Nikki Shaw

Nikki Shaw

Job title

Senior Water Engineer

Who do you work for?

My main employer is Arup Singapore.

I also consult to World Toilet Organisation (WTO), Engineering Good and World Vision

I am a trainer with BushProof, a water company in Madagascar.

Where is your job based?


What does your job involve?

In my current job, I carry out design work (calculations, drawings, reports), respond to queries, visit building sites, meet with clients and contractors, manage a small team of other engineers. It is a mix of technical and managerial work.

Why did you choose to work in this sector?

I chose engineering because I wanted to do something useful in the developing world. While I maintain that passion, it turns out it’s also quite fun doing useful things in the ‘developed’ world! I like problem solving, and I love spreadsheets.

What is the most rewarding part of your current job?

I have a personal hand in major infrastructure works such as managing city stormwater. My designs become an essential part of the local cityscape. I enjoy knowing that the projects I have worked on have a very positive impact on the places in which I live.

I regularly participate in water and sanitation projects in nearby developing nations.The most satisfying role is training people within those communities in how best to effect water and sanitation improvements.

What has been one of your recent achievements?

I have been responsible for the drainage design for 15 stations and associated tunnels on Singapore’s underground rail (MRT) system. While drainage doesn’t sound very glamorous, when building an underground network in a tropical city with frequent torrential downpours, it is important to protect systems from plenty of groundwater, plus potential stormwater flooding which would clearly be devastating!

In addition, I was technical advisor to WTO as they established their ‘SaniShop’ project in Cambodia and India. This programme aims to train local communities to mass-produce affordable toilets, thus improving the health and livelihood of people in those communities.

What is the most challenging part of your current job?

Dealing with large water and infrastructure authorities who are loathe to deviate from ‘what we’ve done before’.

Working in a very competitive industry means we often don’t have the budget really push boundaries in design!

What do you hope to do in the future?

I hope to have a bigger impact in developing countries – perhaps spend less time in the office and more training people in the field.

What are some of the benefits of your job?

The biggest benefit is the people I work with. Engineers are the very best of people: the perfect mix of clever, practical and no-nonsense whilst also being creative, passionate and full of integrity.

I love what I do. Although there are tedious days and times when things go very wrong, the overall feeling is that I want to do what I do – I am always happy to come to work.

There’s the added benefit of being able to work just about anywhere in the world. I have travelled the world as an Engineer I have had long-term employment in England, Botswana, Hong Kong and Singapore but in addition I have been on project work in Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Mongolia, PNG, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, USA and Vietnam.

What training did you have for this job?

Upper secondary school

I grew up in London and went to Pimlico Comprehensive, a state school with a very mixed reputation, but it had some exceptional teachers and anyone who was self-motivated could excel. The school has since been demolished.

I did ‘A’ levels in Maths, Physics, English and Art.

After secondary school

I studied Engineering at Trinity College, Cambridge University (Masters degree).

I also got a further Masters degree in Water and Waste Engineering from the Water Engineering and Development Centre at Loughborough Universtiy, through distance learning in later years.

Why is mathematics important in your job?

I use maths on a daily basis as a fundamental part of the design work I do. An overall understanding of maths makes it much easier to estimate what can and can’t work when on site and having to make quick and vital decisions.

How do you use digital technologies in your job?

I do most of my work on a computer using spreadsheets, specific software for hydraulics and hydrology, AutoCAD and similar programmes, pdf editing software, Word, Powerpoint etc. Email is my main form of communication although we also have internal and external digital messaging and conference tools. Everything is shared internally on the company Intranet – we are a global firm and tap into expertise all around the world almost daily. (Some projects are done by several offices on different continents.) I avoid using paper as much as I can!

What career advice would you give to school students interested in a similar career?

Study maths and physics, as they are requirements for an engineering degree. Choose the university that best equips you for the field you want to go into – not necessarily the ‘best’ overall university, but one that is strong in the engineering field you wish to pursue. Beyond that: have an open, global mind/perspective. Be prepared to push your own boundaries, take risks, be flexible. Always look for opportunities that expand your experiences/expertise. Don’t be afraid to ask advice. Do be prepared to make mistakes, own up to them, and help rectify them.