James Glastonbury is 3rd generation engineer. And he believes that, in construction
as an industry, we’re underperforming.
James believes that engineers have a very important role to play in meeting the challenges being presented, but also unlocking the opportunities of innovation within the construction industry.
Engineering was deeply programmed into James’ DNA! Hi grandfather was the Chief Engineer for Wollongong. His dad was Dean of Engineering at Sydney University and even his oldest brother is an engineer.
Is it really any wonder that James attached himself to engineering….
there was something very deeply familiar and comfortable about the world of engineering
Extra discussions during the episode
Future: Be aware of how technology is going to change engineering
the creative element of engineering is going to become increasingly important
Advice: Engineers must step towards the challenges presented by society
it’s really important that engineer’s rise that challenge and the responsibility that goes with the qualification.
Snowy 2.0 scheme
with every one of those incremental grand improvements, we make the world a slightly better place
The mentors that have helped him grow and develop in his career.
some of those mentors from my really early career … were genuine artists in the profession.
James was appointed as Technical Director for Laing O’Rourke’s Australia Hub in March 2017 having held a number of senior leadership roles prior to this, including Engineering Director for Laing O’Rourke’s in-house innovation team, the Engineering Excellence Group.
James has over 25 years of engineering experience working across transport infrastructure, tunnelling, mining and oil & gas sectors. He has worked in consulting, research and delivery in the US, UK and Australia.
He holds specialist qualifications and experience in civil/geotechnical engineering and rock mechanics. He attained a Doctor of Philosophy (Geotechnical Eng) at the University of New South Wales and holds a Bachelor of Engineering (Civil Eng, Hons) and Bachelor of Science (Geology), both of which were attained through the University of Sydney.
This is a “close” copy of the words that were spoken during the Podcast, Season 4 Episode 28
It is not 100% accurate.
The guest was James Glastonbury
James: [00:00:00] I think through that exposure there was something very deeply familiar and comfortable about the world of engineering. You know, I grew up in that environment it was something I knew and recognised, and it excited me from a really really young age. I have really vivid memories of going to work with my dad seeing the environments he worked in. And it caught my attention
[00:00:26]Mel: [00:00:26] sounds like you were destined to be always be an engineer
[00:00:29] Dom: [00:00:29] Yeah More like a calling than a career
[00:00:33] Mel: [00:00:33] business But what made you focus on geotechnical engineering?
[00:00:38]James: [00:00:38] when I got to my senior years of high school I really had my sights set on going into mining engineering. And in the late 80’s mining was going through something of a downturn and Probably the next best option was civil engineering And I ended up going through civil engineering and doing it a double degree with science, majoring in geology thinking that was a route into mining. And when I got to the point of graduation I realised that there were other options open to me. So i finished uni and got a job with a company called Coffey. And That was the start of my adventure in geotechnical engineering
[00:01:29]Mel: [00:01:29] What is Coffey?
[00:01:31] James: [00:01:31] Coffey is and remains one of certainly one of Australia’s leading geotechnical practices
[00:01:40] Mel: [00:01:40] Okay
[00:01:41]James: [00:01:41] and at the time Coffey had without doubt some of the leading minds in geotechnical practice Or around the country and some of them are absolutely global names.
[00:01:55]Dom: [00:01:55] So you finished engineering and you you started at Coffey. Tell us about your first job and your first roles there
[00:02:02]James: [00:02:02] you know it’s pretty exciting coming out of university as a as a young graduate. and I was really fortunate to be offered a role at Coffey as a as a graduate.
[00:02:12] My first job at Coffey RST I still remember being asked the question as a as a very young graduate probably two weeks into my career – Would you like a trip to Queensland?
[00:02:25]there’s only one answer to that as a graduate There were little did I know back uh four or five years later and and the trip to Queensland really was far Western Queensland working a new mine that BHP minerals were developing. A new mine called Cannington and I I spent four or five years really formative years working with some great people, doing fly in fly out work, developing a new mine in far Western Queensland. I still think back fondly around that experience. Hugely formative.
