My family is Italian, my parents born in Italy – my Mum in Sicily and my Dad in Puglia. They both immigrated to Australia. They are both teachers. My Dad is an Italian teacher, my Mum is a maths and science teacher. Or were. They’re both retired now. My mum is an incredibly impressive woman. Anything Mum did, she would excel at. She changed the way science was taught in Australian classrooms. She introduced robotics and nanotechnology and gave kids a functional way of learning about science and chemistry. She received the Prime Minister’s Award for innovative teaching about 15 years ago and then went onto work at LaTrobe University. She taught outreach programs where she worked with kids from low socio-economic backgrounds and got them interested in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Now these programs run across all health science and science faculties at LaTrobe.
I did a double degree – Arts and Civil Engineering – at Melbourne University. To be honest, I didn’t really know what engineering was when I studied it. I was always good at maths, however terrible at physics – like really bad.
In my last year at uni, I was terrified of not getting a job. I was terrified of not being good enough and that my marks weren’t going to be good enough to get a job at any of the right places. All these people I knew were getting jobs because they knew people. I was just this ethnic girl with too much hair and some pretty solid attitude. In the end I got a job working in a structural design office while still studying. I also did a bit of civil drafting.
I had a really average experience with the guy who ran the structural engineering firm, when he questioned why I was doing engineering. Asking, why did I bother? That happened more times than I care to remember. After that I went and worked at a small boutique modular building company who were doing some really cool work for Rio Tinto. Their product was fabricated in China. After a year working there, I went to China to manage the fabrication and deliver mining camp buildings for Rio Tinto. I got head hunted by a notable State-owned company – China Minmetals – who were building a mining camp for their own mining operations. In the end, I worked in China for around seven years. I traveled for quite a while after that. When I came back to Melbourne I got a job with Prebuilt, another modular building company.
Working in China was amazing. I did six projects while I was there and worked in a place called Shenyang, right near the border of North Korea and Russia. It gets to -30 degrees in winter. We were building when there was ice on the roads and could sometimes only drive at 20km per hour. Once they shut off our site power because the government had decided that they wanted to shut off power to the entire industrial estate where we were working. We had a big shipment to make so we were running power tools on generators and I was running around doing QA checks wearing three pairs of gloves! There was no heating in the factory and, honestly, it used to take me fifteen minutes to get dressed. You would just be wearing layers and layers of thermals.
I worked a little bit in Shanghai too, which was amazing. It’s probably one of my favourite cities in the world. I also worked for a bit in Beijing. The Chinese have a really different way of working and it taught me a lot. It taught me about work ethic and persistence, about dealing with people. It was a very different way of doing business. It’s really interesting, I’m at this point in my career where I look at where I’ve worked and how I’ve worked to get here and I look at my peers and their work histories. I don’t know many people with a work background as diverse as mine who have ended up as a construction manager for a tier 1 construction company working on Melbourne’s largest ever infrastructure project. Am I proud? Yep. Would I change any of it? Not a chance.
The Metro Tunnel Project will deliver five new stations, and two tunnels crossing through the CBD from Kensington to South Yarra. All of the tunnel boring machine (TBM) tunneling completed in the west – between Kensington and the city – was based out of the Arden Station site in North Melbourne. We’ve finished the tunneling now and there’s more of a focus on building the underground stations. When I joined the project in December 2019, the job was very civil delivery focused. That’s very much changed at Arden Station, now it’s most definitely a building job. In June this year I was promoted to Construction Manager. I run a team of 12 engineers and six supervisors. All up, the site is currently operating with around 170 staff and 300 workforce. It’s a huge operation.
Where are we at the moment? We’re working about 20 metres below the ground, in a 250m long station box, built using diaphragm walls. We’re in the process of building the station’s platform. We’ve got 350 back-of-house rooms to deliver, as well as the front of house main concourse and main building structure. And, of course, the thing taking up the bulk of my time – installation of the station entrance arches. There are 15 arches, over 100,000 bricks – all hand laid. These arches are impressive by anyone’s standards. Once in, they’ll stand about 15 metres tall. They’ll become a real North Melbourne landmark. We’ll have the arches in by the end of November. We’ve then got another 12 months’ worth of substantial program to work through.
