Aisling Coughlan Senior Associate Norman Disney & Young  / 
Joining the Dots and Sprinkling Some Magic

story / Interview / April 26, 2016

I studied Mechanical Engineering and German at The University of Limerick in Ireland. The University launched the course back in the 80’s when the Germans were the Godfathers of engineering. I did my placement in Germany, however all my work was in English because the Clients were all English speaking. I only spoke German if I bumped into someone while I was making coffee in the office. Every Monday they would ask me what I did on the weekend and I would tell them the same thing every week! My German never got any better! It was a massive eye opener to leave home and it definitely gave me the travel bug.

My first job was with a contractor based on-site. It was fun but also really tough. I’ll never forget it and it gave me a massive appreciation of the urgency of site work. When you’re on the Consultant side, sometimes you get physically removed from what’s happening on site. When site comes looking for an answer, Consultants often don’t get a true understanding of the urgency of the question. I have so much respect for the contracting fraternity.

I started at Norman Disney & Young (NDY) as a Project Engineer. I was promoted to Associate and moved to Brisbane where I initially lead the Interiors team and then had the opportunity to lead the Mechanical team. When I came back to Melbourne, I took on the Existing Buildings Leader role for the office. It’s a role that involves joining the dots across the various teams. Previously, the teams were quite siloed and worked quite separately from each other, often unknowingly for the same client or in the same building. My role brings some harmony and it has been so rewarding bringing people together. I sit over the top and to the side and just try and sprinkle some magic!

It took me a long time to be comfortable with the fact that I was an engineer who didn’t necessarily love technical design. I was enjoying the broader picture and the commercial aspect of what was going on, the personal interactions and catching up with my Clients to find out what was really important to them. It took me a long time to be okay with this because in my mind, traditionally to be a great engineer, you had to be great technically. But I’d remind myself that we are consulting engineers and it’s okay to be stronger at consulting than at technical engineering.

It’s so interesting; as an engineer you’re expected to adapt like a chameleon to different Clients’ needs. Sometimes Clients want the super boffin, the engineer nerd. Other times they want you to speak in their own language and other times they just want a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It’s very hard to be everything to everyone! I spend most of my time meeting people, then trying to figure out who I need to connect them to next if I can’t help them. It’s all about joining the dots. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a spreadsheet nerd. I bloody love a spreadsheet!

It’s a Tenant’s market. Landlords are providing amenities and services they’ve never considered before. There is this acknowledgment that the line between work and home is blurred and people are looking for a new level of interaction in their workplace, one that emphasises the personal experience. For example, the convenience of childcare centres is a massive trend, along with End of Trip facilities, foyer upgrades, business lounges, co-working spaces and cafes. For employers, it’s also a massive shift around creating healthy and diverse workplaces to attract and retain staff and make them an employer of choice. The landscape is changing and it’s a really exciting time to be an engineer.

Networking. It’s a word that strikes fear. I’m a massive believer in being genuine because it’s really hard work trying to be someone else. When I meet people, I’m the anti-name badge reader (you know, the type  that reads your badge and walks away!) I really love people and believe in genuine interactions. If I’m not linked in to what a person does but I know someone who is, I’ll attempt to connect people if I feel like there’s a conversation to be had. For me, meeting people isn’t transactional; it’s a long term gain.

A big influence for me has actually been my partner Cathal. It’s a bit of a scary thing to leave everyone you know behind at home in Ireland. I’m ever the optimist and he’s the most pessimistic man you’ve ever met. We’re polar opposites! During times when I’ve doubted myself or times I’ve not been sure, he’s been certain for me. He’s been a game changer. At the moment it’s only me and Cathal. I love what I’m doing but I have a massive challenge in trying to know where I start and stop. I don’t know how to turn off easily. Recently I’ve started to keep a journal as I noticed that I was kind of slipping into this Groundhog Day circle, where Monday was blending into Friday so I’m trying to change my habits. I enjoy my work and I’m very good at checking in with myself but I know I can’t continue to operate like this.

The next step in my life is to start a family. I’m really worried what that is going to mean for me and my work. One of the challenges I foresee is how can someone work a flexible arrangement, but not get stuck with task based work. I think when you’re at work for a very limited or fixed time, your ability to extend yourself and take on bigger opportunities is limited. Instead, people ask you to complete tasks. I feel like there’s potential to lose your autonomy and identity professionally. A massive challenge may be trying to hang onto the things I love whilst being engaged within a fixed amount of time.

I love it when people let me in on a secret or give me their recipe for success. Sometimes when you’re given an opportunity, you’re unsure and over analyse it instead of just saying ‘yes’. You can be your own worst enemy at holding yourself back with self doubt. I’ve learnt that if someone’s asked you to do it, they think you’re more than able to and that you’re the right person for it. So just take it, say yes! I remember that feeling like I was out of my depth, attending management meetings in Brisbane and thinking ‘my god, someone is going to find me out and send me packing back to Melbourne!’ But I’ve learnt it’s really important to be real, to stay true to you and believe in yourself. I’ve been really fortunate to have crossed paths with inspiring, real people at various times in my career who have reminded me of this important secret.

I often get called Dory from Finding Nemo in the office because I start each day with fresh eyes and no judgement. I think that’s why I remain so positive. Each day is a brand new one. I know that I’m not perfect, nobody is and everyone is flawed. But, the best people I’ve met through my work are the ones that actually know their flaws and acknowledge them. I have so much admiration for people that aren’t afraid to be human and who keep on giving it a go each day regardless of their weaknesses.

My parents are self employed. They own two supermarkets and my mum always said ‘Hard work never killed anyone’. The notion of work and the importance of work has always been a factor. If I didn’t enjoy what I do, it’d be a totally different thing. When you enjoy something and it’s an extension of yourself, you just go with it. The downside to that is not setting boundaries between life and work. But it’s dangerous. It eats you up sometimes.

My mother is obsessed with the notion of happiness. I’d come home and tell her about someone who got an amazing handbag as a gift, and she would always respond with ‘Are they happy?’ She would always try to disassociate material things with happiness. She was always ‘Does it make you happy?’ I’ve taken a lot from the importance of being happy. Not that every day is ten out of ten, rainbows and glitter. Shit stuff happens. Resilience and the ability to bounce back are so important and you can’t put a price on happiness.

It sounds really clichéd but I feel so fortunate to be happy with what I do. I live on the other side of the world, work in a great place, live with a great partner and have great friends and I’m happy. I think if my mother instilled anything in me, it is just to take stock and focus on what makes you happy.


Meeting Ais for the first time was like gasbagging with an old girlfriend. We immediately got on like a house on fire! She is full of life, smart and funny. Not afraid to laugh at herself or tell it like it is. We even met her mother! They say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. And in this case, it’s true. Her mother was beautiful. Down from Ireland for the week to visit her daughter, she sung Aisling’s praise. We could see her work ethic reflected in her mothers stories. Such a great inspiration. Ais, we consider you a beautiful friend. Looking forward to our next catch up!

One thought on “Aisling Coughlan Senior Associate Norman Disney & Young

Laura Macpherson   May 1, 2016 at 9:22 pm

What a fantastic story I really enjoyed Aisling’s viewpoints.