[00:03:07] Mel: [00:03:07] Yeah, two weeks out of university that is a lot of responsibility for a graduate
[00:03:13]James: [00:03:13] Yeah Um it was it was the deep end of the pool Uh
[00:03:18] Mel: [00:03:18] you have support and mentors to help
[00:03:20] James: [00:03:20] Yeah. I did and that was certainly something Coffey really excelled at. You know they really did school they’re new minds in the really the art of geotechnical practice. So, yes there was some really great minds to support me in that journey. And again, some of them are still mentors To this day. You look at them as inspirational figures through my
[00:03:50]Dom: [00:03:50] And that would have been a wonderful experience Being able to be right there at the beginning of the mine, to sort of take it through to where it is and watch it develop. I’m assuming that’s probably not something that you’d necessarily get to do in a lot of cases, more often than not you’d probably end up Sort of halfway through or sort of at the end of the lifecycle of a mine as opposed to being there right from the get-go
[00:04:13]James: [00:04:13] yeah Yeah W it really was a unique experience. it was a real privilege to play a role there for four or five years. Playing my part in getting them up to production. formative in in so many ways not just in the technical but in the learning how do we interact with various people around an operation like that. Mining crews, a hole raft of people. It really tested your not just your technical skills but your influencing skills, your
[00:04:48] Mel: [00:04:48] leadership skills
[00:04:49] So after starting out in mining where are you now
[00:04:54] James: [00:04:54] I am now technical director for La across their Australia business. so I’m responsible for all things we do Across our, our business . we’re a privately owned construction business covering a number of sectors including resources. while we don’t actually mine, we certainly do a lot of mining infrastructure work. we’re also across sectors like defense, transport, buildings.
[00:05:27]Mel: [00:05:27] how did you jump from mining to this kind of role?
[00:05:32]James: [00:05:32] Really mining was the start of my geotechnical career. I made the shift out of mining into tunneling, did a number of tunneling projects in Australia, the US and the UK. The first 20 years of my career my professional career was really in geotechnical consulting. And then a number of years go now Construction business approached me and engaged me in a conversation around innovation. how do we really collectively challenge things that need positive challenge and disruption certainly in the construction sector. And that that business was Laing O’Rourke and That’s been my mission ever since. really positive, really energizing challenge around how we improve on what we did yesterday. there’s always a way to improve on how we work And so I’m part of a business that really carries that challenge very closely and very passionately Constantly trying to find that better way
[00:06:48] Dom: [00:06:48] And have you found that your engineering even though you were specialized in geo-technical with a company like Laing O’Rourke, do you find that you can sort of cover the spread that you have actually moved into other areas and had to hone your skills Not necessarily in the one discipline that you started in
[00:07:06]James: [00:07:06] That’s that’s a good question I don’t profess to be the Oracle on all the things that a big construction company can find themselves involved in. But really it’s about leadership and it’s about some of the traits or skills that you can bring to a to a really complex problem. You know I’m fortunate to be surrounded by some some absolute industry leading thinkers in inside my business but also out there as partners that we draw on in the wider community.
[00:07:41]but really my role is to ensure that we find the right minds. Not just to deal with the challenges we have, but also to unlock the opportunities that are also out there
We Have had a year like no other.I think there is a real imperative for engineers to step forward and play their role in the economic recovery of certainly our economy and globally. I think there is a real imperative that we strip away non-value add things that maybe consume up too much timing in the industry. so really I suppose that it’s at its very heart. That’s a call to really drive improved productivity across the various branches of engineering.certainly for me I I sit as a as a leader in the construction industry where I’m uncomfortable with the fact that the construction industry is perhaps, well not perhaps, undoubtedly underperforming from a productivity perspective. 1.2% per annum over the last couple of decades, that compares to you know a broad multi-industry average of two or two and a half percent. So as an industry we’re underperforming.There are undoubtedly opportunities to improve that, and I look at manufacturing as something of a reference point.construction is a sector where we do a lot of activity on site, and there is undoubtedly opportunity to take a lot of that and put it in a much more controlled environment in facilities where we can attract greater participation, greater diversity of thinking. we can have greater control over safety, greater control over quality and really unlock some of those productivity gains that manufacturing has realized, And bring that to the construction sector. So for me my real drive is to really try and unlock some of that style of thinking and bring it to construction.