I think I’m a bit of a workaholic. I work a lot. To a certain extent I’m a bit defined by the work I do. I’m very focused and I love what I do and I especially love the people around me. I get a lot out of my team, they’ve got such heart. They’re essentially a bunch of young engineers keen to learn and to work hard to do that. I’m happiest when it’s all about them – their success, their growth and their development.
I think I struggle to accept my place sometimes. I’m worried that I come across as too hard, too abrasive, or even too masculine. I wonder if I come across as too much? I am pretty insecure about all of that. I know I shouldn’t be but it’s hard not to be in this industry. There’s always been an element of having to prove myself.
I think I’ve always been extroverted. I’m pretty confident when I talk to people and I don’t have an issue with being confrontational. What I’m finding really interesting though, especially in this role, is that people love a really strong female. Someone who is straight down the line – black and white – and explains things that others don’t want to. I often find that when I’m in commercial negotiations. My male colleagues will look at me, expecting me to finish the negotiation, seal the deal. It’s interesting because it brings together my whole ‘not wanting to appear too masculine’ insecurity, with my confidence. It’s challenging, but I like it.
I think ours is a tough industry. The Metro Tunnel Project is both hugely exciting and a tough job. The worthwhile ones always are, right? On this job there are so many design and construction considerations, not to mention all the stakeholders to consider when you’re building an underground station with a hundred-year design life. You’ve got to factor in VicRoads requirements, rail requirements, a really complex tunnel ventilation system and other elements that are all first of their kind. A station like this doesn’t exist anywhere else in Melbourne. I’ll leave my mark on this job by applying humility and by instilling in my team some ‘guys, this is the first time this has been done.’ It’s got to be about everyone offering up their best ideas and making decisions that way.
I think the devil can be in the detail too and the challenge is in understanding when to go into detail and when to step back and go easy on the detail to make good decisions. It’s a real balance. I encourage my team to, when it’s right, move away from the detail and look at the bigger picture in order to move ahead. It’s a balancing act between knowledge being power and the devil being in the detail. Engineers can be notoriously poor communicators and not very good at seeing the bigger picture. It’s something we can all get better at.
There’s a sense of perseverance and relentless pursuit that I learned in China. You work seven days a week. There’s is a really different way of living. That’s why people come to live and work in Australia. For the most part, people have a healthy work-life balance here. Workers’ rights are protected. We honour our weekends. We value our time off. In China, work bleeds into life and vice versa. Even after all these years a little of that is still ingrained in me. I feel strange if I leave work before 6pm and don’t get into work before 7am. While not a good thing, it sometimes still feels a little unnatural. But I’m also known to relentlessly pursue the ‘life’ side of that balance. I train religiously three times a week, I enjoy my food and I get away to far and exotic places when I can.
I was asked the other day how I’ll leave my mark on this project. Unsurprisingly, I do have a plan. I’m going to help develop some of the best young engineering minds (and personalities) Victoria has to offer. Oh, and we’re going to build 15 towering, red brick arches and a station entrance that literally takes your breath away every time you walk through it.
Francesca, my mother is a terrifying woman, let me tell you. If there is one invaluable life lesson she has taught me, it’s ‘don’t forget to stir the (pasta) sauce!’
We spied Stef’s career from afar and used some contacts at Lendlease to get her deets. We love when exceptional women come our way through mutual contacts. Stef is brash, funny, and unexpected. She has tracked a very non-traditional path, but has very quickly established herself as someone with an extremely specialised skillset and a whole lot of experience. And to be honest we just love meeting like-minded, construction ladies, who are just out there kicking goals! We can’t wait to get a sneaky tour of the arches and wish Stef all the best on the road ahead to completion. J, R & D x