Usman Abdurrahman

Senior Systems Engineer at Arcadis 
PhD Railroad and Railway Transportation, 2020

""Tell us a bit about your current role.

I am currently working as a Senior Systems Engineer in one of the largest Railway Engineering Projects. Systems Engineering is wide, but I am currently focused on the requirements of the management aspect of it, ensuring that we meet and demonstrate compliance with the technical requirements associated with the project.

I made a switch from academia to industry. It was a significant shift from teaching Rail Systems Engineering to practising it. Although I enjoyed the teaching side of things (I have been a teacher/lecturer for a few years at different learning stages – pre-tertiary, colleges and universities), I have always felt the need to spend some time in industry to actually do the things that I teach. I did not find it difficult to blend into my role, considering that I have significant level of understanding in the field albeit from the academic standpoint. Notwithstanding, I had to adapt to the industrial way of working as it is often different (or so I found it) from the academic way.

What motivated you to do your postgraduate research course?

Unlike many others, my PhD was not motivated by the desire to solve an engineering problem – many were solved before me, and many are being solved after. The way I see a PhD journey is that it is more of a training rather than solving a problem – even though, you have got to solve a problem along the way, but the training aspect of it, is what lured me in. Luckily, I found it extremely rewarding as I emerged significantly better in many aspects, not just in learning but broadly in life itself.

What do you enjoy most and what do you find challenging about your role?

I enjoy the fact that I am interacting with various disciplines in what is truly a challenging project. A Systems Engineer always has the opportunity to get to know what different disciplines are doing in order to meet set requirements. The fact that I have a flavour of what different disciplines are doing makes me see the whole project in its entirety - the 'big picture' - and this is what Systems Engineering is all about, as challenging as it sounds. Recall the famous saying: “the whole is more than the sum of its individual parts”.

How did your time at Birmingham help you prepare for this role?

You should participate in as many training / programs as possible... that was what I did, and it helped me a lot with skills development, adding value not just to my CV, but to me as a person. During my time at Birmingham, I was actively engaged with the Railway Centre, HEFi, and Careers Network activities such as the Digital Innovation Bootcamp, Summer Schools, CV check services, etc. I found these to be very helpful and can see how they added value to me as I do my job now.

What are your career plans for the future?

I want to see myself as a core catalyst of Systems Engineering implementation, particularly in the railway sector. I have a strong academic background in the field, and I am now gradually gaining momentum in the practical aspect of it. I aim to propagate systems thinking in the way we deliver, operate and manage Systems.

What advice would you give to students who are interested in further study?

Go for it – that’s what I would say. When you have an opportunity to do a PhD, consider it as a lifetime opportunity to develop yourself in various aspects of life, be it educational, social, professional, etc. The three, four or five years you would spend come with challenges, no doubt. But that is what life is all about. These challenges define your experience as you navigate through the PhD journey. You will reflect on them one day and be grateful that you had what it takes to overcome them.

What advice would you give to students who are interested in getting into your industry or role?

There are a lot of opportunities, but every employer wants to hire the best. I would encourage you to gain the required skills during your time at the University as these would help you tick many boxes when you are being assessed. Get involved in as many training / programs as you can. Build your portfolio very well before putting yourself out there.


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