[00:10:05]Dom: [00:10:05] Do you think the industry as a whole has fallen into a situation where it’s a case of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. So rather than trying new things, we’re so like, we did that on that project and it worked, So we’re just going to do that on the next project. As the risk appetite decreases, in the long-term it’s actually hurting us because we’re not trying to find those productivity gains because we’re just doing the same thing over and over again
[00:10:33]James: [00:10:33] I certainly think construction Industry has maybe defaulted to that mode of operation. I think there are some green shoots. I think various governments are realizing that different procurement models allow for a broader landscape of thinking. We’re certainly seeing some examples of that in various jurisdictions around the country at the moment. We’re part of a delivery partner roll up the North coast of New South Wales for section of Pacific highway, where Transport from New South Wales have opted for a delivery partner model. It’s a model that was used for delivery of the London Olympics, but at its heart part of that model approach is really to invite the best of thinking from industry, to constructively challenge the the codes, the standards, the practice that an agency as established as as Transport for New South Wales is, you know they they’re really seeking the best of industry thinking.
[00:11:39]So I do see some positive shift, but there’s still more work to do undoubtedly
[00:11:45]Dom: [00:11:45] You were saying you’ve had the opportunity to challenge the codes and the authority requirements. Is that something that you’re seeing more of just across the board?
[00:11:55]are we having that opportunity to challenge the codes and actually think outside the box? Do you think that’s something that’s actually starting to become more the norm they’re actually going to see it? So then we can try some new things and start to innovate without having to wait for the codes to catch up to us?
[00:12:12]James: [00:12:12] I think there’s there’s work to do there. I think some agencies are inviting that positive challenge and real industry participation in improving codes and standards Where the opportunity presents itself.
[00:12:29]But I think the the capacity to entertain that that exploration and positive challenge probably clouded a little with maybe some certainly capacity constraint, uh by being some of the commercial constructs and legal constructs we put around our ways of working. Also constrained some of that really creative collaborative exploration. so I think it’s really important that we as an industry find the environment, and the culture, and the courage to really continue to explore and challenge and improve where we can.
[00:13:15] I think it’s our role as engineers.
[00:13:17] Dom: [00:13:17] So from that how do we how do we innovate or how do we get more innovation in the construction industry?
[00:13:24] James: [00:13:24] I think certainly searching for best practice in international arenas is part of it. I think increasingly a strive towards greater diversity and participation in the construction sector is vital for unlocking a broader landscape of ideas. We can’t constrain ourselves to the I guess the traditional mould of the construction industry, we have to unlock greater participation, to unlock a greater landscape of ideas. And that’s diversity in all its forms, It’s not it’s not constraint to the gender conversation. we need to be really creative and this is where you know this year has been challenging right across the globe.
[00:14:12] And construction industries I’d say Relatively lesser impacted than many other sectors. That perhaps puts a responsibility on us to find ways to involve some of those sectors that have been more impacted and really find a way for them to play their role in in this sector. how do we cross train and bring in some of those skills that we perhaps haven’t invited in in the past
[00:14:40]Mel: [00:14:40] that’s a that’s actually a really good point there. what are your thoughts on the future of engineering considering the future that you’ve said that we need to move into that innovative space.
[00:14:51] James: [00:14:51] I think it’s a it’s a really Exciting profession. I think it carries an element of responsibility. I think we’re all acutely aware of some of the big global challenges we face. Climate change is certainly uh close to the top of that list. at its heart it’s A really exciting creative profession .I think increasingly the creative element of of engineering is going to become increasingly important. That patent and heavily regulated end of what we do as a profession, I think in in the years ahead they well become increasingly automated, delivered by an algorithm in a basement somewhere. But the really human, really creative element of engineering in a really complex problem solving through really creative thought, I think that’s going to remain for a long while yet with a really creative engineers to help solve those problems So I think it’s a really exciting time for the new people coming into this profession. I think we’re on the cusp of a new wave of technology that will really fundamentally transform, Not just how we live but the things around us, how we move, how we communicate the environments we work in.
