IET president Barry Brooks: paying tribute to the long list of eminent engineers stretching back to Michael Faraday.
Incoming IET president Barry Brooks discusses his aims and ambitions for his year in office, along with his inaugural address theme of ‘engineers who make a difference’. Words and photography by Nick Smith.
In an organisation such as the IET, the incoming president will always be following in the footsteps of some illustrious names. And so I ask the new incumbent what he makes of his election to the post. “It certainly is an honour,” says retired naval Commodore Barry Brooks, who is keen to pay tribute to the long list of eminent engineers stretching back to Michael Faraday’s time.
“There are different people needed for different purposes,” says Brooks, who has now settled into his new office at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers on Birdcage Walk in central London. Usually, incoming presidents are interviewed at the IET’s headquarters on the River Thames, but for the duration of Brooks’ tenure at least, the organisation is taking advantage of the IMechE’s hospitality while Savoy Place is refurbished.
Brooks is keen to stress the value of such neighbourly generosity and collaboration, before describing how the outgoing president, Professor Andy Hopper of the University of Cambridge, brought a mixture of academic, industrial and innovation skills to the post. “My particular background is in the Navy, from which I retired 12 years ago. I’m still working, but now as a consultant in programme and change management, and it is probably that angle that I have brought to the IET.”
Brooks says that this rotation of approaches brought to the organisation by successive presidents is “a model that ought to be worked on. One of the things that we’ve tried to do in the past decade is improve on that continuity, so that the president and the deputies work through the cycle in order to prevent radical changes of direction each year, and so providing a development of what has gone before. I’m not shifting direction. It is more a nuance that is intended to build on what has gone before”.
Tradition holds that one of the first things the incoming president will do is to address the IET, and the theme of Brooks’ inaugural lecture was ‘Engineers who make a difference’. He says that the title is deliberately ambiguous. In the first instance Brooks referred to the history and heritage of engineers that have already made their mark, from Faraday to James Dyson and Tim Berners-Lee.
“Not everybody can aspire to being such a famous name, because things have moved on,” Brooks says. “Only on very few occasions can a single individual be the representation of a new invention – people work much more in teams. So, yes, we want to provide an environment that helps, nurtures and provides support for individuals.
“But for the vast majority of us 150,000-odd engineers, we just press on with our day job, working to produce better products and services in aid of company profits on the one hand, but also hopefully to improve society.”
He draws attention to the mobile telecommunications and Internet industries where “people are working together to provide step changes in the improvement of our world”.
Brooks also is keen to encourage people to think beyond the horizon of the day job. “What can we as engineers do to help society? Well, we can volunteer – as many members already do – to work with schools and universities, to help people to consider the benefits of pursuing a science and technology career.
“We can organise events and other networking opportunities for engineers and the general public,” he continues, “where we can share learning about subjects of topical interest on engineering and technology matters.” He expands on the theme by talking about the accreditation of university degree courses to ensure the transition into industry and career development.
Then there is mentoring – not just on the professional aspect of work, but in terms of problem solving. There is, he says, a whole raft of things that we as members can volunteer to do: “Some may only be able to give an hour a month as a mentor, but others can help to run a committee, putting on lectures and programmes that could take up two or three days per month.”
Part of the purpose of ‘Engineers who make a difference’ is to gather inspiration from historical innovators who have been commercially successful with leading brand names, “while for the rest of us there is the opportunity to make a difference, however small, to society”.
Brooks is not alone in thinking along societal lines and he draws attention to other presidents of learned bodies. He is keen to point out that while we may be discussing IET matters, we are at the IMechE. As you walk through its foyer the presidential theme on display is ‘proud to be an engineer’. Brooks explains that this is important because “it spreads the word and helps us to recognise that this is an important field into which parents can encourage their children”.
Any conversation with the new president will at some point focus on volunteering. It is a subject close to his heart and one that he wishes to drive forward during his term of office. But what can he do in 12 short months to realise this vision? “That’s the classic question. How do you ensure that there is enough momentum to carry a project forward? First, the idea of volunteering didn’t just start on 1 October 2013. It was already in place and one of the things that the Board of Trustees is working with is volunteer talent support and looking at what it is that motivates people to volunteer. How do you attract, recruit, train, develop and retain them?”
Part of the answer, he says, is to understand the psyche of the people who are willing or could be persuaded to volunteer when there is no monetary reward at the end of the exercise. “But one of the things that is so easy to forget is simply to thank people: say, job well done, good event, good choice of lecturer. Thanks are the basic building blocks of recognition and reward.”
