Interviews – Telecoms – Phillipa Phelps

Phillipa Phelps is technical manager, telecoms, for the world’s largest mobile communications company Vodafone AirTouch. She manages a team that plans ahead to ensure the Vodafone network has enough capacity to meet the ever-growing demand from mobile phone users. She works in a fast-moving environment – but that is the way she likes it

Working for Vodafone: culture, daily routine, rewards

What made you choose to work at Vodafone?
I came to Vodafone in August 1987 as an intermediate engineer. Telecoms was about a dozen people then. It was the culture that attracted me most. I had been working for BA in Bracknell at the time, but found it very slow moving. But once I got to Vodafone everything had got a pace, which is what I really enjoy.

What’s the company culture like?
We are quite formal. Grads are given responsibility from the start. They can very soon become an expert in their field and be given the responsibility to go with it. That then gives them the sense of ownership and belonging. It all goes together to make them feel part of the place.

What does your job involve on a daily basis?
My group basically makes sure there is enough capacity in the (Vodafone) network. So we’re designing how the network will grow for up to five years ahead. We are looking at whether we have enough switching capacity, link capacity; does the network grow in a manageable fashion, is it growing in a cost effective way? That takes us right through from a very high level picture that is used for budgeting purposes, right down to, is there enough space on a floor, how do we make things fit into a building? We get involved at every level, so there is plenty of variety and scope.

What’s the most rewarding thing about your job?
I feel I’ve planned the growth of this network from when we had five tack (analogue) switches right through to planning the growth of the digital network, so I suppose I see it as very much mine in that respect. I have got that sense of ownership.

Graduate careers in engineering

What advice would you give graduates considering a career in engineering?
Experience is beneficial – the broader the better. That’s why we encourage people to come for work experience and why we rotate our grads, because we can help them develop their experience. They need to understand what their employers are looking for, what qualities they are looking for. We can spot a born engineer because they have got an enthusiasm for the subject. It’s that enthusiasm that we are looking for and the commitment to learning and understanding and moving things forward. Because it’s an on-going learning process.

Do you have a graduate quota?
In telecoms we tend to take in the bulk of our grad recruits in September. Last year we took in 18 and put them in the six groups in the department. After six months we rotate them and then after another six months we take a look and say are they in the right place now or shall we move them again? We do that in consultation with the grads so they are given the opportunity to say where they would like to be. Nine times out of 10 (what the company and graduate wants to do) probably match.

How do you find your graduates?
We have done the milkrounds and graduate recruitment fairs in the past, although not this year. We sent grad recruits with two or three years experience at Vodafone out to various universities, to do presentations and talk to people about to graduate.

How difficult is it to attract the right people?
It is getting more difficult. This year we are looking for 25 grads for telecoms and it is very difficult getting the right mix. Obviously you don’t want 25 the same.

What mix of skill set and personality are you looking for?
They (skill set and personality) go hand in hand in many respects. We want everything – from people who are willing to specialise in a particular topic and become the expert in that, quite possibly the industry expert sitting on standards committees representing Vodafone, right through to people who are more general in their view of engineering so that they get the big picture, like our network planners. We also need people for implementation, building data transcript, testing and software development.

Phelps on her own career

How did you get into engineering?
Maths, physics and chemistry were my favourite subjects in school. I went to the then Polytechnic of Wales which was very good for engineering training and went on from there. I was one of two girls in a class of 42.

What made you want to be an engineer? What type of person do you need to be?
I tend to be a big-picture type of person. I do network design, which is very much big picture. How is it all going to fit together? How is it all going to grow? I’m not really the ‘take it to bits and put it back together again’ kind of engineer. I never liked learning by rote. I like to work out how it happened and what you did to get there.

What steps did you take to land the career you have now?
My degree was a sandwich course in engineering. I did three lots of industrial training – six months in college, six months in training for the first three years and then a full year of college for the fourth year. So by the time I came out of college I had 18 months industrial experience.

I did the first six months with Rolls Royce as a Rolls Royce apprentice, which was a really good basis. The second year I spent with the Ministry of Defence in Malvern, and the third year with Marconi Power Supplies. So I was able to get a broad base of experience before graduating.

Then I went to British Aerospace for four years. I worked on control systems for guided missiles. It was all good basic engineering experience. I worked in a team with mechanical engineers and production people, which gave me a good view of how to scale things up.

Women in engineering, skills shortage

Are more women going into engineering now?
There are more than there were, but they are still very much a minority. The ones who are committed enough to go into engineering and work at it, do well at it – probably because they’ve got so much more to overcome.

There is an engineering skills shortage. What’s putting people off?
It’s very hard for me to say, because it’s a job I enjoy and can’t understand why other people don’t want to do it. I guess it’s perceived as much more of a ‘dirty hands’ job than it really is and much less of a profession than it is. We have to approach the job professionally and make sure we deliver and meet deadlines.

How is Vodafone tackling the skills shortage?
We do various programmes. We take people in for work experience and if we feel they are meeting our standards we will then look at sponsoring them. We get people straight from A levels, who do either a 12 months or a summer placement and we then sponsor them through college. Some come to us for work experience in their third year at university and we then sponsor them through a final year.

The future for the telecoms industry and Phelps

What is your view of the telecoms sector at the moment?
It’s a very exciting time. There is a lot of growth and it is a maturing industry. We learn a lot from takeovers. We deal with people in other countries and learn how they are doing things. We can benefit technically from it as well as the business benefiting.

Will winning a third generation (3G) licence mean more technology jobs?
There will be some growth and transfer of skills from 2G to 3G, but the sheer volume of new customers and new technology to learn and understand will give rise to needing more people.

What about your hopes for the future?
I have gone from managing one person to having a team of 34. I see my role as continuing to develop and grow the team.

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