[00:16:18] Dom: [00:16:18] I think you hit the nail on the head particularly with regards to the human aspect of it as well So I think as engineering evolves and all of those design components start to become you know whether it done through computer modeling or that sort of electronic generation, I really believed that that human aspect is going to become more and more important for the starting point particularly in regards to working out what the question is that it needs the answer in the first place. If you could go back to the point where you’ve just graduated and you’re standing on that mining site, what would you say to all those engineers that are just starting out?
[00:16:55] James: [00:16:55] I think I would say step towards the challenge .There will be lots of challenges that come across your path as an engineer, I think it’s really important that engineer’s rise that challenge and the responsibility that goes with the qualification. I’d also say, surround yourself with people that will support and guide and mentor and coach you along the way. none of us want to be in the deep end without someone there to support.
[00:17:25] Mel: [00:17:25] That’s wonderful That’s that’s some great advice actually. it’s like don’t shy away from the future, Just grab it with both hands and just make a Mark in this life. I love that can do attitude in people. Now just to wrap up what’s the peace of engineering that has impressed you?
[00:17:43]James: [00:17:43] As a as a geotechnical engineer, it’s hard not to be intrigued by the snowy 2.0 scheme. I certainly am intregued and impressed by those pioneers that delivered the original snowy scheme.without a doubt it’s one of the feats of engineering globally, it just happens to sit on these shores. I think that for me stands out as something of a benchmark
[00:18:13] Mel: [00:18:13] Yeah we yeah we’ve been down
[00:18:15] Dom: [00:18:15] there but it’s just it’s amazing And I think the the thing, apart from the size and scale where it’s hard to comprehend unless you go And then see it. But just also the fact that when they built it they didn’t have all the the modern things that we take for granted these days as part of our construction processes And so these were people who were building these things that were In amazing sort of conditions and circumstances and they still managed to create this huge engineering feat . So no I love that one That’s um it’s definitely one on the top of by engineering list
[00:18:50]Mel: [00:18:50] can highly recommend the discovery center We just went down there recently It was like this is amazing
[00:18:55]Dom: [00:18:55] we spoke with a geotechnical engineer who is working, is currently down there working on snowy 2.0. she was just blown away by it. It’s so wonderful when engineers are so caught up in their projects, like they’re excited about the projects that we’re working on Cause then the passion really comes out.
[00:19:11]James: [00:19:11] There were projects around the globe that absolutely Shifted the needle in terms of the engineering profession . You look at things like Panama canal, the snowy scheme, some of the great iconic buildings around the globe and you know through real challenge and stretch, we’ve refined and improved the art engineering along the way. and I think in that, you know challenging what you did yesterday and trying to do better tomorrow, and that might be through a really bold feat of engineering or it might just be on a fairly simple act, but you’re going to do it better than you did it yesterday. with every one of those Incremental grand improvements, we make the world a slightly better place with each and every effort. That for me is is what engineering is about
[00:20:11] Dom: [00:20:11] Yeah definitely. And just to finish up is there an engineer that you admire
[00:20:18]James: [00:20:18] That’s a really challenging question. there’s a long list of engineers I admire. including a long list of colleagues in my business. when I go around the business that I’m part of and look at some of the things that our engineers do on a daily basis it’s… it’s inspirational. It’s energizing. I probably go back to some of those mentors from my really early career that were genuine artists in in the profession. You know they were really solid practitioners.
[00:20:53]I’d probably be remiss if I called out any one of those individuals. But there is a long list in my mind, and they’ve all played their particular role in influencing me along the way. probably my immediate family also services you know engineering inspiration along the way.
[00:21:12]Mel: [00:21:12] Can just imagine the the lunches and the dinners and the Christmas parties right here old chatting around
[00:21:18] James: [00:21:18] Yeah Terribly nerdy
[00:21:23] Mel: [00:21:23] Okay Oh thank you so much for joining us today It’s been wonderful
[00:21:27] Dom: [00:21:27] Thanks for joining It’s been great speaking with you
[00:21:29]James: [00:21:29] Thanks You both. Yeah no it’s been, it’s been good fun.
I’d like to thank everyone for listening to another great episode of Engineering Heroes as we present the new dawn of engineering challenges for Engineers Australia. your hosts have been Melanie and Dominic De Gioia. You can view this episode show notes or learn more from our podcast by visiting our website, www.EngineeringHeroes.com.au
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