest career highlight?
I’ve done all sorts of things that I never thought I’d do. I loved seeing the first component that I had designed launch into space. I have been to Buckingham Palace and met the Queen, and been on Stargazing Live with Brian Cox and Dara Ó Briain, talking about the Rover mission. Then there’s the fact that everyday I get to see my designs being made into reality, and knowing that one day they will be going to another planet. That never gets old.
How did your placement at SSTL impact your career choices and opinion of the engineering industry?
Working for SSTL was fantastic – it’s quite a small company so as an intern I got really broad exposure to lots of different aspects of spacecraft design. I interacted with different departments and worked in roles right the way from concept design for future missions, through detailed design and analysis, into hands-on spacecraft building. I learnt so much – not just about spacecraft, but about the whole industry and how all the key players interact. I think that experience made me stand out in the Airbus applications and helped me land my graduate job.
How did you find the transition from university to industry?
I loved the world of work – my placement year showed me that. Going back to university, coursework deadlines and exams after all the fun I’d had working for SSTL, really brought home the fact that I’d made the right career choice and I couldn’t wait to get back to it. It’s a bit scary moving to a new place and starting a job where you know nobody, but most companies have graduate schemes so you know all the other graduates are in the same boat.
You have been heavily involved in promoting STEM education in schools and universities – what do you think is deterring students from pursuing a career in engineering?
I think a big part of the problem is the lack of understanding of engineering in broader society. A lot of people still think that engineers are people who fix broken appliances or shovel coal into steam engines. Teachers, grandparents and parents who don’t understand what the job of a modern day engineer is, might try to dissuade their students, children or grandchildren from these roles, thinking that they lack ambition or that the jobs are unpleasant – the truth couldn’t be further from that. I think it’s important that our efforts to educate and inspire reach the general public as well as students.
When did you realise you wanted to become a spacecraft engineer?
Growing up, I never knew that the UK was active enough in the space industry for this kind of job to exist in this country. When I was doing my GCSEs, though, I saw a piece about the Beagle II mission in the news. It was a Mars probe being designed and built by British engineers. To discover that this was something I could do right here in the UK, definitely planted the seed.
What advice do you have for anyone thinking of pursuing a career in engineering?
I would say go for it. I found it difficult to find out what engineering involved, and especially what all the different disciplines do. There are a lot of misconceptions out there, and I often found that the advice I got from teachers or other adults was outdated or just wrong. There are a lot of good resources available now though, like the Tomorrow’s Engineers campaign (www.tomorrowsengineers.org.uk), which help you get a better idea of the reality of working in the sector.
What tips do you have for anyone preparing for their first interview for an engineering job?
Do your research about the company. You should at least know what the main things are that they make or do, and who their competitors are, to show that you have an understanding of their industry. Then be the best version of you. Most employers want to see whether you could work in their teams – so you have to be a good team player. A lot of people go into assessment centres thinking that they have to be the best, or the loudest, or the leader – that’s not true at all. Helping out your fellow candidates, making sure everyone gets a chance to contribute, being respectful and listening to the ideas of others are all very important skills to demonstrate.
What’s the one piece of advice you would give to someone on their first day in the engineering sector?
Firstly, don’t panic. You’re not expected to know everything and be able to do everything from day one – in fact, as an engineer you never stop learning. As long as you show that you are willing and excited to learn, and want to apply the skills you’ve got to the work of the company, you’ll be fine.
What do you have planned for the future?
I really don’t know. At the moment I love that I get to work on such an exciting project as a mission to Mars – I don’t know how you trump that, really. There are future missions in the pipeline to Mars and other planets, both manned and robotic, and I love the idea of exploration and sending things I’ve built where no one has gone before, so I can definitely see myself taking a role on a mission like that. Maybe one day I’ll be managing a mission of my own.
*Abbie Hutty MEng (Hons) CEng FIMechE MIET is Structural and Thermal Model and Ground Test Model Delivery Manager and Structure Supplier Operations Manager for the ExoMars Rover Project at Airbus Defence and Space, UK.