Talal El-Jack is a Graduate Civil Engineer in our Auckland office. Here, the former school science nerd charts his pathway to working on real-life solutions and gaining breadth of experience at Riley.
Tell us a bit about yourself
I’m from Sudan but have grown up primarily in Auckland.
Coming out of high school I was signed up for medical and engineering degrees and was trying to figure out what path to take. Both my parents have a medical background and I thought about also doing this, but I ended up choosing engineering as I really enjoy problem solving and calculations and I felt that my math and physics strength really aligned with engineering. I was a real science and math nerd at school and liked that whatever I was learning on these subjects allowed me to explain how and why things work in the real world.
Where did you study?
University of Auckland, graduated at the end of 2021.
What did you focus on? What papers did you enjoy the most?
I tried to have breadth overall throughout the last 2-3 years of university, when electives were introduced – the papers I took included fluid mechanics, geo-mechanics, structural engineering, and some transport papers. I always liked having a wide range of knowledge so working at a company like Riley where we carry out work relevant to a variety of civil engineering sub-disciplines has been very enjoyable for me.
I did a lot of structural papers in years 3 and 4; however, I didn’t end up pursuing this specialisation as it didn’t seem like something I would enjoy as a career after speaking to some senior structural engineers. I really enjoyed the calculations involved with structural engineering, and this translated into liking technical design and calculations at work as a civil engineer.
Why did you apply for a position at Riley?
The work looked interesting and diverse, rather than focusing on a single subdiscipline. I felt that I could experience and get a feel for a variety of things and what goes into engineering in general, particularly as I didn’t really know what engineering in practice looked like.
I’m happy in the team and there’s a lot of opportunity to work everywhere. When I applied, I knew it was a civil job and thought I would be hopping between disciplines, but now that I’m here I love that civil is my main home. I have the opportunity to work with the water and geotech teams and I feel like it all inter-relates to civil.
What is your position within Riley?
Graduate Civil Engineer, but really I can hop between work from different disciplines. In my first year I had a lot of experiences among all the disciplines.
What are your career aspirations?
To become technically skilled overall but also have some specific expertise that I can contribute to the industry in a meaningful way, such as articles and presentations.
To have ownership in an engineering company – I want to really help grow a company, getting involved in the behind-the-scenes business processes as well, which could also potentially help me in other endeavours outside of engineering.
One of the great things about Riley is that every role gets internally advertised and if you’re interested in it, you can apply. There are opportunities to go in whatever direction you would like to.
What is the most exciting project you have worked on, and why?
A mixed-use subdivision at Wanaka Street (Whangarei), where I am working on a medium-sized residential development. I’ve been able to experience all aspects of the project, from resource consent (developer had just bought the land) to detailed design, to construction observations and completion. It involved engineering plan approval (EPA) and building consent (BC) from the council to build the public/private infrastructure I designed, confirming it’s up to standard.
It’s gone from nothing on the ground (or existing carpark in this case) to me preparing everything – three infrastructure/landscape geometry/roading – before the building itself can be constructed.
The biggest challenge on this project has been ensuring that I’m paying attention to all the details to figure out what I don’t know. I have a project director review my work, but as I’m primarily the sole engineer carrying out the design, I need to figure out the relevant design considerations and questions I need to ask so I don’t miss anything due to my inexperience.
What type of things do you work on within each project?
Large civil variety includes:
contract administration (payment claims, quality assurance)
capacity design of stormwater/wastewater pipes, pressure design of water supply pipes
stormwater modelling of runoff flows, design of stormwater devices (e.g. tanks, ponds, swales, culverts)
design of roading/pavement/landscape geometry and pavement make-up
stormwater management (e.g. kerbing, catchpits, treatment devices)
3D modelling of all the above elements.
We use a lot of software, such as CAD, 12D, Hydraulic Toolbox, HEC-HMS, HY-8.
I get to go on-site for geotech/civil investigations – this includes the use of equipment such as shear vanes/scala penetrometers/clegg hammers for preliminary testing to inform things like foundation and pavement designs, and for observations to confirm strength is adequate for construction. I also do pipe trench/pressure/air testing to confirm pipelines are built correctly.
What part of the project are you responsible for?
Pretty much everything civil related. I’m the Project Manager, got thrown in the deep end a bit but not without assistance available. As the only civil engineer on this project, I essentially take care of all the design with the assistance of the project director for reviewing my work. It has taught me a lot because it forces me to pay attention to all the details of design. It also exposes me to all the processes required such as client interaction, council discussions, coordination with the other teams (CAD/geotech/contamination) and everything else in between.
What part of the project do you enjoy the most?
Definitely the technical side of things. Design and modelling have been my favourite things to do so far – calculations, water modelling, 3D modelling. I like starting with some parameters and going through the process to produce an effective design that gets translated into real-life structures.
How would you describe the culture of your team?
My team is very friendly and inclusive; we’re quite a competent bunch and we work together to get solid results while maintaining a sense of camaraderie. This also describes the company as a whole from my experience.
Do you have a mentor?
Yes, he’s an intermediate civil engineer from the Christchurch office. It’s good because he gives me a perspective within the context of my situation, providing me tips and feedback on things or obstacles he recently experienced. He also encourages me to set goals.
Where do you go if you need help?
Generally, I go to the senior/principal engineers in the Civil Team and they’re very helpful. They always take the time to explain things properly and are not dismissive in any way, providing background for their answers and helping me come up with solutions even when busy with their own work. Everyone in the Civil Team is my go-to.
This is common among the other disciplines as well; when I need help with issues that are more water/geotech related, I can walk nearby to anyone on the other teams and get that same level of attention.
Do you work much with other disciplines?
As civil engineers, we definitely have a lot of crossover with all the other disciplines. We work closely with geotechs who provide insight and parameters that inform the design of civil structures (e.g. to ensure they can stand, soil parameters inform stormwater design). We work with the Water Team as their flood/hydraulic modelling is closely linked to the stormwater management methods we design. The Environmental (Site Contamination) Team help us decide how to approach the earthworks for a development.
I personally like to work with the other teams as I like to have some breadth, and Riley allows me to get involved wherever my interests lie.
How do you keep up to speed on projects?
Generally, by monitoring updates on email chains and project files.
Information management is important, particularly when working on multiple projects at once. I’ve found keeping a physical diary as well as using OneNote has enabled me to keep track of the tasks required of me and a record of all information for a project, which helps ensure I’m not overlooking details as time progresses.
What do you enjoy most about the Civil Team?
The breadth of work we do and involvement with many of the other engineering processes. It keeps work interesting and means I’m always learning about a diverse range of topics.
What are you known for within your team?
It’s difficult to say as I’m relatively new. But I think, based on conversations with teammates and performance reviews, my proactivity and eagerness are appreciated in the team.
Do you go to any social activities? Which has been the most fun?
Yeah, I try to get involved. So far, I really enjoyed the event at Holey Moley where we did mini golf. Unfortunately, I missed out on the adventure weekend in Ohakune, but based on the photos and what people have said it looked like a lot of fun. I look forward to being able to attend that yearly event in the future.
What is the best thing about working at Riley?
The friendly and approachable nature of everybody here, including graduates all the way up to directors. You can ask anyone for help with work or strike up personal conversations and all will be happy, willing and responsive. This translates into being comfortable and confident to speak up at work in any situation. I know I’m welcome when I want more work from any of the teams, when I want assistance I know there are knowledgeable people around me, if I have suggestions I know I can speak up and be heard. Overall, it’s an excellent learning environment.