Engineer Jim McDonald: ‘Getting to university was the start of this journey’

Professor Sir Jim McDonald, 63, was elected president of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2019. One of Scotland’s most accomplished engineers, he has been principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Strathclyde since 2009 and co-chairs the Scottish government’s Energy Advisory Board. He was knighted in 2012 for services to education, engineering and the economy.

What was your childhood or earliest ambition?
To be like my dad. He was my hero. I lost him when I was 12.

Private school or state school? University or straight into work?
I was brought up and educated in Govan, the shipbuilding district in the heart of Glasgow. State schools: primary schools, St Anthony’s and St Constantine’s; secondary, St Gerard’s. I was planning to leave at 16 and go into the shipyards. Advice from my mother and encouragement from my teachers persuaded me to stay on and go to Strathclyde University. I was a graduate apprentice — I got professional experience with the Scottish Electrical Training Scheme. By the time I graduated, I had a good education and was familiar with the world of work.

Who was or still is your mentor?
I have many, from many sources.

How physically fit are you?
Reasonably! I play in a badminton club and, when I’m not travelling, I squeeze in a game of golf on a Sunday morning.

How politically committed are you?
I keep aware of current affairs and key policy matters but I’m not a member of any political party.

Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?
I was always encouraged to do as good a job as I could do and make what I was given better when I left it. I think that’s down to talent and application. I’ve always had ambition for the places where I’ve worked and the people around me. If ambition’s too much about oneself, you can forget to bring along those around you.

What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess?
A full head of hair. A fully electric high-performance car.

What’s your biggest extravagance?
Anything to do with my wife and children. I love to buy for my family. Golf-club fees, fishing-club fees and season tickets to Celtic Park.

In what place are you happiest?
At home, or in the countryside or on the water. I live in rural Ayrshire so I walk out of my back door into rolling fields: fresh air, open spaces.

What ambitions do you still have?
To make it possible for as many young people as possible to pursue a career in engineering. To transform engineering outcomes into benefits for society, the economy and sustainability.

What drives you on?
The joy of working with others to solve problems. Wanting to have an impact both as a leader and an engineer.

What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?
Becoming vice-chancellor of the university where I was educated. And to be president of the Royal Academy of Engineering is an enormous privilege.

What do you find most irritating in other people?
Pointing out the reasons why things can’t be done, instead of looking for the solutions.

If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would he think?
“It’s my dad!” I’ll put that down to the ravages of time. And: “You know what, my parents’ hard work has really paid off. They were right. Getting to university really was the start of this journey.”

Which object that you’ve lost do you wish you still had?
A beautiful set of cufflinks given to me to mark my becoming vice-chancellor. A failed bag zip meant it got lost between London and Hong Kong. And my first electric guitar: a white Gibson Les Paul, which I worked a solid year to afford. I played it for five years then in a fit of generosity gave it to a youngster who lived up my street. I was half expecting to get it back later, but they moved.

What is the greatest challenge of our time?
Tackling climate change and achieving global sustainability. I am truly excited about the academy’s new strategy, which focuses our efforts to come up with engineering solutions — engineering the pathway to 2050 and a net-zero future. I think engineering has the opportunity to make a disproportionate contribution.

Do you believe in an afterlife?
Yes. I’m a regular churchgoer.

If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?
Personally, nine-plus. I’ve got a wonderful wife and three fantastic kids, my twin daughters and my son, all of whom are engineers. Professionally, I’m going to apply the 80/20 rule and give myself an eight. We should always strive to be better and I’ve got plenty of headroom.

ThisisEngineering.org.uk is a campaign led by the Royal Academy of Engineering in collaboration with EngineeringUK and industry partners. This is Engineering Day is on November 4 2020.

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