Major project problem solving

Roads & Infrastructure speaks to Margarida Marques, Downer’s Regional Planning Manager for New South Wales, about her career in Australia and around the globe.

Margarida Marques began her career 13 years ago as a tender engineer for a medium-sized rail maintenance company, part of a major Spanish infrastructure group, in Lisbon, Portugal. She has since used her engineering expertise on a multitude of projects for various companies around the globe.

Appointed Regional Planning Manager for NSW at Downer in 2018, Mrs. Marques was a finalist for the Rising Star award at the 2019 Women in Industry Awards.

She currently provides governance and support to 14 infrastructure projects at Downer across New South Wales and tells Roads & Infrastructure no two days on the job are the same.

Mrs. Marques’ path to an engineering career was unexpected. Like many teenagers at high school, Mrs. Marques was unsure of what career path to take.

“I was good at math and physics and I noticed engineering had good career prospects. From there I jumped into civil engineering without much idea of what to expect,” Mrs. Marques says.

“The role of tender engineer doesn’t really exist in Australia, but in Lisbon, I was part of the pre-contracts department developing planning, methodology and budgets for a wide range of rail infrastructure projects.”

During this time, Mrs. Marques worked on a tender for a major billion-dollar project in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, to build a 600-kilometre rail line between two major cities and a second one to link a mining site in Conakry to the Liberian Port.

Mrs. Marques said her team had to think about how to plan the works in a very constrained environment with limited access between the quarry, in Conakry, on one end and the heavy rail machines and track materials being delivered by boat at the Liberian Port at the opposite end of the job.

“We also had to allow for utilisation of local resources, work with the local government and there were presumably cannibal tribes located along the new track alignment. This is what I enjoy about infrastructure projects – developing unique strategies to suit the project environment and constraints,” Mrs. Marques says.

Her work on these tenders saw Mrs. Marques promoted to the head of the pre-contracts team, with two engineers and a proposals coordinator directly reporting to her. This gave Mrs. Marques great exposure to the parent company, which offered her the opportunity to relocate to Hong Kong.

After working on a Mass Transit Railway tender in Hong Kong, she was offered a job by contractor McMahon, which brought her to Australia.

Mrs. Marques’ first role in Australia was as a project engineer for a rail job in Geraldton, WA, where she was the only engineer on site.

“I really had to win the supervisors over on that project and towards the end I had developed really good relationships with all the workers on site, which was really rewarding for me,” Mrs. Marques says.

Five years ago, Mrs. Marques joined Downer as Planning Manager for three different projects in New South Wales before taking on the role of Regional Planning Manager.

When asked what the best aspect of her job is, she highlights problem solving without hesitation.

“I like to find unique solutions to different challenges and the nature of this industry, my role and experience, gives me the perfect opportunity to do so,” she says.

One of the projects she is most proud of was completed in Sydney in 2018 where Mrs. Marques managed the planning for significant upgrades of multiple railway stations as part of Sydney’s Transport Access Program.

“We developed a new planning and coordination process that is currently being used across the business and a lot of lessons learnt carried across to different projects,” Mrs. Marques says.

One skill Mrs. Marques attributes to her success is her ability to collaborate with many different people, to get the best out of the team.

“I think one of my strengths is communication. In my role being able to exchange knowledge and information and being able to work as part of a team is critical to successful outcomes. Living in different countries and exposed to multiple work cultures made me more flexible to how I approach collaboration and problem solving.”

She says it is not uncommon in the industry for people to try to implement what they have done in the past to new and different projects, but it is important to think outside of the box.

“Sometimes habit stands in the way of great opportunities, this is particularly true for infrastructure projects where constraints are always quite unique.”

Her advice to young people looking at a career in the infrastructure industry is simply to be flexible.

“I think a lot of unproductive experiences occur when people bring aspects of what they have done before and try to replicate it in a completely different environment. With infrastructure, that approach doesn’t quite work. You need to have the ability to understand the unique constraints of each job and adapt your point of view to what are the job’s needs,” Mrs. Marques says.

Looking to the future, she is excited to move with the natural progression of her job into a project control role which involves an even spread between the commercial and planning side of projects.

Over the course of her career, Mrs. Marques also hopes to change the perspective on planning jobs in Australia.

“I think we have really senior qualified planning resources being underutilised. That is something I’m really keen to change. I want to change the industry’s perception of the planning job, to what it should be, an opportunity to be strategic and save money with smart ideas that help us best use time and resources.”

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