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Do something that matters: An interview with Alec Mackenzie
Kristen McGillivray, Western Canada Water
Meet Alec Mackenzie, a project manager with EPCOR. He graduated from Queen’s University with a degree in Chemical Engineering and finished his Master’s also in Chemical Engineering at the University of Toronto. I’ve known Alec since I began working Western Canada Water in 2015 and over the past few years we’ve worked on some pretty cool initatives together (and on a couple of boards). Last fall, we were part of a core group that executed the first National Stormwater Conference in Canada. Alec was instrumental in creating a strong technical program for the Conference and set a high standard for the next one. He has solidified himself as a strong supporter of the water community and we are collectively better with him in it. If I ever have a question about the industry, Alec is one of my first calls (thanks for never making me feel like my questions are silly and always making time for them).
Q. What was your first job after graduation? Did you learn anything that you couldn’t in a classroom?
A. My first job out of university was working as a Junior Engineer for GHD on a large WWTP project, one of the first water reclamation projects in Canada. I was embedded in a WWTP for 15 months operating an advanced treatment pilot plant system (with microfiltration and reverse osmosis).
Yes, so much. There’s a huge gap between what you learn in school and the practical knowledge required in the workplace. I knew how to read a pump curve and size a pump using the right formulas, but had no idea how to troubleshoot a pump that was air locked. The learning curve on that pilot plant was really steep, but looking back I’m grateful to have had the opportunity. There are some things you can only learn by doing, so I think it’s important for junior engineers to spend time in the types of facilities they are designing.
Q. What sparked your interest to pursue a career in the water industry? Can you describe a moment where you realized this was the field you wanted to work in?
A. I’ve known I wanted a career in an environmental field for a long time. Growing up in Muskoka and spending summers on the lake, the environment was always a big part of my life. But it wasn’t until after university that I started to pursue a career in water specifically.
The keynote speaker at my graduation was one of the co-founders of Engineer’s Without Borders. In his speech, he talked about how he quit his job to pursue something important to him. As an engineering grad without a job at the time, this sounded insane to me. His advice to my graduating class was to “do something that matters, ” and that really resonated with me. Shortly after that, I attended a water charity event and learned about the impact one clean drinking water well had on an entire village. That was when I realized water was something that mattered and I became interested in the industry.
Working in Water
Q. What are some surprising misconceptions about your job?
A. Maybe not my job specifically, but within the industry in general, I think there’s a common misconception that facilities alone make water clean. Behind every treatment plant, there’s a team of talented operators keeping it running. In my new role with EPCOR, I spend a lot more time in treatment plants working on projects. I’m always impressed at how knowledgeable the operators are, and how quickly they can adapt to changing conditions. As treatment systems get more and more advanced, operators are getting more advanced with them. They are definitely the unsung heroes of the industry.
Q. What advice would you give to someone interested in working in water? What experience should they try pick up?
A. Sit down and talk to someone working in the industry. Buy them a coffee and pick their brain. Most water professionals are happy to talk about water all day long. Another option is to get involved with one of the great Young Professionals groups we have in Western Canada Water. It’s a great way to learn more about the industry and meet like-minded water professionals.
From an experience standpoint, my advice would be to spend as much time working in the field as you can (i.e. not in the office) early in your career. The more senior you get, the less opportunity you’ll have to get that practical experience. From an engineering standpoint, practical experience is invaluable and something you’ll continue to rely on the rest of your career.
Q. What do you think the future of the water industry looks like?
A. It’s an exciting time to be in the water industry. Water utilities are going through a digital transformation of sorts, with a lot of investment in smart water distribution and metering systems. It will be interesting to see how data analytics impacts operations and allows for more data-driven diagnostics and planning. I’ve read about some really interesting technologies being developed that leverage data to help automate master planning projects. As these systems get more advanced, I think we’ll see more innovative practices being developed and changing the way we do things.
Q. How do you respond to constructive criticism?
A. It can be challenging to hear, but it’s important not to take constructive criticism personally or get defensive. I always try to approach it with an open mind and as an opportunity to learn. Getting constructive criticism helps you grow by allowing you to focus on specific areas to improve your skills and performance.
Q. In thinking about career progression, what are some of your fears? How do you respond to them?
A. I recently started a new job with EPCOR after spending the first nine years of my career in consulting. When considering leaving the only company I’d ever worked for, there was certainly a fear of change and a fear of the unknown. Fear is the enemy of action. I knew it was totally natural to want to stay in my comfort zone, so I didn’t let that impact my decision. Occasionally it’s good to step outside of your comfort zone and challenge yourself with a new opportunity.
Q. Do you have a mentor? How important do you think mentorship is?
A. I’ve been lucky to have had excellent mentors throughout my career who were always willing to advocate on my behalf and provide meaningful opportunities for growth. Mentorship is incredibly important to the success of a young professional’s career. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support and guidance of my mentors. One thing I’ve learned is mentorship can mean a lot of different things and all of them are valuable. Whether they are a technical expert, the champion of your cause, a trusted advisor or a sounding board for ideas, it’s rare that one person can provide everything you need to grow in your career.
Q. What advice would you give to your younger self?
A. My advice would probably be to relax. Earlier in my career I tended to be a little impatient when it came to career advancement and “where I saw myself in five years”. I wanted to be a project manager with three years of experience under my belt. The older I get, I realize there is no real rush. Don’t worry about others “getting somewhere” ahead of you. Good things will come if you work hard, but it’s important to take time and learn things the right way. Allow yourself time to grow and make mistakes.