Can you describe your background?

Vidya Murugan is a simple hearted Tamil girl who grew up in Mumbai with big dreams. Throughout her academic life she was not just another exceptionally good student – she had unflinching passion and enthusiasm for studies. Her enthusiasm to understand the whys and hows of every subject matter lent her a natural edge in the subjects pertaining to the science stream. When she chose to pursue civil engineering she was unsure about continuing in the field for long. However, when she started her career she realised that there was a lot more to be learnt about the subject than what was contained in the course textbooks. According to her, every day brings new learnings and it is very  satisfying when her work comes alive in concrete structures

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Vidya Murugan, who is now a project manager with a real estate developer called NYC Luxury Developments in New York, says that as a child (who grew up in the suburbs of Mumbai) she wanted to become a million different things from a veterinary doctor to an air force pilot. However, when she passed her Class 12 she decided to endorse her family mandate – “pursue an engineering degree and after that you can do anything else that you want to do”. “Engineering fees for students who studied on a free seat was heavily subsidised by the government. I decided to take up engineering if I got a free seat in a college in the western suburbs of Mumbai as I did not  want a very long commute. As luck would have it, both my conditions were met. I got admission in the civil engineering department at Rizvi College and pursued my bachelors degree,” says Murugan.

Can you describe your career path?

Murugan started her career as a management trainee in Simplex Infrastructures Limited, a leading contracting firm in India. “I spent the first year as a part of the management information system team. I soon got frustrated working with second-hand information received from the site and badgered the management to send me to the site,” she shares.  Opportunity soon presented itself in the form of the Delhi Metro project, with Simplex playing the part of a contracting firm. “I was in the planning team and my job was to ensure that work never stopped because of material shortage. I had to forecast requirements, place indents/requisitions and do rigorous follow-ups . I was subsequently asked to lead a team of 10 project personnel to prepare the site for occupational health and safety, and environmental compliance during an OSHAS 18000 and ISO 14000 audit, which we successfully completed. This experience taught me a lot about how to create a safe and healthy work environment at a construction site,” she recounts.

When Simplex was awarded the Mumbai Metro Project, Murugan  moved back to Mumbai to head the planning and billing team in the capacity of a lead planner for the project. “This project was very close to my heart, since it would have meant that a Metro would make my father’s commute to work a breeze. Sadly, he passed away less than a year before it started. Our team’s responsibilities included preparing and updating work schedules, preparing and updating cash flows, monitoring work progress and preparing progress reports for various stakeholders so that timely corrective and preventive action could be taken, carrying out root cause analysis, handling contractual correspondence, preparing claims, carrying out, rate analysis, co-ordinating with multiple agencies and sub-contractor billing and client billing,” she shares.

Her next assignment was with the Taj Group of Hotels and Resorts. “Here, in the capacity of manager-planning and scheduling, I worked directly with senior management and was responsible for analysing raw data, understanding trends and sending across progress presentations, status charts and other graphical representations for their consideration and review,” says Murugan.  She says that though she already had the experience of putting together a work schedule for a mega sports complex, her stint with the Taj Group was actually her first real brush with buildings. “I saw how MEP (mechanical, electrical and plumbing) services and interior works were sequenced, and how they were co-ordinated with civil works.  Also working out of their corporate office gave me a chance to learn more about corporate culture and etiquette, and to improve my personal and professional presentation skills,” she elaborates.

According to Murugan, after her stint with the Taj group, she was confident enough to venture out to more challenging projects. In her words, “If working for a contracting firm gave me  the opportunity to acquire hands-on knowledge of the functioning of a construction site, my stint with the Taj Group enabled me to view the business from the client’s perspective. Having worked with both a contracting company as well as a client organisation, I felt well equipped to join CH2M Hill, the consulting firm for the Mumbai International Airport Project. At this project, I was assigned the iconic Air Traffic Control Tower, MEP services and special airport systems like baggage handling systems, passenger boarding bridges, visual docking guidance system and vertical and horizontal transportation systems.” In projects of this magnitude and complexity often deadlocks occur due to clashes of opinion and interests of the numerous agencies involved. And Murugan’s experience was no different. “I had to support project managers in ensuring that all interactions were result-oriented.  I also had to prepare reports for various stakeholders (client’s executives,and government bodies etc) apprising them of the project status. This would enable them to take timely preventive/corrective actions wherever required,”she adds.

What was the turning point in  your career path?

Working on the Mumbai International Airport project was a turning point for Murugan both personally and professionally. “It presented a rare opportunity (rare for civil engineers)  to work on mechanical systems like elevators, escalators and travelators, much less on specialised mechanical systems like baggage handling, etc,” she explains.

At a personal level the satisfaction was immense. “Seeing your work come up right before your eyes is a very rewarding experience,” she states. “In the course of my work life I have learnt that there is never an end to learning and that there is always a solution, despite the magnitude and complication of the challenge. One just has to stay calm to find the solution. Also, good team work is half the battle won. I have also learnt to be more meticulous and to double and triple check my work to catch errors. As a result today I am a more patient person and my thoughts are more logical and organised,” she concludes.

Your advice to students?

While choosing any career or specialisation one needs to be adequately informed about the job prospects it has. So what are the opportunities available for civil engineers? And what are the approximate starting salaries? “Today India is witnessing an unprecedented scale of urbanisation. Since there are several big and small construction projects coming up there is a lot of scope for civil engineers. And the trends are not any different globally,” says Murugan.

In terms of civil engineering projects, she says, India is not just at par, but probably better than developed countries. “You can do various projects so that’s a great thing for freshers. However, things are not so great in terms of salaries. The problem stems from the fact that there are too many people fighting for the same job. Moreover, since the Indian rupee is not very strong as far as the currencies of the developed world are concerned, civil engineers starting their careers in India are invariably at a financial disadvantage when compared to most of their global peers”.

However, this is no reason to despair as one can improve one’s employment prospects by studying for an additional degree. “I think it is an excellent idea for civil engineers to pursue a management degree. I did my post-graduate diploma in advanced construction management at the National Institute of Construction Management and Research, Pune. In my brief experience, I have found that engineers often have the technical knowledge but lack the presentation skills to make their point and management skills needed to keep projects on track. This makes them hesitant as far as prompt decision-making is concerned. People working with and under them at times don’t respect them and try to take them for a ride. Hence, the perfect project manager for a construction site is someone who has both skill sets – a civil engineer with a management degree,” says Murugan.

The industry has also started to realise this and there is a huge demand for this combination. Also, this combination opens up other avenues like real estate sales, valuations, contract administration and arbitration, among others. Teaching and research avenues are also available for engineering students, says Murugan.