Based in China, Celine Zhao is senior associate director at Atkins, a member of the SNC-Lavalin Group. She first joined Atkins as an architect in 2001. Today Celine fills two roles. As a city planner she determines the best way to use land and resources, plans construction, and controls the quality on projects. In her second role as department manager, she’s responsible for coordinating, training and recruiting staff as well as keeping on top of market developments and customer management. We recently spoke to her about her career journey, and some of her proudest moments and achievements with us.
How did you start out in STEM?
As long as I can remember, I loved painting. So when I got to university I decided to major in planning and design. The area’s combination of art and technology, the rational and sensory, not to mention possibilities of transforming every aspect of a city, excited me.
How have you grown personally and professionally since being at Atkins?
I first joined Atkins as an architect, just at the start of China’s exciting urbanization. Since then I’ve worked on many residential areas, public buildings, and new town developments. As the company grew, the planning department was established in 2006, and I was assigned to the Urban Planning Consulting (UPC) department. Our team grew and my role expanded. From an ordinary designer, I became a project manager, and later a team leader.
Working at Atkins, I’ve benefit from the company’s multi-disciplinary platform, international vision and reach. So, I’ve never felt short of new opportunities. Whenever one came my way, I jumped at it – this has boosted my development at every career stage.
Which has been your most career defining project so far?
Planning the new CBD for Bao’an, which lies west of Shenzhen International Airport. We had to create a comprehensive, compact vertical and horizontal development, that maximized connectivity with new metro stations and landmark cultural buildings. The plan also needed to be able to sustain future economic development.
Atkins won the bid for this project in 2002 and we worked on it for the next eight years. My team was commissioned to deliver a series of urban planning and design packages. We completed the detailed city plans together with the Shenzhen Planning Institute. These design guidelines would provide professional support for the entire project development.
Five years into the project, the planning conditions radically changed. So, in 2007, we began revising the plans. At the same time, we signed an annual service agreement to work with the government’s planning department, solving specific implementation problems in planning management.
The process from planning and design, to implementation is dynamic and challenging. Finding a relative balance through changing conditions, while also considering the demands of all parties, and coordinating different stakeholders was a steep learning curve for me. It changed me as a professional and a person. I certainly matured, becoming independent, collaborative, and able to think through problems from different angles.
This project taught me that while you need to start by looking at the overall situation, you also need to grasp the details. Then you need to set goals, step by step, and find the right people do the right things. Working with the government and developers, I learned that empathy is important to understanding our clients’ perspective.
What challenges have you experienced as a woman leading projects in a male-dominated industry?
There is no difference in roles between men and women at Atkins. No matter who you are here, you’ll be valued for your effort and ability. I don't feel women need to work any harder than men to prove themselves. But if you work hard, you’ll be offered opportunities.
My main challenges at work have been when I lacked experience and technical ability. In those situations, I went straight to my seniors, and the company responded by supporting me with the relevant training.
I would recommend Atkins to other women, it is an organization with a strong global network, it attracts outstanding talent, and supports its people, encouraging their development.
What do you love about what you do?
Planning and design isn’t just about a plan or drawing, it’s a process that we use to give our clients everything they need to achieve their vision. I get a real sense of accomplishment seeing the process through from planning to implementation. Our team first uncovers the development potential and characteristics of a project. Then by balancing innovation with what’s practical, we decide on the best direction. From there we turn vision into reality. I find solving the many challenges throughout the process very rewarding.
I’ve been at Atkins nearing two decades and the team culture, growth space and company's recognition of personal abilities – these are what I love.
Inspired by Celine’s story of growth and career opportunities? Take a look at what we can offer you, we’re hiring.