Brooks wants to give greater impetus to volunteering in the forthcoming year. He says that there are currently three to four thousand members of the IET involved in volunteering, a figure he describes as representing a “very small percentage. If we could double that, think of the resources we could deploy. If every volunteer persuaded just one other person to join in, we could double our resource. This is important because, although we have a large number of staff who do an enormous amount of work, we are effectively resource limited when it comes to taking on new initiatives, campaigns and ideas”.
and staff, “we could do a heck of a lot more”.
Brooks’ academic background is electrical engineering, which he read at Imperial College, sponsored by the Royal Navy. Following his graduation, he went into the naval training pipeline that included marine and nuclear engineering modules, serving in nuclear submarines on propulsion and reactor plants. “This was during the Cold War, when the submarine was at the forefront of technology. But we then went through a period when digital electronics and signal processing introduced a step change in the capability of our sensors and weapon systems. I chose to go into that field as more of a personal, technical challenge, rather than to stay in what was standard reactor technology.”
Having moved into weapons engineering, Brooks found himself running sea trials, “some of them quite complex in terms of equipment fitted to nuclear submarines, which I found fascinating. And this brought me into contact with industry and other leadership and management models. In the military you’re a team leader and you’ve got your resource and that’s it”.
In the world of industry, Brooks found that he was dealing with a portfolio of stakeholders not necessarily under his line management, something he found “a very different style from what is sometimes perceived as the military model. People think that you give an order and everybody jumps, but it doesn’t work quite that way in the real world”.
Further ahead, a senior MoD post in Whitehall gave Brooks the opportunity to work with resource prioritisation, making complex decisions involving analysing options such as purchasing new ships in favour of modifying existing ones: “those sorts of decisions. So I was involved in the financial management of the whole of the Navy’s budget. It wasn’t just considering the cost of buying a piece of kit, but getting involved in the through-life approach to the costs of actually owning it.” Further appointments brought him in contact with other government departments, including a post in the Cabinet Office, which was a “fascinating insight into the inner workings of government”, as well as restructuring of the organisations in the MoD where “those involved in purchasing equipment were not necessarily imbued with the consequences of looking after that equipment through-life in terms of cost of ownership”.
In 2002 Brooks retired from the Navy as Commodore, since when he has maintained his habit of working long hours. “At that time the IEE was looking for volunteers and I thought I could give that a go. So I joined the local committee as the Benevolent Fund representative. But there were few beneficiaries and so it was a representational role with no work commitment. But it was the way I became a volunteer, if you like.”
Frustrated by not being able to achieve as much as he thought the organisation could at a local level, Brooks joined the IEE Council only to be met with further frustration upon realising “that this wasn’t the entity in which to get things done either. So I put myself forward and was elected to the Board of Trustees. At the time the Institution was going through a number of changes and we wanted to make sure that the governance structure reflected that. This was when we moved to a model where we enabled the staff and the members to work more closely together. And we also looked at the process by which we encouraged volunteers onto boards and set up a system by which the boards’ skill levels increased”.
“I like to think that I am a good observer and can see when things are working well, or not,” says Brooks, who explains that he sets great store by first impressions. “The minute you walk into an office, depending on how you are greeted, you get a pretty good idea of the morale and culture of that company. When you go on board a ship, how the quartermaster receives you gives you a flavour of what the ship is like, even before you meet the captain. And this applies to Local Network committee meetings and lectures in the IET. These are the sorts of nuances that I see benefitting from improvement in our networks.”
But why should we volunteer? “Well, if you look at the Olympic Games last year… now, that was the classic example of when volunteering works well. Those of us who were lucky enough to attend the Games will know that there was a tremendous spark of enthusiasm that transmitted to the spectators from the volunteers. They weren’t doing it for money and a lot of them paid their own expenses for the privilege.
“There is a sense of satisfaction to be had when you are putting something back into society. You are making a difference. In the case of the IET we can help a student select a career path, to develop capabilities, to broaden networks. One of the things I think I do is put people together. I don’t get anything out of that materially, but I do enjoy meeting, making friends with and helping people, and that is satisfaction enough.”
You can follow Barry Brooks on Twitter: @IETPresident
Barry Brooks read electrical engineering at Imperial College, sponsored by the Royal Navy, with whom he had a successful and varied career – submarine electrical and nuclear propulsion engineer, R&D projects, Whitehall (MoD strategy, resources and long-term planning, and Cabinet Office), pan-MoD organisational change, and, unusually for an engineer, an accountancy role. As Commodore, working with industry, he helped to design and improve the MoD’s procurement and through-life support project management.
In the past decade, he has worked for IBM, Hitachi and his own company, Wychcote, which provides director-level support for, and assurance of, complex, high-risk, high-value engineering, procurement and change programmes.
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