Q&A: Interview with Tess Gillham, Senior Design Director, Water

At Jacobs, we think differently about the future as today’s challenges demand innovative approaches to create a more connected and sustainable world. With a staunch commitment to the spaces we inhabit, both globally and environmentally, we continually re-energize our efforts to be responsible stewards of the natural world, while providing forward-thinking sustainable solutions for our customers.

We get to know the members of our water team who are solving the world’s most pressing water resilience and sustainability challenges to shape the water industry of tomorrow.

Principal Design Manager for Water Tess Gillham shares her thoughts on her role at Jacobs, what sparked her interest in a career in water and why she is excited about the future of water in New Zealand.

Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do at Jacobs.

I have 20 years of experience as a water engineer in New Zealand. I’m responsible for design at Jacobs, working on the country’s three waters – wastewater, stormwater, and potable water. I always joke that a design manager does the tasks that no one else wants to do. In summary, my role is to work alongside clients to understand issues, define the scope of potential projects, feasibility assessments, develop business cases, lead the design process (concept, preliminary and final design ) with the contribution of other specialists, technical reviews to ensure the design is robust and the preparation of contractual documents, including technical specifications.

What sparked your interest in a career in water and engineering?

You could say I fell into engineering – there was no planning because I didn’t really know what the engineers were doing. I am dyslexic and found in school that math, science and arts subjects were much easier than English-based subjects. My dad suggested engineering, and I thought that sounded good. It also appeared that at the time there were very few females; I like to be a little different from others.

I applied to the University of Auckland Engineering School and got accepted. Throughout my studies, I favored papers over water, so entering the water industry seemed like a step ahead.

What’s your favorite part of your role?

I like to improve people’s lives and improve the environment. In the water business, we are always trying to improve water quality, provide clean water, reduce flooding and a myriad of other things.

Tell us about an exciting project you have worked on or are working on.

I have had the opportunity to work on many exciting projects over the years. More recently it has been exciting to be involved in the Central Interceptor project for Watercare. This is an amazing project with amazing people involved and it is the biggest sewage project in New Zealand When completed, the new sewage tunnel will help reduce wet weather overflows by up to 80 %. The water quality improvements from the Central Interceptor project will be fantastic for all Aucklanders.

What are some of the key considerations that will help create a more resilient and sustainable Three Waters sector in New Zealand?

There are a lot of key considerations – I could go on forever! One of my favorites right now is building in the right place. Land subject to coastal erosion, sea level rise, flooding and the like is not always suitable for infrastructure construction or other development. This only creates problems for future generations. We should ask ourselves if we really need the infrastructure before we build it. Is there any other solution rather than just installing another pipe? In urban areas, I personally think we could do more water reuse; this has the dual effect of reducing water demand while helping to minimize downstream flooding. We must also speed up the protection of our waterways.

What excites you about the future of water in New Zealand?

The proposed tri-waters reform excites me the most right now … If it comes to fruition, I see so many opportunities. The reform will offer the possibility of genuinely improving New Zealand’s water infrastructure for future generations.

If you’re not in the office, what would we likely find you doing?

Currently, I am trying to train for my next adventure race in November. This involves work in the gym, cycling and running. Ideally I would mountain bike and trail, but it’s a bit tough during lockdowns in New Zealand so I have to do road running and cycling. I’m also trying to teach my son to drive – together we spend a few hours each week practicing driving in Auckland. I spend time watching kids’ sports – my daughter does track and field (pole vault and run) and my son plays rugby.

What do you love most about being a part of Jacobs?

The Jacobs Water team is the best – it’s a great team to be a part of. I also love how globally connected Jacobs is. I like that New Zealand and Australia are combined; we have technical forums that cover both countries. Since working at Jacobs I have found it easy to access international experts.


Join the #OurJacobs team

What motivates you motivates us as we work to build a better world – together. At Jacobs, every day is an opportunity to make the world better, more connected, more sustainable.

We are always looking for dynamic and committed people to join our team. Bring your passion, ingenuity and vision. Let’s take a look at the impact we can create.

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